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ACT

The Art of Not Knowing

The Art of Not Knowing

Having goals, dreams and desires implies looking forward and planning ahead. However, focus on the future is often accompanied by worries about hypothetical situations. Indeed, the things we care about the most are often ambiguous and unknowable. Because humans are hard-wired to prefer certainty to uncertainty, we experience this ambiguity as highly uncomfortable, even distressing. Considering that the future is uncertain and that being faced with the unknown is uncomfortable, we tend to develop strategies to avoid or reduce uncertainty. These may work in the short term. When intolerance to uncertainty becomes the rule, however, striving to eliminate it altogether paradoxically contributes to increased anxiety and suffering, and ultimately impedes our ability to reach our goals (Dugas, Gosselin & Ladouceur, 2001).

According to Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of Things May Go Horribly Terribly Wrong (a perfect title for a book on uncertainty), the first step to changing the way we relate to the unknown is to become aware of the myriad strategies we engage in to neutralize ambiguity (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

The list below may be helpful to begin thinking about which intolerance to uncertainty tactics we engage in the most and to prompt reflection on what uncertainty means to us.

1. Observe: How do I relate to uncertainty?

Approach Strategies:

  • Worrying to “solve” uncertainty. Worries are often plans, predictions and preparations for hypothetical situations that are ultimately ambiguous and unknown. It may feel “productive” to worry, but when the topic of worry is out of one’s control, such as for future events, worrying about it becomes an “intolerance to uncertainty strategy” and only leads to more worry.

  • Reassurance seeking. Asking for reassurance and seeking advice are also common ways to dispel uncertainty and to attempt to “feel certain”. Ex: Asking a loved one if they love you multiple times a day, asking multiple sources about an upcoming decision, getting second and third opinions…

  • Searching online. Digital and social media technology provides the luxury of quick and easy access to unlimited answers to our innumerable everyday questions. Through immediate and constant access to information, technology use in many contexts can take the form of reassurance seeking and, ultimately, reduces spontaneous daily exposure to uncertainty. Recent research actually shows that intolerance to uncertainty is a rising phenomenon that correlates with the rise of digital technology such as smartphones. Ex: Googling health questions as they occur, searching through someone’s or one’s own social media, excessive online-researching before making a decision (Carleton et. al, 2019).

  • Double checking. Double-checking may also easily become triple-checking or more. Ex: Repetitive checking of one’s bank account and email, repetitive-checking that the door is locked, double-checking the route to get to a destination.

  • Perfectionism, not delegating and overprotecting. To reduce uncertainty and to gain a sense of control, some may try to do everything themselves, over-prepare and not delegate to others. This may also take the form of perfectionistic tendencies relating to the idea that if everything is perfect, the outcome will be predictable and positive. People may also apply these strategies in the context of their relationships with significant others by being overprotective and doing things for them.

Avoidance Strategies

  • Procrastinating, choosing not to choose and indecisiveness. Putting off beginning a task that has uncertain outcomes. Will I be able to succeed? Am I good enough? Having trouble making decisions that have unclear outcomes and that include uncertain elements. These strategies may serve to minimize one’s experience of the discomfort of not knowing (Rassin & Murris, 2005).

  • Avoiding new opportunities. Avoidance of the experience of uncertainty may take the form of avoiding new experiences altogether. Ex: turning down a promotion for fear of not being good enough, not going to a party with new friends, not travelling to unknown places.

  • Cognitive avoidance. Efforts to not think about uncertain topics until it is absolutely necessary.

Beliefs about uncertainty

  • It feels irresponsible or dangerous for there to be uncertainty in life.

  • Uncertainty means that something bad will happen.

  • Belief that you cannot tolerate not knowing how things will go (“I will not be able to manage”).

  • Feeling that it is preferable to be certain that an outcome will be bad, than to not know the outcome.

As mentioned, everyone uses some of these strategies some of the time. Intolerance to uncertainty becomes most problematic when reliance on these types of strategies interferes with what’s most important to us.

2. Observe and notice: What are the costs?

The second step is to become aware of how regular use of these strategies interferes with one’s goals, relationships and general wellbeing. We may ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Are worries about the future getting in the way of my enjoyment of the present moment?

  • How much time am I spending trying to “solve” uncertainty? What else could I be doing?

  • What meaningful experiences am I avoiding or putting off due to intolerance to uncertainty?

