Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has been very helpful to me in grieving important losses, including those that still haunt me from childhood. In this context, ACT’s working hypothesis is that the questions and recriminations with which we torment ourselves after the death of a loved one are products of language and can be addressed by adjusting our relationship with verbal thought.
ACT emphasizes how thinking can interact with feelings to obstruct our pursuit of values. Let’s take my mother’s death as an example and see how this works.
As mentioned last time, my mother died in a psychiatric hospital after battling depression for years. That much is factual. But my mind has never been satisfied with the documented information.
A big question for me has always been: Did she commit suicide? Factually, I cannot know for sure. She died several days after admission to the hospital. I’ve long suspected she overdosed on her many medications, and tricyclic antidepressant toxicity can sometimes cause death after a long delay. So it is possible that she took too many pills and died of the effects. On the other hand, no family members who were adults at the time have ever concluded my mother took her own life.
Even if my mother died of natural causes, she wanted her life to end. At home, she prayed out loud in petition for death. She spent her time alone in a darkened bedroom, displaying little interest in her children. So regardless of the facts, her death felt like a suicide to me.
And I was left without a mother whether or not she deliberately ended her life. In a very real sense, the ‘truth’ doesn’t matter.
Even so, the truth or falsity of suicide has obsessed me for most of my life. An answer would have made no difference in any material aspect of my life. It wouldn’t have changed how my stepmother mistreated me. It wouldn’t have made my father into a better parent. It wouldn’t have prevented my sister’s death from alcoholism. Only in my mind could the answer have exerted any influence.
And that’s exactly the point. The idea that my mother killed herself altered my world view and worked against my happiness. The (unproven) belief that my mother committed suicide fueled deep-seated fears that she didn’t value me as a son. I felt unlovable, which drove me to sabotage friendships and spurn viable romances. A toxic belief augmented by distressing emotions led to avoidant behaviors that limited me for decades.
This would be one interpretation under ACT; other psychological models might view the situation differently. But without doubt, thinking that my mother’s death proved me unworthy undermined my behavior in relationships.
Although it’s useful to inspect and challenge my beliefs, what’s needed even more is practice in relating effectively with others.
Admitting that my mother might have died of natural causes won’t suddenly make me feel worthy. My mom’s actions toward the end of her life transmitted the message that I had become unimportant. The implications became deeply ingrained. My obsession with knowing “the truth” has perhaps been a quest for validation of the insecurity bequeathed by the waning interest in motherhood that preceded her death. (Note how thoughts and feelings are in constant interplay; it isn’t simply a case of one leading to the other.)
One tenet of learning theory is that we build on what came before; we never truly forget anything that carries psychological weight. The feelings of unworthiness stirred by my mother’s death will always remain a (hopefully diminishing) part of me, even as I gain a mature understanding of my importance to others. And yes, that sense of consequence can be fostered, but only if I take the necessary risks and create friendships.
The critical question becomes: How do I act in the face of negative expectations and painful feelings? Can I still reach out to others even if my love was insufficient to sustain my mother’s life? Can I take the risk of rejection despite how much it hurt to lose my mom? Can I remain in friendships even if they sometimes dredge up feelings of abandonment? Can I resist the urge to flee when the awful fear of loss arises?
Only by reaching out despite my dread of rejection will I reclaim my worthiness and begin to feel better around others. Only by taking chances will I find community. Only by sticking with relationships even when they hurt will I discover love. Only by acting effectively despite my obstructing thoughts and challenging feelings will I build a meaningful life.
How we perceive a situation, and how we feel about it, aren’t as vital as how we act. We can move toward what we value no matter how bleak our thoughts or how painful our emotions. This is the message of ACT that has so decisively improved my life.