Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)

What is Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)?

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is a psychological therapy method that focuses on fostering self-compassion and understanding. This therapeutic approach aims to alleviate suffering and promote well-being by encouraging individuals to develop a compassionate mind. CFT is an integrative model, drawing from various psychological theories, including evolutionary, developmental, cognitive-behavioral, and social psychology. 

Compassion Focused Therapy was developed by British clinical psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert in the early 2000s. Gilbert's extensive research and clinical work in the areas of shame, self-criticism, and self-compassion provided the foundation for the development of CFT. His work emphasised the importance of understanding the evolution of human emotions and the role of compassion in alleviating psychological distress.

CFT was developed as a response to the challenges of treating patients with high levels of self-criticism and shame, for whom traditional cognitive-behavioral therapies were often less effective. Gilbert recognized the need for a therapy that targeted the underlying mechanisms of self-criticism and shame and aimed to develop a compassionate mind as a means of overcoming these challenges.

Dr Kristin Neff’s research and teaching around CFT has significantly contributed to its popularisation, and Dr Kristin Neff has been credited with conducting the first academic studies into CFT.

Principles of Compassion Focused Therapy

The main principles of Compassion Focused Therapy are based on the idea that compassion can be cultivated through specific practices and exercises. These principles can be categorised into three main areas:

1. Evolutionary psychology: CFT is grounded in an understanding of how the human brain has evolved to process emotions, particularly those related to threat and self-preservation. It emphasizes the importance of recognising our innate emotional systems, such as the threat, drive, and soothing systems, which influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

2. Compassion as a core human capacity: CFT posits that compassion is a crucial human capacity that can be cultivated and strengthened through practice. It emphasizes the importance of developing compassion for oneself and others as a means of alleviating suffering and promoting well-being.

3. Self-compassion is needed to overcome shame and emotional distress: CFT focuses on fostering self-compassion as the primary means of overcoming self-criticism, shame, and other negative emotions. Self-compassion is conceptualized as a combination of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Compassion Focused Therapy Techniques

Compassion Focused Therapy utilises various techniques and exercises designed to cultivate self-compassion and promote emotional well-being. Some of these techniques include:

1. Psychoeducation: CFT begins with educating clients about the evolutionary basis of emotions and the role of the three emotional systems (threat, drive, and soothing) in shaping our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

2. Mindfulness and grounding exercises: Clients are taught mindfulness exercises to help them develop greater awareness of their thoughts and feelings, as well as grounding exercises to help them feel connected to their bodies and the present moment.

3. Compassionate imagery: Clients are guided through various imagery exercises designed to cultivate compassion, such as imagining a compassionate figure or engaging in compassionate self-talk.

4. Compassion-focused letter-writing: Clients are encouraged to write letters to themselves from a compassionate perspective, addressing their self-critical thoughts and feelings with kindness and understanding.

5. Compassionate behavior change: CFT emphasizes the importance of engaging in compassionate actions, both toward oneself and others, as a means of reinforcing the development of a compassionate mind.

Effectiveness of Compassion Focused Therapy

Research on the effectiveness of Compassion Focused Therapy has shown promising results. Several studies have demonstrated that CFT is effective in reducing self-criticism, shame, and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Moreover, CFT has been found to be particularly beneficial for individuals with a history of childhood trauma or neglect, for whom traditional cognitive-behavioral therapies may be less effective.

Benefits and Limitations of Compassion Focused Therapy

Benefits of Compassion Focused Therapy include:

1. A strong theoretical foundation: CFT is grounded in well-researched theories from evolutionary, developmental, cognitive-behavioral, and social psychology, providing a comprehensive understanding of human emotions and the role of compassion in promoting well-being.

2. A focus on self-compassion: By emphasizing the importance of self-compassion, CFT offers a unique approach to addressing self-critical thoughts and feelings, which are common in many psychological disorders.

3. Integrative and flexible: CFT can be easily integrated with other therapeutic approaches and adapted to meet the individual needs of clients.

However, there are also some limitations to consider:

1. Limited research: Although the existing research on CFT is promising, more studies are needed to establish its long-term effectiveness and applicability across diverse populations.

2. Challenges in cultivating compassion: Some clients may find it difficult to develop self-compassion, particularly if they have a history of trauma or neglect. In such cases, additional support and therapeutic interventions may be necessary.

Self-Compassion Myths

‍Self-compassion is the same as self-pity

Self-pity involves individuals becoming absorbed in their own issues, forgetting that others face similar challenges. Overindulgence in self-pity can lead one to overlook their connections with others and feel as though they are the only ones suffering in the world. Self-pity often highlights feelings of separation from others and exaggerates personal suffering. Those who experience self-pity can become overly consumed by their own emotional turmoil and might be unable to step back and adopt a more balanced or objective viewpoint. This is in direct contrast to the practice of self-compassion. Self-compassion enables one to recognize the shared experiences of oneself and others without feelings of isolation and disconnection.  By adopting the perspective of a compassionate other towards oneself, self-compassion creates "mental space" to acknowledge the broader human context of one's experience and gain a greater perspective eg. "Yes, what I'm going through is difficult right now, but it's normal for humans to struggle at times. I'm not alone..."

Self-Compassion is the same as self-indulgence.

There is a significant difference between self-compassion and self-indulgence. Many individuals fear being self-compassionate because they believe it would allow them to excuse any behavior. "I'm stressed today, so to be kind to myself, I'll just watch TV all day and eat a tub of ice cream in one sitting." This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion. It's crucial to remember that being compassionate to oneself means seeking long-term happiness and health. In many instances, pursuing immediate pleasure can harm well-being (such as using drugs, over or under eating, being to sedentary or over exercising), while achieving lasting health and happiness may require some discomfort (like quitting smoking or resisting eating disorder behaviours). People often criticize themselves harshly when they notice something they want to change, believing they can shame themselves into action – the self-flagellation approach. This tactic frequently backfires, as individuals may avoid facing difficult truths about themselves for fear of self-hatred. Conversely, the care inherent in compassion offers a potent motivating force for growth and change while also providing the safety needed to view oneself clearly without fear of self-condemnation.

Self- compassion is the same as self-esteem.

While self-compassion may appear similar to self-esteem, they differ in numerous ways. Self-esteem pertains to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. Although low self-esteem can lead to depression and lack of motivation, striving for higher self-esteem can also be problematic. In contemporary Western culture, self-esteem often relies on how much we differ from others, how much we stand out or are exceptional. It's not enough to be average; we must feel above average to feel good about ourselves. This mindset can result in narcissistic, self-centered behavior or lead us to put others down to feel better about ourselves. We may also become angry and aggressive towards those who say or do anything that could make us feel bad about ourselves. The pursuit of high self-esteem may prompt us to ignore, distort, or conceal personal shortcomings, preventing us from seeing ourselves clearly and accurately. Furthermore, our self-esteem often depends on our most recent success or failure, causing it to fluctuate based on ever-changing circumstances.

In contrast, self-compassion is not reliant on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all humans deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess specific traits (such as being attractive, intelligent, or talented). This means that self-compassion allows individuals to feel good about themselves without needing to feel superior to others. Self-compassion also enables greater self-clarity, as personal shortcomings can be acknowledged with kindness and don't need to be concealed. Moreover, self-compassion is not contingent on external circumstances and is always available – particularly when you stumble and fall. Research shows that, compared to self-esteem, self-compassion is linked to greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, and less narcissism and reactive anger.

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