Bringing compassion into therapy is about helping effectively, not just about feeling helpful. In this way, science is core to compassion, and the CFT therapist is likely to draw upon any tools that have good science behind them. In fact, a core value of CFT therapists is not ignoring good science. So if you want to do CFT, you don’t have to give up any of the things you already do that work.
Although doing CFT doesn’t mean that you’ll give up any of the tools you’re already using, the way you use them may change. CFT is rooted in compassion, so if it’s not already, this emphasis should be present in all aspects of the therapy—the way we relate to clients, and how we help them relate to themselves, and to others.
CFT isn’t about moving away from feelings and experiences that make us uncomfortable. It’s about moving toward effective, compassionate ways of being in our minds and in the world, and even moving toward the things that bother us, so that we can compassionately work with them. So whatever we’re doing in CFT, our work will always contain warmth (expressed in ways that work for the client), an emphasis on assisting clients to relate to their experiences with understanding and kindness rather than shame, a focus on helping clients learn to create feelings of safeness in themselves, and the development of the emotional courage to approach and work with the things that really scare them.
The following tips for bringing CFT into your therapy room have been adapted from CFT Made Simple: A Clinician’s Guide to Practicing Compassion-Focused Therapy by Russell Kolts, PhD.
1. Consider the roles you’re inhabiting as the therapist.
As we do CFT—or any therapy for that matter—it’s important to consider the roles we are inhabiting and how best to do that. What function are we serving within the context of the therapeutic relationship, and how can we use our presence to facilitate the goals and direction of therapy?
Try paying a bit more attention to these roles, and considering whether doing so helps clarify questions that arise during therapy such as, what should I do now? When a client throws you a curveball, you can consider How would I understand what is happening here? How might I respond?
2. Occasionally bring in the evolutionary model.
You don’t have to go into deep discussions of evolution—in fact, those generally aren’t helpful. But helping people recognize the different things that happen to their minds and bodies when they feel threatened or drive versus when they feel safe can be helpful.
Considering threat emotions as having evolved to help us protect ourselves can help clients understand why they get so “stuck” in such emotions. It’s not an accident that these emotions narrow our attention, thinking, and mental imagery onto perceived sources of threat, and it’s certainly not the client’s fault that this happens.
And learning that helping themselves feel safe reverses this process—which in turn facilitates more flexible attention and reasoning, reflective thinking, and prosocial tendencies—can improve their motivation to want to work with these difficult emotions.
3. Use socratic dialogue to undermine self-attacking.
Socratic dialogue is a useful way to help clients shift from shaming themselves for their internal experience, to being aware that there are many aspects of their lives that are simply not their fault.
What was your experience of that emotion? Did you choose to get angry/afraid/resentful there, or did those feelings just arise in your mind and body?
When did you learn that you ______________? What experiences taught you that?
Given what we know about your/her/his background, does it make sense that you would feel/think/experience things in this way?
When your self-critic attacks you for, how do you feel? What does it motivate you to do? What do you end up doing?
These kinds of questions can help clients begin to let go of the tendency to attack themselves for things they didn’t choose or design, and to understand their experiences and behaviors in the context of their lives. From here, the stage is set for them to compassionately take responsibility for making their lives better.
For more about compassion-focused therapy, check out CFT Made Simple.