What is Compassion Focused Therapy?

- September 20, 2021

A guide to compassion-focused therapy

There’s no denying that we all benefit when we’re treated with compassion. Whether that’s experiencing the humility and understanding of others or treating ourselves with consistent love and kindness, compassion can help silence our inner critics, boost our resilience and nurture our emotional wellbeing. So it’s hardly any surprise to hear that compassion-focused therapy is so highly regarded as a form of psychotherapy.

But what exactly is compassion-focused therapy, why (and how) does it work and how is it integrated into the environment and practices here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat? Read on for your full guide.

What is compassion-focused therapy?

Firstly, it’s important to clarify the definition of compassion. Acting with compassion involves exercising concern, whether that’s for others or yourself. It’s about being acutely aware or cognisant of someone’s misfortunes or personal circumstances and using that knowledge (or lack thereof) to be gentle in every interaction.

Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), then, is a form of therapeutic treatment that implements compassion at every level. It was developed by Dr. Paul Gilbert of the University of Derby in the U.K. and founder of The Compassionate Mind charity. As Daral Boles, licensed professional counsellor here at New Life Portugal explains, “It integrates insights from many fields, including Buddhist psychology, evolutionary science, social and developmental psychology and neuroscience.”

Particularly suited to those individuals who struggle with self-criticism and shame, the crux of CFT lies in Gilbert’s suggestion that human beings have evolved three interrelated motivational systems that govern our thoughts and behaviour.

  • The threat or protection system
    “The threat system does just what you would imagine,” Daral flags. “It’s designed to pick up clues from our environment, to notice threats and to flag them with emotions such as disgust, anxiety, and anger that are evolutionarily designed to get us moving. These ‘hot’ emotions tend to provoke a fight, flight or freeze response, all in service of protection.
  • The drive system
    “The drive system uses pleasure, not pain, to motivate behaviour,” Daral continues. “This so-called “system of desires” uses positive, energising feelings to prompt us to seek out food, friendships, and sex or to move towards our own life goals.”
  • The soothing and safety system
    “This is all about contentment, peacefulness and well­being. The threat system and the drive system both jack up our action-focused sympathetic nervous system; physiologically speaking it’s like stepping on the gas. By contrast, the soothing system activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s natural brake. More than just the absence of threat, this soothing system triggers our built-in attachment behaviours. These include the all-important proximity seeking and caring-affiliation responses that prompt the release of oxytocin, the hormone that signals trust within relationships by producing a feeling of calmness and connection.”

So what happens when someone’s threat and drive systems are overactive and their soothing system is offline? Not only could this cause a possible decline in physical health and wellbeing, Gilbert also draws links between this imbalance to the felt experience of shame and self-criticism.

“Without a counterbalance of affection, kindness, and caring, we struggle to find relief or to feel soothed,” Daral advises. “Lifelong patterns designed to avoid pain (and pursue pleasure) make it hard to get close to other people, meaning we don’t get the comfort that comes from social support. All sorts of negative behaviours can show up in the effort to smother or avoid shame and harsh self-criticism, from addiction to overwork to a chronic sense of dread and low self-worth.”

According to Gilbert, it’s the dominant characteristics of contemporary life – competition, conflict, and a lack of connection – that are responsible for any imbalances in these three systems. “Like an athlete with super strength and no flexibility, we suffer from overbuilt, overactive threat and drive systems that overwhelm our underpowered, ineffective soothing system. CFT is designed to rebalance things by building up the soothing system through compassion-focused interventions,” Daral explains.

What are the benefits of compassion-focused therapy?

It’s important to note that the field of counselling has always valued compassion as one of the key, if not the key, to successful psychotherapy. “Again and again, research in the field tells us that the most important factor contributing to positive outcomes is not treatment modality—what system or school a therapist follows—but the relationship between counsellor and client,” explains Daral.

But CFT isn’t simply about the therapist treating the client with compassion, it’s about actually teaching the client the skills of compassion for implementation outside of the therapy environment.

