What Is Compassion-Focused Therapy?

Millennial Woman talking to university advisor

Courtney Hale / Getty Images

What Is Compassion-Focused Therapy?

Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), or Compassion Mind Training (CMF), is the concept of incorporating compassion training techniques into psychotherapy to induce kinder thinking habits.

This type of therapy emphasizes the importance of compassion and self-compassion in interactions with the world and the self. CFT stems from Buddhist values that stress the influence compassion has on others’ happiness as well as your own. 

In CFT clients will develop skills that enable them to experience kindness towards themselves and consideration to others through the use of mindfulness-based strategies. CFT is similar to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) but implements techniques that help establish traits like acceptance and self-respect, to enhance self-assurance and positive emotion. CFT is beneficial to those experiencing destructive thoughts, depression, or anxiety to combat feelings of shame and self-criticism.

Techniques of Compassion-Focused Therapy

CFT techniques include exercises and tasks, such as those discussed below, along with homework, diary entries, and mindfulness/meditation practices. 

Compassion Images

A collection of exercises that include compassion images to help clients gather an understanding of their image of compassion.

Individuals will be asked to express what their ideal depiction of compassion from another would be. They may be asked what compassion may look or sound like via facial expressions and tone of voice. They also have to associate words that connect to this image they created, such as warm or strong. 

The person may also be advised to play the role of a deeply compassionate person and project that image through facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and words. Clients are asked to picture compassionate images during moments they may usually be self-critical.

Compassion Behavior Tasks

This is a form of exposure therapy. The client is exposed to the new behaviors that are being learned in therapy. They are directed to practice encouraging and sensitive expressions to themselves during fearful or awkward situations. This can help individuals learn to be kind to themselves during difficult situations. 

These types of tasks are also important for clients to accept positive emotions. If an individual has become prone to feelings of guilt or fear during enjoyable moments, they can begin to practice more positive feelings at these times.

What Compassion-Focused Therapy Helps With

CFT helps an individual develop kinder approaches in how to view themselves and interact with others, void of blame and criticism. 

CFT can be beneficial for those seeking support with the following conditions and concerns:

Benefits of Compassion-Focused Therapy

CFT strategically trains an individual to develop skills that strengthen compassionate thinking, which enhances feelings of self-validation and empathy.

Compassion is considered caring about the suffering of others, but it also means self-compassion, which is being kind to yourself. According to self-compassion expert psychologist, Kristen Neff, self-compassion is actually correlated with compassion for others and overall well-being.

Compassion for others and oneself is associated with greater mental and physical health benefits and enhances the overall quality of life. It enables positive thinking habits, promotes emotional regulation, reduces stress and improves relationship quality. Compassion is also linked to less anxiety, depression, and self-criticism. Additionally, compassion can produce healthier immune responses and helps maintain blood pressure and cortisol levels.

Effectiveness

CFT was founded by psychologist Paul Gilbert to help people establish a more compassionate “inner voice,” especially those experiencing a lot of shame. Gilbert’s emphasis is on the importance of learning to engage in “self-soothing” behaviors and “warm” thoughts towards oneself.He conducted a 12-week group session of compassion mind training, in which participants displayed drastic advances in self-compassion that involved being more self-assured and less critical or shameful to oneself. They also exhibited a decrease in depression and anxiety, while displaying more self-soothing and less submissive behaviors.

CFT integrates different fields of psychology such as developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, Buddhist psychology, and neuropsychology models of compassion. All of these examine the biological, environmental, and motivational contributions that innately drive us to engage in certain emotional and behavioral motives. 

Compassion is associated with neurology; specific areas of the brain are activated in response to the suffering of others and emotional stimuli. Researchers believe that compassion training techniques can possibly enhance feelings of empathy and kindness. Experiencing more feelings of compassion can help initiate self-soothing thoughts as opposed to fearful ones.

