Have you noticed that the more you control your anxiety, the more you become anxious? Control strategies are not entirely effective and can be counterproductive. In this episode, Chris Westcott, an experimental psychologist, offers the value of acceptance and commitment therapy in dealing with suppressed thoughts. Chris explains how acceptance allows you to make peace with cognitive events going on every day. He shares the importance of values in guiding our behavior to live a life with satisfaction. Learn to respond to your thoughts with mindful values no matter the internal thoughts and emotions you are experiencing. Tune in to this episode with Chris Westcott today.
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Acceptance And Commitment Training With Chris Westcott
We are here having a conversation about ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s something we’ve been thinking about a little bit and wanted to dive in and learn more about it. We’re lucky enough to be joined by an old friend, Chris Wescott whom I met in 2016. He is focusing a little bit on this area. Chris, would you be able to introduce yourself, say hi, and let people know a little bit more about yourself, your background, and what you’re doing at the minute?
James, thanks for having me on. I am an experimental psychologist and I’m particularly interested and focused on performance psychology. Summing that up, the catchphrase I stole from someone I’m sure is, helping people do what matters when it matters. We work with all sorts of people. We work with teams, organizations, professionals, corporates, people who work in the public sector, sports people, and medical professionals. We also work with people in the arts as well. Dancers for some reason. We’ve got involved with them, and musicians.
That’s a great blend. I came across ACT. When I first started looking into it a little bit more, I saw a lot of references to sports, but I thought it was interesting some of the things in relation to sports. Before we get into the details, could we start at the top level and could you explain a little bit what ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is?
It stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy if you’re working with clinical populations. If you’re working with nonclinical populations like we are, we’ll substitute therapy for training. It’s acceptance and commitment training. To boil it down, it’s a humanistic and solution-focused form of behavioral therapy or behavioral training. It’s dualistic in its approach, meaning that it looks to decrease people’s vulnerability to psychopathologies, and mental disorders. The other side of that is there’s a focus on developing strategies to help people flourish.
It’s quite modern as an approach. Is that right? I’ve heard people talk about different histories of psychology.
In 2006, this emerged with a guy called Steven Hayes, a doctor and a psychologist in the US. A brief context. We had the first wave of behavioral therapies, which were traditional or radical behaviorism. Offering conditioning, skinner in his box, press a button, and get a piece of candy as a reward. We can alter your behavior by doing that. If you do something good, we congratulate you. We encourage you if you do something bad, used to get a wrap in the knuckles, scolding of, or whatever it was.
From there, we had cognitive therapy, a second wave of behavioral therapies. Guys like Alison Beck thought that it’s probably quite important to take account of how people think rather than how they behave. Their approach to changing problematic behaviors is by trying to change people’s thoughts. From there, we get a third wave, which is acceptance and mindfulness-based therapies. We’re more interested in the context and the processes of thought rather than in the content of thought. We’re not seeking to change the content of thought. We’re looking to change how we respond to thoughts.
I think CBT is something that’s in the mainstream or close to the mainstream in terms of people’s understanding of it. Why do you think we made the step away from that? Why did we build on that with CBT as an approach?
It’s an evolution. We’re trying to restructure people’s thoughts. The proof point there is if we could restructure the content of our thoughts, we’d have all thought ourselves deliriously happy. There’d be no mental disorders. None of us have any psychopathology. Mental health services wouldn’t be swamped with people in need. This control strategy is not effective. They’re effective in some populations sometimes, but in the broader population, it’s not that effective. Worse than that, they can be counterproductive.
I guess my understanding of that second wave is that, as you’ve alluded, we can become aware of the thoughts and the feelings that we’re having. We can strive to intentionally change those so that we can create better outcomes for ourselves than others. My understanding is that you’re saying ACT is more about accepting those thoughts and feelings, recognizing that that’s part of humanity, and navigating forward through the challenges we face despite or regardless of the thoughts that we have.
