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What is Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT)?

Compassion is commonly defined as:

‘A sensitivity to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to try and relieve and prevent it’

Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT) aims to purposely develop compassion by drawing upon:

  • Courage – The ability to understand, approach and engage with suffering and distress
  • Dedication and Wisdom – The desire and motivation to alleviate suffering, uproot its causes and seek to prevent suffering in the future

It is based on the premise that as humans, we will all experience suffering at some point in our lives. Pain is universal and no one of us can escape or prevent it. As such, we need one another for support when life is tough: we need to be the support and we need to feel able and willing to ask for and receive it in return. It is the glue that binds as humans.

And yet in modern society, we are often encouraged to deal with things alone. To keep our suffering to ourselves. To be strong, to be brave and to carry on. For some, expressing their pain and suffering has previously been met with rejection, invalidation and criticism. Others live in fear that this is what will occur and have never been able to test out this fear. This makes it difficult to receive compassion from others but it also makes it difficult to know how to have compassion for oneself – because if we believe that we are going to be chastised and shamed for our suffering, how can we truly believe that what we are feeling is valid and worthy of compassion.

CFT integrates a range of theories and models including evolutionary psychology. It helps people to come to see their emotional difficulties as actually being part of our evolution; that our brains are hard wired to respond in certain ways that have helped us to survive as a species. However, as we have developed, our ‘new brain’ has developed the capacity to imagine, to make meaning, to ruminate – and this is where we can get stuck. The interface between the innate motivations and drive of our old brain vs the creative parts of our new brain can leave us stuck in suffering. The intense and unwanted emotions (e.g. anger, anxiety, fear, shame) stick around for significantly longer than the actual event that may have triggered them.

What is key is this: we as humans have not chosen our brains to work like this. We did not design them and therefore it cannot be our fault. There is no shame, blame or criticism in suffering – it is part of what it is to be a human. Messy, sticky, complex and confusing. And this is where therapy begins; reducing shame and self-blame for the pain that we are experiencing.

CFT is a therapy that requires you to learn to recognise, sit with and move towards suffering; it involves actually allowing yourself to feel your emotions, not merely talk about them. Suffering is seen as a core basic human experience and we all have the capacity to experience it. Yet it takes courage to actually allow ourselves to connect with these emotional states enough to enable them to be healed.

But this process is gentle and layered. Everything takes place within the safety of a therapeutic relationship. One that is boundaried, non-judgemental and at its core, compassionate. Through building this relationship, the client starts to develop a compassionate understanding of their struggles and why they have come to be. Moving forward, the client begins to build mindful awareness of themselves and of their pain and develops compassionate practices in order to learn to engage with this with the aim of alleviating in some way.

In developing a compassionate self, we would be looking at the flow between the following:

  • Self-compassion
  • Compassion from others
  • Compassion to others

Each one of these areas will have things that help and hinder the ability to give and receive compassion. We may find it relatively easy to show compassion to others, and maybe even to ourselves, but struggle to receive compassion from others. This can be problematic since as humans we need the support and nurturance of others. In CFT, we would be looking at each of these three areas and looking to develop ways in which to improve the flow within them all.