How does fear show up in your life? Is it that dread of facing the day that causes you to hit the snooze button when your alarm goes off in the morning? Does fear lead you to doubt your abilities and thus keeps you living a boring but “comfortably” familiar lifestyle? Does fear block you from pursuing promising relationships or job opportunities?
Do you believe that if someone waved a magic wand and your feelings of fear disappeared entirely, that all would be well for you?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also referred to as ACT, has a different approach to fear. Contrary to some other therapeutic approaches, ACT does not have as its primary purpose to reduce uncomfortable feelings, but to change our relationship to such feelings, so that they don’t distract us from living in line with our most important values.
“What?!?” I hear you cry. “I’m tired of feeling anxious, depressed, impulsive, angry, and/or insecure. I want relief now!” Fair enough. And understandable.
If you said this to an ACT therapist, they might ask you to review the various methods you’ve tried to reduce your uncomfortable feelings, which might include:
- pretending that they don’t exist
- telling yourself that it’s ridiculous to have them
- trying to alter your mood by drinking alcohol, taking drugs, binge-eating, over-sleeping, or other compulsive activities
- avoiding situations and people who evoke these feelings
How well have any of these methods worked for you? If they’ve been effective and haven’t compromised your life in other ways, then all the more power to you.
However, it may be that your attempts to avoid your unpleasant feelings have created additional problems, not the least of which might be an obsession with “fixing the problem”, to the point where the rest of your life has become a mere afterthought. You may have lost sight of what you deem to be most important to you, what you love, cherish, and long for, and the person you want to be. In other words, through focusing on what you want most to avoid, you no longer are very clear on what you do want.
What we focus on becomes larger. Thus, ACT encourages us to neither cling to the problem nor to deny it. Instead, ACT suggests that we shift our focus to how we want to live and what we want to stand for, given our situation. To quote Russ Harris, ““A value is a direction we desire to keep moving in, an ongoing process that never reaches an end.” So, no matter what happens in our lives, even if we attempt something and it doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped, we haven’t failed as long as we’ve stayed true to our values.
As far as goals go, if we are having trouble moving forward in a particular area (say, work, relationships, or letting go of unhealthy habits), ACT also encourages us to shift from FEAR to DARE. In ACT terminology, FEAR stands for:
Fusion with our feelings: We allow our feelings and thoughts to consume us and run the show. In other words, they overtake us. For instance, our mind might say, “This is impossible” or “I can’t stand this”. Such thoughts on their own needn’t get in our way if we can achieve a healthy distance from them emotionally and recognize them as just thoughts, not facts – in other words, defuse from them. However, if we can’t do so, our efforts to move forward will be thwarted.
Excessive goals: We have set the bar too high. Maybe we’ve made it a goal to lose 15 pounds in a month. Or we’ve signed up to run a marathon in two months, despite our lack of experience in running. As a result, we either experience failure or we throw in the towel.
Avoidance of discomfort: We consider it intolerable to experience anything unpleasant. In such situations, our top priority is to remove the discomfort rather than work with it in constructive ways. Since change generally provokes some disquieting feelings, if we’re not willing to have these, we’re unlikely to venture far from our comfort zone.
Remoteness of values: We are unclear about our personal priorities. We don’t yet have a clear picture (of have lost sight) of where we want to invest our time, energy, and resources when it comes to a particular goal. Thus, when we encounter obstacles, the necessary motivation to persevere isn’t there.
Being in this state of FEAR can paralyze us. However, there is an effective alternative: DARE (comprised of the following);
Defusion: We acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that are getting in our way, yet we don’t identify with them. In other words, we assume the role of an observer who is able to say, “I hear you, but I am bigger than you. I am driving this car.”
Acceptance of discomfort: We accept that our painful feelings may be along for the ride and may get loud and unruly at times, but we don’t let them stop us from doing what is most important to us.
Realistic goals: We take honest stock of the resources at our disposal, be they time, money, skill, or medical and physical status. If lacking in any of these areas, we determine if they can be acquired through some action on our part, and we take the appropriate steps. If not, we accept reality and adjust our goals.
Embracing values: Why have we set this goal for ourselves, anyway? We get clear on whether our stated priorities and values are actually true for us, or whether we’ve adopted them from our parents, peers, or society. If the latter, we engage in sufficient contemplation and experimentation to come up with values and goals that represent what we honestly want most for ourselves, our characters, and our lives.
The opposite of fear is not lack of fear. It’s the courage to DARE, to experience our discomfort, accept that such suffering is often part of getting out of our comfort zone, and to recommit ourselves to doing what is most important to us. If by taking such steps our fear diminishes (which is often the case), this is a side benefit, but it isn’t the point. Living in line with our truths and our values is what counts.