Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) aims to help promote mental and emotional healing by encouraging people in treatment to be compassionate toward themselves and other people. Compassion, both toward the self and toward others, is an emotional response believed by many to be an essential aspect of well-being. Its development may often have the benefit of improved mental and emotional health.
History of CFT
Developed in the early 21st century by Paul Gilbert, the CFT approach incorporates theories, principles, and techniques from various schools of psychology, treatment modalities, and religion.
Some main components of the approach are aspects of:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Developmental psychology
- Evolutionary psychology
- Social psychology
- Buddhist philosophy.
CFT is grounded in current understanding of basic emotion regulation systems: the threat and self-protection system, the drive and excitement system, and the contentment and social safeness system. Treatment sessions highlight the association between these systems and human thought and behavior. The aim of CFT is to bring these three affect systems into balance
How Does CFT Work
According to CFT theory, the threat, drive, and contentment systems evolved throughout human history in order to facilitate survival. Early humans were eager to avoid or overcome threats, seek resources such as food or intimacy, and enjoy the benefits of being part of a social community. Proponents of CFT suggest these systems are still active and affect human emotions, actions, and beliefs today. If a threatening stimulus is received, for example, a person may experience different feelings (such as fear, anxiety, or anger), exhibit various behaviors (submission or a fight or flight response), and develop certain cognitive biases (jumping to conclusions, stereotyping, or assuming it is always better to be safe than sorry).
The drive system endeavors to direct individuals toward important goals and resources while fostering feelings of anticipation and pleasure. People with an over-stimulated drive system may engage in risky behaviors such as unsafe sexual practices or drug and alcohol abuse.
The contentment system is linked with feelings of happiness. These feelings are not associated with pleasure seeking, nor are they merely present due to an absence of threats. Rather, this state of positive calm is typically tied to an awareness of being socially connected, cared for, and safe. This soothing system acts as a regulator for both the threat and drive systems.
The primary therapeutic technique of CFT is compassionate mind training (CMT). CMT refers to the strategies typically used to help individuals experience compassion and foster different aspects of compassion for the self and others. CMT aims to develop compassionate motivation, sympathy, sensitivity, and distress tolerance through the use of specific training and guided exercises designed to help individuals further develop non-judging and non-condemning attributes.
People in therapy might learn:
- Appreciation exercises, or activities emphasizing the things an individual enjoys. These exercises may include making a list of likes, taking time to savor the moment when something enjoyable is noticed, and other positive rewarding behaviors.
- Mindfulness, or the ability to pay attention to the current moment in a non-judgmental manner.
- Compassion-focused imagery exercises, or the use of guided memories and fantasies to first stimulate the mind and then the physiological systems. The goal of compassion-focused imagery exercises is the production of a relational image that stimulates the soothing system.
When people experience difficulty related to feelings of self-attack, the therapist can assist them in exploring the functions and possible origins of these attacks, as well as possible reasons individuals may agree with or submit to them. This process may include visualization of the self-attacking aspect as a person. People in therapy may be asked to describe what the “person” looks like and any feelings it evokes in order to better understand the self-criticism.
Those who have difficulty experiencing and/or expressing compassion may be asked questions designed to help them explore and remedy any factors potentially contributing to blockages preventing the expression of compassion.
CFT can be helpful to people who find it challenging to understand, feel, or express compassion, as therapy can be a safe place in which to discover any reasons behind this difficulty and explore methods of positive change. This type of therapy can also be effective at helping people manage distressing thoughts, behaviors, and feelings of any kind but may be particularly helpful when dealing with feelings associated with self-attack.