When it comes to therapeutic modalities, I’ll admit: I’m a bit of a magpie.
I spent October attending a collective trauma online summit and another on the clinical application of compassion; I have various books on mindfulness, self-compassion and connection, and am becoming increasingly drawn to Compassion-Focused Therapy.
(Basically, if it helps folks to be kinder to themselves, I’ll wander over and give it a sniff.)
So I was pretty excited to attend Rich Bennett and Joe Oliver’s introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy recently, complete with a copy of their book, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques.
Much like their book, which has – exactly as it says on the tin – 100 key points and techniques about acceptance and commitment therapy, the day was filled with great and useful insights, such as;
- Your mind is a “don’t get eaten” machine; great at keeping you alive, not so great at making you happy
- You can choose the relationship you have with your mind, and see it as an adviser – and you don’t have to take its advice
- We live in a world of symbols – so basically, a bunch of made-up stuff that’s representative, not real
- Language takes us away from the present moment, and interferes with our ability to be sensitive to our surroundings
- We tend to either push difficult things away, OR let them dominate our vision
- Discovering what matters to us – what we value – creates a compass to help us make better choices
But for me, there were three stand-out insights. Firstly:
“The problem isn’t the problem. The SOLUTION is the problem”.
Very often we have crappy stuff happen in our lives – or, more accurately, our response to what happens in our lives feels crappy.
We try to avoid the thoughts and feelings that make us feel bad (aversion), or we end up focusing ALL our energy and attention on them and our doing mode becomes driven by “a job it can’t do” (fusion).
What we’re feeling or thinking isn’t the actual problem. How we go about SOLVING it, is.
Which is where the “acceptance” word comes in; a word which can be triggering for some people, especially if they equate it with defeatism or giving in.
But when we think of it as simply “being with”, of co-existing – of neither pushing something difficult away nor centring it in our field of vision, but simply allowing it to rest amidst all the other things in our awareness – then we can find more ease and a little bit more breathing space.
Especially given the second insight:
“We hurt and care in the same places”
I’m no Buddhist scholar, but the little I know about non-attachment and suffering means that this make a lot of good sense. Like a lot of folks, I can get caught up in my thinking about something or someone: Did I say the right thing? Did I ask the right question? Do they feel seen, heard, and loved?
These doubts, anxieties and fears are a reflection of what I value: kindness, compassion, and care. I love how Rich and Joe defined values in this setting: “What are the things that are important to you, that are worth the anxiety or discomfort you’re experiencing?”
By placing our challenges in this wider context, two things happen.
Firstly, there is a larger “space” or context for our pain, which allows it to become more diluted. What goes from a drop of ink in a glass, which contaminates the whole container, is now a drop in a lake; barely noticeable.
Secondly, it gives us a more constructive and compassionate narrative to house our struggles. We have hero-making brains, and the discrepancy between where/who we are and where/who we want to be, can again take us into a “driven-doing” mental mode.
So the all-too-human struggles of feeling like an impostor, of the pain of parental absence, of the longing for a relationship, etc, are the flip sides of what’s important to us – education, family, love.
We can see our discomfort as a reminder of what’s important.
Which, I don’t know about you, answers the third insight affirmatively:
“Does it help?”
One of the many things I’ve wandered over and sniffed along my journey to be all wise and shit, is Byron Katie’s The Work.
It can be summed up in a phrase – “Judge your neighbour, write it down, ask four questions, turn it around” – and four questions: Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react, what happens when you believe that thought? Who would you be without that thought?
It’s a really useful, insightful, eye-opening process. And when it comes to folks who can argue like a lawyer, a difficult process to borrow from. You kinda have to do the whole process to get the most benefit (at least, in the beginning; I’ve now got to the point, “Is it true? AWW RATS”).
This “Is it true”-ness is similar to original CBT, which asks “Is this thought true?”
But ACT asks a more pragmatic question: “Does it help?”
We have a multitude of thoughts, feelings, behaviours and actions in any given hour. Asking whether something helps clarifies three things:
- What’s the desired result – what do we really want?
- What’s the context – stuff doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and so context influences something’s function
- Does it take us closer to, or further away from, what we value and find important – is it supporting our values or ignoring them?
Asking “Is is true?” to someone who’s voicing negative thoughts has a helpful intention, but it may feel like you’re dismissing or invalidating them or their experience. And, heck, who hasn’t felt defensive when they’ve felt judged, unheard or critically misunderstood?
So I can really get behind the more pragmatic “Does it help?” instead.
Because when it comes to helping others to be kinder to themselves, sometimes you’ve just got to ACT 🙂