“The suffering itself is not so bad; it’s the resentment against suffering that is the real pain.”
When I first started my own work with mindfulness and radical acceptance, I found myself saying, “I’ll accept this feeling/ this symptom so that I don’t have to have it anymore.” That’s… not really acceptance but it was the best I could do at the time. Since working with clients around mindfulness and radical acceptance, I have heard this sentiment hundreds of times. It’s hard to get behind the idea that accepting our pain or feelings or aversive experiences has therapeutic value, that it could ever help us to make positive changes. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is driven by just this, accepting the hard-to-accept.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy was created by Steven Hayes in the early 1980s and tested by Robert Zettle in the mid-1980s. It is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and is based on Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’s (ACT) main objective is to help participants turn toward their feelings and symptoms instead of resisting them. The protocol helps participants learn how not to overreact nor underreact nor altogether avoid the associations with these feelings and symptoms. With ACT, we learn to accept ourselves and the experience we are having in the present moment so that we can commit to a behavior aligned with our values.
ACT succinctly describes the change in psychological flexibility in this way:
We go from F.E.A.R.
F- fusion with our thoughts
E- evaluation of our experience
A- avoidance of our experience
R- reason-giving for our behavior
A-accept our reactions and be present
C- choose a valued direction
T- take action
In the book, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change by Hayes, Strosahi, and Wilson, we’re given the six core principles to help us develop psychological flexibility:
- Cognitive de-fusion: Learning methods to reduce the tendency to reifythoughts, images, emotions, and memories.
- Acceptance: Allowing thoughts to come and go without struggling with them.
- Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness, interest, and receptiveness.
- Observing the self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is unchanging.
- Values: Discovering what is most important to oneself.
- Committed action: Setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly.
ACT emphasizes mindfulness because presence of mind/contact with the present is the only way to change behavior. Now is the only time that we can truly choose a behavior. We habituate to looking at the world in a certain way which makes us miss important external and internal cues to help us determine what is happening in the present moment by thinking about the past or the future. Awareness of the present moment helps us to differentiate between what we are afraid is happening and what is actually happening. It helps us to describe what is happening and then make choices in response. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
The “acceptance” part of ACT is problematic for some. “So then, if I’m supposed to accept my feelings and my experience, does that mean I’m supposed to accept abuse and maltreatment?” The answer to that will always be no. When we accept our feelings and experience, it means we accept the information that we are receiving and can make choices based on that information. It means that we accept that this is how it is right, not that this is how it should continue to be.
When we practice acceptance of what’s happening we can mindfully make choices that are in alignment with our values. I like to use this phrasing in my own life and when working with clients: “I’m going to keep choosing the same behavior of ______ because I care about______.” Or “I’m going to change my behavior to ______ because I care about ________.” So, someone might say “I am going to keep choosing the same behavior of confronting people when they treat me with disrespect because I care about my feelings and how I’m treated.” Or “I’m going to change my behavior to respectfully disengaging from an argument when it no longer feels productive because I care about my feelings and this relationship and I know that continuing in unproductive conversation usually leads to hurt feelings and resentment.”
Sometimes the choice is hard to make. For instance, “I choose to go to bed earlier so that I can wake up feeling more refreshed” is a great behavior goal. But what if it means sacrificing quality time spent with loved ones? This is where present moment focus and acceptance of your experience comes in handy. You might prefer to spend the time with your loved ones and wake up feeling a little more sluggish.
I know it’s hard to identify choices so let’s do it together. If you want to talk more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, changing behaviors, or anything else, please call or email me.
Love and Be Loved,