Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)

Usefully seen alongside the work of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), developed by Paul Gilbert, has much to add to the art of safe experimenting.

Like ACT, CFT is less concerned with a theory or a model and it is well connected to knowledge emerging from neuro-science.

Like Mindfulness, CFT is good at linking Eastern philosophies and practices to Western therapeutic structures such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Martin Seligman’s perspective on positive psychology.

One thing that does bother me about the model is its concern for an ‘evidence-base’.  The term ‘evidence-base‘  has become rather fashionable but the term begs questions such as: What is evidence?

Whose evidence?

How is evidence to be gathered or understood?

With this pre-occupation with getting evidence may come a reluctance to value the unpredictable outcomes you will obtain from some safe experiments.

Safe experiments do not have to be replicated to be acceptable; what is needed is a curiosity about any outcome. That is, curiosity about:

What does it help you to do next?

What’s the small do-able thing that you can approach differently? 

You can assess what is ‘evidence’ for yourself and not look for some illusionary ‘objective’ measures of evidence. I can appreciate this is outrageous to some people as it seems to suggest ‘anything goes’, ‘all must win prizes’ or ‘idiosyncracy wins OK’. 

As small safe experiments should be designed not to be potentially dangerous, you do not need the strict rules of ‘evidence’ that exist either in a court of law or in the medical research laboratory.

You may like to consider what ‘evidence’ might be around as you are thinking about the decision to end a course of therapy.

I want you to use CFT, or any model, for that matter,  as a ‘mirror’ – to look at yourself as you practise the art of working differently.

That said, you do not need to integrate CFT into your safe experiments.

The CFT approach shares with this website an interest in thinking-about- breathing as a helpful start when we want to make change. CFT refers to this experiment as “soothing rhythmic breathing” It adds a focus on diaphragmatic breathing; that is, belly or abdominal breathing. I like the way it encourages us to “play with the speed of your breath until you find a comfortable, soothing rhythm of breath“.

Such experiments can be linked to the body scan by asking us to pay attention to our body and noticing our thoughts, feelings and sensations. It is wise to see how the mind can wander. CFT encourages us to “just notice” and gently guide ourselves back to awareness of our body.

An experiment

Engage with thinking-about-breathing. As this continues, focus on how your legs feel. On your out-breath imagine any tension in your legs and notice how it can flow down your legs and out of your body. Let the tension go on that out-breath.

As you breathe in, notice the energy that flows into and through your body. You can tense your leg muscles as you breathe in. Allow them to relax as you breathe out.

If you experiment with progressive relaxation you will find you can do this experiment with every part of your body – starting at the very top, with your skull, and working down to your smallest pinkie.

Finish such experiments slowly; try a slow count from 1 up to five. It might help. Also, you can move your body around a little with your in-breath. Notice how your body feels as you do this.

Another practice associated with CFT and, I should say, a number of therapies, including hypnosis, is the routine of creating a sense of calm in a safe place of your choosing. I have said more about this elsewhere.

All these practices, and other meditative routines, can help us to become more aware of our “compassionate self”, as well as find some compassion for others.

Notice, for example, how not everything that happens is our fault. Do I have the wisdom to know the difference between the things within my influence, and the things that are not?

When you read up on the CFT you will be informed about three systems humans use to manage their emotional states. This is found in the next illustration.  It may be helpful in the design of safe your experiments. The systems mentioned are:

  • the Threat system – where our motivation is to simply survive, attention is threat-focused, driven by fear, anxiety, thoughts of danger, and the fight or flight system.
  • the Drive system – where our motivation is to achieve/win, attention is given to goals and finding the advantage; it is concerned with motivation, arousal, and focus.
  • The Care/Soothing system – where our motivation is to look after, or be looked after; to soothe or be soothed and foster empathy toward other people. It is concerned with caring, soothing, safety and calmness.

Three Circles CFT

Take time to record how the Threat, Drive and Care systems have evolved in your own life. What do they look like and in what way might you want one or more to be just a little bit different?

For more information on Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) take a look at this slide presentation on this link.

If you do this, I’d recommend you to revisit the work by Stephen Porges and Dan Siegel. Notice how common connections are emerging from neuro-science and ways of doing therapy.

Return to:


What is a nudge

Models of Therapy