Mindfulness in ACTion: Psychological Flexibility

Acceptance and commitment training (ACT) is a mindfulness-based, empirically supported approach to understanding and changing behavior. Also known as contextual behavioral science (CBS), ACT is based on a flexible, dimensional, and non-linear model that includes six core processes: acceptance, defusion, self-as-context, committed action, values, and being in the present moment. ACT can be used in a variety of clinical and non-clinical settings and seeks to increase wellness and vitality through cultivating psychological flexibility while reducing experiential avoidance/cognitive rigidity. ACT teaches us to notice, observe, and accept thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, etc. in order to be able to take effective action in the present moment.


Nikki Webber Allen is hoping to spark a national conversation about how we understand emotions and how we are defining “strong” in this culture. In this 6 minute TED talk, she states, “Having feelings isn’t a sign of weakness. Feelings mean we’re human.” In her TED talk, Ms. Allen encourages us to pause and consider the cost of stigmatizing our emotions. Stigma related to experiencing the full range of natural emotions often results in a variety of avoidant behavioral strategies that can exacerbate shame, desperation, and isolation and disconnect us from a sense of shared and common humanity.

Our culture offers many options for engaging in avoidant strategies that may be useful in the short-term, including hyper-consumerism, over-use of social media or escaping into online forums, and/or self-medicating. Other ineffective coping strategies can include:

  • filling our schedules with frenetic “busy-ness” (being a “human doing” vs. a human being)
  • generalizing problem solving strategies that can be useful in our external environment to our internal experiences (the “If I can just figure it out, then I will feel better” fallacy)
  • engaging in rumination, blaming or complaining
  • wallowing in self-pity and righteous indignation
  • utilizing shame shields, including perfectionism and people-pleasing, silencing or shrinking ourselves in a gesture of appeasement, and/or engaging in aggression and “power over” maneuvers towards others

We all engage in these strategies occasionally; however, relying on them excessively or inflexibly, can increase suffering and decrease vitality.

Applying an ACT lens to the stigma of challenging emotions can help to reduce struggling and increase vitality. Increasing psychological flexibility, through applying the six processes of ACT, can result in improved ability to experience and express the full range of natural human emotions without excessively relying on avoidant behaviors or cognitive rigidity. As a result, we may begin to understand discomfort as a sign of common humanity, of neuroplasticity – an indicator that we are connected to others through the discomforts of learning and growing, rather than as a sign of weakness or inadequacy.

One way that ACT increases psychological flexibility and reduces shame is through addressing the relationship of language and suffering. ACT seeks to undermine ineffective language processes by targeting the function (rather than the form) of language. Language is a useful tool that allows us to describe, evaluate, and problem solve experiences in our external world; however, difficulties arise when we overgeneralize those skills (especially problem solving) to internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, memories, etc.). Evaluating (or making judgments about feelings as “good” or “bad”) and applying “problem-solving” strategies to internal experiences can trigger our nervous system to react defensively as we unconsciously seek to get rid of experiences that may be unconsciously interpreted as threatening. Furthermore, we often make unconscious interpretations/assumptions about our internal experiences, including “I must be weak” or “I must be doing something wrong,” or “Other people don’t struggle with these feelings, it’s just me,” etc.

Applying mindfulness skills through an ACT perspective can help us better appreciate how language can be a “double edged sword” in our attempts to cope with internal struggles. We can learn strategies for weakening the conditioned functions of language and become more mindful of our tendency to overgeneralize problem solving strategies to internal experiences. Furthermore, ACT proposes that we can often learn a great deal about what is most important to us through looking into our pain. Frequently embedded within our pain lies something that is very important. For example, the pain associated with the loss of her nephew suggests that Ms. Allen loved and valued her nephew deeply. If she hadn’t loved him so much, the loss and pain would not exist- they can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. And experiencing depression in its various forms can be framed as an invitation to explore how we may be feeling disconnected from the things that are most important to us.

In courageously sharing her story, Ms. Allen addresses the issues of authoring values and the process of “importanting” when she suggests we may benefit from exploring how we are socially constructing the concept of “strong.” What does strong look like? And at what cost, individually and collectively?

If you’re interested in cultivating compassion, well-being, and peace through mindful living, join The Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness “revolution from the inside out” movement. Our organization offers weekly donation-based community classes, as well as trainings, classes, workshops, and retreats across the Kansas City community.

Angie offers classes and workshops on Acceptance and Commitment Training for the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness and to the community. Check out our continuing education page to see what is upcoming.


References:

Don’t Suffer From Your Depression in Silence (Nikki Webber Allen) TED talk. October 5, 2017

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Intensive Training (PESI)– Daniel J. Moran

The Daring Way Curriculum (Brene Brown)

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