Developing Self-Compassion Through Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

acceptance and committment therapy

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Growing in popularity, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is an action-oriented approach to therapy.  ACT uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies to help you navigate difficult periods and to develop new ways of approaching problems like anxiety and depression. There is a strong emphasis on compassion in the model, as it includes the important element of acceptance. For example, the physical act of laying a kind hand on a painful feeling can have a soothing effect on the body and foster acceptance of the feeling.

As renown author and self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff explains:

Self-compassion means being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward one’s self, taking an understanding, non-judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience”.

Research tells us that cognitive fusion (becoming excessively entangled in your thoughts), and avoidant strategies are the biggest predictors of depression, anxiety, and decreased satisfaction with quality of life. In contrast, self-compassion is an important predictor of lower levels of depression and anxiety, and is associated with a healthier quality of life. Self-compassion is now seen as a treatment target in many new therapeutic approaches, and especially as a key feature of ACT.

 Experiential Avoidance

 “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul”    -Carl Jung

Avoidance is a defense mechanism we use when facing a situation that is emotionally unpleasant or anxiety provoking. When we feel that we are in danger, avoidance gives us a way out. Behavioural therapists call this experiential avoidance. The irony is that this type of avoidance has been found to not only maintain distress, but to increase and intensify it!

Avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings is actually self-defeating, and because of this, the opposite of self-compassion. In the ACT model, instead of avoiding, we acknowledge and open up to these emotions without judgement. We become curious without getting caught up or letting these thoughts and emotions dominate and control our lives.

Accepting the reality of our situation with kindness and compassion helps us to respond more flexibly, and more in line with our deeply held values—who we want to be and what we want to stand for in life. ‘Accepting’ in the ACT model is not a passive act, it means committing to action that increases your potential for a meaningful life.

Fusion/Defusion

Cognitive fusion is one of the core processes in ACT. It is strongly associated with avoidant behaviour and emotional distress.

Here, fusion describes a process whereby we become excessively hooked or entangled by our thoughts which results in those thoughts taking control of our behaviour. In this state our thinking narrows and starts to influence our actions and behaviours.  We get stuck in inflexible patterns that provide short-term benefits, such as, using alcohol to numb pain, or procrastinating to avoid feeling anxious. These behaviours may feel good in the moment, but in the long term they pull us away from the things we most want and value. Since the main goal of ACT is to develop psychological flexibility– the ability to be present and take effective action—when fused we lose this ability as we become inflexible, and more rigid in our thinking and behaviours.

The ACT model offers a variety of practices and mindfulness interventions, like ‘contacting the present moment’, to help us defuse, expand awareness, and encourage psychological flexibility.

When we are mindful we are more likely to see our thoughts, feelings, memories, urges ect… for what they actually are; words and pictures. We notice them without judgment, accept them as they are, and understand that they will pass in their own good time. In the present moment we are not lost in reactivity and are more likely to respond flexibly. We are also are more likely to treat ourselves with kindness and compassion.

Another defusion technique is ‘noticing and naming’. For example, instead of saying, “I’m so stupid”, you might say, “I notice I’m having the thought that ‘I’m so stupid’. We consciously notice our thoughts, instead of becoming entangled with them. Rather than over-identifying with these self-critical judgements, we recognize that our thoughts are no more powerful than we allow them to be. Defusion is key for the development of self-compassion, and for preventing our thoughts and emotions from controlling our choices and behaviours.

At the core, ACT teaches us to stop trying to control how we feel, and instead take control of what we do. Consciously engaging in acts of self-compassion can work as an antidote to emotional pain, an elixir to our self-defeating behaviours. As we learn to regularly practice self-compassion we will become better able to connect with the people we love, learn to focus on the things that matter most, and take committed action, even during the most turbulent emotional storms.

Written by: Jennifer Berbrier, MA, MFT