You’ve nailed it. A useful contrast is control-based strategies versus acceptance strategies. The third wave of which ACT is part of acceptance strategies. Rather than struggling against these thoughts, when I feel anxious, if I struggle against the anxiety, I end up feeling more anxious. I get anxious about my anxiety, and then I’ll get scared about my anxiety, and so on. We get this loop of the feedback loop and it gets worse. In parallel with that, while I’m focusing on trying to control these uncontrollable thoughts, my attention and focus are not on what’s in front of me, what matters, and what I should be doing.
For example, you need to give a speech to a bunch of people or a presentation. I guess there’s some anxiety around that. It’s perfectly normal. If I’m trying to control that, I’m fully focusing on trying to get rid of my anxiety, which is an impossible task. While I’m doing that, I’m not focused on my presentation or on what’s in front of me being in the present moment. We might call that. I’m living in the past or future. My focus is not on what’s important to me at that moment.
It sounds like we can be both distracted in using some of our cognitive ability or focus and be distracted by something that might not be effective anyway. When you were speaking about it, it reminded me of a phrase or a little story that I heard to do with Daoism a while ago. I can’t remember where it was or who said it, but it’s a metaphor for a stone in the river. The story was about the stone that’s in the river that is stuck halfway at the bottom of the river. Poking out is the one that’s trying to hold back the river. That’s the one that gets worn down in a river. The stone that does not go with the flow of the river effectively remains whole, but navigates to new places.
Another metaphor is a tree. You can bend with the breeze. You can try and resist, stay solid, and potentially get uprooted.
I’m going to build on that. There’s a phrase that I’ve read and seen a fair amount when we’re talking about ACT and that psychological flexibility, which seems to fit into that tree metaphor. Could you bring that phrase in then?
Psychological flexibility is your ability for mindful values-guided behavior despite what internal thoughts, feelings, and emotions you are having. It’s your ability to do what matters to you despite how uncomfortable you might feel. Going back to my example before of giving a talk. Giving a speech at a wedding or something like that or a presentation to work colleagues, it is normal to feel anxious. You’re a bit scared about that and apprehensive. Instead of trying to control those thoughts, one way of controlling them which might be, “I’m not going to do the speech.”
Psychological flexibility is your ability for mindful values and guided behavior despite your internal thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
That’s effective at getting rid of those thoughts in short-term, but long-term, I haven’t enacted them in accordance with what I value, which might be giving a presentation to educate people. it might be to amuse people at a wedding if I’m giving a best man talk or something like that. Psychological flexibility is your ability to be the tree, bend with the wind, the wind is uncomfortable thoughts, and do what matters to you.
That’s a lovely metaphor for this. That tree flexing and bending in the winds around us, but staying true to where it is and I guess having its roots connected to what matters.
The acceptance part of that isn’t meekly accepting. It’s accepting that these are part of living. I say to clients all the time, “Welcome to life. This is what happens. There is a base level of suffering there, regardless of who you are.” We worked with all sorts of people who are in financial terms doing exceptionally well. People sold up out of big startups. People on excos of big corporates and FTSE. Looking at their buying balance, they’re doing exceptionally well, but they still have a level of suffering. Their Rolls-Royce will still get dinged in the car park if they ever go shopping or maybe at the golf club. Their family members are going to die. Their kids are going to get bullied at school. They’re going to feel fat. They’re not going to exercise. They’re not going to eat well.
All these things are part and parcel of life. Welcome to that. We can try and struggle against these feelings that come with this condition of living, but you’re hiding nothing. Another good metaphor is, trying to keep a beach ball or a football underwater. Me struggling to control my thoughts and feelings, I can keep that beach ball underwater as long as I’m concentrating fully on it. If you’re on the side of the pool, you’re this younger Chris, “How about a good couple of margaritas here, let’s get some downers. Let’s go have a game of beach volleyball or go for a walk.” As soon as I take my attention off holding that beach ball underwater, it doesn’t just pop to the surface, it pops out higher.
