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  • Writer's pictureSara Tookey

The Power of Self-Compassion: An Introduction to Compassion Focused Therapy

Updated: 7 days ago

Written by Dr Sara Tookey


Red painted neart with hands


As a psychologist who integrates Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) into my practice and compassion into my own life values-system, I've witnessed firsthand the transformative power that developing compassion can have on a person's overall well being, mental health and in enabling us to heal wounds from our pasts. 




 

Compassion Focused Therapy Approach


Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is a modern therapeutic approach, developed by psychologist Dr Paul Gilbert in the 1990s.  The approach emphasises cultivating compassion to alleviate human suffering, and is grounded in evolutionary psychology, affective neuroscience, psychology, and Buddhist traditions. CFT is considered a "third-wave" cognitive-behavioural therapy, emphasising mindfulness, acceptance, and emotional awareness.


CFT's core objective is to cultivate self-compassion, compassion for others, and the ability to receive compassion. It views compassion as a deep sensitivity to suffering coupled with a commitment to alleviate and prevent it. By intentionally nurturing compassion towards ourselves, others, and receiving it, we can skilfully respond to pain in transformative ways. Critically, CFT recognises that our difficult experiences have impacted us through no fault of our own. With a compassionate understanding that we've done our best, it supports finding new ways to reduce these impacts and respond to ourselves with greater care.




Theoretical Basis of CFT


The Evolutionary Roots of Compassion


From an evolutionary perspective, our capacity for compassion and caring for suffering enabled early humans to band together, increasing chances of survival. Tribes high in compassion traits like empathy and reciprocity outlasted less cooperative groups (Wilson et al., 2014). 


Humans have an innate, biological predisposition toward forming connections and social bonds - we are literally wired to connect. In present times, substantial evidence demonstrates that lacking compassion for ourselves and others exerts major tolls on our mental and physical health.



Emotion Regulation Systems


Compassion Focused Therapy- Emotion Regulation Systems (Drive, Threat, Soothe)
Emotion Regulation Systems

CFT is based on the idea that our well-being is influenced by three emotional regulatory systems (Gilbert, 2014):


  1. The Threat System (focused on detecting threat to keep us safe), centred in the amygdala

  2. The Drive System (focused on resources and incentives), located in midbrain regions

  3. The Soothing System (focused on connection and comfort), involving the prefrontal cortex, vagus nerve, and oxytocin release


Many mental health struggles reflect having an overactive threat system which over-detects threats, telling us we’re not safe when we are. The key components of CFT include education on the concept of compassion, understanding the human mind's evolutionary perspective, exploring the roles of shame and self-criticism, and learning to balance these three emotional regulatory systems.



How our Brains Regulate Emotions


At birth, our brains are wired with a "threat-protection system" located in the amygdala and other limbic system structures.  This emotional regulation system detects threats and responds with instincts like fight, flight, or freeze responses to ensure survival. 


In childhood, our caretakers ideally help us develop a "self-soothing system" - where the sound of their caring voice and touch calms our distress. However, for many, we weren’t properly soothed as a child, and so did not learn how to do this for ourselves. Early attachment trauma, neglect, or abuse means our threat system becomes over-developed while our ability to self-soothe fails to develop. 


We can then face an imbalance between the inner critic voice - constantly scanning for danger and flaws - and an inner nurturing voice. Strengthening our self-compassion muscle through CFT exercises is akin to learning to speak to ourselves as a caring parent would, quieting inner distress.




The Costs of Self-Criticism and Isolation





The Benefits of Self-Compassion


One of the most important things we can do in therapy is help people learn to be compassionate towards themselves. As children, we're often taught to be kind, courteous, and generous to others. Rarely are we taught that extending kindness inwardly, to ourselves is equally as vital. Many of us are conditioned by family and society to view self-compassion as selfish, indulgent, or weak - failing to recognise its inherent value and strength for wellbeing. Self-compassion is also exceptionally difficult to do, partly due to these ingrained messages and partly because our wiring for social connection makes compassion for others easier. Yet cultivating self-compassion is essential for healing and growth.


By intentionally building self-compassion skills through practices like supportive self-talk (Tod et al., 2011), writing compassionate letters to ourselves (Swee et al., 2023), or loving-kindness meditation (Hoffman et al., 2011; Hutcherson et al., 2008), we can strengthen neural circuits that evoke the caring presence of our "compassionate self." (Stevens et al., 2018)


Additional well-documented benefits of self-compassion include:



You can read more about the importance of the compassion focused approach in our recent article: Men’s Mental Health: Challenging stigma, learning vulnerability and giving compassion.



Developing the Compassionate Self


CFT founder Dr. Paul Gilbert uses the metaphor of developing our “compassionate self” to represent accessing wisdom, strength, warmth, and the drive to care for wellbeing in the face of suffering - our own and others’. 


