What is compassion-focused therapy / compassion-based therapy?

To answer this question, we first need to look at what we mean by compassion and self-compassion.

Compassion involves feelings of acceptance, empathy, warmth, kindness, caring and a wish to relieve suffering. Self-compassion involves these same qualities turned towards yourself, particularly when you feel painful emotions, or when you feel strongly self-critical.

Kristin Neff, a psychologist and academic who has specialises in this area, breaks self-compassion down into three key elements:

  1. Mindfulness which is balanced, nonattached awareness.
  2. Common Humanity which is the recognition that as humans we are all vulnerable and imperfect and that pain is a part of being alive. Remembering this helps us to feel connected rather than isolated.
  3. Self-kindness which encompasses a friendliness and understanding towards oneself as opposed to harsh self-judgment and attack.
Woman in therapy, sitting cross-legged on couch holding a cup of tea

Why is self-compassion so important?

Research by Neff and others shows that self-compassion is associated with reduced anxiety and depression and with greater emotional coping skills, feelings of social connectedness, life satisfaction, health related behaviours and enhanced relationships.

The history of self-compassion

The cultivation of compassion has been integral to Buddhist psychology and other contemplative traditions for thousands of years. In contemporary psychology, the recognition of the value of compassion as a mechanism of change in psychotherapy has been growing over recent years. Exercises designed to evoke compassion have been integrated into well-established therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

So what does compassion-focused therapy involve?

Compassion-based approaches offer us insight into how the human brain has evolved, the functions of emotions and the influence of our early relationships on our coping strategies and the course of our lives. Understanding these things can help us to see that emotional difficulties are not our fault, and can also help us to resolve unhelpful patterns of self-blame and shame. This style of therapy also involves identifying and resolving the barriers to compassion that people commonly experience. There is an emphasis on the emotional, felt experience of warmth, kindness and understanding towards yourself.

Compassion-based approaches give us the skills to balance strong, uncomfortable emotions with our natural capacities for soothing, tenderness, warmth, befriending, social connection and contentment. Attention training, mindfulness, compassionate refocusing and imagery are all used to evoke compassionate states of mind and to develop an inner compassionate sense of self. Mindfulness skills in particular help people to be aware of painful thoughts and feelings without necessarily buying into them or over-identifying with them. This inner compassionate self can create a safe base when painful thoughts, feelings and memories arise.

Compassion-focused therapy at Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology

Compassion is something that many of us could do with more of in our lives, so most of the psychologists on our team incorporate aspects of this approach into their work with clients.

Thank you to Helen Shepherd who helped to create the content for this page.