I guess we’re not ready to deal with it because we’ve been so focused on suppressing it. When it changes into something present in front of us, we’re not ready to behave in the way that we’d like with that being such a present part of what we do.
As children, you’ve got to enjoy yourself. I’ve got a niece. Until this happened to me, I didn’t realize after doing a bit of reading around it as well, how conditioned we are at a young age to suppress, void, and distract ourselves from difficult feelings. It’s done by our parents. It’s not anything malevolent. It’s just social conditioning. We brought up, fall over, and scuff our knees. You’ll be all right. Learning to ride your bike, you have a fair few stacks. Get up and you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. By the time we’re older, we’re good at suppressing these difficult thoughts.
It’s a tough question. I don’t know if you’ve got a thought on this. A lot of the things that we’re speaking about resonate to me with some of those more conceptually considered Eastern philosophy things to do with acceptance, Zenning, and just being. Do you get any sense of this cultural view on that?
There are some crossovers. The third wave of that mindfulness is the problem. That’s the term now that’s been hijacked quite a lot and co-opted by various people in different sectors. ACT is not religious. lots of people equate mindfulness to relaxation, a spiritual vent, or a spiritual experience. Mindfulness in ACT through the ACT lens is being in the present moment with your attention fully engaged in what’s in front of you. It’s not Zenning out, distracting yourself, or relaxing to get away from our internal experiences. It’s fully accepting them. As I said before, not meekly accepting them, but accepting that this is part of life.
Acceptance And Commitment Therapy: Mindfulness through the ACT lens is about being in the present moment with your attention, fully engaged in what’s in front of you.
Depending on the literature you look at, we have 20,000 to 60,000 cognitive events or internal experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions every day. We absolutely cannot control them. Our best strategy is to accept. They’re going to sit there within us and be able to flexibly move our attention to what matters at the moment. They’re never useful, but it’s to identify when they are helpful or not helpful. Keep focusing on them if they’re helpful at that moment. If they’re not, you can move your attention elsewhere.
I’m going to come on in a minute to ask some questions about how we do that and what are some of the processes and activities we might be able to do. Could you talk to me a little bit about the effectiveness or efficacy of ACT versus CBT in its own right? Does it work better for some people than others?
ACT is probably a subset of CBT. ACT isn’t the only newer form of CBT. There are Compassion-Focused Therapies, MBCT, and Dialectical Behavior Therapies. All different flavors have a real focus on acceptance and mindfulness rather than the control agenda. In terms of efficacy, I’m going to Google Scholar, there are upwards of 30,000 pieces of research on the efficacy of ACT. The old-school second wave I guess of CBT purely because it’s been in existence longer. There’s probably a bit more research on that. Certainly, ACT is growing and its effectiveness is well-documented in clinical and non-clinical populations from sports people to people suffering from OCD, PTSD, and clinical anxiety disorders.
If you’re in Google School and you are interested in your academics, and if you put in ACT-any condition, it will bring up research papers on that. There’s even ACT for insomnia. I reckon someone with ACT-CP, which is for Chronic Pain. There’s a lot of work being done at the University of Queensland in that area as well. It is a thriving research base.
It’s good to hear the range of areas that it’s being explored with. It feels like it’s useful for many people. We’ve talked a little bit about that reduction of suffering being a bit of a theme. Reflecting on it, do you see ACT as something that takes us from maybe a lower level of satisfactory level? If things are generally pretty good, can it enhance and make things even better for us? I’m not sure of the right language around that, but is it getting rid of negativity or does it bring in positivity? How do you see that?
To hop back to what we’ve been talking about, control strategies label thinking thoughts and emotions as negative or positive. ACT is context-based. We’re not interested in the content of thoughts. We’re interested in the context and function of those thoughts. Instead of labeling thoughts as negative or positive, perhaps label them as helpful or unhelpful depending on the context. The example I use is, you ring me up to go to the pub and have a few beers. Depending on my context, that can be helpful or unhelpful. That behavior of me going to the pub.
