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What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is defined by a commitment to change while also choosing to accept things the way they are.  The idea follows the line of thinking that, “psychological suffering” is caused by our inner language or cognition. When we are inflexible psychologically we lose a healthy connection with the present moment.  We attempt to control our experiences to attain a, “better” result.  This attempt to control creates distress.  We tend to lose contact with the present moment by worrying about the future, or regretting the past.  Our tendency to negatively judge and attempt to control the present circumstances, causes us to feel dismay.  

Internal disequilibrium is caused by extreme demands that we place on ourselves or others. We feel that things or people should be different than they actually are.  The result is chronic unhappiness and internal distress.  ACT intends to address this disequilibrium with mindfulness methods such as choosing to accept things as they are, in the present moment.

What are the six components of ACT?

1. Present Tense Living:

ACT involves present tense living.  Mindfulness efforts involve refraining from worry about the future and dwelling on the past.  Clients learn to live in the present tense directly experiencing it, as it is, now. Clients are encouraged to learn from the past while also accepting it as it happened.    Rather than dwelling on the past or fretting about the future, we can learn to live in the current moment.  We use our senses to taste, feel, smell, hear and experience life as it is now.  

2.  Values Clarification:

ACT also emphasizes the concept that if you can identify your core values, you can find a reference point to create positive change.  Part of the process involves identifying what you value in family, career, personal, and social life.  Do you value close friends but you aren’t making time to foster your friendships?  This indicates that something you value isn’t nurtured in a way that is meaningful to you.  Do you value health, but stress causes you to eat lots of junk food?  If so, how can you move toward improving your health?  ACT emphasizes evaluating values and whether or not client's are living by what society values, what someone else's values, or if they are living by their own values.    

3. Acceptance

Acceptance as a mindfulness practice is part of ACT.  Clients work on identifying unhealthy or extreme expectations, and the resulting angst caused by the fact that reality rarely matches our expectations.  We might say to ourself, “I accept my weight the way it is, I choose to like myself the way I am.”  Then, we move toward improving health as a focus rather than weight loss.  This combines acceptance concepts and also movement toward positive change. 

Another acceptance statement might look like this, “This isn’t ideal, but it is good enough,” or, “I wouldn’t have done it this way, but it will work out somehow,” or, "That is how it happened, I can't change it now."  Learning to rephrase anxious thoughts into constructive acceptance statements helps settle anxious thinking. 

For example, learning to accept that only 5 people showed up to a party instead of 8.  When someone doesn’t accept it, they might focus on the three that didn’t show and feel angry, hurt, or resentful.  Part of developing acceptance practices involves taking our experiences and accepting them as they are with both painful and joyous components.  When we don’t accept, our body is filled with stress and the demand that things or people be different than they actually are.  We can choose to focus, instead, on the 5 that showed up during the party, and not to dwell on disappointment toward those that didn’t.  

Even though catch phrases may sound trite, they can help us stay centered on the concept of acceptance. “It is what it is,” expresses acceptance when our emotions might be telling us that what is isn’t acceptable.   We can cue ourselves to accept what is by assuring ourselves with a helpful phrasesuch as, “I will cross that bridge when I get there.”  This helps prevent excessive worry about a future event and helps the individual to focus on what is happening in the now (present tense mindfulness).  

4. Committed Action:

There is often a struggle between accepting things as they are, and putting forth effort toward change.  They seem mutually exclusive.  Part of healthy functioning is acceptance, yet a desire to grow and change in positive ways.  When we accept ourselves the way we are, or our circumstances as they are, we settle into a less anxious state which allows us to move forward on our goals toward healthier living.  

5.  Concepts of Self in Context: 

In therapy, we start to uncover what needs to be changed, rather than focusing on what can’t be changed.  Often it involves understanding that the only person you really have any control over is yourself.  Therapy means making incremental changes in the way we perceive things, do things, and even the way we feel emotions.  We gain insight, establish values, accept what we cannot change, and move forward with what we can change.  Referring to the weight example above, we might say, “I choose to learn healthier eating habits while accepting the weight I am currently at.”  When we are less anxious and ashamed (acceptance) we are freed to move toward our values.  Client's learn more about themselves or who they are in various contexts.  They learn what it means to enjoy components of themselves and also have inner challenges at the same time.  

Another acceptance concept appears when recognizing that we cannot control how other people respond, we can only control our own responses.  Other people often respond in ways we don’t expect or desire.  Depending how attached we became to our expectations, we may experience varying levels of disappointment, or anger that people didn’t respond according to our expectation.  Learning to accept the way others respond to us is part of learning mindfulness methods.  We are mindful that others have their own thoughts, feelings and perceptions.  As a result, we allow others to respond in their own way and accept them as they are, while learning our own healthier responses such as assertiveness, for example.   

6. Cognitive Diffusion

Diffusion techniques, as described above, work toward diffusing the intensity of a strong emotion into a more balanced state.  For example, feelings of rage may change to mild annoyance when diffusion techniques are used.  When we think the same things repetitively and internally they make sense to us.  Often speaking them out loud, and learning to recognize extremes in thinking, helps with the diffusion process to give the client some control back to choose how to respond in healthier ways.  

In Conclusion:

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy utilizes present tense living and acceptance methods to lower anxiety and improve coping.  Pain and trauma's from the past can be challenging to overcome, however, ACT offers some skills to help navigate through life's challenges.  

As I always say, keep going, “One day at a time, one foot in front of the next!”

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.”  Philippians 4:8

“Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  Matthew 6:34


What helps you stay focused on the present tense in your life?  


by Gretchen Flores