“Compassion isn’t just a naturally occurring character trait; it is a skillthat can be learned and practiced,” flags Daral, which is why compassionate mind training lies at the heart of compassion-­focused therapy. “By demonstrating the skills and attributes of compassion,” Gilbert writes, “the therapist instills them in the client. Thus, the client is helped to develop an internal compassionate relationship with themselves to replace the blaming, condemning and self-­critical one.” (Gilbert, 2009)

“By teaching the skills of compassion, which include the use of compassionate attention, imagery, reasoning, behavior, feeling and sensation, the therapist and the client build and strengthen the key attributes of compassion—sensitivity, sympathy, care for well-being, distress tolerance, non-judgment and empathy,” Daral continues.

Dr Ruth Buczynski of NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine), delves a little deeper into the benefits of compassion. “First, compassion inhibits fear and activates courage. Second, compassion shifts dynamics in specific brain regions so that we’re better able to manage difficult emotions and tolerate distress. Third, compassion changes the body through the vagus nerve and also through enhanced heart rate variability. That’s important because these two changes in the body can build a client’s resilience for stress. And fourth, compassion improves mental health and psychosocial functioning.”

In a recent podcast on Shame and the Fear of Compassion (Noble Mind, June 18, 2021), for example, CFT expert Dr. Marcela Matos of the University of Coimbra, Portugal describes her research: “We found that the higher our ability to be compassionate towards ourselves and to be open to receive compassion from other people, the less the traumatic impact of our shame memories and their centrality to our identity.”

She goes on to discuss what gets in the way of giving or receiving compassion. These obstacles include the belief that compassion is weak or self-indulgent, the shame-based sense that we do not deserve compassion, or the fear that if we let down our guard in any way, we may be vulnerable to abuse. Her team has demonstrated a correlation between fears of compassion and higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

Even more up to the minute, Matos led a global study exploring the protective role of compassion during the pandemic. It showed that resistance to compassion magnified the perceived threat of Covid-19 and diminished the protective antidote of social connection.

Who is compassion-focused therapy best for?

As previously mentioned, compassion-focused therapy could be particularly beneficial to those dealing with feelings of self-criticism and shame. CFT can provide the comforting and reassuring embrace you might not experience elsewhere in your life.

Compassion can fill in the gaps left by the other facets of your therapy experience. Daral refers to it as both the container for and the engine of change. “Both therapists and clients alike can attest to the fact that insight alone does not heal us; we may know our history, our symptoms, our suffering; but knowing what’s wrong doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to make it right,” she explains. “In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that just as a bird needs two wings to fly, we need both wisdom and compassion.

Or to put it another way, compassion (which includes self-compassion) provides the energy for change.

Compassion-focused therapy at New Life Portugal

“Practicing the new skills of compassion-based therapy can take a surprising amount of courage and determination, especially for those clients who have no internal model to go by, no examples from their own lives of what it means to send or receive compassion,” Daral warns. That’s why, here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat, we have built a compassionate environment for all guests to revel in.

“At New Life, the community of staff and fellow guests can provide what may have been missing not only in early life but across the life span—an attentive, kind and even loving container, a safe space in which to disengage the threat and desire systems and practice a new way of being with self, others, and the world,” Daral explains.

New Life offers the chance to really see and experience compassion in action—to observe and practice new behaviors in real time in a supportive community of people embarked on the same journey. “Compassion is an action,” says psychologist and NLP Program Director, Karin Bleecker. “It’s an experiential event. Change happens by having a new experience. All of our programming at New Life is designed to create that experience—the experience of community, of compassion, of change.”

At New Life, the meditation, wellbeing, and therapy programs all incorporate compassion-based practices. “The experience of being seen and accepted by others without judgment—the ‘come as you are’ approach—creates a new memory in body and mind,” Daral continues. “This memory itself then becomes a new point of reference. “Ah…this is what it feels like!” This is what compassion can do, creating an experience of acceptance and refuge, activating that soothing system wired within us, to know and experience what it means to abide in comfort and security.”

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