My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) differs from the gold standard Coggy-B Therapy (CBT) by picking Albert Ellis’s pockets for the best parts of Rational/Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), which have fallen to the wayside in the rising tide of stuffy clinical automatons desperate to crowbar psychology into the hard science category by attaching everything to a chart, regardless as to whether that chart shows anything. God willing, I won’t bring any more acronyms into this book review.
ACT, like CBT and every other therapeutic method we’ve established since slam-dunking Freud’s body into the earth, focuses on coping skills and relaxation strategies that can then be used to descalate the client (which, in the case of a self-help book, is you) when the work begins, poking around at exposed psychological nerves, irrational thought patterns and behavioral schema. The difference is modern CBT leans heavy on mindfulness and positive psychology, and as a result comes flush with meaningless platitudes about positive thinking snatched directly from the bottom of those office motivator posters.
ACT brings with it a degree of humanity. It takes standard-issue CBT and grafts on the more empowering parts of REBT, like unconditional self-acceptance, humor, and irony. The treatment becomes less of a script and more of an opportunity for growth.
In ACT, the intrusive and anxious thoughts aren’t something to be banished and ignored, or drowned under an endless self-inflicted torrent of positive affirmations. Fear is there for a reason, and the more you pretend it’s not, the more powerful it becomes. It’s like someone sneaking around your factory and screwing with the machinery, so you try to make them go away by averting your eyes, which allows them to grow bolder in their sabotage since they don’t need to be as sneaky.
Harris never directly references the Ironic Process Theory, but I’ve found it a recurrent annoyance in my own practice that CBT never addresses. When you tell someone “just don’t think about your anger” or “Kyle, instead of punching holes in the wall, why don’t you go for a walk?”, you’re asking them to do the impossible.
Don’t think of a pink elephant. There, you did. Now don’t think of how nervous you are.
In ACT, you drag these demons into the light with near-weaponized mindfulness. Fear shows up, quietly wrecking your shelves. You point at it and say, “Hey, that’s fear! Fear, come here, buddy. Take a seat. What the hell are you screeching about?”
Fear shuffles its feet and, given your full attention, quietly announces that you are not good enough, she will reject you, and your screenplay is garbage.
You nod sagely and say, “Thanks for your contribution. I appreciate it. You want a soda?”
Fear does not want a soda. Fear wants you to stop whatever it is you’re planning on doing. You shrug and say you can’t right now, because it’s incompatible with your values and/or goals.
Fear is treated this way every time it shows up until it stops making such a ruckus and wrecking your production (or stops monopolizing your life, outside the metaphor).
Values and goals are ACT’s method of self-esteem building. Goals are what you want to get done. Values are how you want to do it. A goal would be getting a promotion, writing a novel, buying a new car. Values are things like courage, empathy, loyalty to family, and other happy little adjectives like that.
We get purpose from living our values in pursuit of our goals. It’s okay to fall off your goal-seeking sometimes, everybody needs the occasional break. If you fall off your values, you’re living inauthentically, and your sense of purpose will dissipate. You’ll become self-critical, demotivated, and mopey. It’ll be a real drag to be around you, causing you to further isolate and creating a feedback loop that will drive you further from your goals and, likely, values.
We choose our values. We get to decide which traits are important to us, and how to live authentically through them. Sort of like a chivalric code, but instead of the reward being eternal knightly bliss in heaven or whatever, it’s being content with ourselves and our decisions. A big part of the therapy is reminding ourselves (or having our shrinks remind us) of our values or goals. For example, your goal is to be good at soccer, but you’re too tired after work to go to soccer practice and you just wanna lay around watching TV. Your motivation to lay around watching TV is stronger than your motivation to go to soccer, no matter how you excuse it. You’re not working toward a goal, and if your values are “teamwork”, “dependability”, or “physical fitness”, you’re blowing it. It makes sense that you’d feel shitty about this.
There are a couple of solutions. The most obvious would be to
(1) get off your ass and go to soccer practice.
If that’s not feasible, or continues to make you miserable, than either your values or goals are in misalignment. You don’t want to be good at soccer as much as you want to relax. That’s fine. Relaxation and self-care can be a value. Maybe
(2) don’t sign yourself up for obligations you won’t attend.
You’re damaging your reputation and your self-worth by repeatedly putting yourself in a situation where you don’t live up to your own values. The third option is goal adjustment; rather than “be a good soccer player”, your goal becomes, “I want to play soccer sometimes”. That’s okay, but then you shouldn’t be on a team.
(3) quit the team and play occasional pick-up games, so soccer stays fun and engaging.
If that doesn’t sound good, or if you fail to make it to those pick-up games, then you’re not tired, you’re avoidant, and that calls for self-reflection. Which of those values is scaring you? Where’s the block?
ACT, much like REBT, can feel brutal. That’s an inevitable consequence of seeing where your values and behaviors don’t match up. You’ve internalized “I want to be good at soccer”, but then you’re confronted with the realization that you’re doing nothing to be good at soccer, and that can make you feel defensive. It carries the implication that you’re lying. This is where the acceptance part comes in.
It’s totally fine if you’re not good at soccer! Or not as good as you want to be, anyway. You’re the only one who cares how good you are at soccer. This is your goal, and if it’s not a goal you find that important, go ahead and change it. It’s your life. You’re responsible for it. If you’re not living authentically, then it’s time to reexamine your values and goals, and make sure these are things you truly want to do and be, and not just things you think you SHOULD want to do and be.
After I finished the book I went online to see if I could get certified in ACT. Our boy Harris never developed a cert for it, because he didn’t want the methods behind a paywall. There’s an $80 fee to become an “ACT Teacher”, but they teach to therapists.
So it’s like, joining the gym is free. ACT Teachers are like personal trainers. You’ve got to pay to become a personal trainer, because personal trainers can charge you for their knowledge in the same way ACT teachers charge you for CEU credits. But you can also just go online and learn how to work out. You don’t need a trainer to use the free gym, and you don’t need an ACT teacher to use ACT, both in your personal or professional lives.
The book is dense, and there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t touch on. If any of this sounded interesting, I highly recommend it.