When we engage in practices like loving-kindness meditation, self-compassion journaling, or soothing touch, we activate and reinforce neural pathways of emotional resilience and connection. We re-pattern self-relating in ways that support coping, healing, taking responsibility, and living deeply.




Who Can Benefit from CFT?


CFT is beneficial for those struggling with high self-criticism, shame, low self-esteem, mood disorders, trauma, and more. At its core, CFT works by accessing and strengthening our innate capacity for compassion.


The CFT approach recognises that often, lack of self-compassion reflects early childhood attachment patterns and difficult life events that have trained our threat system to respond to safe situations with a threat response, detect threats where there is safety and to attack us (Kim et al., 2020). With compassion focused exercises, we can retrain our brains to respond to ourselves with the same care and kindness we might show a good friend.




Experiencing CFT in a session:


In CFT the compassionate therapist models compassion skills and nurtures the development of compassion within the client. The therapist guides the client through mindfulness practices, vivid imagery exercises, and behavioural techniques. The goal is to help activate the client's self-soothing system, which can counterbalance excessive reactions driven by threat perception or unhelpful urges. This allows us to care for ourselves in harder moments with the warmth of compassion, quieting inner distress. In turn, drive system energy can flow toward meaningful pursuits (the things that really matter to us)  rather than an unending strive for perfectionism.


CFT enables clients to cultivate an "inner ally" - a compassionate inner voice that can replace the harsh "inner critic" that often fuels shame, self-blame and negative self-talk. By relating to themselves and others with greater kindness and empathy, clients can improve self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and boost motivation for positive personal growth.


The therapy provides a toolkit of compassionate mind/body exercises that clients can use to emotionally navigate life's challenges. The supportive inner ally acts as a psychological safety net during difficult times, countering negative thought patterns with a soothing, understanding perspective. This compassionate self-to-self relating helps create a sense of emotional security and resilience.




Conclusion & Summary


Compassion Focused Therapy offers a powerful approach to alleviating human suffering by helping individuals cultivate greater self-compassion, compassion for others, and the ability to receive compassion. By intentionally strengthening our "compassionate self" through practices like compassionate imagery, letter writing, and mindfulness, we can counteract harsh self-criticism, reduce anxiety and shame, enhance emotional resilience, and foster deeper connections with ourselves and others. CFT can be particularly beneficial for those struggling with low self-esteem, mood disorders, trauma, perfectionism, or excessive self-blame and inner conflict. At its core, CFT helps retrain our minds to respond to personal suffering with the same kindness and care we would offer a loved one, enabling us to navigate life's challenges with greater self-compassion, motivation, and overall well-being.




 

WANT TO LEARN MORE?


Below are recommended readings if you're interested in learning more about Compassion Focused Therapy and how you can implement skills of compassion to improve your mental health and support wellbeing.

book, notebook and pen


The Compassionate Mind -By Paul Gilbert





 


Do you need therapeutic support?


Book a consultation with one of our CFT practicing therapists below.




 

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References


Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599


Chen, Y., Bai, Y., Kalatharan, M., Chen, Z., Guo, T., Lu, J., Wang, W., & Hu, J. (2019). Effect of a mindfulness-based relational intervention on women with medical assisted reproduction: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 123, 109739. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2019.109739


Cosley, B. J., McCoy, S. K., Saslow, L. R., & Epel, E. S. (2010). Is compassion for others stress buffering? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(5), 816–823. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2010.04.008


Cox, B. J., Fleet, C., & Stein, M. B. (2004). Self-criticism and social phobia in the US national comorbidity survey. Journal of Affective Disorders, 82(2), 227–234. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2003.12.012


Craig, C., Hiskey, S., & Spector, A. (2020). Compassion focused therapy: a systematic review of its effectiveness and acceptability in clinical populations. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 20(4), 385–400. https://doi.org/10.1080/14737175.2020.1746184


Frank, T., & Banner-Lukaris, D. (2021). The benefits of knowing and caring about oneself: The role of self-insight and self-compassion in identity and well-being. https://doi.org/10.24124/2021/59221


Gilbert P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. The British journal of clinical psychology, 53(1), 6–41. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjc.12043


Hoffmann, S. G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. E. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(7), 1126–1132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.07.003


Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352


Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720–724. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013237


Kim, J. J., Gerrish, R., Gilbert, P., & Kirby, J. N. (2021). Stressed, depressed, and rank obsessed: Individual differences in compassion and neuroticism predispose towards rank-based depressive symptomatology. Psychology and Psychotherapy, 94(S2), 188–211. https://doi.org/10.1111/papt.12270


Kim, J. J., Kent, K. M., Cunnington, R., Gilbert, P., & Kirby, J. N. (2020). Attachment styles modulate neural markers of threat and imagery when engaging in self-criticism. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 13776. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-70772-x


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Maratos, F. A., & Sheffield, D. (2020). Brief Compassion-Focused Imagery Dampens Physiological Pain Responses. Mindfulness, 11, 2730–2740. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01485-5


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