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Here's why Acceptance and Commitment Therapy will change your life.

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

A gentle introduction into a self-help therapy you can begin today.


What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) all about?


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is about learning to effectively handle troublesome thoughts and emotions, especially the ones that take us away from living a meaningful life.


ACT is a modern, evidence-based approach that offers a unique perspective on well-being. We tend to think of therapy as getting rid of the "bad" thoughts and feeling and encouraging "good" ones.


ACT is different.


It helps you make room for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, because not only is discomfort part of life, it is also intricately linked to what you care most about.


ACT is a journey into understanding yourself better. This then begs the question - who are you really?


Take a moment and really reflect on this question.


As you are doing so, you are relying on a central part of you - your thoughts. Your thoughts enable you to piece together a coherent story of who you are, made up of a combination of statements like "I am me", your memories, emotions and reflections of your life.


Take a second and marvel at what an incredible human being you are, capable of turning simple words, phrased as a question on a page, into a fascinating inner world where you live in.


In ACT, we call this thinking, processing and remembering part of ourselves the Thinking Mind. It is the part of ourselves we are most familiar with, or at least we think we are. It's also where we start our journey.


So let's begin.



Understanding your Thinking Mind: The greatest story-teller in the world.


Whether you’re fully aware of it or not, we all have a voice in our mind that runs most of our daily lives. I’m not talking about the kind of third-person voice that someone suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia might hear during hallucinations (think Russell Crowe in the movie, A Beautiful Mind).


This is our voice - the voice that narrates our thoughts and our day-to-day lives.


You can think of this voice as your Thinking Mind, the one in charge of the ongoing narration of your thoughts.


We rely on this voice to get through our work or studies each day. Many times, this voice operates on Autopilot mode, such as when you're driving or doing chores.


This voice generates thoughts constantly and automatically, all the time, every single day. Are you truly always aware of all your thoughts, even when you think:

  • "I'm getting hungry"

  • "Is the laundry done yet" , or even

  • "I need to remember to breathe today".


In this vein, much of our Thinking Mind operates on its own accord. It has evolved to do so, and is something we should be grateful to for keeping us alive.


Yet the automaticity of our Thinking Mind sometimes becomes unhelpful. Like the times it wakes you up in the middle of the night, bringing up the top ten worst memories in of your life.



A core part of our Thinking Minds is the ability to make judgements. These are what helps us makes sense of the world - "Can I eat this?" or "Is he a good person to date"?


Sometimes it acts as our best advisor, boosting our confidence and telling us that it isn’t our fault when things go wrong. When we’ve accomplished something good, it tells us:


"Great work! See, you are intellegent!".


Other times, it becomes our inner critic. It turns on us when we do something wrong, even telling us that we are not good, stupid or even weak.


Why is that? It's because again, that's what it has evolved to do. For example, when facing social rejection, we might feel sad and start to worry that we are not good enough. That's part of an important evolutionary process, as our ancestors wouldn't have survived if they were stuck in the wilderness alone.


However, whether our Thinking Mind tells us positive or negative things, that’s not the important point. What is so dangerous is that we've lost track that we are listening to a voice.

We don't see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.


I've been speaking of this Thinking Mind as some third-person voice talking, but really, it's the same voice we hear when we mind-speak and think. It's the voice that we've come to know as me, or I, or myself.


Our mind's dictation of thoughts has been so constant and seamless throughout our lives, that we become entangled with it and identify it as our own voice. We think of our thoughts as the absolute truth, our reality.


ACT has a technical jargon for such an entanglement - Cognitive Fusion.


We've become so fused to our Thinking Mind that even as you're reading this now, you might still be thinking, "What voice are you talking about, all I hear is myself ."


Yet, have you ever had an experience where you saw your own thoughts from an outsider's view?


Perhaps, you were stuck in some train of thought, and a deeper part of you surfaced and found some distance from that thought. You could then say, "Oh wow, I was really stuck in my head wasn't I".


