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The 6 pivots of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy.

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

A quick overview on what's ahead of you in your journey to getting better.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is based on six principles, or pivots, that transforms your inner world.

If we could summarise the practice of ACT in a single sentence, then we'll have to look to what Russ Harris, one of the proponents of this therapy, has to say:

"The solution is the problem!"

This may be a really vague sentence to start with and might mean a lot of different things, but let me take a moment and ask you this important question:

"How do you deal with a difficult problem in your life?"

One of the most rational answers is that we try to solve them - we figure out how to make the problem go away. This of course makes plenty of sense if the problem is external and can be actually solved with our own two eyes and hands, but what if the problem is internal?

What if the problem in this case was actually stuff to do with our inner world - our feelings, negative thoughts, or even situations we find ourselves in that is out of our control and that we can't change or solve?

Take for example a really anxious thought, the idea or belief that we are somehow going to fail or be judged by others. This belief is not something we can actually directly grasp or manipulate. Sure we can try to do something about it, but the belief and feelings themselves aren't something really tangible that we can directly change.

What happens a lot of the times when this haloens is that we struggle internally - we struggle with our own minds to try and get rid of the problem still, and to make it go away.

And how do we do this?

We play an ongoing game of tug-of-war in our minds.

Steven Hayes is the progenitor of ACT. One of the things he noticed about our struggles is that often these struggles are internal.

In the effort to get rid of difficult and negative thoughts and feelings, we play a tug of war with them. For example, if you're someone out there who has been struggling with an anxious or overthinking mind, you know how this is - the more you try to convince yourself that everything are okay, the more overthinking and anxious your mind actually gets. The more you struggle with anxiety, somehow the more anxious you get too.

We use up our mental and physical energy engaging in an internal war, that only leaves us more exasperated, exhausted and depressed.

The aim of ACT is about learning to stop the ongoing conflict within ourselves, to end this game of tug-of-war with our minds - a battle that's causing our hands to be blistered and our energy to be wasted in a futile battle of trying to seize control.

So as a premise to this beautiful therapy, here are the six pivots we can make to change our life into one of inner conflict into a life of self-acceptance instead.

The Six Pivots.

A pivot is a change in direction. Just like a basketball player pivoting around an opponent to get him to his goal of reaching the basket, the six pivots of ACT help you to achieve two main goals:

  1. To go from struggling with pain, to being able to effectively handle painful thoughts and feelings.

  2. From a life controlled by negative beliefs and feelings, to making choices in creating a rich and meaningful life.

I'll share more about each pivot as we progress along in this self-help series, but here's a gentle overview of our journey ahead.

Pivot 1. Cognitive Defusion

Thoughts are sticky things. When I suffered from Depression, a stray thought such as "I am useless" made me start to believe that, truly, a useless human being was what I am.

It made me start thinking too that, no matter what I did, nothing would get better too. Its an easy slip into a hopelessly depressed mood quickly too.

This is example of how I experienced Cognitive Fusion, the opposite end of this first pivot. It means buying into what your our thoughts and feelings, i.e. our minds, tells us and letting our thoughts and beliefs determine how we should feel and what we should do.

This is really how our minds works on a day-to-day basis - we leave so much of our activity to it's subconscious control. We are programmed to perceive the world as a product of our own thoughts. They help us make judgment about things, like whether today is bad or today is good. But because the thinking and judgments are so constant and seamless, we forget that we are painting the day with our thoughts.

Cognitive Defusion means learning to see thoughts as what they are - thoughts. It's about noticing the act of thinking, and catching an unhelpful thought when it arises. That when we think it's a bad day, it's actually us just having the thought that it's a bad day, and whether it has the power to control your behaviour is up to you.

From "today is a bad day" to "I'm having the thought that today is a bad day".

From "I am sad" to "I'm having this feeling of sadness".

And from "I am useless" to "I have the belief that I'm useless".

Now the last sentence was such a negative one - and we might ask here, why on earth is our mind doing this? Well, it's trying to be helpful, except that it really isn't.

In telling ourselves that I was useless, there was mind strangelt trying to solve the problem I was in. It wanted to blame or shame me into being "not useless" instead.

But that only makes things worse doesn't it - but we know now that the solution is the problem, right?

I wasn't really useless, I went through an experience that gave me the thought that I was useless.

Which allows me to then do something about it, which brings us to the next pivot.

Pivot 2: Acceptance.

Acceptance is a broad word, but in this case it means making room for unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

I'm not going to lie, this is not an easy thing to do.

Take the thought of feeling useless as an example - it's not a thought that we can readily accept at all isn't it!

Now I'm asking you to consider this - what do we do a lot of the time when we have such thoughts? Think of similar thoughts like:

"I'm going to fail again".

"Nothing I do will make things change".

It often leads us to do the exact opposite of acceptance, we learn to avoid instead.

In ACT, this is what's known as Experiential Avoidance. Because we have "fused" to such unpleasant thoughts and believe them to be true, they become absolutely convincing, and we become afraid of anything that might make them more true.

For example, in worrying about really being useless, I might avoid giving a presentation or taking on a new project out of feeling even more useless after, although every bone in my body tells me that's something valuable for me to do.

This is an example of an external experience that I avoided, but as you can imagine, it only made me feel worse about myself.

But it isn't just external experiences that we are running away from, but these are our internal experiences too.

We try to avoid our own thoughts and feelings that can just as scary - tucking them away into a corner of our mind. But in trying to convince ourselves, numb, rationalise, blame ourselves and so on, that's us continuing to play the tug of war still.

