Compassion Focused Therapy Explained – by Shannon Moule, Clinical Psychologist

Christina ReynoldsPsychology, Self-Compassion, Uncategorized

 The Dalai Lama often stresses that if you want others to be happy – focus on compassion; if you want to be happy yourself – focus on compassion (Dalai Lama 1995, 2001)


Around the same time last year I wrote an article on a therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  In that article I focused on explaining what ACT is and how it can help alleviate one’s suffering. Keeping with this theme, today, I bring you another therapeutic approach, Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). One that has growing use amongst psychologists. In this article I will provide information on what CFT is, how it can help and will finish with an compassionate exercise for you to try at home.


What is CFT?

 According to the Compassionate Mind Foundation, CFT is


“an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that

draws upon our evolved capacity for compassion to facilitate the alleviation of human suffering” (CMF-USA).


Compassion Focused Therapy was developed by Dr. Paul Gilbert, a psychologist from England. He developed CFT to treat shame, self-loathing and self-criticism all of which can occur in people suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma and psychosis. Individuals who have this struggle often find it difficult to feel safe and cared for within themselves and with others. Gilbert (2009a) found compassion both inward (self-focused) and outward (other-focused) helped reduce suffering caused by shame, self-loathing and self-criticism.


The CFT Mode

Underpinning CFT is the premise that we all have three systems for managing our emotional states. These systems operate in different areas of our brain and work together to help us relate and respond to our experiences. Each system has different motivations, attention, thoughts, emotions, physiology and behaviour (see Table 1).


Table 1. Affect Regulation Systems


Threat System Drive System Care-giving system
Motivation Survive Achieve, win Look-after, soothe
Attention Threat-focused Goals, advantage Empathy to distress
Thoughts About danger Achieving Caring, soothing
Emotions Fear, anxiety Positive, motivated Safeness
Physiology Highly aroused Aroused Calm
Behaviour Fight or flight Focused Look-after, soothe


What has been found in people who are highly self-critical, riddled with shame and self-loathing is an over-active threat affect regulation system and an under-active care-giving affect regulation system. This imbalance often leads them to cope with adversities through avoidance (flight) and/or self-criticalness (self-fight). They often don’t feel safe and cared for by themselves or with others.


How does CFT help?

 The main goal of CFT is to help people bring balance to the affect regulation systems by providing compassionate training to activate the care-giving system. The founder of CFT, Dr Paul Gilbert explained that the CFT therapist does this by providing the client with a safe experience in their interactions with them and with what is discussed in session, whilst helping the client develop the skills and attributes of compassion to replace self-criticism, shame and self-loathing (Gilbert, 2007).


Exercise in Compassion


The simple act of breathing can have the effect of feeling connected and grounded even during times of distress. In this exercise you will learn how to breathe compassionately to help soothe yourself in moments of distress, bringing compassion to the moment.

Before embarking on this exercise, read through it first in it’s entirety. After you have read it, put everything aside and take yourself through it. You may find it helpful to tape yourself reading out the script and play it back to yourself.


Soothing Rhythm Breathing by Dr Paul Gilbert

To practice the soothing rhythm breathing exercise, first make sure that you are sitting comfortably with both feet flat on the floor, about shoulder’s width apart. Rest your hands on top of your legs and close your eyes or look down at the floor. Let yourself have a gentle facial expression, like a small smile.

Begin to focus on your breathing. Allow the air of each breath to come down into your diaphragm and feel it move in and out as you breathe. Play with the speed of your breath until you find a comfortable, soothing rhythm of breath. You will likely find that your soothing rhythm is about three seconds in-breath, a slight pause, and three seconds out-breath. Continue focusing just on your breathing, through your nose and in your peaceful rhythm.

Next comes a grounding moment. Turn your attention to your body, sensing the weight of your body resting on the chair and the floor underneath you. Let yourself feel held and supported by the chair.

Remember that it is okay for your mind to wander – just notice where it wanders, and gently guide it back to awareness of your body.

Feel the air flowing in and out of your nostrils, and simply allow yourself to “be.” If you find yourself stuck on noticing your breathing, let yourself focus on an object instead. You can hold something like a smooth stone or a soft ball, something that feels good to hold. Focus on the object as well as your breathing, and note the way it feels to hold the object.

When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and bring yourself back to the present moment. A small stretch and a deep breath can help you ready yourself for the rest of your day.


Interested in Experiencing More

At present Dr Ilze Grobler and Dr Christina Reynolds are running self-compassion focused monthly meditation classes. If you are interested in cultivating a self-compassion practice this is the class for you. Click on the following link to find out more


If you are interested in individual therapy with a CFT focus feel free to call reception to make an appointment to see me on 3822 9983.

 I do hope this article has helped enlighten you to another helpful therapeutic approach to reduce suffering and enhance wellbeing. If you would like to know more about CFT you might want to make use of the reference list below.


Wishing you enough today and everyday.



CMF-USA. (n.d.). Compassion focused therapy. Retrieved from

Dalai Lama (1995). The Power of Compassion. HarperCollins.

Dalai Lama (2001). An Open Heart: Practising Compassion in Everyday Life (ed N Vreeland). Hodder & Stoughton.

Gilbert, P. (2007). Psychotherapy and Counselling for Depression (3rd end). Sage.

Gilbert, P. (2009a). The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges. Constable-Robinson.

Gilbert, P. (2009b). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 15, 199-208.

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