Compassion Focused Therapy (A Complete Guide)

In this article, we will discuss compassion focused therapy. Compassion Focused Therapy combines different approaches from evolutionary, Buddhist, social and neuropsychiatry.

The key role of this therapy is to help people with shame and self-criticism to develop a mechanism of replacing these thoughts with a sense of security, warmth and inner stability by compassion.

 Self-criticism and shame are thought to be transdiagnostic issues.

Those individuals who are suffering from these issues face problems to feel content and even they feel insecure.

Many researches have shown that a special affect regulation system maintains the sense of security, well-being and reassurance.

This specialised regulation system is the product of an evolutionary process which includes attachment system and a capacity to respond to sense of calmness.

It is believed that in CFT it becomes hard to access in the individuals who have intense shame and high self-criticism. 

What is Compassion?

Compassion is an emotion or feeling which simply means to feel for others. In other words we can say that to show your concern for hardships or adversities of other people is known as compassion.

Compassion is different from empathy. Empathy is to emotionally experience the feelings of another person.

While, compassion is an emotional response to the suffering of others and shows a genuine wish to help out the person.

Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley has coined a term “compassionate instinct”.

It means that showing compassion is a normal and self regulated act that guarantees the survival of humans.

Compassion Focused Therapy:


Compassion Focused Therapy aims to help out the individuals who are suffering from shame and criticism.

This shame or criticism may have been ensued by rejection or an insult in the past.

The intent behind developing CFT was to produce positive emotional responses which other therapies are lacking.

Compassion Focused Therapy is a blend of different other approaches and it also encompasses the tools and research from other sources as well.

For example evolutionary theory, Buddhism and Neuroscience.

History of Compassion Focused Therapy:

CFT was developed by Paul Gilbert in the early 21st century.

CFT assimilates theories, principles, techniques from various schools of thoughts of  Psychology.Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Developmental psychology are thought to be the main components of this therapy.

The foundation of CFT underlies the principle of getting to know the fundamental emotion regulation system, contentment and social safety system, drive and excitement system and threat and self protection system.

While applying this therapy in a treatment session a close affiliation among all these systems, human behaviour and thoughts is highlighted. Application of CFT aims to equalise all these systems.

Clinical Focus:

CFT along with the mind training have been evolved from observations. Firstly, it is extremely difficult for the people who have high shame and self-criticism to develop thoughts of compassion in themselves for their own.

Secondly, it is often argued that the foundations of self-criticism and shame lie under a history of abuse, high expectations from family, bullying and lack of attention from peer groups.

People having such harsh past experiences are more vulnerable to become sensitive and are likely to become self attacking.

People with such complexities perceive their inner and outer world as a threat for themselves.

Thirdly, it is believed that to work with people who experience self-criticism and shame are needed to work on with their past experiences of abuse, bullying etc.

Fourthly, it has been observed that while undergoing the therapeutic process there are few people who develop this mechanism in themselves that they easily learn and understand how to replace their negative thoughts with positive thoughts and some clients still struggle to do so.

They claim that it is easy for them to grasp the logic behind the therapy but it becomes hard for them to realise the essence of therapy so they struggle.

Another key finding of compassion focused therapy is that people who have developed a sense of self-criticism and shame find it hard to cope with their negative thoughts and almost impossible to develop a sense of security, warmth and compassion for their inner and outer world.

Uses of Compassion Focused Therapy :

It has been found that compassion focused therapy is an effective method to help and treat the problems of long-term emotional traumas for example, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, hoarding disorders and psychosis by focusing on the core issues and tracking the trail of shame and criticism which are considered to be effective in disturbing the mental health of a person.

Eating Disorder

Compassion Focused Therapy can be helpful to apply with individuals who are suffering with eating disorders.

This is a closed group therapy which aims to provide the individuals with comprehensive psychological therapy.

Trans-diagnostic models are followed in operating the group and help people who are suffering from eating disorders. The people who seek help through the therapy mostly share common problems.

For example they seem concerned about their weight, size and shape of the body.

The group aims to provide psycho-education to both parties i, e the patient himself and his family members as sell.

This includes therapeutic elements and skills. Both psychological hidden psychological processes and biological factors are being targeted in this group. Eating disorders are basically maintained by these factors.

The participants of the group are encouraged to develop a sense of compassion for themselves and help then build and grow social attachments.

The group is appropriate especially for those who wrestle with criticism, shame and some sort of guilt.

