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Changing Behavior & Acceptance Commitment Therapy
Category: Changing Behavior

Carl Rogers the American psychologist and founding member of client-centered therapy once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am then I can change.”   Strong feelings and the conclusions we form often keep us stuck in the false beliefs we hold about ourselves.

I have recently completed intensive training in the evidence-based therapy Acceptance Commitment Therapy or ACT.  As a result, many of my clients are shifting their perspective of “doing” to find meaning in life, to “being” and finding life meaningful.  This is helping them “unstick” from past trauma or feelings that continue to trigger painful events. 

The ACT model helps clients move from the false beliefs they hold towards what they value most in life creating a greater flexible functional lifestyle.  ACT helps clients come into contact with painful experiences and still choose.  They notice what they are feeling and not driven by the pain to make decisions.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT is a powerful new psychotherapy based on cutting-edge research into how the human mind works. It has been clinically proven to be successful in a wide range of psychological problems. It’s premise is to learn how to accept those things that are out of your control, and commit to changing those things that can be changed to make your life better.

The therapist strives to help the client obtain what is called psychological flexibility.  Psychological flexibility is defined as the ability to come into contact with painful experiences and still choose.  Clients notice what they feel and are not driven by the pain to decide.  Therapists use psychological flexibility as a measure of emotional and mental health.

An example: I have a thought “I am an idiot.” Being inflexible, my range of coping is limited and I withdraw and shut down. Being flexible, I am able to reframe the thought expanding my options of coping whereby I share my feeling and ask for validation.

We can train people to be psychologically flexible. We want people to be able to come into direct contact with painful experiences and still make a functional choice.

There are six common core processes that create Psychological Flexibility.  They are:

1. Acceptance – being willing to sit in our pain

2. Defusion – taking our minds less seriously (rather than being fused with thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations.) 

a. Bringing awareness to thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations, the response to them, and the consequence of that response.

b. Inviting openness to the effectiveness of the response to the feelings and thoughts.

c. Promoting engagement with a flexible response to thought

3. Present Moment – different from traditional mindfulness (being aware of feelings and thoughts in the present moment.)  In the present moment, I hold onto my pain so that I can choose to do the things I care about.

4. Self as Context – You are not your thoughts.

5. Values – Who and what matters most

6. Commitment – Doing of what matters most to you. 

No one common core process is more important than the other.  They are grouped into three stages to better understand how to flow through each process. 

The first is the Open stage where the process of Acceptance and Defusion occurs.  In the Acceptance process we are noticing (identifying) what we feel without judgment. We sit in our in our pain.  During the Defusion process we identify the meaning we give thoughts, feelings and experiences without letting them define us.

The second stage is Aware where we engage the process of being in the Present Moment.  During this process we realize we are in the here and now and rather than there and then. The second process is Self-as-Context where we come to believe that our feelings, thoughts and experiences do not define us.

During the last stage we Engage.  The Values process identifies what is true about us, and what and who matters most to us. The final process of Commitment identifies the things we can choose to move towards what we value most and is most meaningful to us in life.

I am excited about ACT therapy as it compliments and completes concepts of Belief Systems Therapy. Belief Systems Therapy (BST) theorizes that behavior is motivated by our thoughts and feelings, which flow from what we believe about ourselves.  In order to change our behavior we must discover what motivates that behavior.  Our actions are motived by our emotions (the power source) that originate from the conclusions we have formed about ourselves.  These conclusions or beliefs are the root of our behavior. 

We learn to identify feelings and thoughts and the meaning we give them utilizing a tool called the Belief Check In.  Once we identify what is true about us, we are free to make a choice based on reality and not a false conclusion from our past feelings or experiences.  Do I choose behavior based on how I feel, or do I make a decision based on what I know to be true?  We ask the following questions to unpack a given event and create change in the present moment.

  1. What do I feel? 

  1. Why do I feel this?

  1. What do I believe about myself at this moment?

  1. What is true about me?

  1. What do I need?

  1. How do I get this need met legitimately?

The Belief Check In helps discover what we are feeling, what is true about us and what we need.  Through this discovery we are able to make a choice based on what is true versus false conclusions from past experiences.

The BST process overlays with the ACT process three stages of Open, Aware and Engaged.  During the open stage we ask ourselves the questions of what do I feel, why do I feel this?  In the Aware stage we ask ourselves what is true about us.  Finally, in the Engaged stage we identify what we need and how to get it met legitimately by asking the last two questions.

ACT utilizes a tool called a Life Map to help clients identify how they move away or towards their values.  Working through this process enables clients to begin to live in the present moment, sitting in their pain but still moving (choosing) towards what is most important to them.  By laying the Life Map over the BST model, we combine the Belief Check In to help us accept painful feelings, thoughts and experiences without creating coping behaviors that ease our pain temporarily but move us away from our values.  Below is a diagram showing the two theories overlay.

Systemic change happens when individuals are able to observe their behaviors, identify the feelings that motivate that behavior and connect the core belief or conclusion about themselves to that feeling.  In doing so, change occurs when the individual changes what they believe to agree with what is true that creates new feelings motivating changed behavior. 

The place that many get stuck in is the painfulness of those feelings attached to conclusions they hold about themselves.  It is in this stage that individuals will say, “I know what is true but I don’t feel it.”  This results in decision being made based on feelings rather than what is actually true.

ACT helps clients accept the painful feelings and experiences and be OK in that painful place.  They are free to make choices based on what is true instead of trying to avoid or escape the painful feelings.  Individuals discover what the true meaning of their pain is and begin to move towards what is most important to them.

I am excited and motivated to implement the key concepts of ACT in helping clients discover what is true about them and free them to move towards a more fulfilled and meaningful life.

Posted by Peter M. on 04/25/2017
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