Traditional psychotherapy has grown to include aspects of mindfulness. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and its forebearer, Relational Frame Theory, use mindfulness, acceptance and commitment processes. These therapies help a client achieve psychological flexibility. In particular, ACT focuses on being present in the moment, accepting your reactions, making a choice, and taking action. It allows you to examine your character traits, your behaviors, and to take action to engage in positive coping styles.
The avoidance of pain or of a painful experience does not reflect the reality of our lives. In fact, this causes us much psychological distress. Rather than push a painful experience away, ACT teaches the client a new way to deal with it.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is rooted in authentic presence in the moment and acceptance. These two concepts cross the east/west bridge between mindfulness and existentialism. The basic tenet of existential therapy is to help awaken a person to consciousness and awareness. Therapists and clients work together to articulate the client’s experiences and to increase the client’s awareness of their situations in life.
Similarities Between Acceptance and Commitment and Existential/Humanistic Therapies
There are distinct similarities between the mindfulness meditative state used in ACT and the non-interfering, meditative state of consciousness used in existential/humanistic therapies to help a client be more present in the moment. In existential/humanistic therapies, the client learns to bracket a part of their internal experience in order to better be with what exists. In mindfulness based therapies such as ACT, the client learns to step back from the experience. Both seek the increased awareness of the internal self. The client learns to simply be with what is, and to make choices based on that reality.
Both are also non-pathologizing. Rather than focus on a diagnosis, these therapies focus on the client’s experiences. Pain is not viewed as abnormal. Rather, it is viewed as ubiquitous and essential. These methods seek to help people feel better by focusing on an alternative way of thinking rather than reducing symptoms.
Both encourage clients to face their feelings such as anxiety or hopelessness. This allows the client to face the reality of their lives and to see clearly what is working and what is not. From that clarity, a client is able to find their internal strength and values.
The Role of Acceptance in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance can be liberating. Too often we feel stuck trying to control things that overwhelm us. This can be a situation, a part of our personality, or the actions of another person. In all of these situations, rather than continuing to try to control an uncontrollable situation, ACT can help move us toward accepting and working with the situation as it is.
Mindfulness tools are important in acceptance. Mindfulness tools help us notice our feelings or thoughts without acting on them. They can help us notice the positive aspects as well as the negative aspects of a situation. Using mindfulness, we can clearly see the difficulties in our lives without feeling the impulse to immediately correct them. And as we move toward acceptance through mindfulness, it can be a relief to know that you can be in control of how you think, how you react, and how you feel.
The Role of Self Inquiry
In ACT, forms of self-inquiry are used to diffuse psychologically heightened experiences. Clients learn to use self-inquiry to check on the reality of the client’s perceptions and interpretations of the heightened experience by noticing their physical sensations and thoughts as they talk about the experience. The client comes to recognize the thoughts and feelings for what they are, passing through them, rather than what they think they are, feelings or thoughts that will never change. This technique can make a seemingly intolerable situation feel much more manageable.
From this process, a client can make choices that reflect the reality of their experiences and their chosen goals. This type of commitment to action is empowering for clients and validates the entirety of their experiences.
ACT recognizes that it is the client’ s lack of clarity about the meaning of one’s life and the struggle with, and avoidance of, difficult internal experience, that causes them so much psychological distress. ACT seeks to help a client increase their ability to consciously and mindfully attend to the variety of internal and external experiences in the moment and choose behaviors that serve the client’s chosen goals. Taken together, this therapy is powerful and empowering. You really do have the ability to face pain, depression, anxiety, and difficulties in relationship and to alter your thinking about them and the choices you make.
Reworking your verbal connection to your thoughts and feelings can be useful in treating such things as depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and even psychotic symptoms. It can be useful in deepening your relationship to yourself and to others. It can also be useful in finding more satisfaction in your life.