“A sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it.”

This is how compassion is described within Compassion Focused Therapy, commonly known as ‘CFT,’ by Paul Gilbert & Choden in Mindful Compassion: Using The Power Of Mindfulness And Compassion To Transform Our Lives

What is CFT?

CFT draws on a number of different areas of psychology (including social, developmental, and evolutionary) and neuroscience. It also integrates wisdom from both Eastern and Western therapeutic approaches. It’s a process-driven therapy which focuses on developing capacities for compassion and balancing our emotional regulation systems. Ultimately, it looks at the tone of how we speak, not only to others, but ourselves. Have a look at this clip for a great example of “compassionate coaching” from popular TV programme I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here. 

The way in which one contestant acknowledges the other contestant’s fears yet coaches her on in a confident, compassionate manner is a good way of how we could be compassionately approaching our own thoughts and fears.  

In comparison to other models, which might focus on reducing the level of unpleasant thoughts or emotions we experience, CFT also works on enabling us to experience more pleasant thoughts and feelings.  Dr Hannah Wilson, Clinical Psychology Lead at XenZone states the following in her chapter on Brief Uses Of Compassionate Mind Training From The Handbook of Brief Therapies: A practical guide (p.124).

Traditional approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, often appeal to an individual’s logic and reasoning, but for some this does not help them to feel any differently. Paul Gilbert’s development of CFT highlighted that this appeared to be linked to the emotional tone with which alternative thoughts were being ‘heard’. He noted that for some individuals, they continued to use a bullying or cold tone towards themselves, and posited that our internal dialogues act like social stimuli, which the brain processes in the same way as interactions with others (Gilbert & Proctor, 2006). In response, Gilbert developed a new approach, which aimed to help individuals develop a kinder and warmer tone for themselves.”

The basic philosophy behind CFT includes a recognition that we have very little choice or control over which brain, body, genes, or family we are born into. Much of what goes on inside our brain or body is not of our design (and yet we can be highly self-critical of it!). We all do the best we can to try and figure out how to best use our brains, but often this might be with minimal help or guidance. CFT helps us to better understand why we might be thinking, feeling, or behaving in a particular way, at the same time as learning more compassionate ways to respond to those thoughts or feelings. CFT is particularly useful for individuals experiencing high levels of shame or self-criticism, as often they may find it difficult to accept warmth or compassion from others, or to show it to themselves. 

What is Compassion Focused Therapy trying to achieve?

One of the aims of CFT is to balance our three Emotional Regulation Systems. These systems are divided between a drive system, a threat system and a soothing system. Each system will be activated in response to different experiences and is associated with particular feelings. For example, the threat system is our ‘protection’ system, which is focused on keeping us safe and alive, and is usually linked with feelings such as anxiety, anger and disgust. In terms of how each emotion has a function or job to do, and how it relates to each system, a great way to look at it is through the eyes of Oscar-winning film, Inside Out. 

How CFT assists in balancing these systems is by helping us to gain a compassionate understanding of how each one of them works and how to regulate them. It’s also important to recognise that there is no “bad” system, and that each one has an important job to do. To give a better understanding of how CFT is applied, please refer to the video below from the Cultural Institute at King’s which considers how CFT might be used for someone who hears voices.

What we know so far

Whilst CFT is still a relatively new therapy, research is indicating it can have a positive impact on difficulties such as anxiety, low mood, perfectionism, post-traumatic stress, eating concerns, shame and self-criticism. According to James N Kirby in his systematic review,, “Compassion changes the focus of therapy away from solely focusing on thoughts or unconscious conflicts towards the development of affiliative and prosocial functioning. This is important, as scientific studies now demonstrate how important affiliative motives and emotions are for the body and brain organisation, which influence basic phenotypes. Thus, compassion as the focus of therapy offers a novel, innovative, and transdiagnostic approach for reducing psychopathology and increasing well-being.” We look forward to seeing what discoveries Compassion Focused Therapy presents in the future.

For further insights into a range of mental health topics, please head to TheThoughtReport.com

For more information on Compassion Focused Therapy please head to https://www.compassionatemind.co.uk


Priscilla Du Preez