The ACT Practitioner’s Guide to the Art of Compassion

My first child, Max James Hooper (who in my mind will always be Maximus Super Hooper), was born 20 days ago on 10th June 2015. As a writer I should never be lost for words, but I genuinely can’t describe how much I love him. A good friend once told me that it would be like falling in love every day, and I don’t disagree with him. But, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, values and vulnerabilities go together; although I have been gifted with this unique feeling of love, my world is now riddled with worry at the thought of losing him. Every time he coughs, I figure he must be choking. If he has discharge in his eye, then he must have an infection. If he breathes fast, then he must be having palpations. I could go on. My wife and I have barely slept since Max was born, as we have tried to manoeuver our way through a life filled with the polarized emotions of tremendous love and tremendous worry. And of course, with Max being so important to me, the last 20 days has also seen a remarkable increase in input from my critical mind; beating me up for every mistake I’ve made. It therefore happened to be the perfect time to read and review ‘The ACT Practitioner’s Guide to the Art of Compassion’ written by Dennis Tirch, Benjamin Schoendorff and Laura Silberstein.


Before I start I have a disclaimer; this is the first book review that I have ever written and I don’t really know what goes into one! So please be patient with me. Another obstacle I see is that I know (and like) the authors. This has two implications; firstly, I assume that the review will have an element of bias to it that the reader should be aware of, and secondly, if I were critical of the book I’d be a right scallywag to plaster it all over social media! Nevertheless, my strategy is as follows; I am going to put into this review the sort of information that I would appreciate seeing in such a piece of prose, and I am going to try to think and write critically, even if so doing so makes me feel uncomfortable.

When I received the book, I didn’t really know what it would be trying to do. Would it be a book about Compassion
Focused Therapy (CFT)? Would it be a book about ACT? Or would it be a book about the integration of CFT and images-1ACT? It turned out to be none of those things. The major achievement of this book is that it concretely and effectively equips ACT practitioners with ways in which they can bring a compassionate focus to their clinical work.

For this reason, although the first couple of chapters were necessary, I somewhat struggled with them. In these chapters the authors clearly describe the CFT and ACT models, and then present the overlaps and differences between them. What you need to know right now is that although there are overlaps between the models, the underling theories are very different. I spent much energy trying to get my head around this, and the more time I spent reading and thinking about it, the more friction I saw between the two models. In a book aimed at ACT clinicians, I’m not sure the authors needed to describe the CFT model/theory at all. That, I guess, is my major issue with the book; that compassion could be taught to ACT practitioners without having to enter the difficult territory of comparing, contrasting and integrating ACT with a specific model of compassion.

Apart from that minor gripe I felt that the book was gold. The gold begins in the early chapters when two things happen. Firstly, the authors detail why a compassionate focus may benefit clinical practice. Secondly, compassion is elegantly conceptualized from an ACT perspective. In doing this the authors nicely describe the role that the difficult but important concepts of The Self and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) have in the development / Unknown-1maintenance of a compassionate self. I found this refreshing. All too often ACT texts fail to integrate a detailed account of The Self that builds from RFT (deictic framing) to Self-as-Context and Flexible Perspective Taking. But this book does it very well.

After the mental workout of theory, I really enjoyed reading the middle chapters, in which the authors delve into concrete ways in which a compassionate focus can be brought to ACT work. They do this by presenting useful interventions and by including clear dialogues to illustrate how compassion might be trained in therapy. I decided early on that I would mark each intervention and dialogue that I thought I could use in a practical setting, and now there are marks all over the book! They also did something very clever with their dialogues; they managed to make the clients and their stories feel very real, such that I came to care for them. At times, it almost made for gripping reading.

There are other notable positives in this book. Each chapter includes a summary that I found very useful. The book wonderfully describes how tools such as The Matrix and Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP) could be useful to the compassion focused ACT clinician. And the final chapters are hugely practical, providing details of resources that would help with learning, case formulation and measurement of progress during the therapeutic journey.

Although compassion was inherently already a part of my ACT practice, by the end of the book, I felt that I was equipped with a sharper compassion tool. Immediately, I applied this tool to myself as I cared for Max (that’s us below). Following one situation I had the thought ‘I don’t think I was made to be a good father’, and I treated that thought in the same way that I would treat a scared 6-year old child; with understanding, love and kindness. I have the authors to thank for honing my compassionate focus through this wonderful but challenging time. Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to ACT clinicians, as I am certain that it would impact their clinical practice in the same way that it has impacted the way I do and speak ACT.


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