Within the last decade, there has been a revolution of sorts in therapy techniques. What are now being called the 3rd wave cognitive behavioral therapies are gaining momentum as research demonstrates the effectiveness of these therapies. ACT, or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, is one of these 3rd wave treatments and it places less emphasis on changing your thoughts and more emphasis on accepting your thoughts, whatever they are, and not letting them stop you from doing what you value.
Traditional CBT identifies maladaptive patterns of thoughts and seeks to try to replace these thought patterns with more accurate ones. For instance, say I have the thought “I am stupid”. That thought is both upsetting and likely untrue. Further, this thought may prevent whoever thinks it from engaging in things they find enjoyable. Maybe they would like to play cards, propose a project at work, or remodel a room in their home. The thought, “I am stupid” may prevent them from doing any of these things.
Many therapists would work with that person to help them see that this is a mistaken thought and that there are many examples that show that person to be skillful and clever. Hopefully in time, that person would see that they have many intellectual talents and then propose that project at work or remodel that room. In the process, their mood would improve.
ACT handles these distressing thoughts differently. It basically says, “We are humans, we have all kinds of random thoughts, some distressing and some not, many not even remotely true and we don’t need to listen to them.” Instead of wrestling with these thoughts, why not let them come along for the ride (because they might anyway), but still do all the things that you value and bring you meaning.
Research suggests that trying to get these distressing thoughts to stop (i.e., thought suppression) actually increases the thoughts anyway. There are linguistic reasons for this that are part of the ACT theory, but for now, just do the experiment of not trying to think of a pink elephant and see what happens. You know what happens...
You’re thinking of the pink elephant, aren’t you?
One of the most powerful parts of ACT that you can start putting into action today is doing it anyway. Say you’re having all kinds of negative and doubting thoughts about that halloween costume you really want to try out. “People won’t get it.” “The robot’s head will look too big.” “It’s too much for this party.” But you REALLY want to wear this costume. This costume is calling to you. You’ve dreamed of this costume since childhood.
Don’t argue with those thoughts, just let them be, and put that costume on and walk out the door.
Obviously a halloween costume isn’t life or death, but this strategy of just acknowledging your thoughts, but not letting them stop you and not trying to stop them can be applied to many areas of your life. You can co-exist, peacefully.