Has your stomach ever rumbled?
If it started rumbling right now and I pointed at you and said “Hey, cut it out! Stop it!” Would you be able to?
I know I wouldn’t, and even if I could stop it mid rumble, I might be interrupting some vital process of my body. We understand that this is how our body functions, there are large parts that we can control, like our limbs, eyes, mouth, and there are large portions that we simply have no control over like whatever our spleens are doing right now.
In Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (or ACT pronounced as the word “act”) we view the mind as being much like our body. There are parts of our mental experience that we can control—for example, we can think on purpose—and there are parts of our mental experience that we have no control over, like when our minds hand us things like painful memories, harsh self-judgments, and all sorts of unwanted stuff without even asking our permission first!
When this happens we often respond by trying to control, get rid of, or struggle with our own thoughts and feelings. This is no fault of our own, much of the world reinforces this type of control strategy. “Calm down”, “Just get over it”, “Be strong”. The more we get caught up with struggling with our own internal experience the smaller our life can feel as if it’s shrunken down around us.
But just like trying to stop our stomach from rumbling, the amount of effort we place trying to control or stop these unwanted experiences may be better spent elsewhere. After all, even if your stomach rumbles from time to time it doesn’t have to interfere with things like holding a baby, enrolling in that course you’ve had your eye on, riding a jet ski on a tropical vacation, or anything else that makes your life meaningful.
In ACT work, people learn a core set of skills called Psychological Flexibility that are designed to help them drop that struggle with thoughts, feelings, memories, judgments, and other internal experience which are outside of our direct control so that they can open up and expand their lives. Here is a brief overview of Psychological Flexibility and how each skill can help you.
Psychological Flexibility core skills:
Getting in Touch With the Present Moment
It’s not uncommon to be so wrapped up in a struggle with thoughts or feelings that we miss out on what’s going on right in front of us. It can be like traveling through life on a twisted kind of autopilot, hoping we don’t crash. When we can purposefully get in touch with what is happening right here and now, rather than looking through our mind’s automatic filters we can more fully experience life, and make more workable decisions. Present Moment Contact skills help us retake the driver’s seat so that we can go where we choose.
Defusing From the Stomach Rumblings of our Mind
Sometimes we can feel so close to our internal experiences that we may as well be fused directly to them. Imagine what it would be like if when your stomach rumbled you shrunk down to the size of an ant and could only experience the rumble. It might feel like you were in the epicenter of the biggest earthquake in the world. Defusion skills help us zoom out on an experience so that we can see the total picture. When we do this, our viewpoint expands, and what was once an overwhelming experience suddenly has much less influence over us.
Accepting Our Experience Moment by Moment
Life is experience. From the moment we are born we encounter the world through our senses and build a history of experience that shapes who we are. Each of these experiences happens in a moment, and not all of these moments are pleasant. We may wish we could overwrite some of our life experience—shore up a little bit here and there, remove a lot of the pain and add in more of the good. But as we know, that isn’t the way the world works. Accepting skills help us look at our own experience from a perspective of open gentleness and curiosity so that we can move from wrestling with it to holding it more effectively. When we purposefully become more accepting we can look at an earthquake as the natural process it is. “Ah, yes, the Earth does quake sometimes,” “Ah, yes, my stomach does rumble sometimes,” “Ah, yes, I do feel anxious/sad/depressed/you-name-it sometimes, and I can still be a whole human being.”
Understanding the Self as Context
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Each moment in our life is linked to a never-ending stream of past, present, and future, action and reaction, behavior and consequence. This complex web stretches out in all directions. If this seems daunting look there at the center of the web. At the center of your experience is one constant. . .You. Self-as-Context skills help us unlock the inner workings of how the world influences us, how we influence the world, and how as we’ve grown through life from a child to right now there has been a steady core at the center named YOU.
Clarifying What is Most Valuable
Life craves a direction. Without a clear direction, it can feel as though we are drifting aimlessly. Many of us have been in this place at one point or another. Clarifying who and what matters most to us in life can provide direction even in the midst of the most severe storm. Clarifying skills help us build the path we want to follow, and guide us as to what kind of person we want to be as we are traveling it. When we set out and fill our lives with ways of being that are meaningful to us, our lives begin to feel more. . . meaningful.
Committing to Action
If we have a path, all that needs to come next is a step. In order to change our life, we have to put our body, our mind, and that sense of self to work in a particular way. When we commit to making actions that are in line with our sense of meaning we kick-start an engine that soon powers itself. Small, step by step actions can make that engine more powerful and run more smoothly. Committed Action skills help us take the tiny steps that will lead to major changes down the road.
If you are interested in building your own psychological flexibility, give Pathways Consulting a call. I specialize in using ACT to help people live more vital and connected lives and practice out of our Kenosha office.
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy
Has your stomach ever rumbled?