CFT has been scientifically supported by empirical literature to be effective within psychotherapy or as a mindfulness training program. A recent systematic review including a collection of various CFT studies validated its benefits towards certain treatment topics, such as depression, trauma, self-esteem, etc. Researchers found CFT to be beneficial in helping with depression, anxiety, feelings of shame, self-criticism, and interacting with others. However, more research within this area is necessary before it can be determined as an official evidence-based practice and to fully understand how effective it is for a variety of conditions.

Things to Consider

Here is what might be helpful for you to consider before you begin CFT:

  • Prepare to talk about you. With this type of therapy, the focus is on you. This is true for most therapies, but with CFT there is an even greater concentration on the self. The goal of compassion training is to help develop habits that reduce self-criticism and shame to enable a kinder viewpoint of yourself and others. In order to strengthen these abilities, one must first get to the root of self-destructive thinking and behaviors. 
  • Be ready to put in work. CFT involves learning about the mind and emotions while implementing what is learned in exercises and homework. It also includes discovering new things about yourself that may feel overwhelming at times. Reducing habits that may be difficult to break may also be a challenging process, but the counselor will work to produce a pace best suited for you.
  • Don’t expect instant change. Be patient with yourself and the counselor. You may not notice improvements right away. It will take some time because you are learning and breaking habits all at once. 

How to Get Started

If you think the CFT may be beneficial to you, follow the steps below:

  1. Make the decision. It is up to you to take that first step in deciding to begin therapy. If you feel that you are ready to journey on this path, then you must determine if this specific therapy is the route you want to take. 
  2. Begin your search. Look for a therapist that specializes in compassion-focused therapy or find a training program that may be offered online. If you already have a therapist, discuss incorporating compassion training into your sessions. 
  3. Make an effort. Once you begin CFT, try to put your best foot forward and gain all that you can from this experience. Compassionate thinking is something that can generate better well-being and a happier you. If both the counselor and yourself are investing the time, why not make an effort to do the work. 
  4. Don’t be too tough on yourself. All you can do is try your best in therapy. There will be times that you resort back to old habits, don't get too frustrated with yourself. The main point of compassion therapy is to grow in your thinking and produce kinder approaches to how you communicate with yourself and the world. Accept that this has happened and continue to progress in your training. 
Was this page helpful?
12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gilbert P. Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 2009;15(3):199-208. doi:10.1192/apt.bp.107.005264

  2. Lucre KM, Corten N. An exploration of group compassion-focused therapy for personality disorder. 2012; 86(4): 387-400. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8341.2012.02068.x

  3. Gilbert P, Iron C. A pilot exploration of the use of compassionate images in a group of self-critical people. Memory. 2004; 12(4):507-516. doi: 10.1080/09658210444000115

  4. Leaviss J, Uttley L. Psychotherapeutic benefits of compassion-focused therapy: an early systematic review. Psychological Medicine. 2015; 45(5):927-945. doi:10.1017/S0033291714002141

  5. Lucre KM, Corten N. An exploration of group compassion-focused therapy for personality disorder. 2012; 86(4): 387-400. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8341.2012.02068.x

  6. Gross K, Allan S. Compassion focused therapy for eating disorders. HomeInternational Journal of Cognitive Therapy. 2013; 3(2). doi: 10.1521/ijct.2010.3.2.141

  7. Lawrence VA, Lee D. An exploration of people’s experiences of compassion-focused therapy for trauma, using interpretative phenomenological analysis. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy. 2014; 21(6):495-507. doi:10.1002/cpp.1854 

  8. Grodin J. Clark JL, Kolts R, Lovejoy TI. Compassion focused therapy for anger: A pilot study of a group intervention for veterans with PTSD. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. 2019; 13, 27–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2019.06.004

  9. Neff, K. Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. 2011; 5(1):1-12. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x

  10. Cosley BJ, McCoy SK, Saslow LR, Epel ES. Is compassion for others stress buffering? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2010; 46:816-823.

  11. Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ. Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise. 2008; 3(3). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001897

  12. Beaumont E, Martin CJH. A narrative review exploring the effectiveness of Compassion-Focused Therapy. The British Counseling Psychology Review. 2015; 30(1).