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Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional

The goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is to create a rich, full, and meaningful life while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. This is done by changing one’s relationship to their symptoms in order to live a more value-driven life. Further, the goal is to accept what is outsideof one’s control, and commit to taking action to enrich one’s life. It can be summed up in one basic premise: pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Oftentimes, trying to get rid of symptoms actually results in being more bothered by the symptoms. For example, try to not picture a pink elephant in your mind’s eye. What happened? You saw a pink elephant. This is just what happens when we try NOT to focus on any particular thing!

Being too focused on symptoms impacts our ability to life a value-driven life. We’re too busy and using all our energy on “symptom-reduction” rather than choosing to focus on what is meaningful in our lives, such as family, friends, relationships, advancing career, rest, self-care, and so forth. When we instead focus on our values, our symptoms can drift to the background, rather than take center stage.

ACT asserts that problems are essentially caused by two things: cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance. Cognitive fusion is when we become inseparable from our thoughts, and then our thoughts dominate our behavior. Experiential avoidance happens when we attempt to avoid, get rid of, suppress, or escape unwanted experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, etc.).

Trying too hard to control how we feel simply gets in the way of a rich, full life. We can’t do important, value-driven things if we are always trying to get rid of symptoms. Control is the problem, not the solution.

What can we do about this? Practice defusion to get stuck from our thoughts and gain distance from them. Defusion is taking a step back and seeing our thoughts for what they are: nothing more or less than words and pictures. As I like to say, look AT your thoughts, rather than FROM your thoughts.
Thought Defusion PICTURE for blog post - Copy

Here are some ways you can attempt to defuse from your thoughts:

  • Say “I’m having the thought that…”
  • Use a silly voice to say the thought
  • Sing the thought like a song
  • Repeat the thought nonstop for 30 seconds until it sounds like gibberish

Another way to defuse from unhelpful thoughts is to practice mindfulness. What is mindfulnessMindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness, and curiosity. It allows you to be aware of your experience in the moment as opposed to being “caught up” in your thoughts. Mindfulness involves an attitude of openness; being curious about your experience rather than fighting with it. This is helpful because often times the more we try to fight the way we feel, the more we end up feeling it.
hexagon-4
 
The goal of ACT is referred to as psychological flexibility, which entails being present, opening up, and doing what matters. An important facet of psychological flexibility is acceptanceallowing thoughts and feelings to be present, regardless of whether they are pleasant or painful.

The fun part of ACT (in my humble opinion) is valued living: doing what we want to be doing with our lives. What’s important to us? What do we want to stand for? How do we want to behave and act on a daily basis? Our values are our compass; they guide our decisions and behavior. A good way to figure out what your values are is to imagine your retirement party or funeral — Who would you want to speak about your life and what would you want to hear them say?

Once you have figured out what your values are, then final step is to take committed action (effective action motivated by your values). One helpful way to do this are to make a public commitment; tell someone about it. This will create some level of accountability for you. Another thing you can do is create an action plan worksheet. Last, but not least, simply take the first, tiniest step. The first step is often the hardest, but if you can manage to get started, the rest will follow.

For more on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, click here and here!

6 Principles for Meaningful Living

The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living [A guide to ACT: the mindfulness-based program for reducing stress, overcoming fear, and creating a rich and meaningful life] by Russ Harris

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based upon six core principles that work together to help a person develop a mind-set known as “psychological flexibility.” Psychological flexibility is the ability to adapt to a situation with awareness, openness, and focus, and to take effective action, guided by your values. For short, psychological flexibility can be thought of as Mindfulness + Values + Action.

  1. DEFUSION is creating distance and separating from unhelpful thoughts. It entails recognizing that most of our thoughts are neither true nor false; rather, most of our thoughts are actually opinions, judgments, beliefs, and morals and related plans, goals, wishes, and values. The idea is not to determine whether a thought is true or false, but whether it is helpful. One way to create distance from an unhelpful thought is to simply insert the following phrase in front of the thought: “I’m having the thought that…” or “I notice I’m having the thought that…” DEFUSION recognizes that thoughts may or may not be true; therefore, we mustn’t automatically believe them. It also recognizes that thoughts may or may not be important; therefore, we only pay attention if they’re helpful.

