The aim of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, said as the word 'act') is for people to have full, rich, and meaningful lives whilst accepting the pain that inevitably comes.
For example, if you love someone deeply then it goes without saying that there'll be all sorts of emotions come up when that person is no longer around. However, as painful as some of those emotions might be, how unfufilled would life be if we'd never had that person in our lives in the first place?
Because of this, the use of the ACT approach is never ever about getting rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings. It's not about trying to block out the pain we experience throughout our lives. It's about learning to live meaningful lives in spite of the pain.
The three happiness myths
In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris takes us through the principles of ACT and how we can use the tools and techniques to help us lead more meaningful lives. We highly recommend you buy the book if this approach appeals to you.
Early on in the book, Russ talks about the 'myths' we've been taught about happiness:
1. Happiness is the natural state for humans
The truth is that our 'state' is ever-fluctuating and different emotions flow through us continuously. Being 'happy' might be one, but there is no 'default' state.
2. Happiness means feeling good
There is no such thing as happiness which lasts forever. Emotions are always in flux, a bit like the seasons and the ebb and flow of natural life (e.g., plants dying back in Winter and reappearing in Spring). It's much more useful to aim for living a rich and meaningful life, whilst experiencing the full range of emotions.
3. If you're not happy you're defective
It's interesting how a lot of people's normal emotions now seem to given labels or are said to be some kind of disorder. Life is challenging and is never going to be easy all the time. To have changing emotions is normal!
The 'evolved' human mind
If you're thinking it sounds hard to make room for difficult emotions then you're right! It takes a lot of practice because what we're effectively doing is fighting against what our brains have evolved to do for many years - look out for and respond to threats.
Back in caveman times our main aims were to find food, shelter, avoid big beasts, and to rear mini cavemen/women. In order to be successful at this, we had to be aware of our environment and any dangers lurking around the corner. As a result, our modern brains are hard-wired to scan for threats and respond by using the fight, flight, or freeze response just as our caveman ancestors would have done.
Unfortunately, our brains haven't quite figured out that sabre-toothed tigers no longer exist and the constant need to scan our surroundings is no longer needed. Therefore our brains can cause us to react to perceived threats in ways which no longer serve us.
This is important to remember, because some of the things we do/ways we react might actually keep our problems going without us necessarily realising it. For example, we might have a presentation to do as part of a departmental meeting at work which is really important to us. However, we're feeling anxious about speaking in front of people.
So, one thing we might do is keep delaying the actual meeting. This only leads to us feeling even more panicky about the prospect of speaking in front of our colleagues, who are probably going to start wondering what's wrong with us!
What the ACT approach can do is give us the tools to manage these difficult thoughts/feelings so that we can do the presentation in spite of all the unpleasant emotions we might be feeling.
Context is important
How we think, feel and behave all occur within a certain context; the context is what influences the thoughts/feelings/behaviours in question (e.g., feeling anxious about a presentation and therefore avoiding it).
So, the context could be the environment, a person, a social/interpersonal event etc. A bit like some other therapeutic approaches ACT is also concerned with the triggers (e.g., what was happening right before we snapped at our partner, or right before we started feeling anxious).
The good thing is that once we identify what our triggers are to thoughts/feelings/behaviours, then we can begin to explore how to manage them and continue to live by what's important to us in life.
What if it's all too much?
Some people often have difficulty in starting to explore how to manage the difficult thoughts and feelings because they're just too overwhelming. Therefore, it's firstly important to address the level of overwhelm so that you can be 'freed up' to start trying out the tools and techniques for managing the difficult thoughts and feelings.
We'll take a look at that in the next post 🙂