Editor's note: The following was adapted from The ACT Practitioner's Guide to the Science of Compassion, by Dennis Tirch, PhD, Benjamin Schoendorff, MA, MSc, and Laura Silberstein, PsyD.
In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), living a life of meaning, purpose, and vitality in the service of freely chosen values is the core driving principle within the model of psychological flexibility. In a sense, all of the other processes come together to further increase engagement in personally meaningful actions. As discussed in ACT, values are neither goals to be attained nor rules to live by; they are inherently rewarding behaviors. A large part of values work involves clarification and authorship of behaviors that can be described as embodied intentions for how we wish to act in the world. Of course, some of the degree to which a behavior is intrinsically reinforcing may be related to our species’s genetic history. Behaviors that have adaptive evolutionary functions, such as eating or having sex, are more likely to be reinforcing for most people than, say, vacuuming or watching paint dry.
The ACT literature stresses that values are freely chosen; however, as noted previously, compassion may be the one value that is inherent in the psychological flexibility model (Hayes, 2008). The inherent adaptive, evolutionary nature of the caregiver instinct and cooperation has made motivation to care for well-being an inherently reinforcing and very strongly held value for most people throughout life.
In compassion-focused therapy (CFT), compassion begins with an emergent motivation to care for well-being, both our own and that of others. This speaks to the importance of human caregiving in our species’s survival. CFT stresses the importance of evolved motives: values that issue from and are embedded in our deep evolutionary imperatives and embodied in evolutionarily ancient brain structures and functions. Motivation to care for well-being is clearly a value in the ACT usage of the term, yet it is also clearly related to some of the oldest behaviors exhibited by complex organisms on this planet.
Nevertheless, individual learning history can interfere with how we contact and act upon this motivation. When people have encountered trauma in association with their experiences of support and warmth, they may have obstacles to their compassionate motivation.
Several techniques for values authorship derived from ACT and its psychological model are effective for enhancing awareness of and building compassionate motivation. These techniques include experiential imagery exercises in which the client envisions a day in the life of a future self who is living his values more fully. In another popular technique, the client imagines that she has died after living a full, rich life and is hearing what people offer as a eulogy for her, describing how she had realized a life of great personal meaning. These and other, similar techniques can bring clients into emotional contact with how they most wish to live their lives. When such work includes a compassionate focus, these practices can build the motivation to care for well-being and perhaps to be loving and open to love. Furthermore, even when these techniques are used without explicitly emphasizing compassion, many people are likely to contact how important loving relationships are for them and in turn, be motivated to adjust their behavior accordingly.
Hayes, S. C. (2008). The roots of compassion. Keynote address presented at the fourth Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Summer Institute, Chicago, IL.