Compassion-focussed therapy

heart in handsI’ve been reminding myself of some of the basics of compassion-focussed therapy recently, and I thought I’d blog about it because we could probably all use a bit of this. Compassion-focussed therapy is a third-wave CBT approach, which means it has grown out of cognitive behavioural therapy even though it looks quite different to traditional CBT. A key part of it involves learning to show more compassion to ourselves as well as others.

Compassion-focussed therapy draws on neuroscience to explain some of its practices. It highlights three brain systems in particular (for more detail check out Mary Welford’s book Building Your Self Confidence Using Compassion-Focussed Therapy):

  • The threat system: the brain system involved in spotting threat in the environment and preparing us to run, hide, or fight. Back in the day this system helped us spot sabre-toothed tigers. Now we are more likely to experience this as we scan situations for social risks, for work terrors, or relationship frights.
  • The drive and resource acquisition system: the system involved in making us feel motivated to try for things we want and which gives us a sense of achievement when we succeed.
  • The contentment and soothing system: the system involved in attachment to caregivers and affiliation with others. A very social system, and one that kicks in when we are safe, secure and content.

Think about what day to day experiences you are having – run through which tend to activate your threat system, drive system and soothing system… Most work experiences, for example, tend to activate one of the first two.

For many people, especially people experiencing low mood, anxiety, and low self esteem, the contentment and self-soothing system in our brains tends to be less in use than would be optimal for a sense of well being. Connections in our brains get strengthened by use, so if we don’t use a system as much it is also likely to be less easily triggered than the others.

Compassion-focussed therapy helps us to balance the systems out by really focussing on the soothing system and actively practising compassion for ourselves as well as others.

Compassion is defined as a deep sympathy for suffering, alongside a desire to remove that suffering. Kristen Neff, expert in researching compassion, describes it in terms of three key components:

  • Kindness versus judgement: This means kindness in a very active sense of the word – really trying to do what we can to alleviate suffering, either of others, or of ourselves. As well as things that are more traditionally seen as kindness to ourselves (having a break, doing self soothing things) this can also include holding ourselves to account for things like preparing work in advance, doing exercise, eating well, pushing ourselves to try new things even when they feel difficult – things that might feel effortful but which set us up well.
  • Common humanity versus isolation: This is the idea which we might all know, but which is less often felt, that we are all part of a huge human population, all of whom suffer at times.
  • Mindfulness versus over-identification: Noticing how we are in the moment – right now – is vital for knowing if we are suffering and if this is related to our attitude towards ourself.

What can we do about it if we think we are less practised in soothing and self-compassion than we would like? Neff suggests some quick and easy ways to start in a 2 minute video that you can watch here:

    1. Give yourself permission to be kind to yourself. It isn’t selfish, it’s necessary.
    1. Try to notice how you speak to yourself – would I say this to a close friend?
    1. Try writing a letter to yourself as you would to a good friend.
  1. Try using soothing touch when you are feeling stress or suffering – placing your hands on your heart, or face, or clasping your hands together.

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