In the hope of bringing you some light to manage through the upcoming weeks and months, we’re looking to the teachings of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for inspiration to try to make peace with our personal and communal realities.
ACT focuses our attention on six elements of human functioning that help us become more psychologically flexible when facing challenges and allow us to experience personal development. These six elements can be grouped into mindfulness processes (acceptance, defusion, being present, and noticing self) that sustain change processes (values, and committed action), and together are conducive to a greater sense individual growth and adaptability to changing environments (Hayes, Pistorello, & Levin, 2012). Below we provide a definition of each of these elements and examples of how each can be applied to real life situations. We trust these examples will help you generate ideas for how to use these concepts in your own life.
Acceptance—being aware of our feelings and thoughts without the impulse to deny them, avoid them, or fix them. Knowing how we’re feeling and simply owning/embracing it: “yeah, COVID has really made it harder to have that work/life balance I’d like,” … “I am really worried about losing my job,” … “it makes me sad to not be able to see my family.”
Defusion—reducing the effect our feelings and thoughts have on us by choosing to treat them as passing experiences, not fixed states or conditions: “life feels challenging right now” as opposed to “life’s always difficult;” “I’m feeling sad” as opposed to “my life’s depressing;” “I don’t feel like I did well in school today” as opposed to “I’m never going to do well in school.”
Being present—ruminating about the past or trying to anticipate the future doesn’t give us greater control over the past or future, and it keeps us from being in the now. We can cultivate a present mind by using meditative practices such as focusing on our breath, relaxation exercises, and an intentional focus on a current task (e.g., washing dishes or a car, becoming engrossed in a movie/podcast/book, writing this article, enjoying a conversation with another person).
Noticing self—attaching ourselves to broad concepts of who are might not serve us as well if these concepts are not genuinely aligning with our specific experiences. Being attentive to how we’re feeling in a situation or in a moment allows us a greater consciousness of how we are being in a particular experience, and how we are being influenced by this experience and responding to it. In any given situation it’s possible we could be acting self-centered, even if generally we would not consider ourselves self-centered; a person or experience could provoke fear in us, even if typically, we’re not a fearful person; or we could have moments of joy, even if usually we tend to feel sad.
Values—we’re more likely to be successful in making changes that are connected to our core values because we are intrinsically/internally motivated to make these changes. Changes made just to please another person or to meet a requirement are extrinsically/externally motivated, and are not likely to have lasting impact on us or our lives. Values can be thought of as qualifying or describing our actions/decisions: “despite my anger, I spoke to them with care, because it’s important to me to not be aggressive;” “although I felt discouraged, I tried to appreciate the positive, because I don’t want to lose all hope;” “instead of becoming nervous, I went about my day calmly, to keep myself from becoming more upset.”
Committed action—goals toward change should be set to short, medium, and long-term ranges, and should be consistent with core values and the mindfulness processes. The starting point would be small/immediate activities as initial goals and gradually progress to more distant and larger goals. Someone needing to find a new job and feeling unmotivated to do so could begin the process by first doing generic job searches for a desired position, just to see what’s available. Then they could progress to creating or revising a resume/vita that could be fitting with what’s currently available in the job market. Eventually, they could be ready to start applying for jobs and attend interviews.
Being psychologically flexible means we can approach each moment with consciousness, even if that consciousness is simply: “I don’t know how I feel,” “I think I’m confused,” or “I’m not really sure about this.” This doesn’t mean you’re broken, damaged, or dysfunctional. It means you’re fully aware of what is going on within you. Struggle, pain, suffering are all natural parts of life, the challenge for each of us is to face these experiences openly, without pre-conceived notions about ourselves, the situation, or the possible outcomes. Rely on curiosity and wonder to remain open to what could be … I don’t know what it will be like to spend the winter holidays without family and friends, but let’s see what I discover as I get through it … like a walk through the forest … we don’t know what kinds of trees we’ll find, but we’ll see what’s there …
With very warm wishes,
S. Bibiana Adames, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Studio For Change