I was was lucky enough to attend a Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) workshop/conference yesterday (22nd Feb) in Manchester,hosted by the wonderful Dr Mary Welford and organised by the equally wonderful Sarah Rees on behalf of BABCP (British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies ). I thought I would share my experience and the event as it was fascinating, with many insightful moments.
The Adventure Part One
First this was an adventure for me to attend. I use the word adventure specifically, rather than challenge, to reflect the positive way I approached this.
I mean what could go wrong … do not know Manchester at all, need to catch three trains with specific connection times, am going to an event with 80 plus people none of whom I have ever met (a few I do know virtually), of whom all are mental health professionals and I am not, I have been a therapy patient…and having decided to attend in advance could the rat of depression be running around when the day came?
So yes my anxiety levels were high, seemingly trying to make a jump to light-speed levels. And so was my excitement level. Sitting on the first train calmly breathing, listening to James, one of Manchester’s finest and my favourite band, started to address those thoughts.
- Have looked at the route from station to the venue in Manchester several times and written it down, as well on phone.
- Train connections have good gaps in-between. And any delays I cannot control, so let that go. Enjoy the journey, look out of the window. And surely I am not the only one who checks they have their tickets several times, right?
- It’s a compassion focused workshop. If you were going to go to an event where you were nervous a room full of therapists talking about compassion is probably a good one.
- The rat was very quiet, sshhhh, let’s not wake it
The event is linked to so many things I value and also a great opportunity to learn more about CFT from Mary, such a respected expert. Plus meeting some of my virtual connections. So actually, I was looking forward it.
And I can’t explain how good it feels to say that.
So what did go “wrong” was that my train was slightly delayed and I took at least three wrong turns plus walking past the place about ten times! So walking into a big hall full of strangers after the event had started, with Mary already talking … big breath and step through the door. I supported myself with good natured humour and kindness.
What was interesting for me was that the CFT approach was new to some of the attendees. Given my interest and how much this helped with many facets of my mental health then I hope they can both learn some new ideas to help in their work as well as perhaps finding things that they can adopt for their own wellbeing. I cannot do full justice to all the of the workshop, Mary covered a lot of concepts within the day, in a really engaging way. So I thought I would capture some of the key points that may help share knowledge of CFT.
I have written about compassion in several earlier posts. It can be easily misunderstood by meaning and application. It’s not soft nor just being kind. Perhaps revisiting the definition used illustrates this:
Sensitivity to distress plus motivation to prevent &/or alleviate it.
The motivation is key here, for example: You are feeling anxious about something. A kind thing to yourself could be not to do it. The compassionate approach could be that you recognise that anxiety and still do it, gently encouraging yourself. Either could be the right response, depends on the context. The key, for me, though is the motivation and intention with which you make that decision. The compassionate approach is likely to require courage.
Courage also relates to another key point. To be compassionate to the the areas of yourself and of others that you may not like. We all have reactions, actions or behaviours we don’t like in ourselves. Engaging with them with a kindness acceptance can really help. Mary talked about an approach therapists may wish to use, rather than jumping into what is the issue and what to do about it, pause to really acknowledge that “I am sorry that you feel like this about yourself” That allows the emotion connection to happen. I think you can apply that to yourself when addressing things you may not like. Saying that to yourself helps to connect with the emotion in a more helpful, coaching style.
Sometimes compassion is thought of letting yourself off the hook. It isn’t. We are responsible and accountable for our actions and behaviours. What compassion can help us understand is what drives those actions and behaviours. That is a significant help in changing behaviours or taking actions.
Mary also talked about the subtle but important differences between shame (disconnects from people) and embarrassment (connects people )as well as guilt. Guilt is actually a positive reaction (if based off your actions and responsibilities) but misplaced guilt (you are not responsible for the actions) can be unhealthy.
Self critical thinking is a key habit that compassion can make a difference with. This is a big one for me. I cannot do justice to Mary’s reenactment of losing keys to show the difference how much tone can make, even when the same words are used. In essence, the words said harshly to yourself will not help. Just switching the tone, to one with more humorous kindness will make a significant difference.
One thing which really helped me last year was understanding what Mary called pyschoeducation. This is understanding, in simple terms, that our brain has evolved as it has over thousands of years. It has amazing capacity which serves a purpose, but that capacity can also cause problems. We appear to be the only species which has developed self understanding and awareness as a self. That brings with it brilliant things like imagination but also rumination. Our brain needs nurturing, caring and kindness. This is where compassion can help provide an alternative perspective to thinking and the context of our relationship to ourselves.
You know the more I read and hear about the brain the more it amazes me. Research has shown that the brain can be changed through new habits and exercises, in terms of the actual brain structures. Technical term is neuroplasticity but I like Mary’s phrase ‘ Physiotherapy for the brain”. It requires practice, to strengthen the areas which help us with challenging events.
Another part of pyschoeducation is to consider a model that we have three emotional systems : drive, soothing and threat. The soothing system regulates the other two and if that allows them to get out of balance then unhealthy coping strategies can kick in. Compassion is a key part of the soothing system, with the ideal to have all three balanced. So compassion doesn’t take away drive or response to threats, it helps to manage them in a more balanced manner. Mary uses the idea of the brain like a smartphone, with apps for those systems. If the drive or threat app is always running the battery drains quickly. Compassion allows to regulate the use of the app.
One interesting point Mary raised about our reactions : often when we react to something, particularly challenging one, it’s worth considering which emotions are missing, they may be the key one(s). For example, we get angry but actually the underlying emotion could be around shame. This is typical of the more nuanced way of thinking that CFT supports, something I will really think about more in my reaction to something.
One other key point I took was using positive imagery more and my own our physiology to help. (Note this is not the “false” positive thinking which says everything is okay, just be happy). For example facial expressions to help emotion and actually promote certain emotions. Smiling actually kicks off positive emotions, so the act of smiling can actually effect your mood, as much as being a reflection of your mood.
The adventure part two
I had a guide to get me back to the station, thanks Sarah. Manchester is one big station, found that slightly disorientating but made it on the right train. Journey home I reflected on so much and slowly I got tired, it was an early start and the first time of being in such a setting since falling ill in late 2016, so knew it would take out of me.
My final thoughts of the day :- I am so glad that I discovered CFT through my own therapeutic experience; taking a compassionate approach is a brilliant aid to mental wellbeing for anyone & everyone, helping to manage the critical and perfectionist voices; and I feel even more passionate about being an advocate of it, on social media and in life.
One last “big” thought
22nd Feb 2017 was my initial therapy assessment, within which I rambled on about lots of things but not really about my depression. As I have written before, I was very reluctant to use the word depression then. At that time I struggled to function, felt very isolated and unconnected from the world, struggling to accept I was really ill.
22nd Feb 2018 I am at a workshop, in a big room, in a city I don’t know, in a room full of mainly total strangers, managing my anxiety and critical thinking. This is why I do things like the daily #365daysofcompassion , the connections with the lovely people like Mary, across the world. It’s learning and working with CFT which I credit most with for my recovery/management of depression.
Its not going too far to say I think CFT saved my life.
Thanks for reading, a longer one this week and hope you found it interesting. If you want to know more about how compassion has made a difference with my depression management please feel to ask. The only risk you face is that I’ll talk about it for hours : )
Image courtesy of Professor Paul Gilbert