I was introduced to Acceptance & Commitment Therapy a few months back by a very wise friend who had found it helpful. In April we started a 10 week course together at the local lifelong learning centre.
ACT is a psychological intervention that’s based on acceptance and mindfulness. It’s about Accepting your thoughts and feelings, Choosing a valued direction and Taking action, based on those values. Its aim is psychological flexibility, which has been defined as the ability to “be present, open up, and do what matters”.
The Demons on the Boat is a good metaphor for some of the aspects of ACT (plus the moonwalking alien is awesome – negative thoughts don’t seem so bad when you think of them as a moonwalking alien!).
As part of the course I had to do a presentation on an aspect of ACT, so I chose to look at how it could help our relationships, as I thought this could be useful for work. I’ve found many of the elements of ACT to be really useful, and I’d never heard of it until a few months back so I thought I’d share some of my presentation here in case it’s helpful for anyone else. It’s just a flavour really of the ACT approach and it would be worth checking out Dr Russ Harris’ books in particular if you wanted to know more.
Relationships are a part of all of our lives, family, friends, partners, and some are more complex than others. Some of the most complex relationships we face is committed romantic relationships.
Part of the reasons these can be so complex is because of the high expectations we have. Much as popular culture feeds us the myth that we deserve to be happy all the time, we are constantly bombarded with stories and images that convince us that once we find the right partner we will be whole and complete. Once the perfect man or perfect woman comes into our lives, they will make our lives better and we will be happier. Films, books, pop songs all reinforce this idea.
However, as Russ Harris says in his book ACT with Love, “There are two types of couples in the world, those who don’t fight and those you don’t know very well”.
In reality, relationships may bring us moments of happiness but they can also bring us frustration, anger and sadness.
How can ACT help us with this?
The aim of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the ability to be present, open up, and do what matters.
Russ Harris, in ACT with Love, describes the processes that harm a relationship, and those which enrich a relationship with two useful acronyms: DRAIN and LOVE.
D stands for disconnection. This is when one partner becomes withdrawn and closed off from the other. When we become so caught up in our own thoughts and feelings we have difficulty paying mindful attention to the person that’s right in front of us.
R stands for Reactivity. This refers to when we react to things on automatic pilot rather than taking the time to be aware of how we’re feeling and how we can react in a helpful way.
A stands for Avoidance. No-one likes feeling bad. We do a lot of different things to try avoiding uncomfortable feelings – watching rubbish on telly, eating chocolate, drinking wine being a few favourites. This is fine in moderation, but avoiding problems can lead to us feeling stuck and making the problem worse.
I stands for Inside your Mind. This is when we get so caught up in our thoughts, judgements and criticisms that we can’t clearly see our partner as they are.
N stands for Neglecting Values – when we get upset at our partner it’s easy to forget how our values and how we would like to act in relationships.
The 6 core processes that lead to psychological flexibility can also lead to improved relationships.
Russ Harris uses the acronym LOVE to describe how this can work.
L stands for Letting Go – Letting go of and detaching from, unhelpful thoughts, stories and beliefs and not allowing ourselves to be pushed around by them.
O stands for Opening Up – Opening up and making room for the painful feelings that almost inevitably arise at some point from being in a close relationship with someone. Struggling with them can lead to avoidance which causes its own problems. Instead of struggling with them, we open up and make room for them.
V stands for Valuing – As we have talked about in the course, knowing our values is important so we know what we want to be doing with our life, about what we want to stand for and how we want to behave. This is just as important in our relationships. How do we want to treat others? Russ Harris suggests three values that play a big role in healthy relationships: caring, connection and contribution. Of course we all also have our own values that we will want to bring to our relationships.
E stands for Engaging – Engaging means being psychologically present, consciously connecting with the present moment, so we’re thinking about self observation and mindfulness. It can be easy to take our partners for granted. However, too much disconnection can cause problems, and so paying mindful attention, in a spirit of openness and curiosity, to those we are in relationships with is important.
Some might think that all sounds great, but that it’s all very much focused on our own actions. What if you feel that it’s your partner that needs to change? This comes back to thinking about our spheres of control – you can control your own actions, but not those of other people’s. In essence, we’re thinking about The Serenity Prayer.
We also can’t control how we think and feel – feelings of love can come and go. But Russ Harris points out that we can still act with love even when we’re not feeling in love. And that’s empowering because it focuses on what we can control.