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Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)

What Is Compassion Focused Therapy?

  • CFT was originally created to help people who experience shame and self-criticism. Often considered an offshoot of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), CFT can be used to treat people with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental distress for whom CBT has not been effective.
  • It’s common for us to extend kindness and empathy to others more readily than we might offer such values to ourselves. However, we’re all struggling with the same big life questions and difficulties and learning how to make sense of our brains and bodies with little to no instruction. CFT helps us learn how to cultivate kindness and support so that we can handle life and navigate challenges more effectively. 
  • Developed by UK Professor Paul Gilbert in the early 2000s, Compassion Focused Therapy was designed to target populations for whom other cognitive behavioural methods proved ineffective. In addition, academics like Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, PhD, have tailored Gilbert’s approach for American audiences and helped to create awareness about this modality for therapeutic populations in the States. While there remains debate within British and American psychotherapy communities about the relationship between CFT and CBT, I find the two approaches work extremely well in tandem with one another. 
  • Compassion Focused Therapy is a cutting-edge modality based on the ways that human beings live, struggle, and thrive. Grounded in both an evolutionary understanding and the latest developments in neuroscience, it is an approach that can withstand the test of time because it is constantly being updated to reflect recent scientific progress. 
  • And while CFT is a relatively new therapeutic model, a great deal of research has been done to demonstrate the effectiveness of a compassion-focused approach and other related by-products, such as Mindful Self Compassion, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. 

How Does CFT Work?

Compassion Focused Therapy helps us to understand how the brain functions when it is biased towards threat. By examining how our “hardware” both helps and hinders us, CFT allows us to better understand internal response systems. 

Using three systems that help us to understand our brains and motivations, CFT aims to balance our internal reactions and stress response so that we can facilitate a kinder relationship to ourselves. The three systems include Threat, Drive (also known as Achievement or Resource), and Soothing, which have always been foundational to our survival as humans. Because we are engineered to protect ourselves from threats, our brains are constantly working to make us overly safe and often miserable, resulting in mental and emotional struggle. 

Despite the huge strides we have made in terms of sustaining survival, our brains have remained difficult to understand and stubborn in their evolutionary responses. While some therapeutic modalities like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy target the Threat and Drive Systems, CFT incorporates Soothing and teaches clients to use all three systems to achieve balance and inner harmony. 

As we begin to foster a sense of control over the Soothing System, symptoms of mental and emotional distress naturally decrease. Exercises aimed at enhancing the Soothing system during CFT may include the following:

  • Soothing rhythm breathing (resetting the nervous system by tapping into the breath cycle)
  • Supportive colour practice (using colour and imagery to support mind and body)
  • Compassionate other (mindfulness and meditative practice used to cultivate support)
  • Multiple chair (practising within the three systems to gain a better understanding of instinctive patterns) 
  • Compassionate posture (using body posture to influence mental state)
  • Letter writing (learning how to “talk to ourselves” in a supportive way)
  • Timeline (review and clear past patterns to keep them from getting in the way of present and future progress)
  • Body scan (identifying physical and emotional sensations without judgement) 

The ultimate goal of Compassion Focused Therapy is to learn to cultivate kindness and compassion for the self and to change our inner monologue from a critical one to a supportive and encouraging one. By learning how to manage our brain and body responses, we will be better suited to face and overcome life’s challenges with resilience. As such, CFT is used to treat those struggling with anxiety, depression, stress, shame, coping with life transitions, relationship difficulties, and perfectionism. 

Whereas many therapeutic modalities focus on behaviours or somatic sensations, CFT truly helps to cultivate self-soothing techniques and improve the emotional relationship with oneself. Many of my clients have said that of the various therapeutic modalities with which they have experimented, CFT is the one that stuck and created lasting change. They often report that they know they have the skills to face the future, whatever may happen. And in fact, they’re surprised by how fun the process was and how quickly they noticed improvements.

Where I Come In

Prior to 2012, I was predominantly a Cognitive Behavioural therapist. However, once I learned Compassion Focused Therapy, it not only changed my life but the lives of my clients. As I began integrating CFT into my online practice, I noticed people healing at much faster rates and developing greater confidence for handling adversity. In fact, the average number of sessions decreased somewhat dramatically after I introduced this approach, and I can now say with relative assurance that most of my clients will get through CFT in about 10 to 20 sessions. 

I bring kindness and hope to the counseling environment of online Compassion Focused Therapy, and this modality has informed many of my other therapeutic approaches. While we will certainly incorporate the central tenets of CFT into counseling, I will also use CBT, mindfulness, ecotherapy, and coaching as needed. 

I am currently one of only 100 therapists to have attended the University of Derby’s prestigious program in Compassion Focused Therapy, which is a year-long intensive centred around counseling theory, practice, and supervision. After being qualified in CFT in 2012, I was trained in Dr. Neff’s American variant, Mindful Self-Compassion. And since incorporating CFT into my practice, I have run groups in hospital, university, and other settings on such topics as shame, anxiety, and self-criticism.

Though I continue to receive supervision from the original developers of Compassion Focused Therapy, I am now qualified to supervise and offer one-on-one training to other clinicians who want to incorporate CFT into their practice. If you’re a clinician looking for an experienced CFT therapist to guide you in practising CFT techniques and integrating it with other modalities, I am available to oversee your transition. 

Learning Compassion Focused Therapy not only changed my career in counseling but my relationship with myself. I know this modality works because I have witnessed first-hand its ability to transform an individual’s relationships with themselves to be kinder and more empathetic. 

Learn To Love Yourself The Way You Love Others

If you’re curious about how Compassion Focused Therapy  (CFT) can give you tools for overcoming anxiety and self-criticism, schedule an Online CFT Test Drive to see how I can help. 

Clinicians, if you’re interested in using Compassion Focused Therapy with your clients and don’t know where to begin, I can help you learn how to incorporate CFT into your work. Schedule to complete an Online CFT Supervision Test Drive and find out more.

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