Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a pragmatic form of therapy that focuses on how human beings get free of limiting patterns and live their deepest values. It’s a Positive Psychology way of working- focused on the client learning and practicing specific skills and tools. It’s a great therapy option for people who don’t want to spend lots of time talking about their history and/or their current problems, but want coaching on how to efficiently work with emotional pain, and get on with where they want to go.
ACT teaches that often we get stuck when we don’t know how to deal with our thoughts and feelings, and we end up in patterns that prevent us from living out our true values. For example, one may dream of trying stand-up comedy to express their humor, but the feeling of fear that comes up prevents acting on it. I find this is a common problem in our culture- partly because education tends to focus on how to move through the external world, but doesn’t teach much on how to deal with our private inner world.
You’ve probably heard of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), which focuses on teaching us to better control thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories- to remove or change the things that bother us, in effect.
By contrast, ACT teaches us to “just notice,” accept, and embrace feelings and thoughts, especially the difficult ones. This may sound crazy- why accept the feelings you want to get rid of? Answer: Because of the futility of trying to change something you can’t control. And, there is a surprising gift in this- the empowerment and peace that comes from letting go of the struggle to control things that we can’t, especially our thoughts about ourselves and our emotions. The ACT view is that trying to control them is like trying to control the weather- impossible. Instead, we learn to stop struggling with them, and judging ourselves for what our internal ‘weather’ is like.
How do we stop struggling with thoughts and feelings? We switch to observing them, using the practices ofmindfulness. A key ingredient to make this switch is flexibility, or the willingness to try new ways of responding.
The ‘Commitment’ part refers to the emphasis on refocusing on where you want to go, and committing to ACT-ing on it. This takes the focus off of what the struggle is and puts it on your values-based goals- a more proactive approach.
I typically recommend that clients read a book on ACT called The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. Even though this book has a somewhat cheesy self-help quality (and an awkward title), it’s the best book I’ve found to get one up to speed with ACT in short order.
Since this approach is based in mindfulness, clients typically receive coaching on how to practice mindfulness meditation and understand its concepts, which in itself tends to improve one’s mood, so there’s a double-win in this approach.