Carl Rogers, the American psychologist and founding member of client-centered therapy, once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” The strong feelings and conclusions we form often keep us stuck in the false beliefs we hold about ourselves.
Many of my clients are shifting their perspective from “doing” to finding purpose in life, being “being” and discovering a more meaningful life. Clients become “unstuck” from past trauma or feelings that continue to trigger painful events through awareness and acceptance.
Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a powerful psychotherapy model based on cutting-edge research into how the human mind works. It is clinically proven to be successful in a wide range of psychological problems. Act teaches clients to learn how to accept those things that are out of their control and commit to changing those things that can.
The ACT model helps clients move away from false conclusions, meanings, or beliefs they hold towards what they value most in life, creating a higher, flexible, functional lifestyle. The mindfulness of ACT helps clients come into contact with painful experiences and still choose. They notice what they are feeling and not driven by the pain to make decisions.
The therapist helps the client obtain what is called psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is defined as the ability to come into contact with painful experiences and still choose to move towards what they value. Clients notice what they feel and are not driven by the pain to decide. Therapists use psychological flexibility as a measure of emotional and mental health.
An example: I have a thought, “I am an idiot.” Being inflexible, my range of coping is limited, and I withdraw and shut down. Being flexible, I can reframe the thought, expanding my options of dealing whereby I share my feeling, and ask for validation.
Clients can develop psychological flexibility. We want them to be able to come into direct contact with painful experiences and make a functional choice.
The six core processes that create Psychological Flexibility are:
1. Acceptance – being willing to sit in our pain
2. Defusion – taking our minds less seriously (rather than being fused with thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations, thus giving them meaning that is false.)
• Bringing awareness to thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations, the
• response to them, and the consequence of that response.
• Inviting openness to the effectiveness of the response to the feelings and thoughts.
• Promoting engagement with a flexible response to thought
3. Present moment – different from traditional mindfulness (being aware of feelings and thoughts in the present moment.) At present, I hold onto my pain so that I can choose to do what is most important to me.
4. Self as Context – You are not your thoughts.
5. Values –Who and what matters most
6. Commitment – Doing what matters most to you.
No one core process is more important than the other. The processes are grouped into three stages to understand better how to flow through each process.
The first is the Open stage, where the process of acceptance occurs as well as Defusion. In the Acceptance process, we are noticing (identifying) what we feel without judgment. We sit in our pain. Defusion is the act of differentiating our thoughts and feelings from our identity or how we see ourselves. During the Defusion process, we identify the meaning we give thoughts, feelings, and experiences without letting them define us.
The second stage is Aware where we engage the process of being in the Present Moment with the pain. In this process, we realize we are in the here and now and rather than there and then. The second process in this stage is Self-as-Context, where we come to believe that our feelings, thoughts, and experiences do not define us.
During the last stage, we Engage. The Values process identifies what is true about us, what and who matters most to us. The final step of Commitment identifies the things we can choose to move towards what we value most and is most meaningful to us in life.
I am excited about ACT therapy as it complements and completes concepts of Belief Systems Therapy. Belief Systems Therapy (BST) theorizes that behavior is motivated by our thoughts and feelings, flowing from what we believe about ourselves. To change our behavior, we must discover what motivates that behavior. Our actions are motived by our emotions (the power source) that originate from the conclusions we have formed about ourselves. These conclusions or beliefs are the root of our behavior.
We learn to identify feelings and thoughts and the meaning we give them utilizing a tool called the Belief Check-In. Once we determine what is true about us, we are free to choose based on reality and not a false conclusion from our past feelings or experiences. Do I choose behavior based on how I feel, or do I make a decision based on what I know to be true? We ask the following questions to unpack a given event and create change in the present moment.
1. What am I feeling, and why do I feel this right now? Are these feelings familiar, common, and long-term?
2. What behaviors am I engaging in for comfort or escape these painful feelings?
3. What conclusion or meaning am I giving these feelings? What do I believe about myself?
4. What is true about me, important to me, or what I value?
5. What do I need and how do I move towards what is important to me?
The Belief Check-In helps discover what we are feeling, what is true about us, and what we need. Through this discovery, we can choose what is true versus false conclusions from past experiences.
The BST process marries with the ACT process three stages of Open, Aware, and Engaged. During the open phase, we ask ourselves the questions of what do I feel, why do I feel this? In the Aware stage, we ask ourselves what is true about us. Finally, in the Engaged stage, we identify what we need and how to get it met legitimately by asking the last two questions.
Working through this process lets clients begin to live in the present moment, sitting in their pain but still moving (choosing) towards what is most important to them. By laying the Life Map over the BST model, we combine the Belief Check In to help us accept painful feelings, thoughts, and experiences without creating coping behaviors that ease our pain temporarily but move us away from our values. Below is a diagram showing the two theories overlay.
Systemic change happens when individuals can observe their behaviors, identify the feelings that motivate that behavior, and connect the core belief or conclusion about themselves to that feeling. In doing so, change occurs when the individual changes what they believe to agree with what is true that creates new feelings, motivating changed behavior.
Many get stuck in the painfulness of feelings attached to the conclusions they hold about themselves. It is in this stage that individuals will say, “I know what is true, but I don’t feel it.” It results in decisions being made based on feelings rather than what is true.
ACT helps clients accept the painful feelings and experiences and be OK in that painful place. They are free to make choices based on what is real instead of trying to avoid or escape the painful feelings. Individuals discover the true meaning of their pain and begin to move towards what is most important to them.
I am excited and motivated to implement ACT’s critical concepts in helping clients discover what is true about them and free them to move towards a more fulfilled and meaningful life.