When faced with unpleasant experiences resulting in anxiety, depression, and emotional pain, it is only natural for a person to attempt to avoid such feelings and fight against them. Research has shown that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected. Each can, and does, influence the others in both positive and negative ways. Feeling depressed influences how we perceive, or think, about the world in a negative and pessimistic way and can lead us to isolate. Accomplishing a difficult or exciting task, on the other hand, may foster a joyful feeling and thoughts of competence. Fearful thoughts bring anxiety and precipitate avoidance of many mundane activities. It is generally when our internal experience causes suffering that problems ensue.
It is difficult for many of us to “get out of our heads.” The internal experience of thoughts and emotions are so powerful that they can, when negative and chronic, subdue and limit us. The way we think and feel so color our perceptions of ourselves and the world that we tend to identify with them and allow them to create our reality. The problem that arises from thoughts and emotions is not the form and intensity, but their excessive literal quality. In other words, the internal self-talk may not accurately reflect what is happening externally – yet we believe it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy proposes challenging and changing the negative thinking which can be difficult.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, takes a different approach. It suggests that we accept these internal experiences, though distressful, and continue to actively work toward desired goals. In this understanding, we learn that we have the power to find fulfillment and make changes in the midst of suffering and not wait indefinitely until the absence of it.
“Life is a process of becoming, of conditions arising and passing…”
– Joseph Goldstein
ACT researchers have emphasized the benefit of acquiring new behaviors, rather than eliminating symptoms. Thoughts and emotions are impermanent, though in the moment we feel as though no relief will come. Through action, however; we can facilitate change even in the most difficult of circumstances. The idea is to remain present with the experience. ACT proposes that our attempt to avoid unpleasant experiences only perpetuates the suffering. Remaining present, however; allows for behavior to be more flexible and in tune with the world around us. Avoidance only provides temporary relief and we often find ourselves engaged in the same struggle over and over again.
The acceptance aspect of ACT does not mean that we simply accept all circumstances apathetically. It is more accurate to say that we live and act despite difficult circumstances. This process allows us to recognize the constricting and limiting aspect of problematic thinking that have the power to dominate and obscure other aspects of our lives. This thinking is often inaccurate and self-fulfilling. ACT works to help us recognize that our internal experience does not have to hinder our commitment to engage our lives in meaningful ways. Thoughts have no inherent meaning in and of themselves other that what we ascribe them. We have the power to define our reality.
Values that give us personal meaning to life are more defining of our reality. ACT helps us to explore what is important to us and then connect these to goals that motivate us to enhance, maintain, and live by these values. In order for personal goals to be achieved, a commitment to action is needed. As we continue living in a desired way, we further understand the distinction between the internal and external experience and further recognize the strength we have to enhance our lives and empower ourselves.
Finally, it is important to understand that we are not our problems or our problem-thinking. When we separate ourselves from an experience, we gift ourselves the opportunity to remember that there are other parts of our identify beyond the restrictive and self-limiting aspect of any thought, belief, or circumstance. This broadening allows us to identify with any number of life experiences allowing us to develop an alternate story that is more in line with who we want to be. These internal processes are impermanent and as such arise and fall. It is we who cling to them and attempt to have them define our entire being.
Boca Raton Therapists at Morgan Center use ACT techniques and want to help you live a full and meaningful life. For more information, or to schedule an appointment, contact Jody Morgan, LCSW at (561) 366-2476.