Thought Defusion PICTURE for blog post

  1. ACCEPTANCE (EXPANSION) literally means “taking what is offered.” It is fully opening yourself to your present reality – acknowledging what is, right here and now, and letting go of the struggle with life as it is in this moment. This philosophy is encapsulated in Russ Harris’s “Serenity Challenge” (his version of the Serenity Prayer): Develop the courage to solve those problems that can be solved, the serenity to accept those problems that can’t be solved, and the wisdom to know the difference.

In practicing EXPANSION, the aim is to observe your emotions, not think about them. The four steps of EXPANSION are (1) Observe, (2) Breathe, (3) Create Space, and (4) Allow.

  • Observe the sensations in your body (i.e. a lump in your throat or a knot in your stomach) and focus your attention on that sensation with curiosity.
  • Breathe into and around the sensation with a few deep, slow breaths co provide a center of calm within you, like an anchor in the midst of a storm to hold you steady.
  • Create Space with your breath flowing in and around the feeling, giving it plenty of room to move around.
  • Allow the sensation to be there (even if you don’t like it or want it); simply let it be. Acknowledge any urges to fight with the feeling or push it away, and bring your attention back to the sensation.

Expansion PICTURE for blog post

  1. CONTACT WITH THE PRESENT MOMENT (CONNECTION) means being fully aware of you’re here-and-now experience, fully in touch with what is happening at this moment. The goal is to pull yourself out of the past or the future and bring yourself back to the present – right here, right now.

Why practice Connection?

  • so you can appreciate the richness and fullness of life
  • because the only moment we have is NOW
  • so that you can take effective, mindful, value-driven action (which requires being aware of what’s happening, how you’re reacting, and how you wish to respond).

CONNECTION happens through the OBSERVING SELF; it involves bringing full attention to what is happening here and now without getting distracted or influenced by the thinking self.

  1. THE OBSERVING SELF (as opposed to the THINKING SELF) is a viewpoint from which you can observe thoughts and feelings. It’s essentially pure awareness; without the observing self, you would have no capacity for self-awareness. Your thoughts, feelings, and sensations change continuously; sometimes they’re pleasant, sometimes painful, helpful, happy, calm, angry, etc. The observing self can’t be judged as good or bad, right or wrong, because all it does is observe, nor does it judge or criticize you (because judgments are thoughts, which come from the THINKING SELF); it simply sees things as they are. You can think of the observing self as being like the sky, while thoughts and feelings are like the weather – constantly changing.
  1. VALUES are (1) Our heart’s deepest desires: how we want to be, what we want to stand for, and how we want to relate to the world around us, and (2) Leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life.

To identify what your values are, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Deep down inside, what is important to you?
  • What do you want your life to be about?
  • What sort of person do you want to be?
  • What sort of relationships do you want to build?
  • If you weren’t struggling with your feelings, or avoiding your fears, what would you channel your time and energy into doing?

Values are not the same thing as goals; a value is a direction we desire to keep moving in, and ongoing process that never reaches an end, while a goal is a desired outcome that can be achieved or completed. For example, getting married is a goal, whereas being a loving and caring partner is a value. One can think about their values in relation to different domains of life, such as Family, Marriage/Intimate Relationships, Friendships, Employment, Education/Personal Development, Recreation/Fun/Leisure, Spirituality, Community Life, Environment/Nature, and Health.

Values PICTURE for blog post

  1. COMMITTED ACTION entails setting meaningful goals for your identified values. Use the following steps to create a Committed Action Plan for yourself:
    • Summarize Your Values for each domain. For example, “In the domain of Family, I value being honest, respectful, authentic, and supportive.”
    • Set an Immediate Goal – something that can be accomplished right away. For example: “During my lunch break, I’ll call my husband and encourage him because I know he’s having a stressful day.”
    • Set Short-Term Goals: ask yourself what small things you can do over the next few days and weeks that are consistent with your identified values.
    • Set Medium-Range Goals: think of larger challenges you can set for the next few weeks and months that are consistent with valued living.
    • Set Long-Term Goals: decide upon major challenges you can set for the next few years that will continue to take you in your valued direction. A good question to ask yourself is, “Where do I want to be five years from now?”