  • Does my intolerance to uncertainty affect my relationships with loved ones?

3. Observe, notice and feel: Sitting with it. The final step implies doing the opposite of efforts to move away from uncertainty. In fact, it involves leaning into it and requires the willingness to experience its discomfort. If the only thing that is certain in life is that life is fundamentally uncertain, then acceptance of uncertainty, in all its discomfort, is necessary. Allowing oneself to simply experience ambiguity is not to love it, but to learn that it is both uncomfortable and tolerable.

  • How to sit with uncertainty? When resisting the urge to engage in strategies to reduce uncertainty, take a moment to explore your internal experience. Identify what you are feeling. Observe the sensations in your body, notice the feeling of your breath. Notice your thoughts. Remember, no matter how intense your thoughts and emotions become, they are temporary and they will pass. It may be helpful to remind yourself of the following coping statements: “This too shall pass”, “I do not know and it is okay”, “It is uncomfortable and I can feel it”, “It is uncertain, I do not need to solve it”.

  • For more information on sitting with difficult emotions, see this blog post.

4. Be flexible. The objective of these steps is not to eliminate our response of discomfort towards uncertainty. It is alright and normal to worry and feel anxiety at times. Rather, the objective is to become aware of how consistent efforts to not feel discomfort get in the way of engaging in experiences that are unknowable and likely to also be highly meaningful such as connecting with others and moving towards goals (Wilson & Dufrene, 2010).

Building tolerance to uncertainty is like strengthening a muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger it becomes!


Rhea Marshall-Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram, or like us on Facebook.


References

Carleton, R. N., Desgagné, G., Krakauer, R., & Hong, R. Y. (2019). Increasing intolerance of uncertainty over time: the potential influence of increasing connectivity. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 48(2), 121-136.

Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. Cognitive therapy and Research, 25(5), 551-558.

Rassin, E., & Muris, P. (2005). Indecisiveness and the interpretation of ambiguous situations. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(7), 1285-1291.

Wilson, K. G., & Dufrene, T. (2010). Things might go terribly, horribly wrong: A guide to life liberated from anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

 Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head

Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head


Guest post from Dr. Natsumi Sawada, Registered Psychologist (originally published here).

Dr. Natsumi Sawada is a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C. Natsumi is passionate about using psychology to help people live meaningful, peaceful, connected, and joyful lives. For more of Natsumi's transformative tips check out her blogFacebook or Instagram


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A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.  

What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.  

So why move towards values even when we feel terrible? 

Well, ACT proposes that pain is an inevitable part of being human (or sea slug for that matter). To experience physical and psychological pain in the form of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations is to be human. It is not pathological, abnormal, or something to be changed. Our lives cannot be separated from pain. We inevitably experience loss and disappointment; feel sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame; experience self doubt and self judgment. We don’t often recognize that everybody suffers especially in the Instagram era when all we see is everybody else’s glowing faces and smiles on our screens while we struggle through the slop. But the idea that everyone is happy is bogus. The truth is, every person feels emotional pain and will feel pain throughout their life. Values are important because moving towards them orients us and give life meaning (and all the positive things that come with it). If we want to create meaning in our lives we cannot wait for the skies to clear because being human can at times be a little like living in Vancouver in November.  

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This sounds grim but it’s actually great news because to be psychologically healthy we need to experience positive AND painful emotions. For one thing, it’s natural to feel painful emotions. Imagine you never felt sad or afraid. I don’t think I need to explain why that would problematic. Painful emotions and thoughts serve important protective functions. We need to experience fear, sadness, and guilt to function in the world and to be human (more on this later). Some people argue we need to embrace this vulnerability that we all share, to connect with and be of service to others. Some research even suggests experiencing too much positive emotion is bad for our health and well being. It can cause us to engage in more risky behavior, impede our performance, and hinder our ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives (something that is crucial for good relationships). Research also suggests pursuing happiness can do more harm than good because the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to experience it. See this article for more. So forget the “don’t worry be happy" stuff. Ideally we have a little of both.  

However understandably, humans don't like to experience pain (and don’t even like to experience the possibility of future pain) so often when we experience it we struggle against it like a fish on a hook and line. We think about it, we worry about it, we dread it, we anticipate it, we question it, we obsess about it, we try to mentally problem solve our way out of it. A large part of the war we fight against our painful mental experiences (such as sadness, anxiety, anger, worries, doubts, obsessions, rumination) often takes place in the form of a why question: Why can't I be happier? Why me? Why am I so weird? Why am I messed up (or insert another insult of your choice here)? Why does life have to be this way? Why is everybody such a [bleep]?  

