Acceptance and Commitment Therapy vs spiritual event-horizon

Matthew asked about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in relation to my recent posts on acceptance.

I heard about ACT roughly two years ago, as an emerging alternative to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Here an article about ACT helpfully describes the differences between CBT, psychotherapy, and ACT:

Imagine the situation for the client who says, “I feel so anxious about going out on a date. I’m so afraid that I won’t have anything to say, or that I’ll say something really dumb.” Through the use of CBT techniques we, as counsellors, could help the client dispute the negative beliefs that she is a poor conversationalist or a boring date, replacing her anxious thoughts with positive, affirming ones, such as that she is interesting, good at conversation, or a worthy social companion.

Through longer, psychotherapeutic processes, we could help her to discover the experiences in her past (probably early childhood) which created the sense of her as socially inept. Psychotherapy takes a long time, however, and even when the effect of past history on present experience becomes known, there is still the “war of words” as the various voices within her – the critical ones and the affirming ones – clamour for attention.

The ACT principle of expansion/acceptance works differently. It would ask the client to imagine that she is about to go out on a date. She would then be instructed to scan her body, observing where she felt the anxiety most intensely. Let’s say that she reports that she experiences a huge lump in her throat. She might be then asked to observe the sensation of the lump as if she were a scientist who had never seen anything like it before: to notice the shape, weight, vibration, temperature, pulsation, and other aspects of it. She would be invited to breathe into the lump, making room for it, allowing it to be there (even though we would be highly empathetic in understanding that she did not like it or want it there!).

There’s more to ACT than just the acceptance component, but from descriptions such as those above I suspect it is aiming at the same kind of practice I’ve described as acceptance.

I haven’t undergone ACT, so I’m not in a position to recommend it, or criticise it. But I wonder how it manages the paradox of acceptance and change. On a therapeutic level, ACT must promise certain beneficial outcomes for its patients. In my experience, such promises are the biggest obstacle to practicing acceptance.

I tried acceptance and mindfulness techniques in the past, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see that those efforts were fixated on change rather than acceptance. The net result was that despite repeated efforts to ‘accept’ reality, I was still motivated by the desire for change, for a different reality. For example, the article above states:

By opening up and allowing them [unpleasant thoughts and feelings] to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention, we find that they bother us much less. They also move on more quickly, instead of hanging around and bothering us

This is precisely the kind of promise I would have clung to in the past, and attempts to ‘accept’ in such a way would be rendered fruitless by the underlying desire for change.

Perhaps this is a personal quirk, or I may be an extreme case. Or maybe an astute ACT therapist would recognise the contradiction in my efforts.

I can only speak for my own experience, and in that case the therapeutic aspect of acceptance seems accidental. The more significant motive for accepting my reality is simply that there is nothing else I can do about it.

Going a little deeper, I am my reality and my reality is me. Somehow, my reality has begun to shift in a way that is best described as acceptance. And the more I accept my reality, the more evident it becomes that nothing has really changed except my reaction to it.

Take the simplest example: people often tell me that I think too much, and in the beginning I struggled to think less. Later I struggled to understand the causes of my overthinking. Later still I tried to justify my overthinking in some terms that would be meaningful to normal people (‘underthinkers’?).

Now, as this acceptance thing slowly takes root in my mind, I’m gradually realising I can simply say “yes, I overthink everything.” I can accept it, without that acceptance implying any obligation to change, any further shame or humiliation, any loss of self.

Of course, if I’d sought that outcome in the beginning I’d have turned it into a struggle.


5 thoughts on “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy vs spiritual event-horizon

  1. This idea of acceptance seems to be a sort of middle ground between tolerance and embracing. Tolerance might imply putting up with something even though one may have a preference for that thing not to be. Embracing might imply an appreciation or even a level of indulging in something that satisfies one’s preferences. The former implies a preference for change in the thing itself whereas the latter does not. So acceptance seems to imply neither tolerance or embracing (as I’ve defined them). It does not seek out change in some thing nor does it seek out that thing in the first place. This implies a degree of neutrality or detachment from that thing and no doubt such a state can be therapeutic.

    I think you make an important point when you say “nothing has really changed except my reaction to it”. It is helpful to be clear on whether we are seeking change in some thing or change in our reaction to that thing.

    The challenge is to identify those things for which the various dispositions of tolerance, acceptance, embracing and even intolerance are the right ones to have. We have to decide whether we ought to tolerate/accept/embrace all kinds of things in our personal and social lives. Often it is difficult to know what is the right reaction and as a result we tolerate and accept a lot of things that we should not. Likewise we do not tolerate or accept things that we should.

    • “It is helpful to be clear on whether we are seeking change in some thing or change in our reaction to that thing.”

      This is still somewhat ambiguous in my experience. I find I’m accepting “my reality” which includes both my environment and my first-order reaction to my environment. That implies acceptance is a kind of second-order reaction or ‘meta-reaction’ (if I can coin a term that probably exists in some form already).

      But on occasion I seem to be accepting my environment, first-order, and even second-order reaction. For example, if I’m anxious about something in my environment, and then wishing to not feel anxious, and then accepting that I wish to not feel anxious.

      Perhaps acceptance is always an (n + 1) reaction?

      That might be how it avoids becoming too ‘reactive’ in its own right…that is, we don’t need to change our reactions to “acceptance”, just add acceptance on top of our existing reactions. I’ve been meaning to do a post on the idea of Karma that might help to bring this out a bit more.

      • Yes, “acceptance” in this sense pertains to a reflective or evaluative response so this would make it a second order reaction. In most cases it will be about adding acceptance on top of existing reactions but there might be some situations in which you can add acceptance on top but with a view of diminishing the existing reaction or eventually replacing it with tacit acceptance.

        This might apply to anxiety in some situations. For example, when it comes to performing a task that is typically associated with inducing anxiety (e.g. public speaking, awkward social obligations and public performances) one tends to perform better if one is able to focus on the task and less on the anxiety itself. In order to not let anxiety affect performance one has to accept the anxiety rather than indulging it or actively fighting it. Tolerating anxiety might enable you to perform but the presence of the anxiety might still have an affect.

        It’s like having insomnia and trying to sleep – You can’t actively fight a state of sleeplessness because getting mad or wanting it to go away wont help you sleep. You can’t tolerate or indulge it either because you need sleep. You have to be a bit more cunning with yourself!

        And what about our ultimate existential situation? The notion of death is the ultimate anxiety for us all isn’t it? Fighting it won’t resolve the issue. Tolerating it might be what most of us will ever achieve. Accepting it might help for the few who can bring themselves to do it. Embracing it is only for those hardcore Buddhist monks with a morbid fashion sense, i.e. the one’s who wear skull necklaces and use skull prayer beads and such!

        • Good points. I think you’re right about the balance needed. If you aim for it you’ll miss. So hit it without aiming for it ; )

          Even the morbid fashion sense would seem different in a society where death is more common. We’re so removed from death, I think we need a different symbol. How about a “no mobile reception” symbol? That’s far more terrifying for us.

  2. Matthew, perhaps the continuum between tolerance and embrace extends the other way – to denial. That the detachment you speak of is some kind of tolerance makes more sense to me.
    Our worries about reacting proportionately seem to depend on us having control over how we react. Perhaps we don’t. We don’t have perfect comprehension. How do we accept our physical insignificance, or lack of conscious control?
    So as much as we may consciously accept a wrong, we may also unconsciously see it as right (perhaps at the same time.)
    Our layer of ‘meta’ acceptance may be useful – but to a point. We may also need to accept its limitations.

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