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How CFT can help clients survive Christmas

Compassion Focused Therapy isn’t just for Christmas. But its identification of the ‘threat’, ‘drive’ and ‘contentment’ systems, and emphasis on empathy and compassion, can certainly help clients to navigate festive time with the family when tensions are running high. Psychotherapist, life coach and author John-Paul Davies shares some CFT survival strategies for the Christmas dinner table.

As it can be such a difficult time for clients, I’ll often use some basic principles of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) when we’re talking about spending time with family at Christmas. CFT identifies three main emotion regulation systems:

1. our problem focused ‘threat’ system that takes care of safety and is where protective anger and fear sit

2. the ‘drive’ system, the place of our innate drives to eat, have sex and acquire/compete for stuff, status and money

3. the ‘contentment’ or ‘affiliative’ system, which I call ‘connection’. Connection is the place of love for self and others, friendship and contentment, of the ‘calm and alive’ state we’re all happiest in.

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Our clients will often be hoping for a John Lewis TV advert level of connection at Christmas. The fantasy is of smiling amongst calm and supportive families, with some drive in the form of food, presents and possibly alcohol, and with little or no threat.

Yet if connection had been modelled more often than not in their childhood – if they’d more regularly been shown how to helpfully move their state from fear/anger to love, i.e., from threat to connection – they probably wouldn’t be in therapy with us now.

The trouble is, we’re all programmed to survive rather than to be happy. We’re therefore much more inclined to occupy the threat system rather than the connection system. Without even being aware of it, we’re most often automatically safety-checking and identifying, even imagining, problems and slights. This can lead to Christmases filled with arguments and resentments, perhaps reliant on alcohol to change to drive, which often comes with its own problems.

I think it is key clients are aware this programming isn’t their fault and that, as unique as they are, it’s our natural human tendency to do it. Most importantly, though, we know it can be different now.

As to how this difference might be achieved, again using CFT ideas, I try to help clients grow their connection system. This includes putting more of their thought, feeling and behavioural energy into the compassionate, or ‘loving kindness’, part of self. It can be done in various ways:

  • imagining a compassionate figure and how this figure might relate both to them and to others, particularly in a threat situation
  • bringing to mind a safe or peaceful place in their imagination can also be helpful whenever threat is triggered
  • practising mindfulness is a key way to help clients stay focused on their own present moment experience, particularly on what’s happening inside their body

Rather than just reacting to someone else’s threat system at the Christmas dinner table, they’re then more able to ‘drop inside’, notice which system is being triggered, keep calm and choose the most helpful response for them.

When clients take responsibility for the only thing that’s within their power to manage, i.e., their own emotional state, this is often a real breakthrough. And not just for Christmas. This is particularly true when they can do this within the family system that originally modelled dominant threat. Once they can more easily move themselves out of the victim/perpetrator and reactive anger of threat, and into a ‘calm and alive’ connection system characterised by empathy and compassion for self and others, where boundaries can be communicated and held, they’ll find it much easier to do what they know is best for them now. Which may of course involve not going to the family Christmas party at all.

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Gain 4 hours of CPD!
Includes LIVE Q&A 27 January
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John-Paul Davies

John-Paul Davies is an experienced, accredited psychotherapist running a full-time private practice from his home in Cobham, Surrey, having worked as a solicitor in the City of London for the first half of his career. He recently published a self-help book, Finding a Balanced Connection. John-Paul has also written about a range of wellbeing and psychological topics for various magazines and websites.

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