Self-acceptance and Overcoming Negative Thoughts

Tami Simon of Sounds True interviewed Professor Steven Hayes co-founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  In the interview podcast, Steven focused on Self-Acceptance and Perspective-Taking.  Fundamental to the ACT approach is the capacity to “step Back” from the inner critic, notice the negative thoughts that are being generated and listening to those thoughts with a sense of curiosity to understand what is going on.  It involves being vulnerable to, rather than hiding away from, the hurt entailed in negative self-evaluation.  Added to this facing up to the inner critic are defusion techniques, such as perspective-taking, designed to create distance from the thoughts by seeing that they are not facts, only “streams of words” or momentary sensations.

Acceptance of thoughts and sensations

Steven explains that “acceptance” in the context of ACT involves acknowledging these negative thoughts as a gift to be explored, not something to be accepted passively or tolerated as if they were true and readily verifiable.  It involves recognising the wisdom embedded in our difficult emotions because they serve to illuminate something that we care about deeply. 

This involves the flexibility to acknowledge the gap between our thoughts and our inner awareness of them and the capacity to take what is useful in those thoughts to motive us to act on them to achieve a positive outcome that we value.   It is about regaining control over our inner world so that we can live our life “with meaning and purpose” – the core theme of Steven’s latest book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Towards What Really Matters.

Steven illustrates this acceptance approach by discussing negativity around body image and how to turn this into effective problem solving – rather than being trapped in the unfounded message of the inner critic that relates body weight to ugliness or lack of attractiveness.  He suggests as a starting point to revisit your past to see where the mental connection between body weight and ugliness originated, e.g. it might have had its origins in bullying at school by other students who were jealous of your academic or sporting success.  Following this exploration, you can use one of the many defusion strategies in ACT that can take away the power of this autosuggestion.  Russ Harris, ACT practitioner, provides a great set of defusion strategies in his humorous, illustrated book, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook – a very readable and accessible guidebook for personal change. 

Perspective-taking: a defusion strategy to create space and disempower the inner critic

Steven highly recommends “perspective-taking” as a defusion strategy to enable you to step back from negative thoughts and create enough space to disempower them.   There are many ways to undertake perspective-taking.  Steven describes one process in his interview podcast that he asserts will work even when you lack knowledge of mindfulness, ACT or any other related modality.  The steps he describes are as follows:

  1. Picture yourself struggling with the negative critic you are confronting (with your eyes closed or looking downwards to reduce distractions)
  2. Notice that it is a part of you that is noticing your struggle
  3. Now take that part of yourself that is noticing and tune into your body seeing yourself watching the struggle (you can even tune into the earliest occurrence of these negative thoughts) – in the process show self-compassion towards yourself
  4. Then ask yourself, “Is this person loveable, wholesome or empathetic?’ 
  5. Picture yourself sitting there observing this loveable, wholesome person from a short distance – as in a movie
  6. Imagine remembering 10 years from now how you looked as you struggled with the inner critic – picture yourself sitting in a chair or on the floor still struggling the same way
  7. You can ask yourself then, if you were observing this struggle in this future time, “What words of wisdom would you offer yourself?”
  8. Then bring yourself back to the present by grounding yourself in your body.

In this interaction, your wisdom will emerge, and you can offer yourself encouraging words such as “you can move on”.  According to Steven, research shows that “human intelligence in inherently self-compassionate” – the thought processes above enable you to tap that self-compassion.  He maintains that this form of perspective-taking is itself “very healing”.

Reflection

We can become overwhelmed by our inner critic if we give it free play, without challenge.  So often, we avoid facing up to what is painful.  The Inner MBA, developed by Tami Simon and colleagues, provides one avenue to explore our inner landscape, and defusing strategies offer many ways to break the hold of our inner critic.  Mindfulness practices provide a further avenue for facing up to our negative thoughts and related disabling beliefs.

As we grow in mindfulness through these processes, we can break the hold of the inner critic, gain a truer self-awareness, embrace self-compassion and emerge with a sense of freedom and alignment with our life purpose.

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Image by NickyPe from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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