ACT is context-based. We’re not interested in the content of thoughts but in the context and function of those thoughts.
If I’m a recovering alcoholic, in that context, the function of me going to the pub to have a few beers with you is not helpful. However, if I’m suffering from social anxiety and we establish some friendships and get out and meet a few more people because I’m caught indoors and I’m lonely, then going out to meet you for a few beers is helpful. In ACT terminology, we describe that as the workability of the behavior. We look at workability rather than whether something is objectively positive or negative. Be that thought or be that in behaviors we can see.
We’ve talked about what ACT is. We’ve talked about some of its background, its effectiveness, and the people that benefit from this. We’ve anchored in on this idea of psychological flexibility and shared some nice imagery to help us think about that. I’d like to explore a little bit now how we do this. We know we want to be psychologically flexible of the building blocks of psychological flexibility. Is there anything you can talk to?
We’ve got three ACT processes that can be bundled into rather than the six dry, overly academic ones. The first of those is opening up. That means embracing a situation and normalizing our internal experiences. What we talked about before is those feelings of anxiety that pop up perhaps around a presentation or some kind of life event. Fear of doing something new, we normalize them. Opening up is the first leg of the ACT tri-flex.
The second one is being present. It means focusing our attention on what matters. We’re not caught in the future, we’re not ruminating on the past. The third leg of that is engaging or taking action. It’s doing what matters. We talk about ACT as being solution-focused. We don’t just deal with our clients and tell them about the theory of ACT. We work on what they can do that will make a difference or move the dial. That’s maybe connecting their values, setting goals, and things like that. Those are the three aspects.
With opening up, we talked about embracing situations, normalizing emotions, and normalizing all of that. How do we go about that for people who’ve maybe not thought about this stuff? How do you help people get to a stage of recognizing?
You contrast with what we all do normally. Difficult emotion rises. Give me an example of a difficult situation.
Let’s carry on with a wedding speech. We’ve got to get up in front of 200 people and chat.
What comes up around there? Thoughts of nervous, anxious, a bit scared. “What are people going to think about me?” Old-school CBT approaches would look focused on controlling those thoughts. Perhaps attaining some kind of ideal performance state. We see sports people all the time with their rituals and superstitious distraction techniques. They try and take your mind off these difficult thoughts. We’ve seen the evidence shows this is not effective. That’s struggling to keep the beach ball underwater.
What we do instead is normalize our anxiety. One way we might do that is by noticing and naming those thoughts. “What thoughts am I having here? I feel a little bit anxious. I’m noticing how I’m having the sensation here of sweaty palms. What else? I’m noticing a bit worried. I’ve got the father-in-law sitting at the top table there. He’s not going to find me funny. I’m a bit worried about that.” Through the process of doing that, we get a bit of space from those difficult thoughts and emotions. They’re normalized. We worry about that stuff because we care. If we didn’t care, it wouldn’t matter and it wouldn’t be a problem.
We get a bit of distance from that. The distance from those difficult thoughts allows us to choose how to behave. Our previous behavior might have been to run a mile. It might have been to have a swift seven pints before you get up to ease or try and control the nerves. It’s not that effective. I’ve tried that one myself. As a best man, it’s entirely ineffective. That’s looking at the opening-up side of things. That’s one of the exercises we might do. It’s quite hard to do in a quick digestible way in a show, but the process might take a couple of sweeps or a couple of different exercises and take 10 to 15 minutes just working through it.
One of the cornerstones of ACT is we are not looking for our clients to become dependent on us. We’re looking to give them the tools so they can go off and do the work outside of our sessions and get them to a level where they can do it themselves without us. It is akin to psychological flexibility. It’s parallel with physical training or physical flexibility. If I’m a PT, I can show you how to do deadlifts, bicep curls, or whatever it is while we’ve got you in session. Once you go to the gym and get the reps in, you are not going to see the benefit. It’s the same with ACT. We teach people exercises, they go away and practice it, we work on it, tweak it, and get them to a stage where they can manage themselves.
