Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is based on the idea that struggling with and trying to change your thoughts and emotions actually increases your distress. It focuses on learning to accept difficult thoughts and emotions without believing or drowning in them, and helps you work toward committing to living a meaningful life in alignment with your deepest values.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT—pronounced as the word “act”) is a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy. ACT uses a mix of metaphors, stories, paradox, acceptance skills, and mindfulness techniques, along with experiential exercises and values-guided interventions.
The core ACT interventions focus around two main goals:
(1) cultivating acceptance of unwanted private experiences, and
(2) committing to action towards living a valued life.
ACT does not focus on reducing symptoms but instead encourages you to accept your inner distress instead of trying to control it. Many people find their symptoms decrease faster as a result!
ACT emphasizes interacting with the world, rather than working to change your thoughts and feelings. Doing therapy with ACT is not about eliminating bad feelings or recovering from old trauma, but is instead about creating a full and meaningful life. It teaches you to focus on changing those areas that can be changed and accepting those that cannot, by taking effective and authentic action guided by deep values within a mindful and meaningful life.
The main goal of ACT is to help you create psychological flexibility within a rich and meaningful life while accepting the inevitable pain that will accompany it. We are all human, and we all hurt sometimes! Sometimes accepting that results in less suffering than fighting it.
The 3 Happiness Myths: (1) Happiness is the natural state for human beings, (2) Happiness means feeling good all the time, and (3) If you’re not happy, something is wrong with you.
The more you try to avoid or eliminate unwanted thoughts and feelings, the more likely you are to suffer psychologically in the long term. Skipping that social gathering might relieve your anxiety, but this immediate relief is temporary. Instead, your anxiety is negatively reinforced and is then more likely to persist.
You can use ACT techniques to help you learn how to perceive thoughts as what they are—simply bits of language and pictures—rather than as facts, truths, threatening events, or rules that must be followed. Believing in your negative thoughts is undesirable because it produces psychological inflexibility and loss of contact with the present moment, and you become less able to behave in ways that serve your values. With ACT, you can learn to recognize that thoughts are simply passing events.
Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
It is important to understand that acceptance is not resignation, stoicism, or tolerance. Acceptance means allowing unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations to come and go without struggling with them or giving them too much attention.
The ACT metaphor “The Unwelcome Party Guest” compares your unwelcome and unhelpful thoughts to a rude, stinky uninvited party guest.
Hayes and Smith (2005) evoke powerful metaphorical images when they describe acceptance in ACT as “walking with your pain the way you would walk while carrying a sobbing infant” and “honoring your pain the way you would honor a friend by listening” and “looking at your pain the way you would look at an incredible painting” (p. 130). When struggling to control private events, you focus exclusively on that struggle; with acceptance, you open yourself to a range of responses so that you can begin to pursue other more meaningful paths.
Contact with the Present Moment-Mindfulness
“Life is always lived right here and right now; there is nothing else that can be directly experienced but the present moment. All else is a conceptual rendering, a sketch, a picture drawn, a thought, a plan, a memory…all can be experienced only in the now” (Luoma et al, 2007, p. 91).
ACT doesn’t strive to eliminate past or future thinking, but rather encourages flexibility and understanding of when being in the present works best. ACT teaches many mindfulness techniques that help to reorient you in the present moment so you can bring full awareness to the present experience, engaging fully with what is happening with interest, openness, and receptiveness. Some mindfulness exercises include mindfully watching bodily sensations, walking silently, eating slowly and mindfully, preparing and drinking tea (including watching the entire steeping process), listening to classical music while shifting your focus to different instruments, working to keep attention on your feet while reading nursery rhymes, and much more. ACT has hundreds of techniques!
The Transcendent Self – The Observing Self
The Transcendent Self, also known as the Observing Self, refers to a continuous, ever-present, unchanging consciousness that is impervious to harm. From this standpoint, you can directly experience that you are separate from your feelings, thoughts, memories, images, sensations, and physical body. These ever-changing phenomena are peripheral aspects of the self, not the essence of or equivalent to who you are.
The Transcendent Self is fostered in ACT through metaphors, mindfulness exercises, and experiential processes. In the Chessboard Metaphor, for example, you begin to see that you are not your thoughts and feelings (the chess pieces) but rather the chessboard itself. The pieces may be battling, but they are not threatening to the chessboard itself—the board is neutral and simply holds and observes the battle. In addition, the mindfulness exercises of watching bodily sensations, Leaves on a Stream, the Mind Train, and the similar Thought Parade also illustrate the Transcendent Self as the observer of the thoughts passing by. Remember that you are not the chess pieces, my friend.
Values work is crucial in ACT. Choosing your values means clarifying what is most important and meaningful deep in your heart, what kind of person you want to be, and what you want to stand for in this life. Values work helps you focus not just on living, but on living a meaningful life. The other core ACT processes are in place to clear the path for this more vital and meaningful life guided by your values. The values work gives your work both purpose and meaning and is the driving force behind ACT itself. You are encouraged to become passionately interested in how to live your life in accordance with your values.
With ACT you can use a variety of exercises to help you determine your values—your life directions—in various domains of your life. Initially in values work, you might write down your values in areas of your life such as spirituality, romance, family, friendships, work, education, community, and recreation and to rank the importance of each value and your current success in each area.
Other values exercises show you what you want your life to stand for, clarifying the values you find important, and empowering you to set small and large goals that line up with those values.
Hint: Your values are the rudder of your boat.
While committed action may appear to be an end point of ACT, it is just the beginning—a new beginning. Committed action focuses on building patterns of behavior that serve your chosen values and exemplify who you truly want to be. In this stage, you build off of your values work and set small goals for yourself, upon which it is now time to act. For example, if you value friendships, you might set a goal to call a specific friend, and then do it. Committed action works to build larger and larger patterns of value-driven experiences primarily through experiential exercises (e.g. calling a friend). Each moment in life, we all have the choice to behave in ways that reflect our values, and ACT helps us act in accordance with those values. If working toward a certain goal does not further your values, it is time to change your goal.
With ACT, you learn to realign with your values and act on them, while working with your feelings and thoughts with compassion, mindfulness, and acceptance. You can do many of these skills on your own, and you may just find peace.
Comment below the resources to share your thoughts about this Acceptance and Commitment Therapy overview.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Introduction
Twohig, Michael P. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, v19 n4 p499-507. Nov 2012.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Contextual Behavioral Science
Hayes, et al. Behavioral Therapy. 2013 Jun; 44(2): 180–198. 2011.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a Unified Model of Behavior Change
Hayes, et al. Counseling Psychologist, v40 n7 p976-1002 Oct 2012.
Acceptance and Mindfulness in Behavior Therapy
Chapman, A. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, v2 n3 p308-313. 2006.
Embracing your demons: An overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Harris, R. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12(4), 2-8. 2006
Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life.
Hayes & Smith. 2009
Learning ACT: An Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists
Luoma, Hayes, & Walzter. The Psychological Record, 2010, 60, 549–552. 2007.