What is ACT?
Hayes, S. C. (2004) ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the new behavior therapies: Mindfulness, acceptance and relationship’. In Hayes, S. C. Follette, V. M. & Linehan, M. (Eds.), Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive behavioral tradition, New York, Guilford, pp 1-29.
Acceptance & Commitment Training, or ACT (said as a word rather than initials), is an empirically science-based model for therapy and coaching. At ACT in the Moment, we use this powerful model for training and coaching with two objectives in mind:
- To create a rich, purposeful, rewarding life
- To effectively manage the painful or limiting thoughts and emotions that sometimes stand in the way of having the fulfilling life we desire
ACT: 6 Core Processes
ACT consists of 6 Core Processes that help achieve Psychological Flexibility. Similar to how stretching and toning exercises help make us stronger and more agile in performing hour daily physical activities, ACT processes can help us become more flexible mentally and emotionally, so we can better handle the situations that life throws at us. This allows us to be free to take actions toward what is truly meaningful in our lives. Those 6 processes are:
- Contact with the Present Moment/Mindfulness
- Committed Action
- Self as Context
Values – The Why of What We Do
Reasons, feelings, beliefs—all may change. If your choices are dependent on those, you’re constantly bouncing around.
— Steven Hayes, PhD
This quote by Steven Hayes, founder of ACT, highlights why identifying our life values is such a crucial activity. Our values set our course and keep us focused on what really matters.
So then, how do we discover our values? The ACT model offers several exercises to support the values clarification process, and one of those is to simply ask ourselves what really matters to us in life? What do we want our lives to be about? Who do we want to be as a person? What do we want to stand for? How would we like to be remembered? It’s about using what we uncover during the exercises to determine how we really want to spend our time and energy. Our values become our guiding principles for our actions much like a compass pointing the way.
So, the next step is to set goals and take committed action. While our values are there to guide, motivate and inspire our course of action, committed action is about doing what needs to be done to bring those values to life. Values point the way like a compass, and goals help us identify milestones as we move forward. They are things that we can check off as arrival points or accomplishments along the way. For a simple example, if you value being a loving supportive husband, a goal may be to plan a special evening out with your spouse.
Our values are what truly matters to us, goals and committed action are ways we pursue or demonstrate our values.
But, we’re human, and stuff gets in the way. Stuff like:
- Lack of confidence
- The feeling of being stuck
- Self-criticism or perfectionism
- Thoughts that we’re “not good enough”
So, then what? ACT’s 6 Core Processes were designed specifically to help with these. One such process is to make contact with the present moment.
Contact with the Present Moment
Our minds are like pieces of technology or software programmed to think constantly, 24/7, 365 days a year. They ruminate, analyze, recall, compare, strategize, fantasize, and evaluate. They evoke things from the past and surmise things about the future. Memories and projections show up as, “If only this hadn’t happened,” or “Once I have this, then I’ll be happy.” Our minds can run us ragged.
ACT offers training and exercises to help us manage this constant mind noise by making “contact with the present moment,” so we’re more aware of our here-and-now experience and so we can engage fully in ourselves, our lives and the world around us with an attitude of openness and curiosity.
For a very quick and simple exercise, right now, turn your attention to your breath, as you inhale pay attention to how your chest or belly rises, and as you exhale notice how it recedes back again. It can be that easy to bring our attention to the present moment. And it can be done anytime, anywhere.
Connection means being fully aware of your here-and-now experience, fully in touch with what is happening in this moment.
— Russ Harris, M.B.B.S., Physician, Therapist, and Trainer in ACT
Self as Context
Another life-enhancing ACT process is known as Self as Context. The ACT model recognizes the importance of perspective, and acknowledges that we have 3 ways of experiencing who we are, or senses of self. Understanding each of these senses of self can also be helpful in dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings as they arise.
- The Conceptualized Self is the way we view our appearance, our roles, our personality, and so on. It is the process of evaluating and summarizing who we are. Our conclusions and descriptions can be accurate or inaccurate, and can influence the choices we make in life.
- Self as Process is the activity of being aware of our current experiences. For example, “I am feeling anxious” or “I am thinking that I need bread from the store.” A conflict between the conceptualized self and the awareness we have of a current experience can be disturbing. For example, if we see ourselves as someone who is always nice, our thoughts of anger and resentfulness may be difficult to admit.
- The Observing Self is the part of us that can see all of our past and present experiences like a string of pearls, connected by a golden thread (that aspect of ourselves which remains constant). The part of ourselves that was who we were when we were young, and is still who we are now. Recall a time when you were young and an experience you had, maybe playing outside with friends. Now think of brushing your teeth this morning. The observer self is that part of us that recognizes that that young person and the person who brushed their teeth today are the same person.
Becoming familiar with each of these senses of self and knowing their purpose can be very helpful. For example, it can help us with the next process called defusion.
We all know that feeling of getting hooked by our negative thoughts. They show up as worry, guilt, self-doubt, perfectionism and the like. These are the thoughts that slow us down, or can even stop us in our tracks. They zap our confidence and motivation. The ACT model calls that getting fused with, or hooked by, our painful or limiting thoughts.
Defusion is the process we use to create some distance between ourselves and these negative thoughts, beliefs or memories. It consists of techniques we can use to remember that our thoughts are really just a type of language in our minds. We can learn to mentally step back, detach, or unhook ourselves from these thoughts and return to the perspective of being a curious observer, and then take action toward building the life we desire.
At one time or another, each of us has experienced disappointment, failure, illness or injury. What’s a common reaction to those feelings? Very often, we think, “I should be able to just get over this,” or, “Why can’t I just pull myself up by my bootstraps and move on?” But struggling with negative emotions does not make them go away. Studies have shown that it actually can make them worse by adding additional layers of suffering.
So, what do we do? Let’s use the metaphor of quicksand. If someone falls into quicksand their natural reaction is to thrash around to try to get out of it immediately. But, what happens when they do that? They sink even faster. Negative emotions work the same way. The more we struggle to get away from them, the tighter their grip can be. With quicksand the best thing to do is relax back and lay yourself out flat like a starfish. With emotions, we can learn to pause, make some space for those feelings and become skilled at letting them come and go without struggle. ACT has many techniques to help us do that.
It’s about embracing the full spectrum of our emotions and recognizing the richness and depth they bring to our lives.
It’s about knowing what matters and managing the thoughts and feelings that stand in our way, so we can build and experience the rich, purposeful, rewarding life we truly want.
If you’d like to know more about ACT, you can visit our website, connect with us on our ACT in the Moment Facebook page, or contact us.