Compassion Focused Therapy 2022: Definition, Benefits & How It Works

Jennifer Olejarz

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

compassion focused therapy

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) focuses on helping people who are very self-critical and feel high levels of shame. It can be an effective therapeutic approach[1] for those with mood disorders like anxiety or depression, as well as eating disorders like anorexia or binge eating. 

This type of therapy employs compassionate mind training techniques to teach people how to become more compassionate with themselves and others. In this way, people can learn how to soothe and reassure themselves, creating an inner state of well-being.

While it’s similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy[2] (CBT), which helps you recognize your thoughts and behaviors, CFT goes a step further. Not only do you become more aware of your patterns, but you learn how to minimize anxiety and depression. This can be achieved when you make yourself feel better and increase positive feelings of self-esteem. 

If you strongly identify with self-criticism and shame, consider trying a compassion-focused therapist by contacting different mental health professionals and asking how CFT techniques might work for you. 

What Is Compassion-Focused Therapy?

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) combines various educational and therapeutic backgrounds[3] to encourage self-healing through compassion. It combines methods from Cognitive Behavioral Theory (CBT), Buddhist psychology, neuroscience, and evolution, along with social, developmental, and clinical psychology.

With all these modalities combined, the therapist and client work together to create a well-rounded therapeutic method to ease suffering while considering every area of the client’s life and behaviors. 

Why Is Compassion-Focused Therapy Important?

This therapeutic model was created by psychologist Paul Gilbert, who saw a need to further the CBT approach. He noticed that while his clients were becoming more aware of their negative thoughts and behaviors, they didn’t know how to use that information to help themselves to become more deeply compassionate people. 

They could partake in some CBT techniques and practices, but they still weren’t improving. This was especially the case for people with negative self-talk[4] who were highly critical of themselves and experienced great shame.

Gilbert began to incorporate compassion alongside Buddhist traditions in an attempt to prevent and free people from suffering. By teaching self-compassion, which was lacking with CBT, he could help people generate a supportive and kind inner voice. 

He also took into account neuroscientific research showing that self-compassion can affect your mood, anxiety, and even your heart rate[5]. Overall, CFT leads to a higher sense of self-worth and the ability to make yourself feel safe. 

How Does It Work?

Compassion-focused therapy has its roots in evolutionary psychology and considers our social origins. Our brains’ ability and emotion regulation systems are highly linked to our social roles, such as our sense of status and need to belong and be cared for.

If we aren’t able to meet these basic social needs with others or ourselves, we can develop mood disorders and experience high shame and self-criticism. 

What Happens When The Primitive Brain Takes Over?

The primitive part of our brain forces us to survive, making us work to ensure we’re fed, clothed, loved, and safe. It also controls our “fight, flight, or freeze” stress response.

Since our primitive brain[6] and stress responses are closely related, we can easily develop anxiety and depression when our primal needs aren’t satisfied. The survival brain takes over, leaving little room to feel relaxed, rested, and calm.

Other parts of the brain that developed over time created our intricate sense of self, where we generate new ideas and make choices about how we want our lives to unfold. We grow and expand as human beings when our primal needs are met, and we feel safe enough to focus on things outside of survival, like creativity and adventure. 

Our contentment system flourishes, and we’re easily able to self-soothe, feeling happier and more connected with ourselves and others. 

The problem arises when our primitive desires and instincts take over in an attempt to protect us from all the perceived threats in our day-to-day life (like loneliness, work stress, or financial worries).

This leads to anxiety and self-blame, but developing compassion lessens these negative feelings and creates more positive emotions.  

We have a tendency to think our negative thoughts are bad, leading to a vicious cycle of getting mad at ourselves for feeling bad, which only makes us feel even worse. Luckily, the brain can just as easily develop compassion and begin a new cycle using words of kindness instead. 

Why Compassion Is Important?

Compassion has five elements[7] to it:

  • Recognizing and understanding suffering
  • Feeling for those who suffer
  • The ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings
  • The desire to take action to alleviate that suffering
  • Motivation for action/action taken to alleviate suffering

When we develop compassion, we’re better able to:

  • Accept the situation 
  • Forgive ourselves and others
  • Increase positive and compassionate self-talk

Developing compassion allows us to take action and move forward to improve our lives. This is because we reduce the amount of time we spend ruminating on our problems and blaming ourselves or others.

Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) Techniques?

CFT dives into the mind-body connection and teaches awareness. It uses different exercises that focus on appreciation and compassion. It’s greatly tied to mindfulness, which is paying attention to the present moment without judgment. 

A session with a therapist may begin with CBT principles, such as assessing and creating a treatment plan. CFT can also be a part of therapy and also involves discussing how the body responds to threats. It teaches you how to create a safe space to dive in deeper and allow the client to become their own therapist. 

What You’ll Learn With a Compassionate-Focused Therapist?

You’ll be encouraged to not only become more observant of your negative thought patterns but tackle them by introducing compassion-focused therapy. Some questions that might come up could be: 

  • What’s something that normally triggers you or stops you from moving forward?
  • What’s worked for you in the past when you were in a difficult situation?
  • How would you respond with your compassionate side instead?

