Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), pronounced “act,” is one of several new third-wave behavioral therapies. A non-psychotherapy version, referred to as Acceptance and Commitment Training, is also practiced by health professionals, sport coaches, life coaches, and is used in the corporate world to improve imagination, creativity, and productivity. Long-term mindfulness meditators have found that learning ACT has enabled them to live fuller lives.
Taking valued action
ACT is ideally suited to many fields, especially, behavioral medicine, because of the versatility of its philosophy of acceptance, conscious choice, identification of personal values, and the emphasis on a commitment to aligning one’s behavior with one’s personal values.
The paradox of acceptance
In ACT, it is understood that attempts to change or eliminate thoughts, feelings, emotions, or sensations often paradoxically amplify the very discomfort that we attempt not to experience. The willingness to fully experience thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations while pursuing valued action (behavior congruent with each individual’s unique personal values) leads to an increased sense of aliveness.
ACT is contextual.
In ACT there is no such thing as a dysfunctional or irrational belief. Rather, it’s all about context and workability. In other words, we can simply ask ourselves whether a certain belief or behavior is in harmony with the values we hold dear. For example, if someone likes parties but chooses not to go due to a fear of not fitting in, in that context staying home would not be healthy. However, if the reason to stay home is because the individual simply values meeting with friends individually and genuinely has no interest in parties, then in that context, staying home is healthy.
It’s not about mastery of symptoms; it’s about mastery of the experience of those symptoms.
People who suffer from anxiety disorders have desperately tried to eliminate fear and anxiety by getting rid of their symptoms. Instead, ACT asks them to accept and fully experience the anxiety symptoms. This form of acceptance is referred to as an active form of acceptance. It is about acceptance and change at the same time.
Avoid the struggle by accepting fear and anxiety.
ACT is about avoiding the struggle to control unwanted thoughts and feelings by alternatively focusing on how to relate to them. It is the difference between living in a state of fear, and viewing the fear objectively. When we can objectively observe our experience rather than be fused (identified) with it, we are empowered to act in ways congruent with our most deeply held personal life values and convictions. From this new defused (dis-identified) experience, we can live authentic lives rather than be desperately trying to get rid of or suppress the truth of what we are experiencing.
Rejection of thoughts and feelings leads to self-rejection.
One of the dangers of suppression of unwanted thoughts and feelings is that the struggle to suppress them paradoxically reinforces the very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings we don’t want to experience. It’s unnecessary to actually embrace painful thoughts and feelings; we simply need to be willing to be fully present and accepting of them.
What we resist persists.
The more we resist and think about what we do not want, the more we experience it. The path of least resistance is that of learning to accept and be fully present with what we don’t want while working toward what we do want.
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