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

There’s no denying that compassion is a growing area of interest within the contextual behavioral science community. This year’s 14th annual World Conference guide was crammed with workshops, panel discussions, symposiums and even an afternoon plenary by self-compassion pioneer and World Con first-timer Kristin Neff. At the end of the day on Friday, Steve Hayes and Kirk Strosahl, two of the founders of acceptance and commitment therapy, sat down alongside fellow ACT veteran Patricia Robinson and compassion giants Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer to discuss compassion, self-compassion, ACT, and the potential for integration and complementary efforts across the CBS and compassion communities.

It was a small room, so we know many of you missed it. But not to worry—We’ve compiled some of the highlights in this two-part series.

On self-compassion and the psychological flexibility model…

Neff: Looking at the model of self-compassion which includes not only self-kindness versus self-judgment, common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification, I’m kind of struck by the degree of overlap, especially in terms of common humanity vs. isolation. That whole dimension really has to do with perspective-taking. I drew my model more from Buddhism, and how we understand the nature of the self. It has to do with interdependence and  recognizing that I’m not as separate as I think I am. It’s less egocentric perspective-taking.

When you have a sense of common humanity versus isolation, you’re perspective-taking and you’re more psychologically flexible. You aren’t feeling all alone, and it’s also the same with mindfulness. Over-identification, what is that if not a lack of psychological flexibility, right? That’s when you’re fused.

From my understanding of the ACT model, the one bit that’s not there in ACT that is there in self-compassion is in the warmth. I don’t see, from anything that I’ve seen about psychological flexibility or even the ACT model, that there is an intentional cultivation of warmth, care, and tenderness. I think it’s there, kind of implicitly—the whole values piece is aimed at caring about people and helping people—but that’s the bit for me where I’d say there’s the biggest difference. The [ACT] model doesn’t intentionally tap warmth, whereas, in some ways with self-compassion, warmth is the most important piece; warmth is the factor that really has the therapeutic healing value.

Germer: Even in the compassion field there’s a debate between what compassion is, neurologically and otherwise, in terms of the warmth versus cognitive functions such as reappraisal, etcetera. We’re finding that the compassionate brain has different systems involved: it has cognitive systems, motivational systems, and it has affective systems.

Robinson: From the practitioner’s point of view my concerns are about how to use both the psychological flexibility model and self-compassion to further everyone’s ability to live meaningful lives. [Self-compassion is] a wonderful way of furthering what I do in ACT, so I don’t see it, at all, as incompatible with what I do in ACT. I think that [self-compassion] offers us another way of teaching, and I think experience—as in being in the moment, able to experience that moment of suffering—is important, and then to have perspective on it, including being able to be aware of my suffering and aware that I’m aware of that suffering. So I take that part, of looking at the experiencer, and put that within the psychological flexibility model. I would also use some of the present moment to explore the qualities of coldness or warmth.

I also see the values angle. When we look at health, and values regarding health, I really like self-compassion as a way [of] further help[ing] people connect with what their values are regarding health, and identifying the guides that they’d like to use to direct their position and their stance in regards to their mental and physical health. That’s such a weakness in general within our society.

Hayes: I would much rather talk about self-kindness or self-compassion rather than acceptance. I don’t like using the word acceptance with clients, never did. It goes sideways. These are folks that have had acceptance used as a weapon, “you just need to accept it,” and so forth. So the last thing you wanted to do was get that word into the room when dealing with people with chronic pain. Focus on communication that does what you’re trying to do and be careful about your scientific terms or middle level terms becoming your clinical terms when that isn’t the best way to do it.

I think people are really embracing the methods that are inside of both the compassion and self-compassion work, and using them in ways that fit those moments without necessarily having them around in the model, particularly. We’re playing in the same domain to a degree.

Some parts of the flexibility model do better than others, and it’s an ongoing conversation of what’s going to be left, because we don’t want to have anything that’s in the model that doesn’t need to be, and there may be new things.

We have some data sets where people go sideways inside self-compassion in ways that are avoidant. It was really clear in the data that distressed people were trying to self-soothe, in the sense that if they self-soothed enough, their pain would go away. Any good meditation teacher knows that’s not what this is for, and we’ve seen it in just flat out ACT work too: that, “you mean if I accept it, it will go away?” And that’s a big focus of our work, to make sure they don’t do that. So one of the things that we might be able to contribute to the self-compassion community is the sensitivities that are there inside some of these constructs towards some of the ways that people can go awry. Maybe that would be helpful for both of us.

Years ago, Kelly [Wilson] and I were trying to figure out one word for the psychological flexibility model and we came up with two: one was ‘Be,’ and the other one was ‘Love.’ Love is not a bad word for it. But we were very cautious about not wanting to use the L word, for fear that we would be imposing on that process. I don’t know if it’s time for us to let go of that. Maybe it’s time for us to let go of that. Maybe we know enough about the kind of monkey that we are now. Maybe we don’t have to stay at that level of abstraction, and can fill it in a little more. Or maybe not, maybe we made the right decision. I’m thinking about it.

Strosahl: It could be that these things share mechanisms, and I’m pretty sure that’s what would happen if we got into it. My concern would just be we need to get into explaining how it works.

Click here to read the second part of this two-part series.


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