Compassion Focused Therapy
Self-criticism is often the result of feelings of guilt, anger, self-doubt and shame. This in turn can easily become the catalyst for other mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety often maintain the problem or causing it to be worse by adding unhelpful secondary emotions.
Whilst it is important to note that a certain level of self-criticism can be beneficial for being more self-aware and to progress. But when it becomes regular, pervasive and toxic it can prevent you from living the fulfilled, purposeful life you deserve. Thankfully there is newer type of therapy used by psychologists and counsellors, which was specifically designed to train the mind to think more compassionately towards themselves and others, and it’s called Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT).
The History of Compassion Focused Therapy
Developed by British psychologist Dr. Paul Gilbert in the early 2000s, Compassion Focused Therapy was the result of Dr. Gilbert’s dedication towards treating shame, guilt, and self-critical thoughts via compassion influencing approaches. With his research, he prioritised the notion of not simply changing the way a person thinks, but more so how they think. This recognition stemmed from his gap findings within traditional Cognitive Therapy – positive thought transformations were practiced, but the self-critical, cold undertone was not optimally addressed to make treatments fully effective. With this as his foundation, Dr. Gilbert leveraged neuroscience, social psychology, historical Buddhist compassion exercises that have been utilised for thousands of years, and evolutionary psychology involving the functional/emotional systems to establish CFT.
How Does Compassion Focused Therapy Work? – The Three Affect Systems
In evolutionary terms, Dr. Gilbert suggests that the evolved human brain can cause critical toned challenges that affect wellbeing because of the basic design being vulnerable to destructive behaviour triggers, also referred to as ‘tricky brain.’ Alternatively, humans (and other mammals) have also evolved to have caring emotions and positive motives to offset the potentials of destructive thoughts. Knowing this, CFT was created to illuminate the essentialness of developing people’s ability to mindfully access and redirect their emotions and motives towards themselves and others, thus cultivating inner compassion that is stronger than the destructive behaviours.
How does this process work exactly? Research indicates that humans hold at least three different emotion regulation systems: threat and self-protection, drive and excitement, and content and soothing.
Threat and Self-Protection – This system is what generates fear, anger, and disgust to offer mental/physical protection.
Drive and Excitement – The drive and excitement system is what encourages/motivates people to seek out things like food, shelter, and other people to form relationships with.
Content and Soothing – Lastly, the content and soothing system is activated when a person is fulfilled with what they have, feels peaceful, and no longer needs to look for outside resources.
Empathy to distress
Fight or flight
Based on trends, mental illnesses such as (but not limited to) depression and anxiety can surface as a direct result of there being an imbalance between these three emotional systems. For example, people who are self-criticising or have chronic feelings of shame likely did not have enough content and soothing stimulation when they were a child and too much stimulation within their threat and self-protection system. In these cases, feeling compassionate for themselves and others can pose a struggle, and sensitivity to rejection and criticism is heightened. This is where CFT comes into play, as the techniques leverages are based on creating a balance between these three systems to provoke advancing levels of compassion while simultaneously treating other concurring things, including trauma, abuse, neglect, etc.
What Does Compassion Focused Therapy Involve?
CFT is a pragmatic therapy that effectively alters perspectives to become more compassionate both inwards and outwards. A psychologist or counsellor will work diligently to balance the emotion regulation system of their client, so they can organically leverage more compassionate and empathic ways to respond to their own internal thoughts and external events. To do this, CFT involves the use of several different tools and methods to train the mind to become more compassionate. Some of those involve:
- mindfulness practices to become more present;
- appreciation exercises to become thankful for what you have;
- imagery stimulations for guided memories/supporting the soothing system;
- relaxing/body scan techniques to promote inner peace and clarity; and
- root cause exploration (such as childhood trauma) to change negative thinking patterns.
Problems Compassion Focused Therapy is Used For
As noted above, CFT tends to overlap with other therapies to co-treat things like trauma, depression, anxiety, and other mental health difficulties to correct misperceptions and negative thoughts associated with them. This is because traditional cognitive and mindfulness therapy, though it can treat a diverse range of mental health problems, may not have the ability to counter unreasonable thoughts regardless of the logic presented against them. In such situations, compassion and self-preservation is used to help the person actually feel better about who they are as a person and those they associate with – not by telling them how to cope but by guiding them to shift how they think/react as a whole.
Thus, CFT helps replace feelings of shame, hostility, criticism, amongst other concerns through compassion, allowing them to learn how to soothe themselves, be more internally accepting, and feel more content and safer. For an easier, quick reference listicle view, below are the primary problems that CFT can help treat alongside other targeted, applicable methods:
- Disordered eating (i.e., anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, EDNOS)
Self-Help Tips to Become More Compassionate
It is far too easy to resist self-compassion, generally because people are afraid to become vulnerable and feel more pain as their threat and self-protection system has been their emotional buffer for so long. If this resonates with you, Compassion Focused Therapy then is certainly something worth conversing about with your psychologist or counsellor to see if it is the right therapy integrative process to fulfil your treatment needs. But keep in mind that there are things you can do right at home to influence your compassion development results and promote a more positive mental state. Some of those at home tips include:
- Being mindful of responding to criticism with gentleness, understanding, and support;
- Practicing compassionate self-talk;
- Getting rid of the impossibly high standards you set for yourself;
- Giving yourself permission to be imperfect;
- Using positive affirmations to train your mind to become less critical;
- Prioritising self-care, such as eating healthy, exercising, and sleeping enough;
- Combating every negative thought with five positive ones;
- Practicing forgiveness and letting go of past mistakes; and
- Expressing gratitude each day.
Conclusion – Treating Self-Critical Thoughts with Compassion
Anyone who is suffering from feelings of shame, guilt, and/or self-criticism can benefit from CFT. In summary, this is a very prominent approach that is respected by psychologists and counselling professionals across the globe for the underlying reason that it has been shown to improve wellbeing and emotional balance. Overall, CFT intertwines vetted mindfulness-based tactics, cognitive behavioural therapy, and human evolutionary traits, which collectively result in valuable outcomes through the process of encouraging compassion to conquer feelings of hostility and insecurity. In the end, choosing to see professional support to overcome past traumas is a wonderful first step, and training your mind to become more compassionate towards yourself and others is a significant part of that healing journey.
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