Bending with the wind - ACT & psychological flexibility
My guess is that everyone reading this will have had enough birthdays to know the pain of loss. These losses might arise in different ways; loss of loved ones, loss of an intimate relationship, loss of a job, loss of a friendship, loss of our own health or loss of the health of someone we love, loss of a pet, the list really could be endless. Often when we lose something, or someone, in our lives, our natural default position is to want to turn our back on that loss and the internal unwanted experiences that inevitably accompany that loss. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based therapeutic approach developed by three psychologists in the U.S., believes that there is no way to turn away from pain without also turning away from what truly matters to you. Values and vulnerabilities are poured from the exact same vessel.
I first encountered ACT over a decade ago. My father had been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the tender age of 46. This diagnosis came just five years after we had tragically lost my brother in a car accident. He was just 11 at the time. Just shy of my 20th birthday, the world was increasingly becoming what I deemed an unsafe and unpredictable place to inhabit. I was very much living in fear of experiencing loss again and could feel my life becoming smaller and smaller.
Tara Brach, a Buddhist Psychologist, makes reference to Mohini, a regal white tiger who lived from many years in the Washington DC National Zoo, in her book Radical Acceptance. For most of her life, Mohini lived in a 12 by 12 foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Many animal activists successfully campaigned to get Mohini a much more expansive environment with a variety of vegetation. However, when Mohini was released into this new and expansive environment, she lived the remainder of her life pacing in a small corner of the compound where an area 12 by 12 feet was worn bare of grass. No longer physically encumbered by this small living quarters, Mohini was now imprisoning herself. I could relate to Mohini. And the vast majority of people I have met can relate to Mohini in some way.
Psychological Flexibility- The aim of ACT
ACT specifically aims to increase our psychological flexibility. Just like we learn to be more physically flexible through activities such as exercise, stretching and yoga. So, too, we can learn to be more psychologically flexible through ACT exercises. When we are more psychologically flexible, we are more connected in the present moment and to what matters to us, open to our experiences as they are, rather than what they say they are, and engaging in actions that help bring us closer toward who and where we want to be.
Every single one of us is psychologically inflexible in some contexts. Psychological inflexibility is on a continuum so it can be useful to mindfully and compassionately reflect on where we fall in this spectrum. You can do this by checking in with these six areas:
- How much time do you spend preoccupied by the past and future? We generally go back over the past and either wish things were the same as they were at some time in the past or else go back over past regrets or traumatic events in our lives. In terms of the future, we can get lost in a sea of “what if’s”.
- How much do your thoughts dictate your actions? If you have the thought that you can’t do something does that prevent you from having a go in any case? Common traps here are when you get overly consumed in a particular thought so that it seems like that's the lens through which you see the world or when you get caught in what I term the yellow jeep effect. Check this out for yourself: don’t think about a yellow jeep right now, don’t think about what it would be like if you had a yellow jeep, don’t think about how weird it would be if you walked outside your home and saw a yellow jeep. And just be aware that if you’re thinking “I’m doing great, I’m not thinking of the yellow jeep”- even that is thinking about the yellow jeep. Psychological research is now showing that the more we try not to think of something, the more we actually think about it. Whether we think about a yellow jeep or not is unlikely to have a major impact on our psychological well-being. However, if the thought is something to do with anxiety or sadness- trying to suppress these thoughts may have the opposite effect of what we are hoping for.
- How unwilling are you to experience unwanted emotions? It is natural for us to want to avoid unwanted emotions such as sadness, anxiety and anger. Yet, how much time and energy do you spend trying to avoid these? One thing we now know from the research is that contrary to popular belief, the more we try to get rid of an emotion- the more it follows us around like a bad smell. Please don’t take my word for it though, check in with your own experience. What happened the last time you had anxiety and you tried really hard to get rid of it?
- How rigid is your perspective on yourself, others and the world? We can all get caught up in looking at things in a very rigid or fixed way and become unwilling to take new information into account that doesn’t fit our way of seeing ourselves, others and the world.
- How disconnected are you to what truly matters to you? On the whole, do you have a clear sense of what has purpose and meaning for you or do you feel like you’re caught on conveyor belt with very little choice or direction?
- Are you doing the things that don’t matter and neglecting the things that do matter? If you were to look at a video of yourself on a daily basis, would you be proud to stand over your actions or have you gone off course?
As I mentioned, every single one of us is psychologically inflexible in some ways and often this gets exacerbated at certain times of our life, such as during times of loss or change. For example, when I was 20, I was very disconnected from the present. I spent the vast majority of my time worrying about the future and what could possibly happen next. I got completely hooked by thoughts about the future and bought into thoughts about keeping people at a distance. I was unwilling to feel anxiety fully and would instead seek comfort in a variety of sugary foods, all in private, which just added to shame and ensured that I became overweight. I had a rigid view of myself as a slob and incapable of opening up and also a rigid view of the world as an unpredictable place that should be feared. I was disconnected from what was important and the primary motivator for my actions was to avoid further pain rather than leave a meaningful footprint behind me.
Building Psychological Flexibility
We can build psychological flexibility in the same way we build a muscle - here are six ways to do that:
- Connection to the present moment. We can consciously bring our attention to whatever we are doing in the moment, be that having a conversation, listening to music or eating- we can deliberately come back to the ‘here and now’ whenever we notice we have time travelled to the past or the future.
- Unhooking from unwanted thoughts. In ACT, we are not so concerned with whether a thought is good or bad, right or wrong, true or false. We are only concerned with whether buying into a thought leads to us living a rich, full, and meaningful life in the long run. If it does not, we aim to unhook from this thought through a variety of strategies including putting the phrase “I’m having the thought that…” before your thought. The aim is that you are running the show rather than your thoughts.
- Willingness to experience unwanted emotions. We do not need to like, love or want unwanted emotions. In fact, this would be unrealistic and possibly not that helpful. However, if I am willing to experience unwanted emotions, I am far more likely to have something new and beautiful arise from my pain. In ACT, we learn strategies to relate to our emotions in more compassionate ways that allow us to learn from our emotions rather than see them as something that needs to be feared.
- Flexible perspective on self, others and the world. When we can look at things from multiple vantage points, we have a much better chance of finding an alternative way of dealing with our current situation that is helpful and workable in our lives. We might ask ourselves ‘how would I look at this if a dear friend was going through the same situation’ or ‘what guidance might my older, wiser, more compassionate self give me about this situation?’
- Values- knowing what matters. It can be useful to ask myself questions such as: how would I like to be remembered? What do I want to stand for? What personal qualities would I like others/myself to use when describing me? These answers give us a good sense of what matters to us.
- Doing what matters. Rather than setting meaningless goals. We set goals from a foundation of our values. Breaking these down to make one meaningful action at a time.
If you can relate to Mohini- feeling stuck in the life that you have right now. Perhaps ACT may have something to offer you. ACT is an evidence-based therapeutic approach with over 100 randomised controlled trials and 100’s of further research studies supporting its efficacy in helping those with a wide range of issues.
Aisling Curtin is a Registered Counselling Psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland. She is also Founding Director of ACT Now Ireland where she regularly gives public workshops and professional training workshops in Ireland and internationally. Aisling has a small private practice. You can find out more about ACT at www.actnowireland.com, www.wtfpsych.blogspot.ie, find ACT Now Ireland on Facebook, e-mail [email protected] or call 01-4433307. Aisling’s direct e-mail is [email protected]
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