Chris Irons has been one of the leading figures in the modern development of the CFT model. He’s becoming a regular for Brighton Therapy Partnership training, and kindly granted us the opportunity to interview him about his work and CFT.
1. How did you start out in counselling & psychotherapy?
As a psychology undergraduate in Birmingham having lots of fun (otherwise known as partying and drinking too much!) I found myself, as part of my four year degree, having to find a year long work placement in my penultimate academic year.
I was lucky that I was encouraged by a family friend to contact Professor Paul Gilbert, who at that time ran the Mental Health Research Unit in Derby, and enquire as to whether he would be willing to take me on as a volunteer for the year. Luckily Paul said yes, and I went on to have the most wonderful year working with him – and other colleagues at the unit.
What struck me most was getting stuck in to seeing research – and psychological theory (e.g. attachment theory, social rank theory, etc.) – in an applied way, as part of my role involved spending time talking to and interviewing patients on inpatient mental health wards in Derby. I was fascinated both with applied research and theory development in this setting, but also in spending time learning about peoples’ difficulties, the things that had happened to them, and that many had no access to support – whether through friends or family, or more formally, a psychotherapist.
After I graduated, I returned to Derby to complete a PhD with Paul. I increasingly spending time learning how the theories I was researching and developing could be used in the therapy process. Although I was tempted with a life in academia, I had an unshakeable desire to follow Paul’s career path in blending psychotherapy with academic study and theory development, and applied to train as a clinical psychologist. This ultimately led me to complete my doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Sheffield.
2. You’ve become known for your work on Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). What was the key moment that got you interested in this?
Following on from the above, my work with Paul (which started almost 16 years ago) involved researching and developing the underpinnings of CFT, and CFT itself.
This included developing ideas, questionnaires and interventions around shame, self-criticism and compassion. During this initial work, I was struck when spending time with patients just how easy (on the whole) they found it to be harsh and critical of themselves, and just how difficult it was for them to have more empathy, kindness and compassion for themselves.
When we started exploring early memories of parental rearing, some clear patterns emerged linked to this (e.g. lack of affection, experiences of threat and shame). I was fascinated how this could be tied in to attachment theory, and really, from this stage I was hooked and wanted to spend my career developing research, theory and interventions around compassion.
3. Why is compassion so important? Isn’t it just another word for ‘empathy’?
It is very important when discussing terms like these in psychology and therapy to define what we mean. A common definition of compassion that CFT ascribes to is: ‘A sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a commitment to try and alleviate this.’
Whilst people have different opinions on this, empathy is generally understood to involve ‘feeling with,’ and is usually seen as having an affective and cognitive (perspective taking) component. There are an increasing number of studies showing that empathy can be associated with both positive (e.g. compassion, care) and negative (manipulation, aggression, personal distress).
From a CFT perspective, we would suggest that emapthy, along with other attributes (e.g. sympathy, sensitivity, motivated care and so forth) can all contribute to compassion, but are not, by themselves, compassion. It turns out that when people experience compassion that this is associated with a variety of positive outcomes, but less of the negative; for example, compassion in variable forms/practices is associated with improved immunological functioning, reduction in negative emotions, an increase in positive emotions, and a greater desire to help and support others. Moreover, Tania Singer and colleagues have found that in comparison to empathy, compassion can ameliorate the distress of engaging with another person’s distress. Of course we have a lot of work to still do in clarifying what we mean by these terms, how they overlap and differ, and how we can help people cultivate skills in them.
4. What got you interested in delivering training?
A couple of different factors. My parents – and many of my extended family – are teachers by profession, and so as a child I was always exposed to and raised in a climate of the importance of teaching and education. I had the opportunity to be in the classroom when my parents taught, and quite frankly was inspired by the way they conveyed material in such a helpful and interesting way to their audience. Later in life, working with Professor Paul Gilbert, I was encouraged to develop my own skills in this area, and found very quickly that, like my parents, I really enjoyed teaching and training, and in particular, finding ways to convey information, ideas and concepts that people could engage with and use themselves.
5. If you weren’t a therapist, what would you be and why?
As much as I would love to be a sportsman (either football or cricket), I think the more realistic career at this stage of my life (and given my less than excellent sporting ability!) would be as an academic/lecturer. Although I don’t have as much opportunity as I’d like to, I am an academic at heart, and love carrying out research, developing ideas, writing (papers, books) and teaching.
6. Where can people hear more from you? (e.g. your own Blog, Website, Twitter, Email?)
There are a number of places. I teach regularly at the School of Life and people can find short presentations of mine online (we’ve put one of Chris’ presentations at the bottom of this interview). I have also recently had my first book published on Depression. I’m always happy for people to get in contact with me by email, which is firstname.lastname@example.org, and there is more information available at www.balancedminds.com and at the charity linked to CFT, the Compassionate Mind Foundation.
You can also view Chris Irons’ profile page here on Brighton Therapy Partnership. A big thanks to Chris for this interview too. We hope to see you on 25th June at Chris’ next event. Take a look at our article series on mindfulness for more on empathy and compassion.