I was exposed to ACT when I moved to Australia. As a trained CBT therapist, I found ACT to be unappealing because mindfulness, a major component in ACT, felt like a bunch of fluff that didn’t do anything! However, the other facet of ACT that I could connect with very well encouraged the living of a life with meaning. After undertaking formal training and supervision in ACT, I learnt the secular approach to mindfulness and how when it is anchored to our values, life is a lot more manageable and meaningful for me… and my clients 🙂
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (abbreviated and pronounced as ACT for short) is a behavior-based approach which consists of two facets: acceptance or mindfulness, and committed actions. It has been in practice for over 20 years and is one of the Third Wave Cognitive Behavioural therapies. Research in this area has made it an evidence-based treatment effective for a range of mental disorders, including anxiety and depression as well as psychosis.
In ACT, acceptance (or mindfulness) means to let go of troubling or unhelpful thoughts. Our thoughts, negative or positive, are just that – thoughts – and do not have to dictate how good or bad you are feeling. Acceptance is about letting the thoughts be and not engage in trying to stop or change them.
ACT introduces processes called defusion and expansion. Defusion is where you experience the troubling thought without reacting or engaging with it. Similarly, expansion is about making room for uncomfortable feelings to come and go without struggling with them or suppressing it. The goal of using these processes is not to ignore your thoughts and feelings but to realize that reacting to them is largely ineffective, and at times can bring more harm to the self (Think of those who use alcohol as a way of dealing with unpleasant feelings!).
So if we are defusing from our unhelpful thoughts and making room for unpleasant feelings, we will find ourselves having more energy to channel towards our behaviors. The other facet of ACT is value-based actions where our actions influence how we feel (as opposed to letting thoughts dictate how we feel!). The actions we take however are not just actions of mere convenience, but should be about: What kind of person do we want to stand for?
And that is a question that ACT uses to help us identify our values. Values are like our “internal compass” and is life-long. Ask anyone what is really important to them and most likely answers we get would be “money” and “happiness” but those aren’t values, more likely outcomes of living by our values. If your family, career, or going on holidays are important to you, then you may have values of being a good parent, responsibility, and perhaps adventure! Committed actions based on our values can provide a sense of motivation and meaning with the long-term outcome of increased satisfaction in life.
How they come together
Oftentimes committing to live by our values can be difficult. We may choose to be in a relationship which is living by our value of love, but like most relationships, it can be challenging. There may be times you find yourself yelling at your partner or saying mean things to them. This is when you might have inadvertently reacted to your thoughts (I shouldn’t have to put up with this!) and feelings (anger) which result in a behavior that pulls you away from the very thing you care about the most – your partner! If guilt accompanies your unwanted behavior, it’s probably a sign that you have strayed from your values – and a quick way of identifying what your values in this context are would be to ask yourself the question: What kind of partner do I want to be?
One who is equipped with ACT skills may be able to defuse from their own thoughts/expectations about their partner and make room for the feelings of anger, then choose to behave in a way in line with their own values; for example, love, by perhaps being assertive or having a calm conversation. Knowing our values will help us decide how to react to stress and distress. In spite of how we feel, we can still move in the direction of our values. Imagine what life would look like if we chose to be kind and loving in the face of challenges with your partner?
ACT therefore encourages us to live by our values in order to have a more satisfying and meaningful life. Committing to helpful actions and value-driven goals by practicing acceptance may very well be essential tools we need to navigate this journey called life.
This content was originally published here.