Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) targets the activation of the safety/soothing system so that it can be more readily accessed and used to help regulate threat based emotions of anger, anxiety and shame (Paul Gilbert, 2012). By exploring our worries and fears, and identifying how we cope with feelings of threat, vulnerability and uncertainty, we gain insight into understanding that keeping ourselves safe from harm is instinctively top of our agenda.
Unfortunately, there are always unintended consequences to these ways of coping with threat, for example avoidance of emotions, people and situations, overthinking, putting on a brave face, or excessive worrying.
In CFT, we learn to connect with feelings that we may have ignored and pushed to one side by processing the emotional pain and healing the self. In practice, this is facilitated by experiential exercises in compassionate imagery (e.g., safe place, compassionate self), exploring our emotional selves (e.g., Gestalt chair work), and compassionate behaviour, thinking and problem solving. Developing a mindfulness practice is also a key element of CFT. We change our relationship with our negative thoughts and emotions taking a balanced non-judgemental approach to ourselves.
We develop our ability to be compassionate towards ourselves and our suffering as opposed to being self-critical, by diminishing this part of us and always holding in mind how would we treat a friend. There is no way we would advise or support a friend how we often talk to ourselves, being harsh and critical, using negative self-judgements.
With warmth, understanding and kindness, we can begin to feel into our experiences with acceptance and empathy for ourselves. This is strengthened by the realisation that our suffering and pain is part of the human condition and that we all, to a greater or lesser extent, come face-to-face with emotional distress.
Below is an infographic outlining the three elements of self-compassion as defined by Dr Kristin Neff, one of the world’s leading experts in self-compassion.