Photo by Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Awareness in Action is delighted to publish the first of two blogs from Chris Winson on the subject of Compassion Focused Therapy. Thanks to Chris for this accessible and informative overview of how CFT works. Part 2 of the blog will go into some useful methods.

You can’t miss articles, talks and social media posts advocating how helpful self-compassion can be, it’s running a close second to mindfulness for coverage and promotion. 

But what does compassion mean to you ?  How can it can help with mental wellbeing ?

I hand’t really thought this until in a therapy room, working through what depression really meant to me.  At that stage self-care meant getting through the next hour – self-compassion wasn’t in the room, it wasn’t in the same building as I was.

That didn’t mean I wasn’t a compassionate person.  I was towards others, struggled to sometimes accept help from others and any self-encouragement was drowned out by self-criticism. Then I was introduced to Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and things started to change….

A definition of Compassion Focused Therapy

Compassion Focused Therapy was developed by Professor Paul Gilbert.  It includes concepts which help to inform and provide insight on some of the psychological behaviours and systems which have evolved and developed to help us, but can sometimes be tricky to manage and can present problems,  even though they are trying to help and protect us.  It includes practices and exercises which form compassionate mind training.

Within Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) compassion is a seen as a motivation – a motivation to both acknowledge and work with distress , in self and others, with a commitment to address and alleviate if possible.  

And that is far from easy.

Some concepts of Compassion Focused Therapy

Emotional systems 

Within CFT a three emotional regulatory system model is defined, blending neuroscience, physiological and psychological processes into a very understandable model.  The three systems are threat, drive and soothing, often presented with a colour scheme of red, blue and green.   This doesn’t mean we have these three parts of our brain, its a conceptual model involving emotions and motivations which have evolved to help us. However in our modern world they sometimes cause issues while trying to look after us. 

Threat, the red circle, looks after us, evolved to to be alert to predators and risks to life, with a set of predictive abilities based on a “safer than sorry” approach, which is therefore more negatively focused. However it evolved to be an immediate response for short periods of time, which is not the case often in our lives today. In a world of social comparison and competition the threat system can be on all the time.  Without the opportunity to reduce levels or constantly overestimates threats,which may not be real, the threat system can be functioning at a unhealthy level.

Drive is the system that motivates us to seek resources, rewards and pleasure, represented by the colour blue. It includes feedback loops so when we achieve something we get a feeling of pleasure, which can reinforce the behaviour or activity, which an be helpful. However the system can go into overdrive, pushing ourselves too hard, often to meet the requirements of others and how we feel that we are perceived by them.  As its a reward based system if we fail to meet the achievements we strive for then we can feel like a failure.  This is very true within perfectionist thinking.

Additionally if the rewards are based upon external feedback then we can feel very vulnerable and hurt when somebody doesn’t respond as we expected or if they question or criticise us. 

The systems do not work independently , most of the time we feel a mixture, nor are threat or drive are good or bad systems. They are both essential to us and its perhaps better to view them as in terms of having a healthy or unhealthy balance.  And what helps them balance is the third system, the soothing system. 

And its this green circle that for me embodies compassion.

This is the system that often needs help though, which CMT practices can help with. techniques. We are usually very good at caring for others, usually okay, but not always at receiving care back from others.  We are not often great at taking proper care of ourselves.  It helps to really bring awareness to what is important  to you and for you to focus on, to take the best care you can, even at challenging times when the threat system is very activated. 

This is a helpful representation of the three systems via Dr James Kirby 

Flows of compassion in Compassion Focused Therapy

In addition to the three systems, three flows are considered – compassion to others,  compassion from others and compassion to ourselves.  

Showing compassion to others, through help, kindness and caring behaviour comes naturally to many, especially towards those close to us.  If you see a family member or friend in distress or needing some help we are likely to offer it – sometimes whether its needed or not and sometimes at a cost to ourselves.  But what about to strangers or to people who may not share our views or be different to us?  Does compassion become harder towards them.  Research would suggest it does.   Research also shows that acting and being compassionate towards others can bring positive effects to ourselves and wellbeing.

Receiving compassion from others can sometimes be trickier.  How many times do we say “I am fine” and soldier on. We can also be so wrapped up in our busy lives that we don’t notice when someone shows us kindness or interacts with us with warmth.  It happens to us all.  The reason that being more open to receiving compassion from others, even just a simple random of act of kindness, is important is that it fosters feelings of connection and shared experience, which are helpful to our wellbeing. 

Which leaves the third flow – self-compassion. This can be seen as being “soft” on yourself; misunderstood as “oh its okay I will be nice to myself and everything will be fine” or even self-indulgent. Some people fear that without the more critical inner voice they won’t be successful.  The truth is that most of us are our worst critic and harshest judge.  We will use a tone and language with ourselves that we would not say to another or even say out aloud.   But does that help ?   

Why are the three flows important?  They are important to our wellbeing and its important to consider their balance, similar to the three systems.  It is often the case that we have them out of balance, so we may be offering a lot of help and care to others and neglecting our own wellbeing. 

The compassionate self

The compassionate self is different to self-compassion, it’s a psychological concept that we have multiple selves – a happy self, a sad self, an anxious self, an angry self, a confident self and so on.  Often one self can dominate our thinking, influence our behaviour or actions, in different contexts and on different days.  That doesn’t mean we switch from one self to another – just like the three systems concept, we are a blend.

So why focus on the compassionate self ?  Because it isn’t one of those that often comes to the fore, especially towards oneself.  Part of compassion mind training is to spend some time considering what compassion means to you, how it’s embodied and considering ways in which it can provide deeper help. 

It can help to focus onto some attributes that the compassionate self can embody, for example attention, wisdom, a commitment to caring and courage. 

All these things take time to deepen and work with, its not easy and sometimes we take a step forward, to then pause and rest before the next step.  And that is perfectly fine. 

This first part has considered the core concepts of Compassion Focused Therapy and compassionate mind training.  The second part will consider some of the exercises and practices which help deepen our compassionate self.  Further details about CFT can be found via the Compassionate Mind Foundation

Chris Winson is an author, blog writer and founder of #365daysofcompassion, which is an online community of people sharing thoughts, reflections and information about compassion and well-being. 

During his life Chris has managed depression, often hiding it until a major period in 2016 lead him to seek help.  That introduced Chris to Compassionate Focused Therapy, which has lead to his focus on how compassion and Compassionate Mind Training can play a supportive role to health and wellbeing. 

Chris recently recorded a series of video talks on CFT which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX-zBQP7u2fRY-riGNGuaDw

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