The therapist works to help you discover your sense of self-worth[8] and identifies your strengths and positive coping strategies for you to notice. They’d have a warm, compassionate, and validating style, which would hopefully encourage you to speak to yourself similarly. 

Self-soothing techniques[9] are also taught, such as writing compassionate letters to yourself, creating a self-image that comes from a place of kindness, and identifying new compassionate ways of thinking and behaving in response to negativity. 

As mindfulness advocates accepting what is, mindful techniques also allow you to let go of self-blame and criticism. When acceptance becomes the goal, it naturally washes away the need to blame and feel angry. It will also allow you to focus on the now instead of ruminating on past events. 

Overall, the main goal of CFT is to create a balance between our survival and contentment systems. That’s why compassion is important, it helps stimulate the contentment system by regulating emotions through a self-soothing system. 

Benefits Of Compassion-Focused Therapy

Research[10] has shown promising results from CFT in many psychological and physical health areas. Some of the main psychotherapeutic benefits are:

  • Less anxiety (and panic attacks)
  • Reduced level of depression
  • Less self-criticism (a risk factor for anxiety and depression)
  • Lower heart rate
  • Less stress 
  • Improved immune function
  • Higher mind-body awareness (leading to better health habits)

Who Should Try Compassion-Focused Therapy?

Practicing compassion-focused therapy works especially well for people who are highly self-critical and often feel shame. Guilt, anger, and blame are common emotions that make it difficult to move on from a negative event, and CFT can help you create a better sense of calm and acceptance in your life.

With time, you will naturally[11] gain more personal growth and compassion. These are some of the signs that CFT may be a healthy therapeutic approach for you: 

  • You grew up with highly critical parents or caregivers
  • You constantly feel guilt or shame
  • You have a  history of emotional or physical abuse
  • You have an inner voice that berates, blames, or criticizes you
  • You have a hard time feeling and expressing kindness to others (and yourself)
  • You have an inability to trust others

Some of the most common mental health issues many of us experience that would benefit from CFT are:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Highly sensitive
  • Low self-esteem
  • Self-harm
  • Self-criticism

Compassion-focused therapy online is a convenient tool for anyone struggling with these issues.

Final Thoughts

The key to compassion-focused therapy is cultivating compassionate feelings with yourself and others. It reduces self-criticism and feelings of shame and guilt. It combines mindfulness-based cognitive therapy techniques and teaches you how to comfort yourself. 

You can build your sense of self-worth and feel more secure with compassion. This will naturally help to reduce mental illnesses like stress, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, and most importantly, allow you to be at peace with yourself. 


+ 11 sources

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  1. Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, [online] 15(3), pp.199–208. doi:10.1192/apt.bp.107.005264.
  2. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. (2022). An Introduction to Compassion Focused Therapy in Cognitive Behavior Therapy | International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. [online] Available at: https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/ijct.2010.3.2.97
  3. Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, [online] 53(1), pp.6–41. doi:10.1111/bjc.12043.
  4. Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy. [online] Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203851197.
  5. Steffen, P.R., Foxx, J., Cattani, K., Alldredge, C., Austin, T. and Burlingame, G.M. (2020). Impact of a 12-Week Group-Based Compassion Focused Therapy Intervention on Heart Rate Variability. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, [online] 46(1), pp.61–68. doi:10.1007/s10484-020-09487-8.
  6. Leaviss, J. and Uttley, L. (2014). Psychotherapeutic benefits of compassion-focused therapy: an early systematic review. Psychological Medicine, [online] 45(5), pp.927–945. doi:10.1017/s0033291714002141.
  7. Strauss, C., Billie Lever Taylor, Gu, J. and Cavanagh, K. (2016). What is Compassion and How Can We Measure it? A Review of Definitions and Measures. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303600556_What_is_Compassion_and_How_Can_We_Measure_it_A_Review_of_Definitions_and_Measures
  8. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics. (2020). Compassion focused therapy: a systematic review of its effectiveness and acceptability in clinical populations. [online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14737175.2020.1746184
  9. Beaumont, E. and Caroline Hollins Martin (2015). A narrative review exploring the effectiveness of Compassion-Focused Therapy. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304373257_A_narrative_review_exploring_the_effectiveness_of_Compassion-Focused_Therapy
  10. Frostadottir, A.D. and Dorjee, D. (2019). Effects of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) on Symptom Change, Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Rumination in Clients With Depression, Anxiety, and Stress. Frontiers in Psychology, [online] 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01099.
  11. MacBeth, A. and Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, [online] 32(6), pp.545–552. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2012.06.003.
Jennifer Olejarz

Medically reviewed by:

Melissa Mitri

Jennifer Olejarz is a Certified Nutritionist and Health Counselor specializing in binge and emotional eating, stress management, and mental health. She has almost a decade's worth of experience in the health and wellness field writing health articles, guides, and books, along with creating health and nutrition courses. She works one-to-one with private clients to build healthier lifestyle habits and end the lifelong battle of food guilt and diet frustrations. She has degrees in both Psychology and Nutrition from Western University, Canada.

Medically reviewed by:

Melissa Mitri

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