What is Compassion Focused Therapy?

This article refers to a workshop held in April 2015:

In April 2015 we held one of our biggest events to date with Dr Chris Irons, and what a glorious day it was! The sun may have been out, and we all participated in a mindfulness practice whilst Brighton and Hove Albion fans were outside chanting making it somewhat challenging, but I think we can all agree that Chris’ teaching was captivating and interesting.

Dr Chris Irons (BTP Event, June 2016)

There was so much to take away from the event that we couldn’t possibly summarise it all here, but in case you missed it and would like to know more about integrating compassion focused therapy (CFT) into your work then here’s an introduction. Compassion focused therapy was developed approximately 20 years ago, and Chris is a leading psychologist in the CFT movement.

Why Compassion Focused Therapy?

According to neuroscientists, we have three types of emotional regulation systems:

  1. those that focus on threat and self-protection (RED SYSTEM)
  2. those that focus on doing and achieving (BLUE SYSTEM)
  3. those that focus on contentment and feeling safe (GREEN SYSTEM)

People with anxiety and depression, in particular, often describe their green system as minute; they really struggle to feel content or safe. Clients with an experience of trauma often report the same.

So, we need a therapy that helps us develop our green system, and for that we need to develop our ability for compassion. Compassion focused therapy is a development away from CBT (which aims to ‘tone down’ negative emotions). The aim of CFT is to ‘tone up’ the positive emotions – enabling clients to get better at giving and receiving compassion, as well as giving compassion to themselves.

What is compassion?

Compassion is sensitivity to the suffering of self and others (and its causes) with a deep commitment to try and relieve it and prevent it.

For therapists and clients, compassion involves engaging with suffering rather than moving away from it. Therefore in CFT clients are encouraged to move towards suffering, not deny it or try to shut it out.

It is also important that compassion involves a commitment to the alleviation of suffering– helping clients to develop skills so that they can successfully alleviate suffering

For a more in-depth analysis of compassion, see our article series on empathy, compassion and mindfulness.

So what is Compassion Focused Therapy in Practice?

Compassion Focused Therapy aims to help clients to learn specific skills to build their inner resources of wisdom and compassion. This is so that the client and counsellor together can successfully move towards the alleviation of the clients’ suffering. CFT aims to develop the clients’ compassion in three key areas:

  • Compassion FOR others
  • Compassion FROM others
  • Compassion FOR self

What techniques are used in Compassion Focused Therapy?

CFT uses tools and techniques to help the client to develop a compassionate mind. Prior to using these tools, it helps to do a brief mindfulness exercise to clear the client’s mind and get them into a state where their imagination can work freely. Three of these techniques are…


If a client struggles to receive compassion from others, it can help to use imagery.

Ask the client to imagine a ‘compassionate other’: what would they look like? What would their voice sound like? What might they say to the client? For some clients, too much overt compassion from the therapist may feel smothering, or alien for a client who has not experienced much compassion in their lives. Imagining a compassionate other can help the client to get used to compassion from another person, without it being overwhelming.

The key to developing compassion for a client is to get them to begin imagining compassionate entities. What do they look like? What do they say? How do they act?

Building a character

Some clients may find it tough to feel compassion towards others. One technique to help with this is using acting skills: imagining a compassionate character – what would they be like, look like, act like, talk like? They can begin to role-play this character.

A key thing to remember with this is that even if a client finds it hard to feel compassion, they can start with imagining what a compassionate character would be like. This can help them to get into the shoes of a compassionate person, building their own compassion.


Clients can really struggle to give compassion to themselves. We all have a self-critic: that niggling voice in the back of our minds which puts us down.

In some clients, this critic can be enormous. Help the client to imagine their inner critic, giving them a name, a persona, a look, a tone of voice. This can help the client to see their self-critic more clearly.

Alongside this, help the client to imagine their compassionate self, again with their physical characteristics and persona. It can be powerful for the client to get to know their compassionate self – he or she is in there somewhere!

Facilitate a session where the client can have a conversation between their inner critic and their compassionate self. This can work wonders is enabling the client to be more compassionate towards their inner critic, and can cause great shifts.

End with a mantra

When working with compassion focused therapy, we should remind the client that their lack of compassion stems from things outside of their control – events and experiences in life have led them to this stage. Tell them: “It is not your fault”

Remember, it is not the clients’ fault that they have struggled to develop their inner resource of compassion. If we use this mantra, it can help clients to begin to stop self-blaming, and to start feeling compassionate.

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Receive free training updates, special offers, and expert articles straight to your inbox! You'll also get a 25% discount off a full price ticket for your first online event.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah on 8 March 2021 at 1:55 pm

    I just love this information…. I am knowledgeable than I was before I came by this.

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