Living a rich, full, and meaningful life. Discovering and chasing after the things you value. Not allowing your mental health symptoms to get in the way of doing the things that are important to you. All of these are tenets of a therapeutic approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I utilize ACT in my practice with clients because it aligns so well with many of the goals my clients come into therapy with, including those listed above. There are 6 different tenets of ACT and they all work together toward the larger goal of psychological flexibility, or the ability to step far enough back from our immediate thoughts and feelings to make decisions based on our long-term values and goals.
ACT is considered a third-wave psychotherapy approach, meaning that it is a bit different from approaches that came before it, such as the well-known CBT. In CBT, clients often examine and replace unhelpful thoughts. In contrast, ACT teaches clients to accept the presence of negative thoughts and emotions and make space for them. In ACT, acceptance is the antithesis of avoidance. Avoidance of negative thoughts or feelings often increases distress in the long term, and in the end will not get rid of the thoughts or feelings. When we can learn to make space for negative thoughts and feelings, we can learn not to let them consume or control us.
After learning to accept negative thoughts and emotions, clients learning ACT are then introduced to values. Values are the things that are most important to us in life, and, according to ACT, when we are living in line with our values we can have a rich, full, and meaningful life. It is important to know that everyone’s values are different, and there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to values. Values can also change over time, based on your season of life or other events.
Once values have been identified, then clients can move toward the committed action stage of ACT, which is similar to goal-setting. The hallmark of committed action is setting goals that are consistent with your values and learning how to continue taking steps toward those goal despite the presence of unhelpful thoughts, feelings, or urges.
In a nutshell, ACT works to help clients accept that negative thoughts and feelings will come up, identify their values, and take committed action toward those values even in the presence of negative thoughts and feelings. To learn more about ACT, check out Russ Harris’s book “The Happiness Trap” and stay tuned for future blogs diving deeper into each of the 6 tenets.