According to ACT, while this is a totally understandable response to pain, this mental war is problematic because whether you experience a little psychological pain or what seems like a lot, the struggle against it makes things so much worse; It creates pain 2.0 otherwise known as suffering. This is similar to an idea found in Buddhist philosophy, illustrated by the story of the two arrows:  

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“…When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”   

The idea here is that when we experience pain (it could be physical pain as described here or emotional), we often react to it by fighting against it. We feel anxious and we get mad at ourselves for feeling this way, we feel sad and we feel ashamed, we feel depressed and we ruminate on the question “what is wrong with me?” and then ruminate on the answer, “you are deficient.” This causes us to, in effect, shoot ourselves with a second arrow: We add suffering to pain.  

One goal of ACT is to teach us how to reduce this suffering by learning to let go of the automatic habit of shooting the second arrow when we experience pain and instead move towards our values. Rather than getting caught up in the net of pain and suffering, we engage with and move towards what's important to us even when we feel pain. The idea is that we can experience painful mental events such as sadness or anxiety or the thoughts, “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m a failure”  AND we can go on bike rides, work in the garden, do our work, paint a picture, act in a loving way, meet a friend, and do other things that create meaning and value in our life. The experience of a painful mental event cannot stop us from doing these things. The idea in ACT is that we recognize these thoughts and feelings with mindfulness AND then we move towards what's important to us with pain in hand.  

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Does it sound hard? It can be! The experience of sadness for example can organize our whole being to want to lie in bed, cry, eat cheetos and ice cream, surf the internet mindlessly for hours, and ruminate about what went wrong. Does this mean this is our only option? No. As difficult as it might be we can mindfully recognize our emotions with kindness and then, with the same attitude of love and care, ask ourselves, “Does acting on my urges take me farther from or in the direction of who or what is most important to me?” We can then do our best to take a small step towards what is important. It is not always easy but with a lot of practice we can learn how to do this. We can learn how to respond more flexibly to emotional pain instead of always going with the knee jerk reaction of resisting it, hiding from it, smothering it, and turning it into suffering. Some of the mental skills that can help us learn to do this are mindfulness, self compassion, and distress tolerance. I will talk more about these skills in future blog posts.    

I’m writing this post because I find this idea of moving towards values with pain particularly valuable and I use it a lot in my own life. When I feel despair, sadness, or anxiety, for sometimes what seems to be no reason at all, one of the most helpful things I've learned to do is to mindfully take note of the emotion and accompanying urges that arise in me, remind myself of my values, and encourage myself to take one tiny step in the direction of my values.  

For example, if I feel despair I might notice the urge to listen to sad music, lie in bed and watch Netflix, or ruminate about the things that are not going well for me and what I’ve done wrong. However, while understandable, these behaviors are designed to numb or escape pain and take me further from my values of learning and teaching, caring for others, developing my skills as a psychologist, being an engaged and loving partner, and creative expression. So, I do my best to notice these emotions and urges with kindness, acknowledge how painful they are, and then if all goes according to plan, I take a tiny step in the direction of my values. I repeat TINY. This is crucial because when we feel anxious or down even “small” steps can seem overwhelming. My tiny step might be washing the dishes in the sink, reading a page of a book, going for a walk around the block, or send a half dozen friends a cat meme (someone usually responds). Although it’s important to note that the point of moving towards values is not to get rid of pain, I sometimes find that after I have made a move towards my values, my difficult emotions loom less large or sometimes even pass. And, at the very least I’m sad but at least I’m sad AND I went for a walk and took a step towards health.  

If you want, try this out for yourself. Write down a few of your values and the next time you find yourself caught up in painful thoughts or emotions, see if you might remind yourself of some of your values and ask yourself the question, “Does acting on these mental experiences or thoughts take me closer to or farther away from what is most important to me?” If the answer is farther you might ask, “What tiny step might I take towards my values?” If this seems really difficult get in touch with a counsellor or psychologist for help. 

It's important to note that what feels tiny to me might feel microscopic to you or it might feel huge. Take a step that feels tiny to you. It might be doing five jumping jacks or washing three dishes or it might be reorganizing your house or running a marathon.  Meet yourself where you are at. The main point is to take a tiny step towards your values, notice that you did it, and see what happens next and repeat. Let me know what happens.  

