When I was studying Psychology and Psychotherapy at school, we learned about the most common categories of therapy. Each one provided a very useful perspective on how mental and emotional problems develop in humans. I can confidently say that the understanding and insight I got into my own problems at the time were invaluable, and in hindsight probably saved me from a lot of future pain and suffering. However, at the end of the day I often found myself wondering “So now what?” Having insight helped me to understand my problems, but didn’t help me change my situation. This is where one type of therapy really made a difference for me.
The type of therapy I eventually found myself gravitating towards, and the main approach I use in my own private practice, is ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This was not an approach that was taught in school, but one I stumbled upon by chance and really fell in love with. One of the things I love about ACT is that it’s an experiential type of therapy, meaning it’s not just about talking and gaining insight, but also about doing. For me, this answered that “so now what?” question.
The aim of the ACT practices is to change the way we relate to our thoughts and feelings without actually changing our thoughts and feelings. This is different from many of the other types of therapy out there, which focus on changing negative thoughts and feelings into positive ones. At this point you might be thinking “isn’t the whole point of therapy to improve our negative thoughts and feelings?” Well according to the ACT perspective, the problem isn’t our thoughts and feelings per se, but how we relate to them. If, for example, we were to have the thought “I’m not good enough” accompanied by the feelings of hurt and shame, this might lead us to engage in self-destructive behaviours, withdraw from others, and shy away from doing the things we really want to do in life. If, by contrast, we were to have the thought “I’m a banana,” we might be amused or puzzled by it but chances are it would not significantly impact us. We would simply dismiss it as a random silly thought and get on with our day. But what if we reacted to the thought “I’m not good enough” in the same way as we do to the thought “I’m a banana?” After all, they are really the same. Both thoughts are just phenomena produced by the brain, a string of funny sounds that make up words and sentences. We would then be able to get on with our day regardless of what types of thoughts and feelings arise in our consciousness. Rather than being tossed around by our difficult emotions and negative thinking patterns, we would be able to take back control of our lives.
This is where the other aspect of ACT comes in, which is exploring what gives us meaning, what fulfills us, and what gives us a sense of vitality. And to boldly take steps towards that life. By shifting focus away from trying to change our thoughts and feelings to making space for them instead, we can take these bold steps towards a rich and meaningful life NOW, not once we feel better. ACT teaches us that we don’t need to put our life on hold until we “get better,” but rather we have the capacity to live fully and boldly even with all of our pain and suffering. This is exactly why I fell in love with ACT. It made me realize that to live fully is to be able to experience the full spectrum of human emotion, that to love fully is to inevitably feel the pain of loss, that to do what truly matters involves the courage and vulnerability of taking risks, that all of us at some point will experience pain and suffering, and that the amount of life in a moment of pain is the same as the amount of life in a moment of joy. To me, ACT is not just a type of therapy that I practice, but the way I live my life. Because at the end of the day, ACT is about helping people live rich, full, and meaningful lives regardless of the negative chatter of their minds or emotional pain in their hearts. And to me, this is not just mental well-being, it is freedom.