Compassion is currently being studied and used as an evidence based ingredient in effective psychotherapy more than ever before. This might not seem surprising, given that practicing compassion has been at the center of emotional healing in global wisdom traditions for at least 2,600 years. Empathy and emotional validation have been identified as some of the most important components of psychotherapy effectiveness for decades. However, compassion, as a process in itself, has only recently come to be seen as a core focus of psychotherapeutic work. A growing body of research continues to demonstrate how cultivating our compassionate minds can help us to alleviate and prevent a range of psychological problems, including anxiety and shame (Tirch and Gilbert, 2014). Rather than being a soft option, the deliberate activation of our compassion system can generate the courage and psychological flexibility we need to face life's challenges, and step forward into lives of meaning, purpose and vitality.
Paul Gilbert (2009) has drawn upon developmental psychology, affective neuroscience, Buddhist practical philosophy, and evolutionary theory to develop a comprehensive form of experiential behavior therapy known as Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). Gilbert describes compassion as a multifaceted process that has evolved from the caregiver mentality found in human parental care and child rearing. As such, compassion includes a number of emotional, cognitive, and motivational elements involved in the ability to create opportunities for growth and change with warmth and care. CFT involves training and enhancing this evolved capacity for compassion.
Gilbert defines the essence of compassion as “a basic kindness, with deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it” (2009, p. xiii). This definition involves two central dimensions of compassion. The first is known as the psychology of engagement and involves sensitivity to and awareness of the presence of suffering and its causes. The second dimension is known as the psychology of alleviation and constitutes both the motivation and the commitment to take actual steps to alleviate the suffering we encounter (Gilbert and Choden, 2013).
Over the last few years, the research base for compassion psychology generally and CFT specifically has been growing at a remarkable rate, with a rapid increase in the number of research and clinical publications addressing compassion. For example, the last ten years have seen a major upsurge in exploration into the benefits of cultivating compassion, especially through imagery practice (Fehr, Sprecher, and Underwood, 2008). Neuroscience and imaging research has demonstrated that practices of imagining compassion for others produce changes in the frontal cortex, the immune system, and overall well-being (Lutz et al., 2008). Notably, one study (Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross, 2008) found that even just a brief loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connectedness and affiliation toward strangers.
Several compassion-focused intervention components have been found to enhance psychotherapy outcomes, and to serve as mediator variables in outcomes. For example, one study (Schanche, Stiles, McCullough, Svartberg, and Nielsen, 2011) found that self-compassion was an important mediator of reduction in negative emotions associated with personality disorders. In a study of the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (Kuyken et al., 2010), researchers found that self-compassion was a significant mediator between mindfulness and recovery. In fact, in a meta-analysis of research concerning both clinical and nonclinical settings, compassion-focused interventions were found to be significantly effective (Hofmann et al., 2011).
CFT is also seeing increasing empirical supported through outcome research. An early clinical trial involving a group of people with chronic mental health problems who were attending a day hospital (Gilbert and Procter, 2006) found that CFT significantly reduced self-criticism, shame, sense of inferiority, depression, and anxiety. In other outcome research, CFT has been found to be significantly effective for the treatment of personality disorders (Lucre and Corten, 2012), eating disorders (Gale, Gilbert, Read, and Goss, 2012), psychosis (Braehler, Harper, and Gilbert, 2012) and in people presenting to community mental health teams (Judge, Cleghorn, McEwan, and Gilbert, 2012). As CFT continues to become more widely disseminated and growing numbers of clinicians and researchers acquire understanding and skill in its methods and philosophy, increasing outcome research will further test the model, leading to innovation and improvement.
The following brief tips can help psychotherapists begin to appreciate how useful a compassion focus can be in practicing ACT, CBT or, in fact, any form of psychotherapy. Furthermore, we can see how remembering to practice compassion for ourselves might help to restore the energy and attention we bring to our work, of sharing compassion with our clients. Feel free to experiement with the following:
1. “It is not your fault…”
From a perspective of compassion, we remember how much of the pain and suffering in life is not of our choosing, and couldn’t really be our fault. In CFT we practice the “wisdom of no-blame” which means that taking responsibility for the direction you choose in life is essential, while languishing in shame, social fears and self-blame seldom leads to effective action. We know we didn’t choose our place in the genetic lottery. We didn’t choose to have a tricky human brain that is set up with a hair-trigger threat detection system and confusing loops of thoughts and actions. We didn’t choose our parents, our childhood or the myriad of social circumstances of life. By realizing that much of what we suffer with is simply not our fault, we can begin to activate compassion for ourselves and others, as we contact and engage with the tragedies of life.
