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.
Throughout the many changes that occur in our lives and the myriad of contexts that will unfold for us, mindfulness training helps us humans maintain a sense of the “I-here-now-ness” of our experience. In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), this developed sense of oneself as an observer of one’s experience, separate from the content of consciousness, yet observing the flow of experience, is referred to as self-as-context.
Cultivating self-as-context allows for a mode of self-reference that can serve as a foundation for the cultivation of compassion. In fact, this mode of self-reference has a discrete neuronal signature and involves distinct processes that can be trained (Barnes-Holmes, Foody, & Barnes-Holmes, 2013; Farb et al., 2007). But just as flexible perspective taking allows one to shift from a perspective of being immersed in the content of one’s consciousness to simply observing the flow of that content, it can also allow an individual to take the perspective of another and infer that person’s intentions and feelings. This ability allows us to step outside of ourselves and psychologically view the world from the perspective of another being, which provides the basis for a compassionate viewpoint. It may also allow our own painful mental events and emotional memories to hold less influence over us.
From the perspective of the “I-here-now-ness” of being, you can view your own suffering as you might view the suffering of another and be touched by the pain in that experience, without being dominated by interference from your learning history, with its potential for shaming self evaluations (Hayes, 2008; Vilardaga, 2009). When you stand as witness to your own suffering or even suffering in others, you may be moved to take action to alleviate that suffering.
In contextual behavioral terms, compassion-focused therapy (CFT) clients learn how to observe their experience from the vantage point of self-as-context and how to gradually disidentify from their self-stories and narrative, or self-as-content (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2012). This process of disidentification, which is sometimes even referred to as “depersonalizing,” has been a central psychotherapeutic move in CFT for some time; but only now is it beginning to be conceptualized in contextual terms.
Importantly, two of the primary components of our evolved capacity for compassion—involve flexible perspective taking. Though both involve dimensions of flexible perspective taking, these terms are used very differently from one another in CFT.
In CFT, sympathy is defined as a reflexive, emotional response to our awareness of the distress we witness in others or even in ourselves. When we are moved by the presence of suffering on a resonant emotional level, sympathetic responses occur, without necessarily much analysis of the situation.
This sort of emotional resonance is captured by eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, who compared the transmission of emotional responses between humans to the harmonic vibration of violin strings (2000). In sympathetic responding, we automatically and effortlessly adopt the emotional perspective of another, are moved by the suffering we experience, and are compelled to do something to respond. In contrast, CFT defines empathy as a heightened, focused awareness of the experiences of another person that includes understanding, perspective, and an ability to derive and construe what that person’s experience would be like.
As a therapy, CFT has a range of imagery and contemplative practices, as well as in-session interpersonal exercises, to offer that provide training in the skill of flexible perspective taking, and thus the capacity for sympathy and empathy.
Barnes-Holmes, Y., Foody, M., & Barnes-Holmes, D. (2013). Advances in research on deictic relations and perspective taking. In S. Dymond & B. Roche (Eds.), Advances in relational frame theory: Research and application (pp. 5–26). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.Farb et al., 2007
Hayes, S. C. (2008c). The roots of compassion. Keynote address presented at the fourth Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Summer Institute, Chicago, IL.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2nd edition). New York: Guilford.
Hume, D. (2000). A treatise of human nature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Vilardaga, R. (2009). A relational frame theory account of empathy. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy 5, 178–184.