How ACT Can Help You Live a Vibrant Life
“The problem isn’t learning; it’s unlearning….Unlearning is not about forgetting. It's about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.” (Mark Bonchek - Harvard Business Review)
This is what initially hooked me to ACT. It helps people make new choices to live a richer and more vital life. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (also abbreviated to ACT) is an approach that focuses on acceptance and mindfulness practices as well as behavioral change to help a person embrace compassion for oneself, be present in their daily life, and increase one’s ability to be flexible in life’s ups and downs. Because that’s what happens, right? We get busy, overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, depressed…and we get caught up in the tornado of our internal experience. When we let them, our private events (what ACT calls thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations) come to dictate how we show up to our life. And we want to show up, right? So, let’s step into ACT’s Six Core Processes and see how mastering them can change your life.
Acceptance is simply being open to your private events. Being willing to feel. Accepting those feelings as they are. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It is truly allowing oneself to experience these thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations of all our experiences (the past, present, and future) and not avoid them. Practicing noticing without judgement.
An example (1): You’re invited to a party and, using acceptance, you observe that the idea of going to the party makes you feel anxious. Notice that we don’t judge or set expectations (like I shouldn’t be anxious).
Defusion continues the focus of acceptance and takes it a bit further. In defusion, we notice our private events, how they affect us, and what choices we make in response (sometimes avoidant). We simply observe it all and with curiosity, we ask ourselves if this response is effective in getting us what we want or desire. Then we decide if a different choice can be made. Could a new choice still be uncomfortable? Yes, but it's knowing you have a choice and you can choose something new to move you towards the life you want for yourself.
Example: My initial choice might be to not go to the party in order to avoid the anxiety. I may avoid it in the short term, but I am training my brain to continue to feel anxious with parties and that the strategy to not feeling this is to avoid it. Defusion calls us to notice all of this and then decide if avoiding the party is really accomplishing for us what we want, like a social life, close friendships, community, etc.
3. Present Moment
Present moment is very self-explanatory: it is noticing what your experience is in the here and now. The ACT Approach put it well when it explained that we “may actively avoid being in the present moment for fear of unpleasant internal experiences popping up” or experiencing “unpleasant situations in [our] environment.” (1) So we practice not being present in order to avoid this.
Example: I choose to go to the party; practicing present moment calls me to notice how going to the party feels and what the experience is like.
This point was a very significant one for me because it felt very validating as well as took a lot of pressure off! Self-as-context says that the private events (thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations) we experience as well as our day-to-day external experiences do not make up the “me” that we are. “The observing self is constant and is the same self that existed in the past and the same self who will exist in the future. The part that changes is what the self is observing in any given moment.” (1, emphasis mine)
Example: I am at the party and anxiety is happening to me. Self-as-context can also bring value to the self in saying that I am okay and nothing bad is happening to me right now and anxiety is speaking to me about this party.
Values again are a pretty self-explanatory process, but values are the things that are most important to us. My relationships, my kids, my job, volunteering, church, marathon running, cooking, etc. From a values standpoint, we can evaluate the choices we make and decide if they align with our values. We can also view the choices we make as defending values, such as extreme anger when a significant other says a certain thing because it threatens something we hold dear.
Example: Value tells me that going to the party is something I hold as important because friendships are important to me.
Commitment takes these values and makes choices to engage in behavior that honors or accomplishes these values. We ask ourselves if our choices and behaviors are moving us toward or away from the thing we value most? Then, what can I commit to in order to move myself toward my values?
Example: Avoiding the party because I was afraid of making a fool of myself is because I don’t want my friends to abandon me because I do something I regret. So making this choice avoids an unpleasant private event, but also pushes me away from what I value. Attending the party is important because I value my friendships and this meets my need of companionship. I commit to going to the party for a bit in order to move toward my value.
I believe ACT can be simply summarized as noticing our private events without judgement and observing whether our choices move us toward our values/needs or away from them and then making changes if needed. If you or someone you know could benefit from ACT, contact us today for a consultation to see how we can help you.
Erin is a Marriage and Family Therapist Associate passionate about empowering women to create vibrant lives full of joy, helping them make peace with their story, and coming alongside couples to overcome patterns and build relationships they’ve always wanted. Erin enjoys exploring the PNW with her husband and two kids, finding the best foodie spots, or reading a good book. Find out how you can work with Erin here.