In my last post, I wrote about how the ACT model of therapy creates the conditions for growth and healing. I thought it would be useful to spend my next few blogs writing specifically about each component of the ACT approach in more detail. The 3 main components of ACT are:
1. Diffusing from unhelpful thought patterns, narratives and beliefs
2. Accepting our inner experiences and the reality of our lives
3. Identifying our deepest values and committing to values-driven behavior, despite whatever difficulties we may be having within our human experience.
One of the most challenging concepts in the ACT model is that of acceptance. Acceptance essentially means letting go of our ideas about how life should be and the accompanying conflict with reality, and allow everything to be as it is.
When I suggest to my clients that they accept their situation as it is, it’s a radical notion. Whether we’re discussing their disavowed emotions, their disturbing or intrusive thoughts, their past, their difficult relationship with their parent or boss, or even the chronic pain of physical injury, the response is almost always the same: “Accept this? This is horrible! I’m completely useless if I don’t solve this! I refuse to let go.”
Acceptance is counter-intuitive and paradoxical. It might feel like giving up, losing, or resigning ourselves to some horrible fate. But in fact, the opposite is true. Reality is happening all the time, whether you choose to accept it or not. Fighting against it as a way to change it is an illusion. Acceptance resets the agenda and makes real change possible.
As you’ve likely experienced for yourself, fighting against unwanted experiences and being unwilling to accept our more difficult situations does not create change, it keeps us from changing.
As clients ponder the concept of accepting and letting go, they often respond with such doubts as “I don't know what that means.” “I don't know how to do that.” “I feel like I won’t know who I am.” “I'm scared.” “It feels like I'm floating in space.” “I'm standing on the edge of an abyss.” “If I let go, then what?”
And they’re right. When we let go of our conflict with reality we may feel at long last the existential anxiety – which is really an intense feeling of aliveness – that we’ve been unconsciously avoiding for most of our lives.
But here’s the key: when we let go and accept, what we are essentially doing is letting go of the way we are relating to our experiences, not the experiences themselves. In other words, we let go of relating to ourselves and others with hostility and replace that hostility with acceptance and compassion.
Let me give you an example. I had a client recently, a married woman who lamented weekly about the emotionally abusive nature of her relationship with her husband. Week after week, my client expressed her anger at her husband for not changing his ways. Having grown up with parents who were also rather emotionally abusive to my client, it was a very familiar pattern she was experiencing in her marriage: a deeply painful recreation of abuse masquerading as love.
My client’s anger and dissatisfaction were justified, for sure, but by maintaining a pattern of ineffective conflict with her husband, rooted in her fantasy of changing him, my client stayed stuck. Our work involved helping my client see her reality and begin to accept feelings of grief that she was once again in a cycle of abuse. Once she accessed and deeply felt her grief, she began to develop compassion for herself and over time was able to make the decision to take care of herself in a more effective and loving way. The focus shifted from the impotent rage she felt towards her husband, to the compassion she felt towards herself. And it was this shift that enabled her to change her situation.
It’s a completely different experience to move from hating what we don’t like about ourselves, our lives, or our relationships, to acceptance of our personal limitations, failures, and disappointments in others. When we let go and accept, a new door opens; one that offers insight and new understanding that then leads us to know intuitively how to work with reality, rather than against it.
The next time you notice yourself caught in conflict with a situation – your feelings, your partner, some aspect of your life you are having difficulty accepting – try saying to yourself, “I’m willing to let go of this conflict and accept what is. I’m willing to feel whatever comes up for me when I accept this unacceptable situation.” See if you can shift into acceptance. You may even put your hands over your heart and say to yourself, “May I be kind to myself in this moment” as you recognize and release any hostility you may be caught up in.
In this way, little by little, with acceptance, we make peace with ourselves and begin the real process of change.