March 21, 2016
By Brent Beresford, PhD Candidate, Therapist
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 installments 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 travelers 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.
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 fulfillment?
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.
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.