What is Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)?
Compassion focused therapy (CFT) is a psychological intervention that increases compassion towards self and others, while reducing experiences of shame and self-criticism. This approach has been used with individuals who have a history of abuse, neglect or a lack of affection, those who have recently received various diagnoses or those who are experiencing difficulties leading them to experience shame or self-criticism. CFT aims to increase the flow of compassion, through the experience of receiving compassion from others and by creating a feeling of compassion towards others and the self. Evidence suggests that cultivating compassion in this way can buffer against a host of difficulties, boost both wellbeing and create optimal functioning.
CFT is based on the premise of three systems for emotion regulation: the threat system, the resource-seeking system and the soothing system. The threat system focuses on threats in order to protect oneself. This leads to a fight, flight or freeze response. However, as humans have the ability to imagine various situations and engage in thoughts about the future, the threat system can be activated without having any actual threat present. For example, for someone with a phobia of spiders, a photo of a spider may be sufficient to evoke a fight, flight or freeze response, even in the absence of a real spider. To ensure survival our bodies are programmed to focus more attention on negative rather than positive events. This results in ongoing feelings of anxiety, anger or disgust. CFT begins with the starting point that this is a biological function and attempts to reduce self-blame at experiencing these emotions. Within our resource-seeking system we are focused on seeking resources to enable us to survive and prosper. This motivates us to seek out things that will bring us joy and pleasure. However, when this system is over-activated this can lead to feeling frustrated and disappointed, as we want more and more. This can lead to engagement in excitement seeking behavior such as drug taking. When this system is under-activated we lack motivation and do not work towards our goals. However, within our soothing system we are focused on feeling happy and safe, not striving or wanting. For example, an infant will feel soothed and content when comforted by their caregiver. This feeling of contentment is what CFT strives to develop.
How does Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) work?
- In order to move from shame-based self-attacking to compassionate self-correction, one needs to first learn to focus on the factual elements of a situation and become aware of the thoughts and emotions one is experiencing.
- By using mindfulness, one can notice the thoughts and emotions being experienced and move towards shifting these to more factual and helpful thoughts and emotions. If the experience is of shame, one can then move towards reducing this emotion. For example, by using compassionate imagery exercises to create a compassionate image or compassionate ‘other’ that provides validation and reassurance as a caring parent or friend would.
- Other tactics might include using compassionate writing to look at both happy and sad scenarios. For example, when experiencing anxiety that a friend has not called, a happy scenario might look at the possibility that this friend is busy at work and will call later, or planning a surprise visit, while the sad scenario might focus on the possibility that the person is being deliberately avoided. When comparing the two scenarios, it becomes evident that the happy scenario leads to the person feeling more content in themselves and more kind and compassionate towards their friend. By generating alternatives and focusing on the facts, one can become more compassionate both towards the self and others.
- As outlined above, creating a negative or positive image creates a physiological response, which leads to either a sense of threat or an experience of contentment. Therefore, intentionally altering thoughts and cultivating compassion will create more positive emotional experiences.
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