Compassion and Psychological Flexibility: Highlights from a Panel Discussion with Leaders in Contextual Behavioral Science and Self-Compassion, Part Two

Editor’s Note: This is the second half of a two-part series, Compassion and Psychological Flexibility: Highlights from a Panel Discussion with Leaders in Contextual Behavioral Science and Self-Compassion.

The first part can be found by clicking here.

On learning compassion…

Strosahl: I actually think compassion is trained socially via different mechanisms, which actually breed problems with self-compassion. This is going to sound weird, but the way you learn to be compassionate isn’t just genetic. It’s through having affection withdrawn from you when you don’t show compassion. So it’s quite conceivable that the acquisition of compassion is probably also the root of our problem with self-compassion, which is that we learn compassion by learning to have approval withdrawn from us when we weren’t [compassionate]. And so our basic currency of self-regulation actually is not an appetitive reinforcement as much as it is negative reinforcement, for lack of a better word.

Neff: I think socialization really is huge. Especially in western society with the ideals like self-versus-other, there’s a really strong demarcation between self or other, and people feel that they should be focused on the other, and there’s something wrong with being self-focused. Women are a little less self-compassionate than men, and I think that’s because they’re socialized to be self-sacrificing.

A lot of our experience comes from teaching people how to be more self-compassionate, and people say, “It feels so weird. It feels selfish. It feels uncomfortable. Am I allowed to do this?” So the whole socialization stream really does work against self-compassion and works toward compassion for others.

We’re fighting a big cultural war here; [self-compassion] goes against everything we’re taught growing up, but if you tell people about the research, and you say, “it’s not going to make you selfish, it’s going to make you a better relationship partner,” and “it’s not going to undermine your motivation, it’s going to make you more motivated,” and you lay it all out, people are willing to hear it in a way that gives me hope.

On mindfulness and compassion…

Germer: Compassion without the foundation of mindfulness, or the foundation of equanimity, actually doesn’t work very well. Our Mindful Self-Compassion training program is actually designed to work with the riddle which is: When we’re suffering, we practice not to feel better, but because we feel bad. This means that when we practice mindfulness, if all of our effort is to be able to open the field of awareness or to be with what’s happening moment to moment, we can pull it off. But when we add this thing, warming up, which is so precious and so necessary in order to be with experience (especially shame), people really start getting into manipulating their moment-to-moment experience and [into] experiential avoidance.

What we try to encourage is to allow the heart to melt in the heat of suffering, rather than taking a handful of compassion and throwing it at suffering to make it go away. What’s so interesting about this is that this works with intention. What we say is to gradually learn that when we’re suffering, to not try to make it go away—which is a very deep and instinctive intention—but rather, to activate a whole new system of tenderness, which allows the heart to melt, which then allows our resistance or avoidance to melt in the heat of suffering. This is a very, very tricky thing: to move from striving to true acceptance, which means to allow ourselves and our experience to be just as it is. What does it take? Usually what it takes is creative hopelessness: the gift of desperation. The heart has to break first for us to [be] really open to ourselves as we are in our full humanity.

Hayes: In the ACT community we were not careful always—at least I wasn’t—to add this little piece of the importance of what’s inside those [painful] experiences. If you want to find where the warmth is, it’s probably right inside where the pain is.

I predict that acceptance, without a quality of self-compassion, is just not going to make much of a difference. It’s not going to make much difference if it doesn’t have that warmth that connects you with the heart of the matter, the soul of the matter, and what’s important inside it.

On measurement…

Neff: The main measurement issue with self-compassion is also a conceptual issue: should a measurement of self-compassion—which includes these three components of kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness—also include the lack of their opposite—self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification? Paul Gilbert, for instance, argues that these are different physiological systems; one is more sympathetic nervous system responding, and one is more parasympathetic nervous system. So you shouldn’t use the total scale score. The data seem to be showing that separating them into two factors is not as good as looking at all six separately.

If someone comes into your office, and they don’t talk about how kind or connected they feel, but they talk about judgment, and you can tell they’re feeling isolated and alone, and that they’re fused and over-identified, do you have information about how self-compassionate they’re being? I would say absolutely, yes, and in order to assess self-compassion, we need to look at both ends of the spectrum. I don’t think there’s any problem having factors representing different physiological systems in a single scale, but not everyone agrees.

On “backdraft”…

Neff: Mindfulness people, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy people, for instance, write that self-compassion is implicit in mindfulness, but as therapists we shouldn’t talk about it explicitly because sometimes you get this phenomena which Chris [Germer] has called backdraft. It’s related to opposites. You give yourself unconditional love, and immediately what comes to mind is all the conditions in which you are unloved.

The practice of self-compassion is about giving yourself what you need. We give people the information that this [backdraft] may happen, along with a few simple tools for how to deal with it, and we haven’t had anyone lose it or had it be a real problem yet. So, maybe that’s where ACT could really help, by helping make it explicit: helping people understand what’s going on in their mind.

People can take care of themselves when you give them the tools to do so. I don’t think we have to be afraid of it. It’s almost like there’s a fear of the warmth, a fear of the love, because people get freaked out by it, you know? But it’s also people’s most deeply held value.

Hayes: As people open up, they open up new territory. As they connect with their values, step forward, and make bold moves, they open up new territory. The medical model says you have a disease that will be cured, and then you’ll go back to normal. The germ will be killed and everything will be alright. But human lives are these up-and-down trajectories. We warn people that this may seem like it’s getting worse before it gets better. People need to be prepared to go in and walk through their own history, using methods that are not linear, but cycles of transformation. 

If you missed part one, you can find it here.

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