Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 6 Processes for a More Meaningful Life
This article was written by Jennifer Johnson, a Counselling Intern with Mindquest Group and the Family Development Centre from September 2015 to June 2016. Jennifer has now completed her practicum requirements for a Masters in Counselling and is passionately taking all of her learnings into her role as a Middle School Teacher.
If you are interested in potentially doing some individual therapy work with Jennifer, please contact us.
As a counsellor, people often ask what therapy model I follow. It’s a challenging question as I (and many therapists) don’t subscribe to one model in particular. I have been exposed to many therapy approaches throughout my training and I see the merits in each. However, there has been one approach that has stood out as particularly useful, regardless of what a client may be facing: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as “ACT”.
ACT is a model we can all follow and helps us to get closer to leading a more meaningful life. Using its principles lends you psychological flexibility – an ability to handle what life throws at us – and helps you to continue working towards doing what matters most in your life. In its most basic form ACT helps you:
1. acknowledge and accept your thoughts and feelings,
2. choose a direction in life that aligns with what you truly value, and
3. take action.
It accomplishes these three goals through exploring the following six core psychological processes.
1. Contacting the Present Moment – Be Here Now
A 2010 study out of Harvard found that the average person spends approximately 47% of their time thinking about something other than what is happening in the present moment. Incessant mind wandering –
scrutinising events that have happened in the past, worrying about what might happen in the future, or fantasising about what we wish would happen – is unique to humans, and is a huge factor driving our unhappiness. ACT emphasises mindfulness to bring awareness to the physical world around us or the psychological world within us.
In order to bring more mindfulness into your life, consider incorporating a deep breathing routine into your day, or trying a meditation app such as Head Space. It can even be as simple as stopping in any given moment and observing the sensations you feel, the noises you hear, or the thoughts that might be passing through your head. Small steps can lead to big changes when it comes to your ability to be present.
2. Defusion – Watch Your Thinking
As we know, our thinking can be relentless and one of the single greatest sabotagers of our happiness. Unfortunately, many of us are not aware of just how much an impact our thoughts have on our emotions and overall sense of wellbeing. Instead of observing them as stories of our mind, we often take our thoughts as fact and see the world through their distorted lens. Learning to step back from our thoughts and allowing them to come and go as they please, without getting caught up in them, is at the core of defusion.
To practice defusion in your own life, see if you can observe the thoughts filling your mind in any given moment. Instead of buying into their “truth,” allow yourself to observe them as a curious bystander. This simple act of noticing what you are thinking allows you to distance yourself, even if momentarily, from the record playing in your head and can allow you to better understand your ingrained thought patterns.
3. Acceptance – Open Up
Many psychologists agree on six basic human emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. Out of these six emotions, four are classified as “negative”, which means that two-thirds of the feelings we experience as humans are un-enjoyable. “Acceptance” acknowledges that experiencing these emotions is an inevitable part of being human and helps you work towards allowing your thoughts and feelings to be as they are, regardless of how pleasant or painful they may be.
Of the six processes, this step is often the most misunderstood. Acceptance is not about passively accepting whatever is happening in your life, but instead focuses on dropping the struggle with your emotions, so that you can free yourself up to begin working towards those things that you find important and life enhancing. Next time you notice yourself feeling a challenging emotion, see if you can just sit with it for a while and observe it. You don’t have to like it or want it, but dropping your resistance to it and allowing your emotion to just be is an important step towards acceptance.
4. Self-as-Context – Pure Awareness
Most of us don’t realise we have two parts to our minds: the thinking self (the part that is always thinking and creating beliefs, judgments, memories, etc.) and the observing self (the part that is aware of whatever we are feeling, thinking, or sensing in any given moment). Instead, we are often only aware of our thinking self and allow it to dominate our lives.
In ACT, self-as-context refers to getting in touch with our observing self – the place from which we view and observe our experience without getting caught up in it, and to understand that that part of ourselves cannot be damaged by our emotions or experiences.
The best way to explain this is to think of your observing self as the sky and your thoughts and feelings as the weather. The weather is constantly changing, and can sometimes be quite severe when thunderstorms or blizzards blow through. Regardless of the weather’s intensity, the sky always has room for it, and the weather will inevitably pass. Our observing self, like the sky, is constant, and although we can’t always see it, especially when it is clouded over with strong emotions, it is always there and available to us as the space in which we can observe and make room for our challenging thoughts and feelings.
5. Values – Know What Matters
In ACT, values are defined as desired qualities of ongoing action. In other words, they are statements about how we want to behave or live our lives on an ongoing basis. By identifying our unique values, we are able to use them as a compass to help steer our lives in a direction that aligns with our heart’s deepest desires and create a more meaningful existence.
An important distinction must be made between values and goals, as the two are often confused. Goals are the things we hope to achieve; values are the direction we want to head towards in life. For example, “getting married” or “losing ten pounds” are goals, while “being loving” and “eating healthily” are values. In order to explore your own values, ask yourself these questions: What do I want to stand for in my life? What sort of person do I want to be? How do I want to behave? Exploring your answers is the first step in better understanding what is most important in your life.
6. Committed Action – Do What It Takes
Committed action is at the core of ACT. The work done within the previous 5 processes is to prepare you to begin taking effective action in your life, guided by your values. The first step is to choose a life domain (such as relationships, family, work, or health) to focus on and to clearly identify what your values are for that area. Then, you can begin developing values-based goals that will help you shift your life in the direction that is most closely aligned with the life you hope to live. While developing long-term goals may seem overwhelming right now, you can start with taking one small step. Ask yourself, What’s the tiniest step I can take today to move myself a little bit closer to living the life I want to live? That’s all it takes to gain momentum: one simple step.
Although I began studying ACT as a therapy model to use with clients, I have been amazed by the value I have found from incorporating it into my own life. Through working within these six psychological processes, we are able to significantly increase our psychological flexibility while also better understanding ourselves on a deeper level. This understanding is the most precious gift any person can give to themselves and undoubtedly leads to living a more fulfilling life.
To learn more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, visit Dr. Russ Harris’ website: The Happiness Trap.
Bradt, S. (2010, November 10). Wandering mind not a happy mind. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
Harris, R., & Hayes, S. C. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy.