Compassionate Thought Record

One aim in CFT is how we can learn to become more compassionate with ourselves. There are many ways of doing this, including adapting interventions that are commonly used in other psychological approaches  

One common intervention used in a number of approaches, and in particular Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, is a thought record. Traditionally this can be used as a way for us to look at how our thoughts might be influencing how we’re struggling with something, and then look at helpful alternatives. 

In CFT, we can take the basic structure of a thought record and bring a compassion ‘twist’ to it by harnessing the powerful of our compassionate minds – creating a compassionate thought record 

Compassion Focused Therapy

Compassionate Thought Record - A Guide

The below guide is taken from The Compassionate Mind Workbook, by Dr Chris Irons and Dr Elaine Beaumont. It involves two basic steps, although it might be helpful to take a look at the visual version of the form too so that you understand the flow of what you’re supporting people with (scroll down to the bottom)

Step 1: Engaging in a Difficult Situation (Column 1-3)

There are two steps to working with this form. The first step involves columns 1-3 (see below visual of the compassionate thought record), in which you bring to mind a recent situation that you found difficult, and consider the types of threat based thoughts you had and how these left you feeling.  We’ll use Joe as an example to help you think about each of the columns.

Column 1 – What actually happened? What was the trigger?

Joe’s answer “I was called in to the boss’s office and told that I was being made redundant.”

Column 2 – What went through my mind? What am I thinking about others & their thoughts about me? What am I thinking about myself, and my future?

Joe’s answers “I am not good enough….what will my family say…my brother will be critical…..he always is…..I will not be able to support my family… we may lose the house…No one will employ me at my age…..people will judge and criticise me – thinking I have done something wrong.”

Column 3 – What are my main feelings and emotions?

Joe’s answers “I feel sad, ashamed and angry”

So now that we’ve had a look at Joe’s answers, take some time to think about a recent situation that you can base your thought record on, and then make some notes for column two and three.

Step 2: Bringing Compassionate Balanced to the Situation

The second step of the compassionate thought record involves completing column four, ‘thought balancing’. Before you have a go at this, it is crucial that you spend some time connecting with the part of you that can look at this situation in a different way, more balanced, sensitive and helpful way. That would be your compassionate mind! See if you can spend some time engaging your compassionate mind, initially connecting with your soothing breathing first, and then linking in with the qualities of your compassionate self – caring-commitment, wisdom and strength. You will also notice that there are different subheadings (empathy and validation for your distress, compassionate attention, compassionate thinking and compassionate behaviour) in column 4. Let’s have a look at the subheadings (taking one at a time), then have a look at the questions in column 4 and Joe’s answers to those questions.

Empathy and validation for your distress

It’s always important to start with validating and having empathy for where you are – for the distress you’re currently experiencing. For example, “it is understandable I feel like this because I have been living with this for so long now, my threat system gets activated as soon as I start thinking about these struggles and this is not my fault.”

Joe’s answerIt’s understandable that I’ve been thinking and feeling like this. Losing a job is very distressing, and it’s natural to sometimes worry about the future. This is not my fault…”

Compassionate Attention

It can be helpful to notice where your attention is being pulled into (most often the threat system, and in a narrow focus way). In comparison, consider what might be more helpful to pay attention to. This might be noticing and stepping back from negative ‘loops in the mind’, or trying to focus on something that provides a broader and more helpful context (e.g. by paying attention to occasions when things have been different/when things went well).

Joe’s answer “It is helpful for me to remember that I have also had successes at work, and worked very hard and with good feedback from colleagues and managers.

Compassionate Thinking

Here, rather than being critical and ruminating about thoughts, we are trying to find ways to bring an alternative, helpful, supportive and balanced perspective to the situation we are struggling with. It may help to think about what you would say to a friend in the same situation, or think about what somebody who cares for you would say to you, if they were aware of your thoughts. 

Below are some examples of compassionate thoughts, although these will be highly idiosyncratic 

Examples of Compassionate Thoughts/Statements

  • It is understandable that I feel like this.
  • Life is hard and other people experience situations like this
  • I have had difficult times in the past and have worked through them. Perhaps, actively think of examples demonstrating this
  • My automatic/‘better safe than sorry’, threat-detection system has been activated, so I’m likely to think in a biased way. This is understandable and not my fault
  • This moment of pain/sorrow/suffering is a natural part of life, and will pass.
  • The thoughts are just events in my mind, rather than reflections about me.
  • Just because this is hard, doesn’t mean that things will always be hard
  • Perhaps I can look at the bigger picture – is there anything I’m missing, or minimising because my mind is only focussing on negative experiences?

Joe’s answer “Being made redundant was not personal to me – my colleagues also lost their job. It’s not my fault – I worked hard, and had a good review last month. The financial situation has caused this. Friends and family have been supportive – they know the reality of the situation and that this wasn’t due to anything I’ve done wrong. This is not an indication of my worth as a human being.”

Compassionate Behaviour

Holding in mind the difficulty, think about how your compassionate self can help you to take action, and change your behaviour. For example, if you are avoiding a situation or finding something difficult to do, how can your compassionate self help you? Can you ask for support from a family member or a friend, so that you can move in a direction that will help you to alleviate some of your difficulties? We will explore compassionate behaviour in more detail later in the book.

Joe’s answers “Although it is hard, I will speak to some friends about how I’m feeling. I’ll also speak to my family – it’s OK to show my feelings rather than bottling them up. On Monday I’m going to go to the job centre – I’ll speak to friends and see what else is out there.”

Once you have spent time engaging in and completing the first four columns just notice and write down how you now feel emotionally. Engage your soothing breathing and compassionate self and spend some time reading over what you’ve put down in column four – with a warm supportive voice tone. Then write down how you feel now in column five.

Joe’s answer I still feel sad about losing my job – and a bit angry, but I am not blaming or criticising myself”

Compassionate Thought Record - Joe's Form

If we bring together Joe’s compassionate thought record, it would look something like this

Compassion Focused Therapy

Compassionate Thought Record - Blank Version

Download a copy of a blank compassionate thought record here

If you’d like to have more detailed guides to some of these practices, you can find them in a variety of our self-help guides 

All of these scripts are adapted from the wonderful work of Prof Paul Gilbert