Thinking through some of that, correct me if I’m wrong, part of this opening-up phrase is about normalizing thoughts and emotions. We have to be able to, as you said, name and see them as something that’s happening. It’s almost to give us a bit of space. We’re not a slave to them or on an automatic response, but we can see them. We just need to buy a fraction of time or capacity by doing that so that we can be a little bit more intentional about what we do.
They talk about it in ACT. A good image is talking about getting hooked by thoughts. If you imagine you’re with a fish. We’re swimming along through the river of life. There’s a whole bunch of fishing hooks hanging down there. There are difficult thoughts and feelings. When we’ve bitten on that hook, it’s hooked us to someone. Some greater being or whatever is on the other end of that fishing hook is reeling us in.
We’ve got no autonomy. It pulls us about, but we’re faced with a choice. We can either not bite on it in the first place or as we all do, we slip, get hooked, and get caught up in our feelings, emotions, or memories. When they caught up with them, they jerk us around all over the place. The exercises we teach and work on is enabling clients to recognize when they have been hooked, release that hook, and refocus on what’s more important. Keep swimming.
Keep swimming quickly. Keep swimming on.
We can’t get rid of the hooks and there’s no delete button. We’ve got all these thoughts and feelings. They’re 20,000 to 60,000 a day or whatever it is. It’s like a fire hose. We can’t turn it off. We can’t delete them. That river we’re swimming through, there’s all these difficult thoughts and feelings as hooks. Hopefully, we don’t bite on them. If we do, we’ve got some exercises that can increase the likelihood of you being able to unhook. When you’re unhooked, you can then flexibly move your attention to what matters and go on with doing the things that move the dial in your life. Things that give you satisfaction, fulfillment, vitality, and all those good things.
When you were speaking, I was thinking of another image. Do you remember those finger trap puzzles? You put your finger in and if you try and pull your finger out, it gets trapped.
It’s like quicksand.
The more you struggle, the worse it gets. That type of thing.
They talk about enacting. They talk about a guy called Russ Harris who’s one of the psychotherapists XGP. He’s based in Australia. He is a British guy. He talks about flicking the struggle switch. I can choose to struggle against this. That’s fighting against a fishing hook and jerking me around everywhere. I can try, control, and struggle against it. It’s just not going to work. He talks about flicking the struggle switch off and dropping the struggle.
If we recognize what’s going on and that we’ve been hooked, we acknowledge we’ve got all these emotions in these moments, and fighting against them isn’t helpful. What we want to do is do something helpful in that one. How do we know what’s helpful for us? How do we work out? What’s a helpful guide rails, guidelines, or decision-making support?
A useful way of doing that is identifying your values, which is one of the cornerstones of ACT. Values are a term that’s been co-opted. We don’t have to go very far at all to see our company from the largest corporate to the smallest one-man band that has their values prominently passed somewhere. What we mean in the ACT by values is a way of being. I’ll break that down a bit. It’s not things that we value. Clean air, a nice house, shelter, maybe a fancy car for some people’s holidays. That isn’t what we mean by values. What we mean by values is a way of being. How we want to treat others. How we want to be treated ourselves. How we want to treat the wider world. What matters to you in your life?
A good way is the counterfactual of that. When we’re leading a life that’s filling our values with being how we want to be, acting how we want to act, and treating others how we want to treat others, we feel satisfied. We have a sense of vitality. Life is interesting. It’s a bit more exciting. There’s a bit of meaning there. Contrast that with the opposite. A life that isn’t guided by values-based behavior, a bit empty, a sense of dissatisfaction, perhaps a bit of regret there, might be a bit dull, and lack of vitality. A phrase we hear quite often is people feel they’re going through the motions and that’s when your day-to-day consists of actions that aren’t guided by values or congruent with your values. You are not doing those things that float your boat.
