People often come to see me caught up in stories about themselves, exclaiming things like ‘I don’t have time to do that’, ‘I’m not very good at that’, ‘I don’t have the confidence to do that‘ etc! The problem with these ‘self stories’ is that they direct our behavior to such an extent that they become crippling and widen the gap between the lives we have and the life we actually want.
We seem to have forgotten one crucial element in the creation of our own realities – our choices.
If we want relationships we have to boldly face the vulnerabilities that come with dating. If we want to excel in the corporate world we have to make room for fears around public speaking. How willing are you to ‘behave your way’ to the life that really matters to you?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (that’s pronounced as you’d read it not as Aay Cee Tee by the way) is a scientifically proven, groundbreaking approach to psychological change. It shows us how to increase our willingness to step outside our comfort zone, if that’s what it takes to get closer to what we really care about.
Now, let’s get this straight, ACT is not just another technology to help people feel better; its impact is far greater and more far-reaching than that. Unlike other models it doesn’t waste time on labeling people with this or that diagnosis, instead it centers on a set of principles and processes for cultivating ‘psychological flexibility’ that can assist each and every one of us to make better choices and achieve a life that is more rewarding and meaningful.
How does this work in ACTion?
So, here’s the thing: as I write this blog with the prospect of posting it online (for the world to see – eek!) my mind is throwing up some very compelling thoughts like, ‘yeah right who you kidding, you can’t write something engaging‘, ‘people will laugh at how ridiculous you sound‘. Now these thoughts and their overarching (and oh so very familiar) ‘I’m not good enough‘ story are very hard to not get caught up in. They’re much like a school bully and arguing back is like getting cornered into a game of tug of war over a very deep puddle that this bully is set on me falling straight into, face first. Impulsively, I want to fight the bully but that’s stressful, exhausting and time consuming and not getting me anywhere fast (with anything actually) – blog or no blog. The other easy option here would be to just buy into these thoughts and let the bully win. Either way it’d be a real show stopper – sorry folks, no posts today.
Now writing these posts, raising awareness of psychology, helping others and making the most out of this fortunate opportunity is what really matters to me, that’s what I really care about and what I want my professional life to be about – so what else can I do? Well, I can simply drop the rope no matter how much the bully taunts me to grab hold of it again. Despite what my mind is telling me I can carry on regardless – assuming you’re all not bored senseless already? (oh, there’s that bully trying to grab my attention again).
Now making this choice isn’t going to stop that bully reappearing or make those uncomfortable fears of failure and ridicule go away, probably quite the opposite actually – the more we do things that we really care about the more uncomfortable feelings and thoughts will show up. So if I’m going to carry on writing I need to increase my willingness to have these uncomfortable feelings and thoughts and take them along for the ride.
Rather than struggle with them I can track those pesky thoughts as they crop up, simply notice them, labeling them as the bully and recognising that old, ‘I’m not good enough’ story coming out to play again. I remind myself that they are just thoughts and attempt to gain some distance from them by repeating a few words before them like, ‘I am having the thought that … I can’t write something engaging‘. Or even better still, gaining some more distance with, ‘I’m noticing that I am having the thought that … people will think this is ridiculous‘. It’s my choice whether I struggle with them or buy into these thoughts as we simply don’t have to think the thoughts that pop up in our minds.
Now, as I write this it’s also important that I track the vulnerability which I feel as well as any urges to erase or hide it away – as acting on these impulses, although quite understandable, would just take me further from what I really care about doing. This vulnerability comes and goes, as it naturally will (for us all), and although it’s not pleasant whatsoever, it is really OK to feel this way, I don’t have to like it, but just be willing to have it. It makes me human and shows me what really matters to me. So, rather than try to endlessly obliterate it, instead I can simply notice and then ease up around that vulnerability, breathing alongside it, watching it rise and fall, and honor this humanness with pride.
And hey presto! With a little distance and perspective taking and a whole lot of willingness to have some very natural discomfort – I lived to tell the tale and here it is – the post in black and white for you all to read and do you know what folks, it was well worth the effort.
Getting started yourself:
1. Identify life-shrinking behaviours – recognise what you do to eradicate unwanted stuff, maybe something like drinking to feel less socially anxious? Smoking to get rid of nicotine cravings? Keeping busy to avoid feeling bored or failure?
2. Clarify what’s most important and increase willingness – ask yourself: who and what is most important to me? What would I like my gravestone to say about me / my life was about? Commit to doing things that move you towards what really matters to you, even if they’re uncomfortable and your mind tells you otherwise.
3. Practice mindfulness – bring more awareness to your choices, exquisite present moment-by-moment focus on the here and now, as best you can. Try noticing your thoughts, feelings and behaviours rather than running on autopilot.
Embodying and practicing ACT involves not just your head and a set of really great tools but your heart also. It has the potential to touch on all of our lives and is just as relevant for the homeless man on the street as it is to the CEO of a global organization. It reminds us that we are all climbing the same mountain essentially, struggling with the exact same humanness while striving for the same things – freedom from undue suffering and the willingness to choose and create the reality that is truly dear to our hearts.
To find out more on ACT visit Association for Contextual Behavioral Science and there are also some great books to help you on your way. And, please remember if you’re not where you want to be, that doesn’t mean you’re broken but probably just using some unworkable (although quite understandable) strategies to get you there, so whatever choices you do make, be kind towards yourself – as we are all very much in the same boat.
Dr Michael Sinclair is a Consultant and Practitioner Psychologist, the Clinical Director of City Psychology Group and the author of “Fear and Self-Loathing in the City: a guide to keeping sane in the square mile” and “Mindfulness for Busy People: turning frantic and frazzled into calm and composed”.