Compassion and Psychological Flexibility

flower and leaves

The following is an excerpt from The ACT Practitioner’s Guide to the Science of Compassion by Dennis Tirch, PhD, Benjamin Schoendorff, MA, MSc , and Laura R. Silberstein, Psy.D

Emerging from the CBS (cognitive behavioral science) and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) literature as a set of evidence-based psychotherapy processes, psychological flexibility involves the development of expanding and adaptive behavioral repertoires that can be maintained in the presence of distressing events that typically narrow behavioral repertoires.

Psychological flexibility has a strong negative correlation with depression, anxiety, and psychopathology and a high positive correlation with quality of life (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010). Furthermore, psychological flexibility has been demonstrated to serve as a psychotherapy mediator in a large number of randomized controlled trials, and its component processes have been identified and supported by behavioral research, as well as neurophysiological research exploring the neural correlates of those components (Ruiz, 2010; Whelan & Schlund, 2013).

While psychological flexibility is a model of six elements (values authorship, commitment, self-as-context, defusion, willingness, and contact with the present moment), the model can be divided into two major areas of emphasis.

The first area involves mindfulness and acceptance processes (self-as-context, defusion, willingness, and contact with the present moment).

The second area involves the authorship of and engagement in valued patterns of action that contribute to living a life of meaning, purpose, and vitality (which inherently entails the processes of self-as-context and contact with the present moment).

Although in ACT values are freely chosen and not prescribed, ACT co-founder Steven C. Hayes (2008c) has suggested that compassion may, in fact, be a value that emerges inherently from the psychological flexibility model—and the only value that does so.

According to Hayes, the roots of both self-compassion and compassion may emerge from the six core processes that comprise psychological flexibility, sometimes known as hexaflex processes (Hayes, Luoma, Bond, Masuda, & Lillis, 2006), as illustrated in figure 1.

See also: Learning to Incorporate ACT Into Your Practice

You may well be familiar with these processes and the growing body of interventions and techniques they inform. However, each component has a particular relationship to aspects of compassion and self-compassion, with implications for assessment, intervention, and treatment. And as we begin to explore these relationships, it is worth noting that these six processes work together interactively to several ends:

• Bringing people into direct experiential contact with their present-moment experiences

• Disrupting a literalized experience of mental events that may narrow the range of available behaviors

• Promoting experiential acceptance

• Helping people let go of overidentification with a narrative sense of self, or self-as-content

• Assisting in the process of values authorship

• Facilitating commitment to valued actions and directions

If we allow ourselves to mindfully reflect on what these processes represent and realize what it would mean to actualize them, we can approach a felt sense of how the ACT model encompasses and complements sensitivity to the suffering we encounter in the world and the motivation to alleviate that suffering.

By examining how current conceptualizations of compassion relate to psychological flexibility, we can discover the foundation for the development and integration of a contextual and compassion-focused behavior therapy.

Join Us. Learn the Foundations of Compassion Focused Therapy!