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Article on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

When I work with clients, I like to introduce an approach that I use which is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which orients us to: (a) shift our relationship with our psychological pain, (b) help us to be present in the here and now and (c) take action that is in alignment with our values. I begin by explaining how in our daily lives we are programed or reinforced to see our psychological pain as bad. The idea that you can get rid of your emotional pain for example by: taking this medication, reading this book, going to this therapy etc. are some of the very ways we actually can remain stuck in mental loops as if running on a hamster wheel or going down a rabbit hole in our minds. What ACT tends to open up is the counter intuitive notion that pain is part of the human condition and that our struggle to get rid of our pain creates the suffering. So that instead of spending a great deal of energy trying to not feel what one feels, ACT orients us to focus our energy on living our lives linked to our values instead.

A part of our work is focused on recognizing that our minds are naturally biased towards the negative. We have a built in fight, flight or freeze response that serves to keep us alive. This worked well in the distant past when we were in real danger of harm from the environment but now fast forward to a modern world, real tigers are long gone. Our minds, however, are still on the lookout for threat and will tend to find threat in the things we tell ourselves by turning inwards to the psychological domain within. When we buy into the stories we tell ourselves for example: I’m not good enough or I’m unlovable; we end up fighting or running from ourselves as a result. Our job is to see the difference between real danger and imaginary threat. If there is no real danger, our work is then to help gain perspective and focus on changing our relationship with our own pain. So that instead of viewing our pain as something to get away from we see it as an ally. When we can get with our pain we tend to grow. In ACT this is conveyed through the use of metaphors or experiential exercises. An example of a metaphor we use in ACT is the quicksand metaphor. It goes something like this:

Imagine that you are in quicksand and the quicksand represents your emotional pain. The first thing you are likely to do is struggle hard to get out. What happens when you struggle in quicksand? You sink faster. An ACT response would be to place as much body surface on top of the quicksand. What this metaphor is about is that if we struggle against the pain, it tends to take us down, but if we get with the pain it paradoxically holds us up. The underlying message is about making room for our pain, letting go of the struggle with it and focus on living our lives according to our values. Two great resources if you would like more information: Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, by Steven Hayes, and The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris.

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