ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY
If I tell you not to think about a purple elephant right now, what will you immediately think about? If you continue to try to not think about this very cute purple elephant throughout the rest of the day, what will you inevitably think about? And how will you feel when you think about it? In the long run, trying to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings is not only impossible, but it will also probably make the thoughts and feelings more intense and create even more suffering. The effort that we spend trying to avoid things that are uncomfortable not only takes an immense amount of energy, but it also takes us away from what’s important to us. If we’re spending all of our time and energy avoiding thinking about the purple elephant (YOU THOUGHT ABOUT IT AGAIN, DIDN’T YOU), we can’t truly be present with our friends or do things like make art.
Acceptance and commitment therapy is an approach to therapy that uses acceptance and mindfulness to be present to what actually is happening inside yourself as well as values and commitment to give you momentum to accept the purple elephant. This increases your psychological flexibility—that is, being able to be fully in contact with the present moment and able to make decisions on how to act based on what is important to you. For example, let’s say you experience anxiety in social situations but you also have a value of friendship, meaning that having close interpersonal relationships is very important to you. You may have the urge to avoid social situations as a result of the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings you experience. If you avoid social situations, though, you won’t be living in alignment with that value of fostering friendship. Psychological flexibility means being able to recognize that you’re experiencing anxiety, but you still choose to engage in the social situation because doing so is important to you.
In sessions, this may come out in experiential activities or metaphors to practice concepts to try out various aspects of psychological flexibility. It may come out in utilizing mindfulness skills or practicing acceptance during sessions. It may come out in looking at your values and figuring out who you want to be and what you want to stand for in your life and making decisions based on that. It may come out through trying out different ways of looking at thoughts or feelings. It may come out in more subtle ways in how I ask questions or bring awareness to you. Regardless of how we get there, when we’re doing ACT (pronounced “act”), we’re working on being present with what’s going on, allowing what’s going on to be present, and moving towards what is important to you.
If you want to learn more about ACT as a therapy approach, visit the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science at https://contextualscience.org/. If you’re tired of how your avoidance gets in the way of doing what’s important to you, contact me to set up an appointment or free 15-minute phone consultation.
Sometimes, being human is painful and uncomfortable. Evolutionarily, humans are programmed to avoid uncomfortable and painful things. This worked pretty well in the past when the uncomfortable and painful things were external stimuli like wooly mammoths or saber-toothed tigers and avoiding them kept us alive. However, our lives have changed (I certainly don’t hunt wooly mammoths in my free time), and we now experience uncomfortable and painful stimuli inside our minds (like when we experience anxiety or have thoughts like, “I can’t possibly handle this.”). Even though the stimuli have changed from external to internal, we continue to approach these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings like they are wooly mammoths and like they are something that we can and should avoid.