Mindfulness seems to be the self help buzzword of the moment, yet it is still misunderstood by many people to be “just another form of meditation”. However, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a toolbox of mindfulness techniques that not only make sense to the modern mind but are also immensely practical.
Most science-based approaches to psychotherapy typically involve changing thought patterns and beliefs in an attempt to uproot negative thoughts and build a positive outlook. All well and good.
This is certainly true of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) — arguably the most dominant system of psychotherapy in the world.
It seems obvious — thinking creates our problems so what we need is better thinking right? More positive, better quality, less negative.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’ (pronounced as the word ‘act’), being based on mindfulness, says enough of that. Thoughts don’t necessarily cause problems — thoughts are just internal streams of images and words. Fusing with thoughts causes problems. That is, latching onto thoughts as they go by and identifying with them.
Our capacity for mental self-flagellation can be astounding and the temptation is to entangle and get caught up in a wave of unhelpful critical thoughts. Trying to challenge them doesn’t work (it just gives the unhelpful thoughts more power) while trying to change the station to “Radio Positive and Feel Good” just invites a stream of the opposite thoughts.
As Australian psychotherapist Russ Harris explains, ACT focuses on the acceptance that thoughts and feelings will arise and that they’re not necessarily “negative”. The radio station of the mind will broadcast all kinds of messages and that’s okay. To challenge them and dispute them, as is our common tendency, is to fuse with them.
Where mindfulness comes into ACT, and where it offers enormous value, is in the practice of what is termed defusion. If fusion is buying into thoughts and wrestling with them, defusion is the separation from those thoughts and just watching them from an observer position.
Hence, Russ Harris explains that fusing with thoughts is the problem in the first place. Thoughts are just transmissions of the mind — a natural phenomena we all have — including successful people who look cool and confident all the time.
Being a skeptic and familiar with the self-help industry, I’ve become quite adept at discovering the flaws and chicanery of the various half baked ideas passed off as “wisdom”.
The principles of ACT are fundamentally opposed to the central assumptions of the happiness and positive thinking industry. For instance, the idea we’re bombarded with from a thousand angles is that some emotions are bad and to be avoided, while others are pleasant and to be embraced.
Happiness is therefore a warm fuzzy feeling, so we get locked in this cycle of chasing some desirable emotions and avoiding others. But this is a futile search that has no end.
Emotions are just emotions, there is no inherent reality to them. By accepting them and allowing them space to just ‘be’ we cease to struggle and magnify them beyond their natural parameters.
The positive thinking mantra also creates fusion with thinking. The latching onto positive mantras, affirmations, and the practice of blocking of critical thoughts from your inner voices is fusion. It’s identifying and wrestling with thinking that is the problem, so positive thinking often won’t work because the fusion creates the inner struggle.
Anyone who has tried doing affirmations knows first hand the problem with them — they awaken the opposite thoughts and feelings.
You say: “I’m happy, fun and filled with confidence”.
Your mind retorts: “No you’re not, you’re fat, boring and your breath stinks”.
At some level, positive thinking is the denial of reality and creates discontent from the avoidance of your current state of being.
Where positivity fails
As Russ Harris notes, the human mind evolved to think negative. It’s perfectly natural and serves a valuable purpose — to keep us safe and help us navigate uncertain territory effectively.
For years I was under the impression I was somehow ‘broken’ because I had negative thoughts. I had read numerous self help books and was fully under the illusion that I had to eradicate negative thoughts. Needless to say, that approach leads to a superficial connection with reality and is ultimately doomed. The negative thoughts are still there.
I’ve unintentionally destroyed relationships because of positive thinking. There was action that I should have taken that I didn’t because I thought I needed to stay positive. It’s delusional thinking like this that is more about denial of reality than genuine optimism.
Conclusion and Resources
I have to thank fellow Kiwi and renowned confidence coach Dan Munro for the introduction to ACT and the work of Russ Harris. Dan’s video and blog post about “The I’m Not Good Enough Story” based on Russ Harris’ work inspired me to look more into ACT and therefore this enthusiastic post.
I have to admit, the exercise that Dan runs through in the video really lifted a weight off my shoulders and I’ve felt lighter ever since.
Russ Harris has a wealth of information on ACT, mindfulness and how to live a values driven life rather than a goal oriented one on his websites:
- thehappinesstrap.com.au — The Happiness Trap website contains resources for newbies and those more familiar with ACT
- The Act Companion smartphone app based on Russ’ best-selling book The Happiness Trap
- actmindfully.com.au — A website dedicated to the therapists, professionals and ACT generally. Boasts a fantastic free resources section that’s worth checking out.
- imlearningact.com/ — Courses in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy run by Russ Harris.