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The Healing Power of Compassion


There is mounting evidence that fostering compassion towards oneself and others can significantly improve both emotional and physical wellbeing. Professor Paul Gilbert, Clinical Psychologist, developed ‘Compassion Focused Therapy’. (1) CFT is a model that builds on existing approaches like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and is particularly helpful for people who experience shame and self criticism. Rather than avoiding painful feelings, clients are encouraged to engage with these feelings in a compassionate way. According to Gilbert, being compassionate should not be confused with simply being ‘nice’, because compassion can involve setting firm boundaries. For example, for someone who compulsively overeats to manage distress, the compassionate challenge is to find a different method of soothing oneself. Studies show that helping people to become kinder to themselves can lead to significant reductions in shame, depression and anxiety. (2)

The move towards compassion was promoted in a recent, inspiring conference in November 2012 on ‘Empathy and Compassion in Society’, where speakers from healthcare, education, and social care gathered to share ideas on how to foster a more compassionate society. (3) Given the importance of developing empathy early on in life, the ‘Roots of Empathy’ programme for primary school children, which has been introduced in seven countries. One method is to invite a parent and baby into the classroom and ask the children to discuss how the baby might be feeling. In healthcare, there is a move to improve doctors’ empathy for patients and relatives by training them in how to manage end-of-life care. There is also pioneering work with young people in gangs and war zones, such as the Middle East, to encourage them become more compassionate towards one another.

At this time of year, it is common to make new years’ resolutions. Whereas we tend to set specific goals to change our behaviour (e.g., exercising more, eating healthily, visiting relatives), it is worth considering whether cultivating a more compassionate approach to ourselves and others might in fact be a simple, overarching resolution for a peaceful year ahead.


1. Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable.
Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion-Focused Therapy: Distinctive Features. East Sussex: Routledge. For more general information:

2. Gilbert, P. and Procter, S. (2006). “Compassionate Mind Training for people with high shame and self-criticism: A pilot study of a group therapy approach”. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13, 353-379.


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