Compassion Focused Therapy

Medical Reviewer

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The way we are is not our fault, says British psychologist, Professor Paul Gilbert, but it takes courage to be aware that we are the products of our biology and our genes over which we have no control. After all, we are also social animals. So much depends on the circumstances of our upbringing. Subsequently, the way one person learns to cope with their distress will be better developed than others, but despite different circumstances or upbringing, it is possible for many to alleviate personal suffering through Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).

Compassion and kindness are often considered as interchangeable concepts. But Gilbert holds a different view, differentiating the two by telling the story of a firefighter who regularly puts his own life at risk to safe others. These are certainly acts of kindness, Gilbert says, but this same person may have a difficult personality. He may be argumentative and self-absorbed, in short, he may not have the courage to behave compassionately. To be compassionate, Gilbert argues is to see into the nature and causes of suffering, whether in other people or in ourselves.

An Introduction to CFT

CFT is a novel and relatively new emerging form of psychotherapy developed for the treatment of shame, self-criticism and self-loathing. It is considered particularly helpful for people who feel high levels of self-criticism and shame and who lack warmth towards themselves. To this end it may be of particular use to people with anxiety disorders and depression.

In his 2009 article, Introducing Compassion-Focused Therapy, Gilbert lays the foundation of a theory that draws upon the way our brains have evolved and the systems we use for managing our emotional states. Gilbert sees compassion as a skill that can be developed through a process of mind training. The central goal of CFT is assist the client to develop his or her own care-giving (compassion) system. Such a system enhances qualities of non-judgment, warmth, empathy, wisdom and kindness. Ultimately it allows the person to live more comfortably within him or herself.

CFT may sound like an intuitively attractive process,  but it’s still too early on to make any particular judgment over its clinical effectiveness. That being said, a recent systematic review (1) accounted for 14 studies, of which three were randomized and controlled. Most studies pointed to favorable outcomes for people who were high in self-criticism but the lack of large-scale, high quality trials means this new therapy is currently consigned to the ‘shows promise’ category.

Sources

(1) Leaviss, J., and L. Uttley. "Psychotherapeutic Benefits of Compassion-focused Therapy: An Early Systematic Review." Psychological Medicine. Cambridge University Press. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.