Accept what is out of your personal control, and then commit to value-guided mindful action that enriches your life.
What is ACT?
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change”
-Carl Rogers, On Becoming A Person
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of behavioural therapy developed by psychology professor Steven Hayes. The philosophy of ACT takes from and overlaps heavily with the philosophies of Buddhism and Stoicism. Both emphasize acceptance of the moment through mindful awareness and of situations that are out of our control. The aim of ACT is to create an enriched and meaningful life while accepting the pain and suffering that inevitably goes along with it.
It is particularly powerful in treating Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
For social anxiety, this means mindful awareness and acceptance of negative thoughts and feelings associated with social anxiety, and moving forward by committing to one’s values in spite of these thoughts and feelings.
ACT helps us develop psychological skills to handle negative thoughts and feelings effectively, so that they have less power and control over us.
ACT also helps us clarify our values and what is important and personally meaningful for us. Then that knowledge is used to guide, inspire, and motivate us to set goals and take action that benefits our lives.
Instead of focusing on symptom reduction like many current therapies, ACT works by changing the relationship with the anxiety symptoms. It takes the fundamental approach that quality of life is determined by mindful and value-guided action and that this is possible regardless of the number of negative thoughts and feelings you suffer from, provided there is mindful awareness of them.
The Principles of ACT
1. Sinking Into The Moment
As thinking beings, we find it very difficult to live in the moment. We are often thinking back on the past, possibly to mistakes we’ve made, or living in an uncertain future, crafting worst-case scenarios or plans. The first principle of ACT is contacting the present moment through mindful awareness. Mindfulness simply involves paying attention to openness, flexibility, and curiosity. This skill allows us to begin to become aware of our thoughts and feelings and realise that neither wholly define us.
2. Cognitive Defusion
“He/she probably hates me, why did I say that?”
“I’m not talking enough, they probably don’t like me because I’m too quiet”
These sorts of thoughts may be common in social anxiety sufferers, and cognitive defusion is a process that can help.
Defusion means to ‘step back’ or ‘detach’. Cognitive defusion is learning to separate from our thoughts, images, and memories. In this way, they begin to have less power and influence over us. We can just simply observe them coming into awareness instead of getting caught by them.
We start to see our thoughts exactly for what they are, bits of language that the mind is creating.
Acceptance means making room for everything. It is allowing your painful thoughts and feelings to come and go without trying to control them. In this way, it’s actually turning towards our most feared or hated aspects of ourselves and making friends with our internal enemies. Instead of repressing them, minimising them, fighting them, resisting them, or distracting ourselves from them, we simply open up to them and let them be with some breathing room.
4. Observing Self
In ACT, the therapist will often ask you to notice that you can observe your thinking mind. This means there are really two aspects of the self: the thinking self and the observing self. The observing self is the one constant in our life, it watches everything else change: the time and place we find ourselves in, our moods, our thoughts, the seasons. Taking refuge in the observing self means simply being aware of whatever we are thinking, feeling, and sensing.
ACT attempts to address the question: What do I want to do with the brief time I have on this planet?
Values define how we want to behave on an ongoing basis. Our highest values will define our life. Clarifying values is an essential process in ACT.
In SAD, these values may include building genuine connections with others, and being authentic in relationship with others.
6. Committed Action
Once we have clarified our values, we can begin to take tangible steps towards living them through committed action. Sometimes committed action will involve pain and discomfort, but if we are living in alignment with our values, then this will take us one step closer towards our goals and the ideal version of ourselves.
For social anxiety, this might mean attending social events where we don’t know anybody, or opening up to friends, or even trying public speaking. All of these are guided by the values we have prioritised, and while they may bring about painful thoughts and feelings and be uncomfortable due to their unfamiliarity, we can be sure we are on the right track.