If I were to ask you, as a fellow human-being, if you were experiencing pain or suffering in some way, small or large, at this very moment or recently, I’d be extremely surprised if you said “No, Steve, not at all.”
I’d be surprised because human existence by its very nature is challenging and quite often hard to face. Not getting what we want or need, or losing what we had, or only getting a little bit of what we expected we’d have, however that pans out for you or me, is: hard to face.
I’m not even talking here about The Big Stuff like break-ups, or losing someone we love to death or sickness, or traumatic experiences in our childhood or beyond. There is also the pain that comes with our own aging, imperfect, and sometimes sickening bodies and minds. Not just temporary pain, but that of a chronic variety, a pain that’s not merely “visiting us” for a day or a weekend like some annoying relative, but instead wants to move in and stay. All of this is hard to face.
Over two decades of clinical experience has taught me that the solution to worry, anxiety, and the general struggle we have with all the challenges of our lives should not necessarily be about more struggle. It’s not about trying to bring down our monsters when they rear their ugly heads. It’s not about trying to get rid of them. How does one get rid of the pain of being a human being?
It’s also not about combating or replacing negative with positive thoughts. You probably know this battle firsthand too. You may think that you must win yourself over in some way — perhaps by trying harder, struggling more, learning better strategies, reading about your problems, finding a new medication, venting in therapy and to loved ones, and so on. But so often, and I hear this from clients who have already had years of “standard”, exploratory talk therapy, or even more focused CBT, these fix-the-problem-fix-me approaches just don’t work.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy asks that you entertain the possibility that the solution to your problems is not to fight “better or harder.” Rather, the solution might be to change your relationship with, and your response to your anxious thoughts, worries, and painful feelings, to choose to stop fighting. Not in a passive and resigned way, but in the spirit of letting go of a fight you can’t win and focusing on those elements in your life where you can.
To get there, we need to learn how to acknowledge anxious thoughts and feelings without “becoming” them, and without acting on them and doing what they say. Rather developing compassion for ourselves and for our life as it is and other painful experiences. Part of this journey is also about discovering, or rediscovering what truly matters to you: you’ll focus on what you want your life to stand for and then act in ways that move you forward in your life, even if that means bringing worries, anxieties, and fears, or other unwanted thoughts and feelings along for the ride.
Being pain free (emotionally, physically) is no guarantee of a vital life. Quite a few people seem to have no pain and hardly any worries, and yet they are unhappy with the life they lead. We also know that many people live with enormous pain and hardship and still manage to find meaning and dignity in their lives. They go about living each day as if it were their last. You can do this too.
NOT JUST THINKING & TALKING, BUT DOING!
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a doing therapy. It involves targeting all the ways in which we suffer as human beings. The main way in which we suffer is through our own minds. A common example might be us reading a text message which triggers some PAIN (that person didn’t respond in a way that we were hoping for or said something we perceived as alarming), and before we know it, our problem-solving minds are worrying away at the pain, and in the process, that momentary OUCH generated by the painful word or phrase can turn into hours, maybe even days, and maybe even a lifetime of SUFFERING.
Acceptance and Commitment therapy says: “Let’s do something about that. We can’t do anything about the pain, but we can work with your Suffering/Problem-Solving Minds. We can do something to help you suffer less.”
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based upon six core principles which work together to help you achieve two main goals: a) to effectively handle painful thoughts and feelings, and b) to create a rich, full and meaningful life. Here’s a little bit more information about each of these six principles to see if you feel ACT might work for you.
PRINCIPLE 1: DEFUSION
Defusion means relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you. As you learn to defuse painful and unpleasant thoughts, they will lose their ability to frighten, disturb or depress you. And as you learn to defuse unhelpful thoughts, such as self-limiting beliefs and harsh self-criticisms, they will have much less influence over your behaviour.
PRINCIPLE 2: MAKING ROOM
Making room, as the name suggests means making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations and urges, instead of trying to suppress them or push them away. As you open up and make space for these feelings, you will find they bother you much less, and they ‘move on’ much more rapidly, instead of ‘hanging a round’ and disturbing you. (The official ACT term for this principle is ‘Acceptance’. I have changed it because the word ‘acceptance’ has so many different meanings, and can easily be misunderstood. Acceptance/making room in this instance doesn’t mean resignation or putting up with something unpleasant or painful. It doesn’t mean forcing our minds to even “like” the thing we’re struggling with. It just means being willing to work with the process of “making room” for things in our lives we have tried to avoid so far.)
PRINCIPLE 3: CONNECTION
Connection means living in the present; focusing on and engaging fully in whatever you’re doing. Instead of dwelling on the past, or worrying about the future, you are deeply connected with what is happening right here, right now.
PRINCIPLE 4: THE OBSERVING SELF
The Observing Self is a powerful aspect of human consciousness, which has been largely ignored by western psychology until now (though is coming back in a big way via Mindfulness and other channels). As you learn how to access this part of yourself, it will enable you to further transform your relationship with unwanted thoughts and feelings.
PRINCIPLE 5: VALUES
Clarifying and connecting with your values is an essential step for making life meaningful. Your values are reflections of what is most important in your heart: what sort of person you want to be; what is significant and meaningful to you; and what you want to stand for in this life. Your values provide direction for your life, and motivate you to make important changes.
PRINCIPLE 6: COMMITTED ACTION
A rich and meaningful life is created through taking action. But not just any action. It happens through effective action, guided by and motivated by your values. And in particular, it happens through committed action: action that you take again, and again, and again, no matter how many times you fail, or go off track. So ‘committed action’ is shorthand for ‘committed, effective, valued action’. To begin with, we start with tiny steps. The important thing here is committing to action that is in line with your values rather than how much you commit to.
As with all good ideas though, ACT won’t change your life simply by reading about them. It’s like reading a travel guide about India: by the end of it, you have a lot of ideas about where you’d like to visit—but you still haven’t been there. To truly experience India, you have to make the effort to get up and go there. ACT is a very hands-on and experiential form of therapy. I recognise that this might sound a little scary. But at some level, this is what therapy is for I think: having a guide alongside you to go to the places in your life and mind that you’ve perhaps veered away from looking at, but know in your heart of hearts you’d be better off spending some time there. I look forward to talking more to you about this, and planning your therapy journey together, if this sounds like something you might like to try.
You can contact me via email or telephone (07804197605) to set up an initial appointment. Also please feel free to drop me a line via email if you have any other questions regarding ACT. I look forward to hearing from you.