Along with my interest in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I am also interested in Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT). Here I will aim to signpost to some good resources for learning more about CFT as well as try to describe some of the key ideas in a nutshell and say a little about why I think it can helpfully be applied to the early stages of family life. Like most of my site right now, this area will be a work in progress (my mind is pointing out I sound like a broken record), but do please check back soon.
I initially learned about CFT from reading Paul Gilbert’s wonderful book “The Compassionate Mind”. A central idea is that we have “old brains” which have evolved due to our early history as hunter gatherers to have strongly developed THREAT and DRIVE systems, but that these can be mismatched with the demands of modern life – and pregnancy and parenting. It’s very useful to be hard wired to spot threat is a lion may bound into your cave overnight – it’s not so useful to be hard wired for threat in the middle of a busy supermarket while your baby is desperate to feed but there are no chairs and everyone is staring because they are crying determinedly. Often we can spend too much time in THREAT mode due to this mismatch, leading us to feel that we are anxious too much, too often – and anxious about that, too. We also have “new brain skills” such as analysing, which exacerbates that problem. So THREAT mode is necessary for our survival, but we are predisposed to spending too much time in it and need to work to balance that out. DRIVE mode is also necessary for our survival – as hunter gatherers, without DRIVE we wouldn’t have been motivated to get enough food to eat without it. In modern life, it is still adaptive to be in DRIVE mode sometimes, for example at work or when there’s a ton of beds to change or dishes to do at home. In a parenting context though if we are too often in DRIVE mode without awareness it can clash with being able to slow down and tune in to young children’s developmental needs. A two year old in the middle of exploring messy play with custard and spaghetti may be frustrating rather than endearing if your DRIVE mode thoughts are more about how much longer they’re going to take and how much mess there is to clear up and how many work emails you still have to read than how happy they are. Too much time in DRIVE mode can leave us feeling burnt out, depressed and exhausted. Luckily there is a third mode – our SOOTHING system. For most of us, this is the least well utilised mode as we spend so much time and energy on the other two. It can be helpful to think of this like developing weak muscles as you would do by going to the gym. Also, if you think of how your upper arm works and imagine your triceps muscle was much more toned than your bicep – would the arm perform optimally? I’m no expert on physiology, but I’d think not. So what we want to aim for with our mental health is generally balance and flexibility – DRIVE, THREAT and SOOTHING modes all working harmoniously in moderation.
There are many influences beyond our control which can throw us of course when we get pregnant – like how easy or hard it is to conceive, miscarriage, history of miscarriage and anxiety about it happening again and pregnancy complications like pelvic pain and gestational diabetes. We can also have a more stressful pregnancy if there are any concerns regarding the baby’s health or development. Similarly, birth is an unpredictable event and if it does not go as hoped, it can be too easy to blame ourselves – or even others, and hold onto anger, bitterness or resentment too hard or too long. If we are lucky enough to have a healthy baby and straightforward experience of pregnancy and birth, we can still get thrown off course by myths of new motherhood which turn out not to match up well with our own experience. For example, the myth that babies sleep through the night at any time before the age of two does not match my own experience of motherhood. Other mums might find breastfeeding more painful, their milk supply less reliable, or cluster feeding for 24 hours did not conform to what they had envisioned from antenatal classes. A mum-to-be might have anticipated cuddling a cooing newborn sipping a cuppa, but find herself walking the floors at 3 a.m. with a baby screaming in pain with colic. A mum who is shy or isolated might be particularly vulnerable to thinking she is at fault or off track in some way, rather than that there’s a really broad range of normal with most babies and mums finding something hard at some point, and doing a really amazing job on no sleep, too much caffeine (maybe that bit is just me?), and not enough healthy food. It can also be helpful when we become parents to reflect on our own experiences of being parented – if we find ourselves having self-critical thoughts a lot, it may be useful to reflect on whether either of our own parents was either often critical of themselves or of us. If we consider that they were, it can be helpful to have compassion for them too – they perhaps also had someone in their early years be critical of them, too.
So if you’re on board with wanting to learn more, here’s some initial signposts –
Self-kindness for mums by Charlotte Hartley-Jones – “If you are a mum who has ever judged yourself harshly, been snappy at your partner, wondered if you are doing the right thing or compared yourself negatively to other mums then this book is for you!” Quote from Amazon – this is an e-book which is available for the Kindle.
Here is a link to a TED talk by Kristin Neff about what self-compassion is, and what it’s not – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z29ptSuoWRc&feature=youtu.be
Here is another TED talk by Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability. I’m linking to it here because it takes courage to be vulnerable, which is a big bit of opening up to self-compassion – https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en
And another TED talk by Brene Brown here on listening to shame, because often difficult experiences around pregnancy, birth or early parenting can bring up feelings of shame, and it can be particularly liberating to learn to develop your self-compassion towards those feelings, rather than either pushing them away, denying that they exist or criticising yourself for feeling that way – https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en
Here’s a TED talk by Steven Hayes about how bringing compassion or love to yourself even when it’s hard can be liberating and allow you to bring more love into the world. In a parenting context, if you can be more loving with yourself, it may free you up to be more compassionate and loving with your children and partner which can only benefit all of you – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o79_gmO5ppg
Here is a link to an academic article by Dr Michelle Cree which introduces the idea of using CFT therapeutically to help women with perinatal distress or trouble with their relationship with their baby – https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.1521/ijct.2010.3.2.159
Here’s a blog post in Psychology Today about using self-kindness to cope with stress –