A better understanding of the types of therapy and the many technical terms a skilled counsellor uses can help to increase your comfort with both the idea of therapy and the techniques that might be used. One of those techniques, originally developed by Dr Paul Gilbert, is Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). This post aims to break down some of the most important aspects of CFT for those who might have questions about it.

What is it?

CFT is a form of counselling that is especially helpful for somebody prone to self-criticism. A mild form of self-criticism – or compassionate self-correction (in CFT terminology) – is a healthy practice, providing it is done in a reflective, caring and purposeful way. Harsh self-criticism, on the other hand, is emotionally damaging. CFT was originally developed for people who suffer from high levels of shame and self-criticism and find receiving support, kindness and compassion – both from themselves and from their environment – difficult or even impossible.

The main goals of CFT are to help clients to develop their “muscles” of self-compassion and compassion for others. It focuses on emotional self-regulation and the importance of kind and caring relationships in (co-)regulating mental states. By developing these skills, clients notice improvements in their mental health and psychological well-being; they

  • have less avoidance, fear or anger
  • experience more courage and ability to act willingly, with wisdom
  • build resilience against stress and setbacks
  • reduce rumination
  • improve perception of body image
  • readiness to invest in caring, healthy relationships.

Compassion is more than just being kind. As towering amount of research evidence proves, it re-calibrates the brain, the nervous system as a whole and reduces chronic stress.

Who benefits from CFT?

CFT addresses long-term emotional problems that can include disordered eating, hoarding tendencies, personality disorders, depression and anxiety.

What Theory is CFT based on?

Compassion Focused Therapy is underpinned by evolutionary, developmental and social psychology, neuroscience and Buddhist psychology. According to CFT our human brain is always in one of three systems of emotional regulation:

  1. Threat system – ensures survival: scans for and detects threat and danger, manages protection and activation. Associated emotions: fear, worry, panic, overwhelm, insecurity.
  2. Drive system – its function is to seek and fulfil our needs, achieve goals and accomplish tasks. Associated emotions: determination, impatience, exhaustion, irritability, feeling energetic.
  3. Soothing system – our default mode when there is no apparent threat so we can slow down. It facilitates the ‘rest and digest’ network, social connections, caring and compassion. Associated emotions: comfort, calmness, empathy, openness, love, safety.

CFT argues that connections with other people and recovery from physical or emotional wounds can only happen when our emotions are coming from the Soothing system. However, most of the time our brain is either in Threat or in Drive mode.

What techniques does a Compassion Focused Therapist use in sessions?

In order to foster different aspects of compassion towards ourselves and other people, CFT teaches how to drop judgment and stay present through the use of various mindfulness practices. For instance it uses compassionate imagery exercises that help clients activate their Soothing system.

Gratitude is an important part of self-compassion. Numerous research studies prove its transformative power. As Dr Kristin Neff’s pioneering research points out, self-compassion is the key to breaking the vicious cycle of beating yourself up and then feeling the knee-jerk reaction to cut other people down in order to build yourself up again and regain some self-esteem.

Compassion Focused Therapy frequently uses externalisation or the separation of the problem from the self. Clients are guided to experience some parts of themselves, such as their inner critic, as entities outside their person. By doing so, these parts will loose their power over people. Shame and self-judgment will transform to self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Watch this short cartoon to have a feel of how and why to develop compassion.

Compassion for Voices: a tale of courage and hope

Anita Balogh of Swan Counselling uses CFT to help her clients better manage and overcome challenging long-term emotional problems. She offers a safe and confidential space in Peregian Springs on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Contact us to arrange an appointment.

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