Although all talking therapies involve compassion, Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) specifically aims to help those struggling with shame and self-criticism. Often these can be the driving forces behind other conditions such as anxiety and depression.
CFT is considered to be an integrative therapy as it uses tools from other psychotherapies, as well as research and tools from Buddhism, neuroscience, and evolutionary therapy.
Compassion-focused therapy looks at the evolutionary theory and how this can impact the way that we think. The primitive part of our brains helps us to survive, ensuring that we eat, sleep, have shelter, etc. and is also responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response. This tends to be where problems such as anxiety and sadness stem from.
The modern part of our brains allows us to have a sense of self and lets us imagine and be able to visualise. Using this part of the brain, we can develop ideas and choose how we want to live. The primitive and modern parts of our brains can get conflicted and confused, causing the primitive part of the brain to take over, leading to protective emotions such as anxiety.
CFT is designed to help us let go of the self-blame that we often attach to negative thoughts. The truth is that no one chooses to have negative thoughts or emotions; our brains evolved to react and sometimes they don’t react in positive ways. The brain is designed to create kindness and compassion as well as the more protective emotions like stress and anxiety, it’s just a case of learning how to activate this part of the brain
According to Compassion-Focused Therapy, there are interconnecting ‘systems’ in the brain that need to be balanced and managed to improve mental health.
- The Threat system is protection focused. It will be on high alert for perceived threats and will react with feelings such as anger, anxiety, and other protective emotions.
- The Drive system motivates us to gather resources such as food and shelter and is excitement focused. It is keen for us to achieve goals such as passing a test or having a date go well and is related to feelings such as excitement or arousal.
- The Contentment system is the soothing system. It is triggered when there is no perceived threat or when nothing needs to be achieved. It creates calm and peaceful feelings leading us to feel content, happy, and socially connected.
Some of the techniques used in compassion-focused therapy include mindfulness, appreciation exercises (such as gratitude journals, lists of things that make you happy, etc), and compassion-focused imagery exercises (such as guided memories and fantasies to stimulate the soothing system).
Compassion-focused therapy is particularly helpful for those who have
- Deep feelings of shame or guilt
- A history of bullying
- A history of emotional or physical abuse
- An unrelenting inner critic
- Difficulties trusting
- Difficulties (or an inability) to feel kindness towards themselves.
- Self-esteem issues
- Eating disorders
The nature of the therapy means it can be challenging for some people. For example, if someone is afraid of compassion, doesn’t believe they are worthy of support or is struggling with intense anger or rage.