Questions

  • Do you find yourself repeating the same, unhealthy patterns?
  • Have you tried many kinds of therapy (or therapists)--only to be left little better than when you began?
  • Do you feel stuck?
  • Have you made significant changes in your life, only to find that you're struggling with the same issues?
  • Have you been living in a way that is not truly aligned with your personal values?

If you answered "yes" to some (or all) of these questions, then Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) might be a good match for you.  

Characteristics

ACT proposes that painful experiences are inevitable in life. No matter how hard we try, we will--at times--feel sad or scared. We're likely going to be rejected or criticized by someone. Bad things will happen.  And, we will feel bad at times. These realities are, in fact, normal.  

Yet, we get stuck in trying to avoid them. This is true for experiences out in the world (e.g., trying not to be rejected by someone) as well as internal experiences (e.g., trying not to feel scared or sad). As a result, we need to learn how to accept inevitable difficulties, while continuing to live a meaningful life.

Techniques

ACT examines the function of various behaviors (including speech and thought) relative to your personal goals. It enlists many different techniques--not seeking to uncover some objective “truth,” but rather to identify what’s fundamentally helpful in your life. You’ll learn strategies and perspectives that fall into six primary processes:  defusion, acceptance, contact with the present moment, self-as-context, values, and committed action. Here's a sample of some popular ACT techniques:

  • Use of Analogies. ACT uses many analogies to counteract our tendency to relate to thinking literally and rigidly. For example, painful thoughts might be considered as uninvited guests to a party. Resisting difficult emotions can be likened to holding a beach ball underwater (see below).
  • Values Exploration. What gives your life meaning? Try to identifying your most important personal values, such as love, generosity, honesty, etc. Need help? Check out our Values Worksheet on the Resources page.
  • Mindfulness. Make a deliberate effort to be in touch with whatever is happening right now. Notice your thoughts, feelings, or senses. 

Typical Session

In ACT, your therapist will be very active and engaged. Moving away from talking abstractly about your feelings and issues, you'll be invited to experience them directly in the session. Then, you'll experiment with various ways of relating to your thoughts and inner experiences. To make peace with painful emotions, for example, you might be asked to get in contact with physical sensations in your body. An exploration of personal values might provide renewed motivation to pursue action while facing particular difficulties. You might also play with different metaphors to describe experience. Dr. Kaplan often uses the following analogy to describe the purpose of ACT:

Beach Balls

ACT can best be explained by thinking about beach balls.  Imagine that you're standing in a swimming pool.  With one hand, you're holding a beach ball underwater.  This beach ball represents something that you've been actively avoiding or repressing, like an unwanted emotion (e.g., shame, fear, or anger), life experience (e.g., criticism or social rejection), or memory (e.g., prior trauma).  As long as you can hold the ball underwater, the surface of the pool is smooth and serene. Life is good. But, your actions in the pool are limited. You can't move around easily. You only have one arm free. And, you can't hold the ball underwater forever. At some point, you lose your grip and the ball comes rocketing to the surface, making a big wet mess. When this happens, you frantically try to shove the ball underwater again as soon as possible. This will make the waves subside in the short-term. It also ensures that you'll continue to be stuck in the same place.

So, what do you need to do in order to have more fun in the pool?

Ultimately, you need to learn how to let the beach ball rise to the surface of the water. When you release your hold on the ball, it is free to float away. It doesn't disappear or leave the pool entirely, but now becomes susceptible to passing winds. Sometimes, it might be right on front of you, and very far away at other times. Accepting its inevitable presence in the pool, you can start to move around freely. You can decide where you want to go.