Examples might be me and my values. One of them is being compassionate. Another one is being skillful. During my day, being compassionate is I’m in my work, dealing with clients all day, and showing a bit of empathy towards them. Doing that makes me feel good. Another thing I have is being skillful. My sports or hobbies that I practice, I’m learning skill-based. I’ll go out, it’s here, and playing 30 knots. It’s horrible and raining. I’ll go to the sea and have a surf because I want to raise my skill level in that. I’ve been doing that for 40 years because it floats my boat. I’m increasing my skill at something.
Another one of my values is curiosity. On a day-to-day basis, I’ll do a bit of research. I’ll ask people about their lives. I’ll go and investigate things. I’ll go down on Wikipedia and YouTube hole to satisfy my curiosity about something. We find the research that shows if we sprinkle those values throughout our day, it gives our life a greater sense of purpose and meaning.
I guess there are things we can do to uncover, explore, or identify our values. Assuming that we’ve identified a handful of these, 5 or 8 of them, or whatever it is, how does being clear on those values help us in those moments where we’ve managed to shake off the confines of feeling nervous, helpful and got us that breathing space and turned off that struggle switch? How does knowing our values help us in that moment?
I’ll give a quick example in case someone doesn’t know their values. There are online tools you can use. A good way is to imagine somehow you’ve managed to end up at your funeral. A good indication of your values is what you’d love to hear people say in the eulogy. “He had a beautiful house, a great big car. He was really funny,” or “He was relentlessly curious. He was compassionate. I always knew he was at the end of the phone if I needed him. He gave some great contributions to his professional field,” or whatever it is. Those things that people say at eulogy are good indications of your values. Yet, they’re adjectives. Being that something is a good indication of values. “He enjoyed being whatever it is.”
Acceptance And Commitment Therapy: A good indication of your values is what you’d love to hear people say in your eulogy.
How does knowing our values help us in those moments where we’re shaking off the unhelpful struggle against our emotions, where we’ve turned that struggle switch, we’ve got that bit of acceptance, we’ve bought that little bit of breathing space? In that moment, how does knowing our values help us? What can we do with that?
Maybe I’ll throw another metaphor in here. Doing things that matter to us is easy. An example I’ll give, and I want you to imagine yourself here. You’re playing football with your son or another child in the garden. The ball runs out onto the road. Cars hammering on the road and it’s going to hit that ball. What’d you do? Stop charge. You let the car hit the ball. It doesn’t matter. Second scenario. You’re playing with a child in the garden. The football runs in front of the car, the same car hammering along, and a child runs out to grab the ball. What’d you do then?
You grab the child.
You run out there and grab the child regardless. Why? Because it matters. He or she matters. The football doesn’t matter. It’s easy to do those things that matter to us. By identifying our values and what matters to us, following a course of action that’s satisfying becomes easier. It’s an appetite in psychological terms. We want to do more of it.
Feeding our appetite is helpful. One of the things that popped into my mind as you’ve been explaining is that sometimes when we can have these values and they’re there, they’re burnt into our way of thinking in these different moments, they’re almost decision-making shortcuts. As you said, they’re the things that we know we want to do. If we preload our decision-making faculties with a series of values that are hardwired in there, then in a moment of uncertainty or decision-making under stress or a moment of taking action under stress, we have these front-loaded shortcuts to guide our boundaries or actions. Does that make any sense?
You’re 100% right. I couldn’t have put it better myself. The way we might talk about that in ACT is our values are a compass. I’m walking along through the bush or wherever it is feeling a little bit lost or confused in terms of what action I should take. I pull my compass out. What can I do here? Our values are our North, West, East, or whatever it is. I’ve wandered a bit off track here. I got my compass out. There’s my value of being loving, compassionate, hardworking, curious, skillful, adding value, altruistic, or whatever it is.