Compassion Focused Therapy for Social Anxiety:

It’s a common thing among people to feel nervous while being in various social settings. Preparing for a presentation, speech or meeting new people can make a person anxious.

However, social anxiety disorder and small amount of anxiety are greatly different from each other.

Development of social anxiety takes place when small amounts of fear or anxiety combine together and a person finds ways to get out of the situation which may arouse his anxiety.

Those individuals who suffer social anxiety are more prone to negative thoughts of shame and are more self critical most of the time. 

CFT helps those individuals to repel their negative thoughts through compassionate thinking.

This therapy stands on a theory which states that we can perform well when we observe that we are being given value and being cared for, when we are helping, taking care and giving value to others and feel sympathetic and mindful about our own thoughts.

A therapist through using the tools and properties of compassion instils above mentioned values into the patients.

Resultantly, patients start to develop a positive and compassionate attitude about themselves in them.

Compassion Focused Therapy for Bipolar Disorder:

 Bipolar disorder can pose potential threat to mental health. It arises from dysregulations in various affect and derive systems.

As Compassion Focused Therapy is a product of evolutionary approaches and neuroscience it particularly focuses on affect regulation.

Therefore, it offers various interventions for the treatment of bipolar disorder.

Patients who are suffering from bipolar disorder have to face a lot of problems for example they are always in danger of getting mood swings, relapse.

Compassion Focused Exercises:

Positive psychology gives great regards to compassion and many ancient religions of the world also stress on the importance of being compassionate to others.

Following are few compassion focused exercises;

Soothing Rhythm Breathing:

Soothing rhythm breathing exercises brings calmness in a person. To perform this exercise make sure that a person is sitting in a peaceful and comfortable environment.

Bringing a smile on the face can be referred to as gentle facial expressions. Focus on breathing.

Inhale and exhale air through the diaphragm of the breathing system and feel the breath’s movement until a sense of calmness begins to appear.

Simple Body Scan and Relaxation:

While beginning this exercise make yourself feel calmed and focus on breath. In the next step, focus on your legs and let yourself feel that all your problems and tension is going down to your legs and releasing through your legs.

While breathing in focus on your tension and while breathing out imagine that your tension is going out of your body.

Change the point of your focus from your lower body to your upper body while breathing in focus on your tension and breathing out feel that tension is releasing.

Slowly bring your head, toes and fingertips in this process and your body will start feeling grateful as it would notice tension releasing.

Creating a Safe Place:

Bring a sense of calmness and peace and then focus on yourself. Start meditation and imagine yourself in a lush green forest or sitting on the edge of a flowing stream.

This might be any other place where you feel comfortable. Imagine that your favourite safe place is offering you a sense of joy.

Start to feel how it feels when you arrive at your safe place and how it rejoices your presence.

Try to build an emotional connection with your imaginary place and return to it whenever you feel a need to be peaceful and content.

BenefitsCompassion Focused Therapy :

Compassion Focused Therapy has gained much popularity in the field of therapeutic interventions as it is helpful in treating the patients with psychological disorders which includes schizophrenia, depression and anxiety.

Limitations of CFT:

As compassion focused therapy can be efficient for individuals who feel contentment thinking about the concepts of being cared for, everyone is not capable of completing this therapeutic process.

Few people might get afraid of compassion while undergoing the treatment and some people may think that they are not worthy enough that they must be treated with compassion.

Some people fail to grasp the idea of compassion. Exercises which involve mindfulness training and compassionate imagery can also be challenging for some people.


CFT is based on the various components of social, developmental, buddhist psychology and neuroscience.

It also has various other therapeutic techniques that are thought to be more effective and efficient in treating various mental health issues. 

Compassion Focused Therapy is deeply rooted im buddhist psychology and it is obvious that this therapy has been deeply influenced by the traditional methods.

The future of compassion Focused Therapy lies on psychotherapy, research and processes.

FAQs about Compassion Focused Therapy

Q1. What is the difference between compassion and empathy?

Compassion means to emotionally respond to the problem of others while empathy is to put into the shoe of another person.

In other words, empathy is to feel the pain of other persons and go through it with them.

Q2. What is compassion focused therapy?

Compassion Focused Therapy focuses on replacing the thoughts of shame and self-criticism with positive emotions.

Q3. How does CFT work?

CFT is emotion focused therapy which targets the threat drive and contentment system in order to ensure survival.

Q5. What techniques are used in CFT?

CFT uses compassionate and mind training, appreciation exercises, mindfulness and compassion focused imagery exercises.


Psychotherapeutic benefits of compassion-focused therapy: an early systematic review