Want to change the world? Start by connecting to you: Part 3

Want to change the world? Start by connecting to you: Part 3

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It’s not about proving to yourself that you can do it, it’s about figuring out how you can make it happen.

This is the last blog of a 3-part series on self-care. If I can summarize our self-care formula in 3 parts it would look like this:

1. Know WHY. Get in touch with your personal reasons for prioritizing your self-care. (See part 1)

2. Know WHAT. Figure out what self-care is for you (not what someone tells you to do or what other people are doing). Find what truly nourishes you. (See part 2).

3. Figure out HOW. Find the formula or routine that will allow you to keep practicing self-care even when life wants to get in the way.

We’ve discussed #1 and #2 in previous posts. So today I want to talk about the things that can help you make self-care sustainable (rather than a 1-week stint).

Here are a few tricks.

1. Find a daily connect to your WHYs. This is something that will remind you of what is important to you on a daily basis. This could be a daily prayer, night time reading ritual, morning meditation, a daily snuggle in the morning with your partner, anything that helps you see the big picture. Try making it something you like doing or already do so that it doesn’t take much effort. Mine is waking up earlier than everyone in the morning to have my “me time” before the day starts. If I don’t have that daily connect to myself it’s much harder to choose how I want my day to go.

2. Find your lead WHAT. Or your lead domino [as Tim Ferriss (1) might call it] or your keystone habit (as Charles Duhigg calls it in the Power of Habit (2). This is the habit that, if acted out, will make all of the others fall into place, or at least come easier. For example, many of my clients find that if they exercise in the morning they are more motivated at work and feel like eating healthier during the day, and in order to make the morning exercise happen they drink less alcohol in the evenings and go to bed earlier. So, they just have to get that morning exercise habit to happen and it has a self-care domino effect on the others.

3. Make an action plan and write it down. A lot of evidence suggests that writing down the what, where & when for a new habit will help you actually do it (3)! One thing that works for me is getting in my exercise by running or biking to work (or home from work). But, this takes a lot of planning because it means remembering a change of clothes at work, organizing with my husband drop offs or pick ups of the kids, etc. So if I sit down and plan out my week in advance I can decide which days I’m running to and from work & plan accordingly. Some other plans that help people get their exercise in are packing their gym bag the night before, or writing their exercise in their agenda.

4. Try temptation bundling (4). This is a term coined & researched by Katherine Milkman, Associate Professor of Operations, Information & Decisions at The University of Pennsylvania. She finds that if you bundle a hard to do behavior (like exercise) with an instantly rewarding behavior it can help you get motivated to do it. For example, you might decide to only watch your favorite TV shows at the gym (like she does) or reward yourself with a day off of work when you finally get your mammogram.

5. Try telling someone about your self-care habit or eliciting the help of a buddy. You can think of it as accountability, but I prefer to think of it as building self-care into your identity. “This is me and this is what I do to take care of me”.  Keeping it to yourself will not make it happen and it will not make you believe it is important to you. Tell your friends or loved ones what you’re doing, make it real, and elicit their help if you can. For example, find a morning running buddy. Join a walking group with friend. Start a recipe swap with a family member and try a new meal together each week.

The hardest part of self-care habits is keeping them going. If you see it as a healthy challenge rather than a task or a threat it is almost fun figuring out how you can make self-care work for you!! Come join our network of self-care warriors :) Follow us on Instagram @connectepsychology for your daily connect to self-care.


Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

1. Borrowing this term from Tim Ferriss and The 4 Hour Workweek.

2. Great book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.                                    

3. Read more about Professor Katherine Milkman’s research on temptation bundling here. Listen to Professor Katherine Milkman talk about temptation bundling (among other behavioural tools) in this Freakonomics episode, When willpower isn’t enough.

4. Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation Plans: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist, 54 (7), 493-503. 

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

This post is a continuation of my last post, which can be summed up nicely by this quote my colleague Andrea recently posted on Instagram:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”

In that post I asked you to get in touch with all of the reasons WHY you want to keep your cup full. These are your WHYs for taking care of you: the values and people you want to nourish in your life. If you haven’t read it, it’s short, please take a moment to do so: Want to Change the World? Start by Connecting to You.