What can I do at this moment that’s a move towards one of those values? To get towards our values, we can use goals. Keeping the compass analogy going, goals might be weigh points. That’s the difference between goals and values, which a lot of people in the non-ACT world get caught up in. Goals are finite. We can tick them off. Values, we never stop living them until we die.
Goals are finite. We can tick them off. With values, you never stop living them until you die.
That feels more Eastern in the heritage of thinking to me than Western in some ways as well. I don’t know if it is, but that’s my conception of some of those ideas.
It could be. Jumping back to the analogy of the compass and North, East, or West. Walking West, we never get West and never finish.
It’s a way of being.
Yeah, a contrast of, “I want to get married is a goal. Ticked off or not. I want to be a loving partner, wife or husband, or civil partner, it’s never finished.” I can keep being loved for as long as I’m alive.
You used the phrase earlier that was quite nice introducing this. You said, “A move towards our values.” I like that idea of a move towards. For me, the phrase move is something intentional, something action-based in us, taking a move towards something and it feels like we’re moving towards something that maybe lives us feeling proud of who we are later on. We’re taking an act in that moment about who we want to be.
Moving towards our values is inherently satisfying because it feels good to do stuff that matters to you.
Moving towards our values is inherently satisfying. It feels good to do stuff that matters to you.
I’ve heard some things elsewhere about something narrative identity therapy, the importance of the stories that we tell ourselves, the types of people we are, and how we behave in different moments. We’re talking about that being referenced in areas of substance abuse and other areas where the stories we tell ourselves and how we behave in moments or can. By influencing those, we can ultimately change some of our behaviors for better outcomes. Do you see any overlap between that type of thinking? What are you seeing?
We base that on a control strategy. We are looking to perhaps change that narrative. In ACT, we’re not interested in the content of the thoughts. We are looking at the functional context of how they function. What is that thought? How do we behave in response to that thought? We realize we can’t change that narrative. Those thoughts, feelings, emotions, and memories, you have no control over. Those narratives, we don’t have control over. I can’t go back and change my narrative or my self-concept. What I can do is choose how to respond to it and use my behavior. If I have to get a little bit of space or distance from that, I can choose how to respond to it.
In terms of substance abuse, I’m not a clinical psychologist or a counseling psychologist, but I imagine it might be the story is popping off in my head is I’m useless. I’m never going to amount to anything. Doing anything else is a waste of time. I’m going to light up that crack pipe. In response to those thoughts, a move away from my values might be reaching for the crack pipe, but having gone through and being familiar with ACT, our approach might be or would be, “I’m not good enough story coming up. Those thoughts, I can’t control. They’re there. I feel like a loser and useless. Life is a waste of time.”
Thanks, brain. Thanks for those thoughts. I can still behave how I choose. That’s constrained by your circumstances. Fundamentally, I can choose. Again, if there are no physiological dependencies, I can choose whether to have the extra beer to slap my partner, hit my children, not do my homework, or ignore my co-worker. I can choose how to behave despite what feelings are coming up.
It seems that we can’t change that past story. The past story is what it is. It’s what’s got us here because we both worked in finance at various points. In some places, past performance is no guarantee of future results. What’s gone before doesn’t need to influence the future.
In finance, you are surrounded by people. One of them myself and it’s because you’re last quarter. The narrative attached to you by yourself and by others is your last quarterly performance depending on your front office or not. It’s easy to get hung up on that and to act in response to whatever narrative we’ve got running through ahead rather than act in a way that’s our values and gives us satisfaction, meaning, vitality, or what makes us feel good.
If people wanted to do a little bit of this themselves and start to use some of these processes, what would you recommend they do to bring ACT to life for themselves?
