Many clients enter therapy believing that they can only make change in their lives through being hard on themselves about their issues. It is a revelation when they realise that, in reality, being self-critical has only fuelled their disabling feelings of shame, anger and anxiety. Self-criticism increases mental pain and anguish because it breaks down our sense of resilience, leaving us vulnerable to common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders. A compassion-focused approach helps us to make change in our lives by developing a compassionate mind towards our problems and ourselves. In doing so, we learn to understand where our problems come from, validate our own pain, take responsibility without blame and make changes. Compassion-focused therapy addresses our need for skills to be able to soothe ourselves and create positive emotion in those who suffer with a low sense of worth.
Theoretically it integrates aspects of evolutionary theory, neuroscience, attachment theory, Buddhism as well as cognitive psychology. CFT doesn’t have to be used by itself, and I often use it alongside other therapies when clients need to overcome:
CFT encourages us to let go of self-blame – nobody chooses to have a brain that creates angst but our brains evolved to be reactionary, it’s simply the way they are designed.
We can also then choose not just to generate new thought patterns, but also to generate certain emotions that can help us, such as compassion. As well as protective emotions like anger and anxiety, the brain is also designed to create kindness and understanding. If we focus on activating this compassionate part of our brain we can actually teach our mind to react in new ways. This is called compassionate mind training.
It has been found that by focussing on developing our compassion, we can create positive effects on both our brains and our immune systems. Parts of the brain are shown to light up when we are kind to ourselves or others, and we are biologically designed to respond well to being cared for and treated kindly.
Compassion isn’t something you have to have naturally, but we can train ourselves to be better at it.