Don’t Affirm – ACT

For a long time, I used positive affirmations in an attempt to improve my life. God knows why I continued for as long as I did, since at best they kept me stuck where I was, and in some cases they actually made things worse.

Now I know why. Research has suggested that when people with low self-esteem use positive affirmations and tell themselves things like “I’m smart and capable” over and over, but have a belief that they are actually stupid and incapable, they experience push back and feel worse. The very act of affirming makes the beliefs they already have stronger (they are trying not to think of a white bear) – and now they have a belief (and proof of that belief) that they are liars as well.

Brute force is the absolute worst way to change your thinking.

What about the idea that “We become what we think about?” That’s only a part of the story, the introduction to it. Of course you must have an initial thought – “I want to be smarter and more capable.” But repeating to yourself that you already are won’t make it so.

We don’t become what we just think about – we become what we do, and unbecome what we don’t do.

I remember listening to an old Tony Robbins cassette where he said something like “Personal Power is the ability to act – the ability to take action.” I agree. He then explained that his books, tapes, CDs, MP3s, courses, and seminars would show a person how to get themselves to take that action.

I spent a lot of money on his stuff (you’re welcome, Tony). None of it worked for me long-term. I couldn’t get myself to take action on the things that were supposed to give me the ability to take action.

Eventually, after slogging through innumerable piles of personal development/self-help material, I found something that has actually helped me long-term.

There are three basic ideas that came together and created the key that unlocked my ability to take the action necessary to become the person I want to be:

  1. Acceptance of the thoughts and feelings that were causing me to suffer. I stopped fighting the fact that they exist. They aren’t bad or good they just are.
  2. Recognition that thoughts and feelings are not reality, they are my brain’s interpretation of reality. And my brain is so far off of the mark sometimes it’s almost comical.
  3. Untangling (unhooking, defusing) from these thoughts and feelings, freeing up energy to take the action I want to take.

When I can do these three things, I may not always feel better (although usually I do), but I’m able to take action toward creating a more fulfilling life for myself.

What I’m presenting here is a very basic, non-technical, probably not very accurate, incomplete, coming from someone who has no training in psychology or psychiatry, overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/Training. ACT (pronounced like the word, not as an acronym) teaches people how to disentangle themselves from thoughts and emotions (again, not get rid of them or change them) and take action toward what they value in their lives.

Again – ACT doesn’t teach us how to live happier lives, at least not in the way we generally define happiness. It teaches us how to live more fulfilled lives.

Learning about and practicing ACT has changed my life. I’ve done all of it through self-study – it’s been difficult connecting to a therapist in my area who practices it and is accepting new clients. I was first turned on to it via the book The Happiness Trap by Dr. Russ Harris. That book was so well written (from the standpoint of making ACT accessible to an average Joe like me) and my initial results were so astounding that I really went down the ACT rabbit hole.

Maybe it could work for you too? I’d encourage you to give it a try. Start with The Happiness Trap – get a copy of it however you can – buy, beg, borrow, even steal it (you probably shouldn’t steal it, but you gotta do what you gotta do). Don’t just read it – invest your time in doing the exercises. This book, and my further explorations into ACT, literally changed my life.

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7 thoughts on “Don’t Affirm – ACT

  1. Jorah Lavin

    Lyman, I’m reading a book right now called ‘No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners’ by Noah Rasheta, and what you’re writing about ACT sounds so similar to the core ideas in this book, it’s pretty amazing. I’ll look at the ACT resources you listed. I’m so glad that you are finding a path. The positive thinking stuff never made sense to me, and I was saved from Tony Robbins and his ilk by my feeling that he was a con-man, but the Flying Spaghetti Monster knows I’ve gone down some dead-end streets of my own.

    1. Lyman Reed Post author

      Hi Jorah,

      I think I’ve heard of Rasheta… secular style Buddhist, correct? I’ll check out the book.

      The the different parts of ACT are nothing new in and of themselves – it’s 3rd wave cognitive therapy, and freely admits that it borrows heavily from spirituality of all styles. Mindfulness, “doing it anyway”, recognizing thoughts and emotions as just thoughts and emotions… not of this is really new. I think that it’s worked so well for me because of the way it’s packaged. Plus the empirical data is interesting, and Relational Frame Theory, the stuff that ACT is based on, really is fascinating.

      Thanks for the comment!


      Actually, I just thought of a big part of ACT that isn’t just repackaging (at least to me) – the various defusion techniques. Yes, “distancing from one’s thoughts and emotions” isn’t new, but ACT gives real world usable techniques in order to do that.

  2. Jorah Lavin

    What you say about “real world usable techniques” is really encouraging. Reading about theory is often no more useful than watching TV. Finding ways to make things work… that’s valuable.

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