There are only a few fundamental processes there, but they’re all experiential. Explaining it on a show is a bit like me explaining how to swim or how to play guitar. It’s not quite the same, but you mentioned that there cognitive diffusion or unhooking difficult thoughts and where you can practice that. Throughout the course of your day, whenever difficult thoughts or feelings arise, or you’re in a difficult situation, take a second to notice and name those thoughts. “I notice I’m having a thought that X. I notice I’m having the feeling that Y.” It’s difficult.
Going back to the parallels with physical training. The more you practice it, the easier you get it. Throughout our life, we’ve got practiced reacting to thoughts by trying to suppress them if they’re difficult. It’s not that effective, but it doesn’t stop us from trying. The more you practice, recognizing, noticing, and naming them, the little bit of space you can get between them allows you to choose how you act and respond to it and move towards or away from new values.
To do that practice, what do you recommend people do to try it? Do they sit for a minute and think? What do they do?
This is easy. I gave an example of walking on the beach with a significant other. Having a walk and discussing some household thing that has or hasn’t happened that’s causing some problems. Those thoughts come up. “If only you’ve done this, why didn’t you do that? I told you,” or whatever. Our immediate response to those in the past might have been to blow up and say them out loud. Have the argument. Instead of doing that, take a second. Identify the thoughts you’re having, and then choose how to respond. That’s in line with your value. The evidence shows that practicing three times a day between 30 and 60 seconds has a noticeable effect.
As you said, it’s like physical exercise. You’ve got to keep practicing, do those reps, and do your 60 to 90 seconds.
Let’s link it to another example of doing exercise itself. You know how it is yourself. You’ve come home from work. I know you’re in Edinburgh. The weather, although it’s fantastic most of the time, sometimes it’s not great. You come home from work and the plan is to go out for a run. It is chucking it down. You have those difficult thoughts come up like, “I can’t be bothered. What’s the point? I missed my run the other day. I’m never going to run a sub-three marathon.” All these difficult thoughts come up.
Now, by noticing, naming them, identifying them, diffusing and unhooking from them, you get a bit of space. You’re like, “One of my values is self-care. I want to look after myself here, physically and mentally. To live in line with that value, what could I do?” I want to sit on the couch. That might be my away move. Flick on the TV, order a pizza, jump in the bath with a hamburger, or whatever it is. In self-care, my physical health is important to me. I’m going to act in line with values. I’m getting out there and I’m smashing out my 5 or 10 or whatever it is. Having done that, you know how you feel yourself.
You feel proud.
Yeah, and satisfied. You might be covered in road grime and your tires are about to drop off, but it feels good. It’s satisfying because you’ve done something that matters to you. That’s equivalent to jumping out there and getting your kid out of the way of the car and maybe getting your leg broken. It doesn’t matter. It feels great because you’ve done something that matters.
ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (The New Harbinger Made Simple Series)
In a limited time, we’ve covered a huge amount there from the introduction to ACT to exploring some of its genesis, reflecting on its effectiveness, thinking about the building blocks, some of the ways we can use it in practice, and some of the people that it can help. That’s super helpful. Before we go, how can people learn a little bit more about you and what you do?
The best way is to have a look at the website, Mersol.co. I would encourage people to explore a little bit further. A lot of resources out there in terms of books. One by Dr. Russ Harris called The Happiness Trap. That’s more non-psychologist focused. My business partner loves it and got it even though she’s a psychologist as well. If you’re looking for something more educational, my favorite textbook is again by Russ Harris. It’s called ACT Made Simple. It’s a great introduction. Also, the Dummies Guide to ACT is written by two good clinical psychologists and they break it down quite nicely as well.
That’s some wonderful recommendations in there. I love the idea of the Dummies Guide to ACT. What a wonderful thing to have. Thank you very much. It’s time to say goodbye, so it’s goodbye for me.
Thanks for your time, James.
Thanks for listening to this episode. Don’t forget, as well as these shows, we deliver at least one free online seminar every month that everyone can attend. You can sign up for these and our newsletter via WOW mail on our website, www.WorldOfWork.io.