In this post I’d like to talk about WHAT self-care is for you? I think a common misconception is that self-care is all about tea and massages. These are great ways to recharge if they work for you! But personally I find going for a run or sitting around a dinner table with my friends just as nourishing as going to the spa. Last post I also suggested that you should not start with what other people tell you you should do to take care of yourself or what your inner bully tells you your “lazy butt” should do to take care of you. I think the most nourishing self-care moments are actually when we connect our actions with our values (our WHYs). So, let’s look back at those lists we created last time. Here’s my short list:

My WHYs

Who is important to me? (1)

  • My family

  • My friends

  • My colleagues

What is important to me? (1)

  • Growth

  • Hard work

  • Authenticity

  • Creativity

  • Connecting with people

  • Feeling part of something bigger than me

  • Taking care of my body

  • Being in nature

  • Freedom

  • Fun

I’ll try to give you an example of how you might try to connect your self-care actions with your WHYs in the area of health. Most of us know that exercise is an important piece of self-care, but for many of us it feels like a chore. I was in this boat for a long time. When I was a kid I played many sports, mostly just for fun, because my friends were doing them. But as I got older my friends did fewer team sports and by the age of 18 I was left sport-less. My husband is a professional athlete and when we met at the age of 20 I was inspired to get back into exercise. So, I tried to jump on the gym bandwagon. My husband spent his days at the gym, there must be something good about it right? And so I would go to the gym a few hours a week to work out and it was fine. But then slowly but surely the gym would creep down my priority list and ooops I would find myself months without going to the gym at all. Anyone recognize this pattern? And the pattern continued for years and years until near the end of my 20s when I decided I was tired of feeling bad about not going to the gym and gave up on exercise altogether. Phew what a relief! But then months later, feeling sluggish and unfit, I asked myself “is there another way?” Can I personalize this exercise thing so that I actually like it and it might stick? So I looked back and asked myself what I used to like about exercise? For many sports it was just the social aspect but there were no sports that all of my friends were doing anymore (and I’m not that good at making new friends) so that might not work. But then I realized the two sports I really loved, just for me, were horseback riding and cross-country skiing (neither of which is done in a gym, Aha!) So why did I like them? 1) Because they were both done outside, often in the forest (which connected me to nature), and 2) taking off for hours of trail riding or skiing totally disconnected me from “real life” and rejuvenated me (which gave me a sense of freedom). And so, with less time in the schedule as an adult I decided to try out something similar but more practical: running. I loved it and haven’t looked back since. What I learned is that if you turn exercise into something is meaningful to you, the motivation will come much easier.

Since then I have tried this with different aspects of my life. I’ve broken down self-care into 4 domains for myself: Health, Leisure, Work, and Relationships (1). And asked myself in each of these domains what is a meaningful self-care activity for me? Remember we can find meaning by looking to our WHYs.

Here are some of the self-care activities that work for me (my self-care WHATs):

Domain: Health
Self-care WHAT: Running
WHY: Connection to nature; feeling of freedom

Domain: Leisure
Self-care WHAT: Dinners with friends (especially outside)
WHY: Connection with people; feeling part of something bigger than myself; fun

Domain: Work
Self-care WHAT: Blocking off hours in the morning once a week for writing
WHY: Freedom; creativity

Domain: Relationships
Self-care WHAT: Long weekends up north with my husband
WHY: Connection; nature; growth as a couple, as parents; authenticity; (and freedom from the children!)

If you like the idea try it out and see how it works for you!

“Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.”
From the book Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg

I know I promised to talk about finding your lead domino (2) and making daily commitments to action. I did not forget. So stay tuned for part 3 of Want to change the world, start by connecting to you!


Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Great book by Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

Check out this fun video by Dr. Russ Harris: Values vs Goals     

Intrinsic motivation is proven to help us reach our goals long-term. See: Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67. 

Also see: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward L. Deci

1. These are really great questions that Benjamin Schoendorff asks in his ACT matrix training to get at what’s truly important to people and to break down life into important domains. You can find out more about the ACT matrix here. Clinicians can check out his book: The Essential Guide to the ACT matrix.