On in even rarer times, you might even have the experience of suddenly waking up from a reverie, and come into full awareness of the environment around you, and where you sit in time in the here and now. If you've experienced this, lucky you. It's such a powerful experience.


These are all skills we will be honing as part of ACT - learning to gain distance from our thoughts and connect to the present.



Self-Stories - The problem with the Thinking Mind.


If you had to look back on your life and tell a story about it, what would you come up with? It might be a negative story, speaking of a damaged childhood, a life filled with challenges, and struggles with inner pain.


It might even be the most positive story, narrating a very attractive tale of yourself. It might speak about how unique and special you are, capable and smart.


Often times, the stories of ourselves are a mixture of both.


These Self-stories help us to form a coherent whole to ourselves. It allows us to describe ourselves when we have to introduce ourselves to new people. You might tell him or her what kind of music you like, what is your passion in life, or what are you like to date in a romantic relationship.


However, these stories are also the reason why we:

  • Exaggerate about ourselves to others.

  • Bolster up the details of our good deeds.

  • Tell people half-truths when we've done something wrong.

  • Put our pride in the way of a friendship or relationship.

  • Believe that getting better is impossible.


We do all the above because our self-stories are so important to us. They are what makes you, you, after all. It's also why when anybody challenges the integrity of our self-stories, we will try to defend them to no end.


We tend to view these stories as facts of ourselves, but they are anything but. More often, they are judgements about ourselves. For example:

  • "I am a Psychologist" is a fact.

  • "I am a Psychologist so I shouldn't be depressed" is a judgement.


The above is the reason why I struggled with depression for so long without seeking help. I came to believe the story my own Thinking Mind conjured for me. It told me that I was a Psychologist - shouldn't I be able to snap myself out of it?


In this vein, because our self-stories are not facts, they are prone to bias and distortion. Yet we aren't always aware when this happens. We aren't even aware of when or how they formed.


For now, understand that when we mistake these self-stories for our true selves, it is then that we close ourselves up in the effort to struggle with our own pain. We continue to be stuck in an ongoing process of defending these stories, and as a consequence, many mental health and life satisfaction challenges follow.


These stories are all part of what ACT has come to call the Conceptualised Self, also known as the Ego, the concept of me that we have grown to believe is our story.



Through the ACT framework, you'll learn to come and name these self-stories.


As you become more aware of the presence of your self-stories, their hold on you greatly lessens. I myself have come to name this particular self-story above the "I'm such a smart Psychologist" story.


It told me I was someone who grew up with a tough childhood, overcoming my own difficulties through the study of Psychology and eventually becoming a psychologist myself. However, after giving up that track, I became lost again, working meaninglessly in my current corporate job.


Was it really my fault that I fell into this trap? No, it must be my crappy company, my selfish colleagues, friends who didn't support me, and so on and so on.


You see now? It doesn't matter whether your self-story is positive or negative.


The simple fact is that your Thinking Mind has led you to believe a self-story that is distorted from who you are deep inside.


It's led you to believe a false story about you.



The Observing Mind - who are you really?


I alluded to this earlier, but there is a forgotten part of ourselves that comes into presence sometimes. It is a part of ourselves that is much more aware of ourselves in the here and now, rather then being absorbed into the stories of our Thinking Mind.


It's called the Observing Mind.


Read the following and try it out on your own:


Take five slow deep breaths. Keep your eyes open. With each breath, focus on how the air is breathed in slowly from the outside and into your lungs. And then breathe out and release the air back into the world.


Ask yourself, "Who is doing the observing"?


You might answer in your mind "Me! I am". If that's so, ask yourself, "Who's observing that thought statement?"


Alternatively, you might have a feeling of confusion to this question. If that's so, just observe that feeling, then ask yourself "Who is observing that feeling?"


Now take another five deep breaths, but this time, while still paying attention to your breath, focus on the sensations of your body - i.e. how your feet is connected to the ground, how your butt feels wherever you are sitting, where are your arms resting on right now, your fingers, how your head is upright in the air. It doesn't matter where you are, try it out.


