Moving Toward Compassion in the Psychological Sciences

We practice a kind of hypocrisy in the behavioral health area that’s not only embarrassing but counterproductive. Much of modern evidence-based psychotherapy has focused on…

We practice a kind of hypocrisy in the behavioral health area that’s not only embarrassing but counterproductive. Much of modern evidence-based psychotherapy has focused on the use of concepts like mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion. This trend stretches across many different psychological modalities from the mindfulness-based cognitive therapies, to dialectical behavior therapy, to compassion focused therapy, to acceptance and commitment therapy, and more. And psychotherapeutic practice is trending in this direction for good reason: Science shows these techniques work to mitigate human suffering. Indeed, research has illustrated that some of the key features of compassion—specifically, the ability to take another’s perspective, to openly and genuinely take the time to feel what it might be like to be that other person, and not run away when what we see is painful or difficult—predicts the degree to which people enjoy being around one another and whether they are likely to engage in dehumanizing behaviors like prejudice.1 Compassion is clearly a key factor in human happiness and the health of our society. Yet how often do we turn this same lens on our own professional trajectories? How much time do we spend attempting to understand the perspectives and positions of our colleagues outside of our field? Who among us has made a genuine attempt to reach across modalities in the service of finding out what works best for our patients—regardless of whether those techniques come from the behavioral, cognitive, or psychodynamic traditions? In the field of academic research the problem is even worse. Locked in our ivory towers we tend to get trapped in our own theoretical perspectives. Theoretical coherence is worthwhile but academic or theoretical prejudice can create unnecessary stumbling blocks in our attempt to live a better life and decrease the amount of suffering in the world. We need to understand our differences, but we also need to focus on the commonalities and overlaps between modalities and traditions. This requires us to put ego and ownership of particular approaches to the side in pursuit of this shared goal of decreasing the amount of suffering in the world. The good news is that we are seeing a growing trend of researchers—in the psychological and biological sciences in particular—who are beginning to see these commonalities and are investigating them with a vigor that is refreshing. Compassion is Compassion No Matter Your Theoretical Perspective As in most human relationships, seeing beyond the differences between modalities or traditions progress will require that individuals within those traditions take the time to understand one another’s perspective, even when this is hard to do. In fact, it is precisely when the differences in background and assumption are greatest that taking an empathetic perspective can lead to interesting breakthroughs and connections. A new book out by New Harbinger Publications called The ACT Practitioner’s Guide to the Science of Compassion2 is, to my mind, an excellent example of two different traditions taking the time to understand one another and using that understanding to further what I believe is one of our mutually held core values as psychological researchers and practitioners: to reduce human suffering. The purpose of the book (as its title suggests) is to educate acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) practitioners about the science of compassion, specifically the research coming out of the compassion focused therapy (CFT) tradition. Interestingly, when you look at ACT and CFT side by side what you find are two psychological modalities that are the outcome of fairly different scientific perspectives, despite some notable overlap in their shared evolutionary perspective. ACT developed inside the functional contextual wing of behavioral psychology while CFT grew out of developmental psychology, affective neuroscience, and Buddhist practical philosophy. Yet despite their disparate scientific backgrounds, these two forms of psychotherapy now overlap so much that it’s nearly impossible for a practitioner of one not to encounter the other. Compassion is now considered a core feature in ACT practice, and psychological flexibility—one of the core psychological processes that is interwoven with compassion—is now being embraced by the CFT crowd. As in other human relationships, it turns out that when psychotherapeutic traditions meet each other with curiosity, openness, and cooperation life moves in interesting directions. The researchers and practitioners involved in this communion can’t help but be enriched by it. Scientific and academic relationships aren’t so different from other human relationships after all. We are all closer than you think. I find this communion between ACT and CFT heartening, exciting; and while it’s still too early to say where it will all go, I’d bet it’s going to be productive. At a bare minimum, it represents a move toward a more open approach to the pursuit of reducing human suffering—one where we put aside our egos, backgrounds, and prejudices, and approach one another with compassion.

References 1 Vilardaga, R., Estévez, A., Levin, M. E., & Hayes, S. C. (2012). Deictic relational responding, empathy and experiential avoidance as predictors of social anhedonia: Further contributions from relational frame theory. The Psychological Record, 62, 409-432. 2 Tirch, D., Schoendorff, B., and L. Silberstein. (2014) The ACT Practitioner’s Guide to the Science of Compassion. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, CA

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