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)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Specialised Mindfulness Approach

In this blog I have been discussing different approaches to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation that are self-initiated and self-directed in the main.  Some of the approaches to mindfulness discussed entailed the involvement of a teacher or mentor to guide the participant through various forms of meditation.

One such approach is provided by the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training conducted online by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  Even in this course, led by teachers and mentors, there is ample scope for participants to pick and choose what types of meditations and mindfulness practices they will focus on – the choices are not individually focused or directed.

What is different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT as the name suggests is an approach that provides therapists with a structured approach to mindfulness development for their clients.  This approach is therapist-led with a defined sequence of exercises designed to enable clients to move from the entrapment of destructive thinking to taking effective action guided by their values (committed action).  Colleagues vouch for the fact that ACT often achieves the desired results in therapeutic situations.

ACT aims to enable clients to experience a full, rich and meaningful life that is built on internal and external awareness.  The approach actively discourages ineffective avoidance strategies and encourages acceptance of pain as a natural part of a life that is lived fully.    Just as mindfulness trainers are exhorted to deepen their mindfulness practice, so too ACT therapists are encouraged to practise the ACT approach and exercises to be able to act more consciously and effectively in therapy sessions.

The ACT approach to mindfulness

Mindfulness in the context of ACT is defined by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, in terms of the quality of paying attention:

Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity.

In this definition, mindfulness is explained in terms of three key elements – awareness through paying attention, an open attitude and flexible attention enabling a narrow or wider focus or a focus on the internal or the external.

ACT incorporates six core processes as part of its therapeutic approach:

  1. Being here now – consciously focusing on the here-and-now, including our inner and outer worlds.  Fundamentally, it is about being present in the moment, rather than lost in thought.
  2. Watch what you are thinking – this involves standing back from your thoughts and observing them in a detached way. It means not entertaining them and being caught up in them as if they are reality.  Mindfulness expert, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view our thoughts as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting.  He provides the liberating idea that “we are not our thoughts” nor should we be captured by the “narratives” in our head.   In ACT, the process of observing our thinking is called “cognitive defusion”.
  3. Accepting and being open to painfulness – Russ Harris describes this process as “making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions”.  ACT provides exercises to develop this acceptance.  In our mindfulness discussions, we have offered mindfulness practices such as forgiveness meditation to address this pain and suffering.
  4. Observing yourself – ACT encourages awareness through getting in touch with the “observing self” rather than the “thinking self”.   Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing in any moment”.  Mindfulness practitioners encourage meditation practices like somatic meditation to develop this awareness.
  5. Knowing what matters – getting in touch with the way we want to be in the world (our values).  Values guide behaviour, give meaning to our lives and facilitate decision making.  Consciousness about our values can enable us to lead our lives with energy and vitality and provide mindful leadership for others.
  6. Doing what it takes – this involves doing what it takes, despite pain and discomfort, to live out our values in daily life (described as “committed action” in ACT).  It requires congruence between our words and actions and a readiness to commit to “valued living”.

ACT is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients grow in mindfulness in order to lead a life that is richer and more meaningful, while reducing the impact of harmful thoughts and narratives and pain-avoidance.

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

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.