Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) gets it name from one of its core messages: accept what is out of your personal control, and commit to action that improves and enriches your life.
The aim of ACT is to maximise human potential for a rich, full and meaningful life. ACT achieves this by:
- teaching you psychological skills to deal with your painful thoughts and feelings effectively – in such a way that they have much less impact and influence over you (these are known as mindfulness skills).
- helping you to clarify what is truly important and meaningful to you – i.e your values – then use that knowledge to guide, inspire and motivate you to change your life for the better.
The Goal of ACT
The goal of ACT is to create a rich and meaningful life, while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. ‘ACT’ is a good abbreviation, because this therapy is about taking effective action guided by our deepest values and in which we are fully present and engaged. It is only through mindful action that we can create a meaningful life.
Of course, as we attempt to create such a life, we will encounter all sorts of barriers, in the form of unpleasant and unwanted ‘private experiences’ (thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, urges, and memories). ACT teaches mindfulness skills as an effective way to handle these private experiences.
Psychological Flexibility & The Six Core Processes of ACT
There are six core processes in ACT:
- Contacting The Present Moment means being psychologically present: consciously connecting with whatever is happening right here, right now.
- Defusion means learning to step back or detach from unhelpful thoughts and worries and memories: instead of getting caught up in your thoughts, or pushed around by them, or struggling to get rid of them, you learn how to let them come and go – as if they were just cars driving past outside your house. You learn how to step back and watch your thinking, so you can respond effectively – instead of getting tangled up or lost inside your thinking.
- Acceptance means opening up and making room for painful feelings and sensations. You learn how to drop the struggle with them, give them some breathing space, and let them be there without getting all caught up in them, or overwhelmed by them; the more you can open up, and give them room to move, the easier it is for your feelings to come and go without draining you or holding you back.
- The Observing Self is the part of you that is responsible for awareness and attention. We don’t have a word for it in common everyday language – we normally just talk about the “mind’. But there are two parts to the mind: the thinking self – i.e. the part that is always thinking; the part that is responsible for all your thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies etc. And then there’s the observing self – the part of your mind that is able to be aware of whatever you are thinking or feeling or doing at any moment. Without it, you couldn’t develop those mindfulness skills. And the more you practice those mindfulness skills, the more you’ll become aware of this part of your mind, and able to access it when you need it. (The technical term for this, in ACT, is ‘self-as-context’.)
- Values are what you want your life to be about, deep in your heart. What you want to stand for. What you want to do with your time on this planet. What ultimately matters to you in the big picture. What you would like to be remembered for by the people you love.
- Committed action means taking action guided by your values – doing what matters – even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable.
When you put all these things together, you develop ‘psychological’ flexibility. This is the ability to be in the present moment, with awareness and openness, and take action, guided by your values. In other words, it’s the ability to be present, open up, and do what matters. The greater your ability to be present, open up and do what matters, the greater your quality of life – the greater your sense of vitality, wellbeing and fulfillment.