The truth is, avoidance only leads to more pain, because avoiding the things that cause us the most hurt also leads to avoiding the things that we treasure the most.

Including a sense of peace with ourselves.

And the more we continue to avoid painful experiences, the more we miss out on a richer life as well.

Acceptance is really about learning to embrace the pain. This might sound scary at first, but in ACT we'll also be learning the all methods and skills we need to do so.

Pivot 3: Connecting to the Present.

What are you thinking about most of the time? What about right now in this moment?

Most likely, your attention is focused on reading these words, trying to make sense of them and thinking about them. Perhaps you're thinking about how to apply some of these to your problems and your struggles too.

When you're doing that, where does your mind head to? The answer quite obviously is, we look to our past experiences to see what we could change, so that we can apply it the future too.

That's our mind in problem-solving mode again btw.

But that's just how our mind works. As we struggle with life's challenges, we tend to look to the past and future to orient ourselves, but here's the problem. So much of time is spent in this mental process of thinking, solving, dealing with what-if scenarios, worrying about this and that happening, regretting about yesterday.

This is actually we spend most our day, mindlessly disappearing into a cognitive haze.

The alternative to this is learning to Connect to the Present, and paying attention to your experience here and now. Doing so, you can effectively put a pause button on your mind, and give your mind a little break from its busy-ness too.

In fact, we'll be trying a little helpful exercise right below.

Pivot 4: The Observing Self

At this point here, we are getting a better sense of how our mind has been working all this time - perhaps even right before we started reading this article.

Our minds have been a very busy little thing, conjuring up thoughts here and there, solving problems each day, deciding what to do and say, and decide how we feel about ourselves and others too.

In a sense, it's really trying to make sense of things.

And whether you're aware of it or not, your mind has also been constantly narrating a story of you your entire life. It's the way we make sense of the world, allowing us to understand who we are in relation to others in our lives.

For example, whether we are smarter, richer, happier, more good-looking or have different skills compared than other people in our lives.

Even the negative thought I mentioned earlier on - "I'm useless" - that's my own mind trying to put me into the context of things.

We call these self-stories in ACT, and they all come together to form a concept of ourselves, known as the Conceptualised Self. Sometimes these stories are helpful, giving us the motivation to pursue our goals; other times they are harmful too, such as when we are threatened to defend a story about how smart we are. This just works to cost us more negative thoughts and emotions.

Yet, take a moment to pause here, and look at the words in front of you. As you've been reading this, ask yourself "Who has been doing all this reading so far?".

It was probably a thought like "Me of course" or "I am!". Now turn your attention to any wall around you, and for a moment, focus on the textures and colour of the wall. Just simply observe.

Now, while continuing to look at the wall, move your attention to your bodily sensations, how does your butt feel on your chair. What positions are your legs in? Where are your hands?

As you're observing all these things, including the words in this sentence, ask yourself again, "Who's observing this?"

Keep doing this for a while and then bring your attention to the wider room or your surroundings. You might start to notice there is a part of you that is able to take a "step back" and observe the world around you. It's separate from the Self that is constantly making judgments about the world, i.e. the conceptualised self that lives in our thoughts and stories.

This is the Observing Self of course, and learning to connect to this self more deeply and more often allows us to see that we are more than the stories we tell ourselves, and more than what our mind says. This is one of the most liberating experiences you might come to have.

Pivot 5: Values

We often attach importance to things that we've been told are important, or ones we believe we need to achieve. For example, we might be driven to pursue goals related to career progression, material prosperity, finding a perfect partner, losing weight and maybe looking attractive.

These are socially-compliant goals, and you might find that you come to resent yourself whenever there is a road bump or a failure to achieve them. I'm not saying you should forgo them, but they also shouldn't be costing you your mental wellbeing and happiness.

Instead, clarifying and connecting with your values is an essential step for a meaningful life. These are a reflection of what's most important to you deep in your heart, which might include being a loving parent, a dependable friend, being honest, helping others, and being kind.

Values help set the direction in your life. They also help frame your recovery mindset, moving from goals driven by our mind such as "I need to get rid of my Depression now!" to our true values, like "I can be a loving husband or wife even as I experience Depression".

Pivot 6: Committed Action

I hate to say this, but you won't get much better simply by reading this. Even if you read through all the ACT articles ten times through, you won't find any change until you take action.

Committed action is about building habits around each of the previous five pivots above. Habits are created step-by-step, and that's why it's important to slowly go through each exercises and build up your repertoire of habits for each of the pivots. Hopefully, starting with Cognitive Defusion.

When we don't have habits to keep our hyperactive, thinking mind from taking over, we can easily fall back into the stories it tells us and get lost it. Trust me, I know this too well.

It's been two years since I started practicing ACT in my life, and some thoughts can still be so sticky. These are when habits come in to remind myself to defuse from a thought, to not run away from depressed or anxious feelings, to connect to the present and my Observing Mind, and live with my values.

Sometimes I still slip up and get lost in a depressed or anxiety-stricken haze. But you know what, that's okay. After all, as much as my mind wants to tell me this story, I am not perfect. I am not special. I am not useless. I am not immune from mental pain even though I am a Psychologist.

I'm just another human being observing the world, and each day, I try my best to choose to do the things I value the most.

Thanks for reading and I hope you get a chance to read and use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy through your own struggle. Thanks, Hernping


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