Caught in the ACT




By Chay Tanchanco, PPS, AMFT


ACT: Acceptance & Commitment Therapy is another “rising star” in the therapeutic modality world. It has branched from CBT into something much more focused on the present moment, the story we tell ourselves when we experience obstacles, and finding a way to make a true change.


Stephen Colbert, in his Knox College commencement speech, gave this wisdom:

“There was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and” … means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept.”

The fundamentals of ACT remind me the most of improv.


No matter how you feel, no matter what you had planned for a scene, you are handed something unexpected, or even unwelcome, and you learn to make it work.


For example, you’re trying to meet a deadline for work, and the pressure is mounting. You think to yourself, “If I can just finish this before 4:00pm today, I’ll feel better.” Instead of becoming incredibly productive for the next few hours, your anxiety rears its ugly head, and you spend hours obsessing over small details and get very little done. “I want to get this done but I can’t,” you say to yourself, and you walk out before 4:00 even comes around.


An ACT therapist might reframe this thought to say, “I want to get this done before 4:00 and I’m anxious about it.” Brene Brown, another popular and dynamic researcher and speaker in the mental health world, said: “Invite critics into the arena, because they’re gonna show up anyways, so you might as well invite them.” Emotional powerhouses that we in today’s culture may label “unwelcome” such as anxiety and shame can lose their power if we recognize that they exist, understand their role in attempting to warn us of danger, and then proceed to move forward anyways. In doing so, you’ll experience firsthand that both your conflicting feelings and your desire to be productive can co-exist, and you are actually able to commit to change when you accept them.


As you might expect, ACT uses mindfulness as it is the key to enabling your own acceptance of two opposing forces. By pausing and recognizing how you feel and your feelings’ effects on your behavior, you can practice a more active and intentional choice rather than succumb to reactions.


Since it is short-term and focused on the present, ACT has been growing in popularity. It has been recommended for particular effectiveness with issues stemming from childhood abuse, substance disorders, at-risk adolescents, and mood disorders. It has also been proposed to use with families and couples.


Through acceptance and learning how to “catch” yourself in the act of emotional downspirals, ACT suggests that our outlook on life will change when we see that we have the ability to take control of our lives, despite what has happened to us in the past. If we continually tell ourselves that we “can’t” change or that we are irreparably broken in some way, we are essentially answering the question: “Can I make a better life for myself?” with a resounding “no”.


“...[But] saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.” -Stephen Colbert

If you’re seeking a therapist with an ACT background, simply ask them if they’ve ever received training (as there is no formal credential) or use a search such as on PsychologyToday. Leave a comment below if you’d like to request another feature on a therapeutic modality or issue that you want to know more about. Thanks for reading as always!

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