2. Holding ourselves and others in warmth and kindness
When humans are in the presence of warmth, acceptance and affiliative emotions, we are likely to be at our most flexible, empathic, responsive and healthiest mode of operation. From the day we are born and throughout our lives the presence of kindess, support and emotional strength will have powerful impacts on every aspect of our health and behavior. In CFT, we use methods drawn from ancient visualization practices, and also modern techniques drawn from method acting to create the conditions and context that can allow for the experience of compassion. So, when we practice compassion for ourselves and others, we remember to slow down, to have a warm and caring expression on our face, and to use open and centered body language. Adopting a slow pace of our breathing and a warm tone of voice, we do all that we can to invite an experience of compassion. Images that evoke compassion are also used to bring us into contact with our compassionate mind. Can you imagine the most elegant cognitive reframe shouted at you with a cruel voice, such as a depressed client telling themselves, “The evidence doesn’t add up that you are a loser, so stop being so stupid about everything and suck it up and deal with life!” Perhaps even worse, can you imagine the condeming inner monologue of a mindfulness practitioner saying something like, “You’re not supposed to be judgemental about judging your thoughts! My God, you are terrible at this!” No matter how clever the content of our minds may seem to be, an emotional tone of acceptance, kindess and compasion is an essential ingredient to our experience of well-being.
3. Practicing compassion as a flow
We all can feel distressed in our work as psychotherapists, when we repeatedly encounter the suffering of others, which activates sympathetic emotional pain that we experience within our own minds, hearts and brains. Practicing deliberate, consistent compassion for ourselves and for others can help us to prevent empathic distress fatigue, and can build our inner architecture of compassionate strength. When you find yourself feeling that your reservoir of empathy, wisdom and warmth is slightly drained, deliberately breathe in compassionate intentions for yourself. As you exhale, direct compassionate intentions towards your client. This can be done silently, secretly, and consistently. As we breathe in, we wish for our suffering to cease and for ourselves to find peace and happiness. As we breathe out, we wish for our clients suffering to cease also, and we wish them happiness, wellness and an end to needless struggles. When this simple gesture becomes a therapist’s habit, they can quickly activate affiliative emotions to help them work towards their own compassionate mission of alleviating and preventing the suffering that they find in themselves and in others.
Braehler, C., Harper, I., & Gilbert, P. (2012). Compassion focused group therapy for recovery after psychosis. In C. Steel (Ed.), CBT for schizophrenia: Evidence-based interventions and future directions (pp. 235–266).
Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons.
Fehr, B., Sprecher, S., & Underwood, L. G. (Eds.). (2008). The science of compassionate love: Theory, research, and applications. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley and Sons.
Gale, C., Gilbert, P., Read, N., & Goss, K. (2012). An evaluation of the impact of introducing compassion focused therapy to a standard treatment programme for people with eating disorders. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy 21, 1–12.
Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. London: Constable and Robinson.
Gilbert, P., & Procter, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: Overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy 13, 353–379.
Gilbert, P., & Choden. (2013). Mindful compassion. London: Constable and Robinson.
Hofmann, S. G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. E. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical psychology review 31, 1126–1132.
Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion 8, 720.
Judge, L., Cleghorn, A., McEwan, K., & Gilbert, P. (2012). An exploration of group-based compassion focused therapy for a heterogeneous range of clients presenting to a community mental health team. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy 5, 420–429.
Kuyken, W., Watkins, E., Holden, E., White, K., Taylor, R. S., Byford, S., Evans, A., Radford, S., Teasdale, J. D., & Dalgleish, T. (2010). How does mindfulness-based cognitive therapy work? Behaviour Research and Therapy 48, 1105–1112.
Lucre, K. M., & Corten, N. (2012). An exploration of group compassion-focused therapy for personality disorder. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 86, 387–400.
Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise. PloS One 3, e1897.
Schanche, E., Stiles, T. C., McCullough, L., Svartberg, M., & Nielsen, G. H. (2011). The relationship between activating affects, inhibitory affects, and self-compassion in patients with Cluster C personality disorders. Psychotherapy 48, 293.
Tirch, D. D., & Gilbert, P. (2014). Compassion Focused Therapy: An introduction to experiential interventions for cultivating compassion. In D. McKay & N. Thoma (Eds.), Working with emotions in cognitive behavioral therapy (Chapter 3). New York: Guilford.