Steven Topper, LCPC

Many of us have a clear idea of what therapy is going to look like. We’ve grown up with images of a stoic and mysterious figure in a large chair while the patient is totally vulnerable. For anyone who has been to therapy, it’s typically quite a different experience than they were expecting. And as our understanding of mental illness has grown and evolved, so has our understanding of how to conduct effective therapy. More and more, counselors are utilizing broader tools to help someone. For many of us, it can be challenging to know what the therapist is looking for from us. A relatively new type of therapy is called ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy). This can seem very different than those images we’re used to, and can look, sound, and feel different than therapy we’ve engaged with in the past. So, what is ACT and how can I best engage with it?

ACT is a third wave behavioral therapy. What this means is that, primarily, it’s focused on changing behaviors as a way to elicit broader psychological change. In Layperson’s terms, we have to do things differently if we want our lives to be different. This gives us great insight into an important part of engaging in ACT therapy: Be open to challenge. It’s never easy to change, and ACT asks us to be open and willing to be challenged so that we can change and grow in meaningful ways. Often, ACT therapists will ask us to sit with our discomfort while committing to changing some part of our behaviors. If we’re willing and open to the challenges, we are likely to see just how strong we are capable of being.

A key component to ACT is that most of what we are struggling with boils down to one thing: avoidance. I may avoid conflict, resulting in my needs not being met in a relationship. I may avoid feeling stupid, resulting in overcompensating and seeking reassurance that I’m smart enough. I may avoid feeling worthless by engaging in sex, netflix, or any other activity that allows me to escape. ACT asks us to confront and acknowledge this avoidance, which brings us to another helpful tool to engage in ACT therapy: Notice where avoidance shows up. All human beings avoid feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations. ACT works to identify how and where those avoidance strategies cost us a meaningful life, day in and day out. If we can begin noticing where and what we typically avoid, it can guide us toward far more workable ways to respond to discomfort. As we already discussed, being open to this type of challenge can be scary and disheartening at times.

Luckily, ACT therapists work from a place of strength to encourage change in whatever ways we are ready for. To that point, ACT is constantly asking us to identify where we want to go in our lives. It asks us this through values exploration. So a third tip for ACT work is: Consider what’s most important to me. These aren’t goals or certain people, these are components of life that bring us purpose and meaning. Many of us value curiosity, respect, community, loyalty, fairness, or family. These are things that we can create goals around, but there is no end-point to them. While goals may be destinations, our values are directions to walk in. ACT asks us to identify and commit to walking in the direction of our values, so exploring what those values are can be extremely helpful to getting the most out of therapy.

Finally, ACT uses plenty of mindfulness to help us move in the directions we want to go. The idea is that if I can come into contact with the present moment, and notice what my experience is within this moment, it frees me up to always have an opportunity to act in line with my values. The present moment gives us great complexity and information, and ACT therapists will frequently ask us to identify what we’re thinking and feeling right now. With this consideration, many people find this tip helpful: Prepare to focus on the here and now. ACT therapists will want us to explore our experiences so that we can identify how strong we already are! Most of us are unaware that we are battling and trying to control our discomfort all day. Becoming more present-moment focused allows us to pivot toward something new: behaviors that align with our values. All of these components of ACT are an effort toward increased psychological flexibility – which is to say the ability to recognize that I can make tons of choices in any given moment, no matter what thoughts and feelings I experience.

Therapy can be a rich, rewarding journey that can help so many people with all sorts of problems. If ACT therapy seems like something that could help you, Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled ACT therapists today!