If I, as a layperson who has practiced ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for a couple of months, had to quickly define what ACT is, I’d do it this way:
ACT is a collection of exercises applying the idea that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. It doesn’t eliminate pain, but teaches us how to accept it, reduce or eliminate suffering, and move toward a fulfilling life.
[1/19/20 Addition: After working with ACT for a couple of years now, I thought it was important to add the idea of psychological flexibility to the start of this post: “The general goal of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility – the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being, and to change or persist in behavior when doing so serves valued ends.” – from The Six Core Processes of ACT]
(For the official definition and description of ACT, see this page on the Association for Contextual Science website.)
As human beings, we all experience pain – physical, mental, and emotional. Some of us more than others. When we do, we have two choices – move toward it or run away from it.
Sometimes we should run away from it. If a person is in constant pain because of a physical ailment, the use of painkillers could be appropriate. If a person is being abused, it’s time to get out of the situation as soon as possible. If a person is in mental/emotional pain because of depression, the use of antidepressants often proves useful. Even in these cases, it seems to me that ACT can help reduce the suffering that is instigated by the condition.
In the majority of situations, though, running from pain causes even more pain in the future. How about the pain that can be caused by a broken relationship? We can run from that pain by never engaging deeply with another person again, and become isolated physically and emotionally. Or the pain of rejection? We can run from that pain by never putting ourselves out there – in art, in business, in social situations – and our lives can become very very small.
You’ve probably heard the exhortation to “Just Do It.” It can be good advice sometimes, but it doesn’t provide any useful information if it’s left on its own. Would you tell a person with a broken leg to “just run a marathon?” Or a person with PTSD to “just buck up and deal?” (Maybe that second one is a bad example – many people *would* tell a person that. But they’re ignorant assholes, and can be either put in their place or ignored.)
ACT provides those of us who have tried (unsuccessfully) to “just do it” for years with paradigms and methods which, if practiced regularly, allow us to live a life that isn’t filled with roses and sunshine and pleasure and success, but a life of fulfilment.
The “Acceptance” part of ACT is all about embracing things as they are. Look at your pain, experience your pain, “make space” for your pain – let your pain be. Acceptance is not saying “Oh well, life sucks and then you die.” It’s saying “Right now, the reality is that life sucks”, and “defusing” (detaching/unhooking) from the thoughts and feelings that are producing the suck – not attempting to eliminate them.
The “Commitment” part of ACT is the commitment to taking action toward what we value in life, in spite of the pain. Sometimes the act of defusion (ACT has a bunch of exercises which help us to do that) is enough to eliminate it. But not always, and it’s important to remember that the point of ACT is not to eliminate the pain. Pain is inevitable, remember? It’s about accepting and defusing from the thoughts and feelings that are causing that pain so that we have the energy to make moves toward something we value. That is what the paradigms and exercises hope to accomplish.
Here’s an example. Right now, I’m feeling pain. Let’s call it “fear of rejection.” I’ve been thinking about writing and publishing this blog post for a while now. The plan is to make it part of a series comparing and contrasting ACT, Stoicism, and Buddhism.
Here comes Lyman:
“Who the fuck are you to write, let alone publish, something like this!? You aren’t a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. 48 years old and haven’t even finished college, ya poser loser freak. Your writing is childish, shallow, and pedantic. You’ve written some bullshit before, but this really takes the cake. At best, people will ignore you. At worst, they will actively campaign to internet shame you to into oblivion.”
Yeah… that’s where my mind can go. It goes there quite a bit.
And even as I write (and edit) this, it’s still chattering away in the background. While I’m editing, I keep adding to the above dialogue as more of that stuff comes up.
But I’m writing, editing, and plan on publishing this post. I’m not “pushing my way through the pain”, but letting those thoughts be whatever they are going to be, defusing from them by thanking my mind for trying to protect me, and move forward in a valued direction – the valued direction of writing down and sharing my thoughts.
The exercises in ACT are not a panacea, and there are other methods that work just as well in helping people move toward a “better” life, whatever that means to them. I’m writing this because ACT has helped me, and maybe it can help you.
If you’re interested in learning more, my favorite resource for learning ACT has been the book “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT” by Dr. Russell Harris. It’s both an enjoyable read and full of examples and exercises which will help you get to ACTing in a relatively short time.