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.

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.

What is evidence in your therapy?

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? Martin Milton, a UK-based Counselling Psychologist at Regents College, London,had something to say about that in:

Milton, M. (2006) ‘Evidence-based Practice: Issues for Psychotherapy’, in D. Lowenthal and D. Winter (Eds) What is Psychotherapeutic Research? Karnac, London

For my part, I want you to use CFT, or any model, for that matter,  as a ‘mirror’ – to look at yourself as you make meaning and practise the art of being different.

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“.

An experiment

Engage with thinking-about-breathing. This safe experiment is discussed on this page.

As you continue to think-about-breathing, 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.

There are other comments of safe experiments when we have experienced trauma; see this page.

Creating a calm or safe place before bringing up traumatic memories

Another practice associated with CFT and, I should say, a number of therapies, including hypnosis, is the creation 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.

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 CFT systems 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.

The three systems in Compassion Focused Therapy

These are illustrated in a picture, below. 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.

I had a small, safe experiment sent me that you might like to try. Compassion may involve a combination of forgiveness and affirmation. Forgiveness is not easy to offer, and I suspect some of us find forgiving ourselves may be particularly difficult.

A safe experiment in forgiving ourselves

Some traumatic memories promote guilt, as well as fear. It is easy to blame ourselves for what went wrong.

There is an experiment that can talk to our ‘inner guilt’, as it was put to me. The affirmation offered to me was: “I had the right intention at the time“.

If necessary, describe the error or mistake that may have been made. Do not do this if it triggers recall of events, as though you were back there. The aim of any description of an incident, NOW, is to look any of your actions ‘in the eye’. It may be possible for you:

  • to see your actions in a different light – looking back to then, from now.
  • to see other outcomes that emerged from the defeat your experienced so you can…
  • …… look forward, rather than backwards.
  • It may help to remind yourself about the ‘scenic route‘ where I make the point the small defeats can, in time, become small victories even if small victories can, in time, look more like defeats.

Monitoring past events and present responses

This experiment can help if you can use Subjective Units of Discomfort (SUDS) to notice the frequency and intensity of any feeling you have about your actions.

Bear in mind that any affirmation I have offered, above, may ‘feel’ false when first spoken. That’s because the affirmation is most often a belief and us humans do not change our beliefs easily!

So, for a moment you may not believe in the affirmation. Even so, just notice if, over time, you can change your belief.

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

If you are interested in formal research into ‘compassion’, use this link may expand your knowledge.

Return to


What is a nudge

Designing a safe experiment

Keeping it small

Some types of safe experiment

…. yet making it your own?

Therapies making connections

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