Ask yourself again, "Who is doing the observing?"


Perhaps you came to an awareness that there was a part of you that is separate from these thoughts, feelings and sensations you feel. It's connected to the here and now. This part of you can also step out of whatever thoughts you are having at any moment, and simply observe.


We'll hone this skill as we go alone, but when you allow your Observing Mind to take over, a negative or hurtful thought simply becomes just another thought. You'll become more aware of the self-stories your Thinking Mind has fashioned for you, and can determine whether these should influence your behaviours or not.


The Observing Self is the key to becoming liberated from the controlling power of your Thinking Mind. You can start to see the presence of the Thinking Mind more clearly, and come into power of your consciousness again.



The wisdom of Self-Acceptance.


As we begin to get a better understanding of the workings of our Thinking Mind, we'll learn to come to accept how the thoughts and stories of our Thinking Mind have coloured our reality.


Instead of seeing them as a part of who we are, we'll learn to create some distance from them, view their presence as a part of our life's events, and open up ourselves to self-compassion and kindness..


Hidden away underneath all these layers is your True Authentic Self.


This is the self that we push away, in the effort to protect our self-stories and our Conceptualised form of Self. Yet, it is the Self that is the essence of who we are, in terms of what really matters to us the most. It knows what our deepest values are, and what we must do to make our lives meaningful.


Why do we push our True Authentic Selves away? It's because of the pain. Do any of the following examples resonate with you?

  • Not getting into a relationship because you're afraid of getting hurt.

  • Avoiding a social event because of the fear of rejection, even though you yearn for connection with others.

  • Not being able to move past grief, because you fear thinking about the event that caused you grief in the first place.

  • Trying to fight away a depressive mood when it comes, only to spend you entire day fighting instead of spending time with your loved ones.


In the following chapter, we'll be talking about these avoidances of pain, and how our continued struggles simply created a vicious cycle of bad feelings.



ACT is actually comprised of a six-step framework.


I'll give you a taste of what this looks like below. I simplify this for the sake illustration, but hope you get the general idea.


This might be the process I go through whenever a depressed mood rushes over me. Imagine that a thought and mood of hopelessness has invaded my day:


  1. Defusion - I'm aware that a thought about my life being hopeless has entered my mind. This thought has arisen because of my self-story "I am a damaged human being".

  2. Acceptance - Even though I dislike feeling depressed, struggling with this thought takes me away from what I truly want. Instead, I make room for the emotions and sensations that accompany this thought.

  3. The Observing Self - Instead of falling into the trap of getting stuck in thought, I take some time to reconnect with my Observing Self.

  4. Connection with the Present - I practice the habits of connecting to the present. I realise that I have the say about what I want to do with my life right now.

  5. Values - I deeply value my wife's and my happiness. So I choose to focus on this today.

  6. Committed Action - I'll continue to keep a watch out for this thought, but for now, it matters more to me to move forward.


See the difference?


By turning toward your suffering and accepting the thoughts and sensations that arise from it, you take a new perspective toward the experience. You become a watcher of your own thoughts, rather than being controlled by them.


"ACT is about looking in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way at the places in ourselves and in our lives where we hurt, because the things that have the power to cause us the most pain are often the things we care about most deeply."
Steven Hayes (Creator of ACT)

Imagine then, the difference in your life if you could always turn toward the things that you care about most deeply, embracing the pain but to always emerge stronger.


 

It's been quite the long read but I hope this article has given you a gentle but yet deeper understanding of what ACT is all about.


Going through the ACT framework and turning toward your pain and suffering is a deeply introspective journey. It can be difficult one to think of doing, since you'll be facing your deepest vulnerabilities head on.


However, the most painful things are often the things we care most about. So stop avoiding this pain and return to a life full of meaning and love. Thanks for reading. Your friend always, Hernping.

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