CFT and the Compassionate Motive

Professor Paul Gilbert
Compassionate Mind Foundation

The contemplative traditions have always seen compassion as a basic motive that organises the mind in ways that enable enlightenment. For them, enlightenment is a particular experience of non-duality and self-transcendence which revolutionises how people come to understand the nature of themselves.

Compassion focused therapy (CFT) and Compassionate Mind Training utilises many of the insights of the contemplative traditions, but these are married with western science, particularly evolutionary science and biopsychosocial processes.

Paul Gilbert Compassion Focused Therapy founder

Rather than drawing only on particular models of psychotherapy, CFT is a model rooted in science, and draws from disciplines like anthropology, developmental and social psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics to understand brain states. Indeed my first book in 1984 it’s called Depression from Psychology to Brain State because I was very interested in how psychological and social practises change people’s brain states, and it is these changes of brain states that can make people feel very ill, lose energy and want to hide away. In fact, CFT has always rooted itself in brain state theory and makes a distinction between the science underpinning a therapeutic approach and the techniques used to produce change. Crucially here, therapy should not be defined by their techniques, but by their scientific models.

CFT does not regard itself as third wave Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, even though it utilises a variety of cognitive and behavioural interventions. To do so would be to set CFT in a particular school of therapy – based on relatively limited psychological processes – and the sub school within a school of therapy!  Rather (as noted) CFT takes an integrated science approach to the nature of mind.  It’s primarily rooted in motivational science, with efforts to understand the evolution of functional forms of the emotion, cognitive competencies and behavioural motor programmes (e.g, fight flight freeze faint submit)

What motivates you?


Specific motives evolved with specific functions such as defending against threats, seeking out resources conducive to life, and in the social domain, we can be motivated to be caring, cooperative friendly and sexual, but also selfish, hostile, competitive and tribal. The type of care we have as children growing up can have a big impact on how these basic motives get patterned and organised within us.

Some people become orientated to what we call care and share ways of living, interested in helping others and having relatively benevolent relationships. Others however, whose backgrounds perhaps are less textured by love and care, have to look after themselves and so they tend to orientate towards what we call control and hold psychology – which is more to do with the narcissistic self-preoccupation.

Over many years we have studied the interactions and links between compassionate versus competitive motivated minds. Indeed, Chris Irons was very instrumental in getting some of that research going, and did some fascinating work with adolescents for his PHD over 20 years ago now. The essence of CFT is to help people to understand, cultivate and utilise the compassion-based motivation. The reasons and consequences for doing this is because the evolution of care, which actually has different evolutionary trajectory, had to bring changes that had major impacts on genes and physiological architectures. We know for example that genes for oxytocin can play a role in the degree to which people are oriented to be helpful or highly self-focused.

There are many neurocircuits and also patterns in the autonomic nervous system that distinguish these two motives, particularly when they’re in action. Although it’s a little simplistic, when we get caught up in self-focused competitiveness this can lead to us becoming highly narcissistic. But underneath this it can be linked to concerns with where we exist in the social milieu, with fears of being low rank, inferior not good enough, or being rejected and a sense of shame in various ways. Clearly, this is tapping into brain systems that are not so conducive to well-being. Nature has no interest in whether competitive behaviour is associated with well-being, but only reproduction and survival. Indeed, some people can stimulate this competitive system when they’re harshly self-critical – in effect they’re literally generating hostile attacks on themselves but from the inside, rather than from someone else. When they do that they will be stimulating those brain systems that were designed to defend against hostile attack, which is often to feel submissive and want to withdraw and close down.

While cognitive therapists focused on beliefs associated with these different motives, CFT does that too but also goes after the basic motive – not just to counteract certain beliefs (although that can be helpful), but to stimulate particular brain states that are conducive to compassion, as those brain states are also conducive to well-being. 

Indeed, there is now considerable evidence that when people engage in compassionate behaviour to themselves and others this has an impact on a range of processes in our brain, immune system and autonomic nervous system. 

This is why CFT is a biopsychosocial approach – we have to have interventions that are physiologically impactful, and indeed many of the practises we use (such as the breathing and posture exercises, forms of visualisation and behavioural practises) are designed in the way they are because they affect physiology underpinning care-based motivational processes. 

CFT and Compassionate Motive

Impact of Compassion Training

In fact, over the years we have been accumulating more and more evidence about how compassion training in various forms (and not just via CFT) has major physiological impact because of what is now known to be neuroplasticity. Exciting developments are arising because people like Tania singer and her group are showing that different practises such as mindfulness, empathy and compassion stimulate and change overlapping but also different brain systems. This means that we are moving towards much more specific ways of honing in our compassion training to stimulate particular brains and body systems that are conducive to compassion and well-being – the future of therapy development is definitely biopsychosocial.

Understanding Process and Moving Forward

Before engaging in Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs), CFT has always argued that we need to understand process, and that is science based process not a particular process of one particular school of therapy. It has taken many years to develop specific therapies modalities for problems but we’re well along that road now and colleagues have been engaging in RCTs. As I write this, colleagues such as Niki Petrocchi is at the point of publishing a major meta-analysis on CFT and the results are extremely encouraging and exciting. We are faced with challenges though because as CFT is science based it means that therapist needs to learn a little bit about the sciences, and about the processes of motives, emotions and competences, which can make CFT a more complex therapy to teach and practise. We have started to address this by now offering an international diploma which is growing each year, which gives the opportunity for people to develop insights into CFT in depth. We’re also in the process of applying the CMT in other areas such as schools and businesses, and indeed we’ve had a very successful schools programme of training. We’re also engaged in looking at how to bring the science of compassion into organisations and businesses.

For thousands of years we’ve understood that humans can be a pretty nasty species and be very harmful to themselves and others but also we have the power to be extraordinary compassionate and to address suffering head on. That is the challenge of humanity and we need a science in mind that will help us addressed those challenges.

Professor Paul Gilbert

Compassionate Mind Foundation

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