2. Borrowing this term from Tim Ferriss and The 4 Hour Workweek

The Skinny on ACT

The Skinny on ACT

By: Brent Beresford, PhD Candidate

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Hello Readers,

            You may already have heard about Acceptance and Commitment therapy, or ACT—which, as its authors like to say, is pronounced “act” and not “ay-see-tee”. Recently, our resident psychologist Lisa Linardatos posted a Ted talk by Steven Hayes, founding author of this approach—check it out to find out more about ACT straight from the source. What I wanted to do here was to briefly let you in on what ACT is all about. I quickly realized that it might take a couple of instalments to do that. So we’ll start from the bottom, and see where we get. But first, perhaps it’s interesting to know that ACT isn’t all that new. Steven Hayes, Kelly Wilson, and Kirk Strosahl first started adapting this approach in the 80s. After several years of using and investigating the approach, they finally put together a first book about ACT in 1999. Since then, ACT has become one of the most researched therapeutic approaches; creating a huge buzz in the world of psychology. You can see just how much is being done by going to the ACT online learning and research community (www.contextualpsychology.org).

            Before talking about what ACT is, I think it’s interesting to note where it stems from—because the basis and foundations of ACT are what set it apart from many other approaches. A major element that underlays ACT is in the way the approach understands human suffering as being universal and normal. Kelly Wilson writes about it as the ubiquity of human suffering, or simply as the human condition. So, instead of seeing some of the ineffective and painful things that we do as being pathological (like worrying, isolating ourselves, catastrophizing), ACT sees them as being typical learned ways of facing pain and suffering that are perhaps amplified and no longer adaptive to the lives we want to lead. Though this might seem like a small detail, it is actually what allows for ACT therapists and their clients to find a common place from which they can work together. Understanding that the obstacles that are difficult for clients can be the same ones that are difficult for therapists allows for a great amount of empathy, and also allows for an appreciation of others as fellow travellers in the rock and roll ups and downs that life brings us.

            Another important element that relates to this is ACT’s understanding of a typical human behaviour that can lead to suffering—what Russ Harris calls the happiness trap. Basically, in our search to want to feel better, we often use our problem-solving mode of mind to find solutions. The problem being that I feel like crap; the obvious solution that I should be happy. Two issues with this are, first, that there are certain myths that we believe in that make us think that this solution is appropriate, and second, that the mode we use to go about being happy may actually lead to more suffering. Harris describes these myths in detail, but I’ll just name them here: happiness is the natural state for ALL human beings; If you’re not happy, you’re defective; To create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings; and You should be able to control what you think and feel. Though each of these myths are distinct, they share a common idea: that we can somehow control our happiness and pain. Of course, that is the unfortunate message that is pervasive in our society.

            What is happiness anyways? Is it about “YOLO” and big smiles, and floating on clouds? Or can it be about “living a rich and meaningful life”? The issue is, as Harris puts it, if we want to live a full life then we will experience the full range of human emotions—including the ones that are less pleasant. Is that necessarily a bad thing or abnormal? Not according to ACT. So, with that in mind, Jason Luoma and colleagues clarify ACT’s goal as not being about feeling better, but about having the focus be on living better. In order for that to happen, a huge part is in acknowledging that this suffering is a normal part of our lives. Why do we have to acknowledge this? Not for any intellectual reason; but because if we look deeply at our own experiences, we can see, as Kelly Wilson writes, that as we turn away from our suffering we also turn away from other things—sometimes missing some of the richest elements in our lives.

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            And so, where I’ll end is on a short exploration of a key element in living full and meaningful lives—our values. Wilson writes that values and vulnerabilities are poured from the same vessel. Meaning that often it is in the areas that we care about most that we are most likely to experience pain. If we take a moment to look at our experiences, we might see that often the times that it hurts the most are the times involving those people that are the most important to us. And so, turning away from that pain can often involve turning away from those people. This is a reason that ACT focuses on constructing our values and making our lives be about those things that bring us the most meaning. But how to do that? How often are we permitted to take a step back and explore what makes sense, what brings vitality and true fulfilment?

            Perhaps this exercise, Already 80, can allow you to contemplate these things, bringing what is truly important to light. In being more aware of these values, we may already feel the pull of wanting to head in their direction. An invitation is to tread lightly—holding values rigidly or wanting to live them at all costs can be tantamount to smothering them.

Brent Beresford


Brent Beresford is a PhD Candidate in the Clinical and Research Psychology program at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), and formerly a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

Harris, R. (2007). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living.

Luoma, J., Hayes, S., & Walser, R. (2007). Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists.

Wilson, K., & Dufrene, T. (2008). Mindfulness for Two: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Approach to Mindfulness in Psychotherapy.