What we can learn from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
In the not-too-distant past, our news media were limited to a few television channels and a handful of national and regional newspapers. The range of stories and opinions that were broadcast were limited. Most people received their news once or twice a day. That world has disappeared. Social media and myriad digital information outlets, many of which are unregulated, have created a very different news landscape. There is little accountability for the accuracy of what is reported, and there is no longer an informational commons. Moreover, the taking of ever more extreme positions helps to guarantee an audience.
The communal news-meals of old are gone, for we each consume tailor-made diets, often cooked up by algorithms. This splintering has dangerous consequences for our democracies. We live in informational bubbles. No longer even sharing a belief in the same basic facts, it is little wonder that the worldviews of our various social tribes have drifted ever further apart, and that political divisions have intensified.
We tend to be so embedded in our views that we experience them as facts rather than what they actually are: interpretations. We take the political narratives to which we subscribe to be absolute truths. Because those narratives are tied up with our identities, we defend them at all costs. The cognitive dissonance of doing otherwise would be agonizing. We become fused with our narratives.
It is, then, little wonder that we find it hard to talk to people whose political and cultural views differ from ours. They appear to us deluded, hypocritical, or even psychotic, completely detached from what we consider to be a true and sane perception of reality. We assess the views of those who see the world differently from us in terms of right and wrong, good and evil. We are constantly in judging mode.
It is with this impasse that a central technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help us. A third-wave cognitive-behavioral therapy created by Stephen C. Hayes and popularized by Russ Harris, ACT draws on ancient Asian conceptions of the mind. It assumes a permanent, observing self (self-as-context), which is capable of “defusing” from the impermanent chatter of our minds. Our observing self can be trained to create a distance between our self and our thoughts, emotions, judgments, and beliefs. It can do so by noting and labeling the output of our minds as such, as mere words and stories. In that way, this output is turned into the object of our discerning attention rather than allowing it to determine our experience and behavior.
Rather than taking the thought “I am unlovable” at face value, for example, we can train ourselves to think, “I am having the thought that I am unlovable.” Or, if it is part of a recurrent narrative we spin, we may observe, “There’s that unlovability story again.” By consciously identifying our thoughts as thoughts, and our self-stories as stories, we create a crucial gap between ourselves and these thoughts. It is in this gap that our power to make wiser decisions lies. We defuse from these thoughts. We begin to realize that we are not our thoughts. Our thoughts come and go. Some are more helpful than others. By acknowledging and observing our thoughts, rather than being embedded in them, or fighting them, or avoiding them, or trying to convert them into more positive thoughts, we disempower them.
But how do we know which thoughts are helpful and which are unhelpful? And what about the knottier question of truth? ACT advocates value-led living, rather than goal-oriented striving. Our deeper values are to be our compass, and ACT tries to show us how to commit to taking value-led action. Commitment to concrete, value-led action is as important as embracing the fact that we must accept our troubling thoughts. Constant scanning for danger in our environments used to ensure our survival, and our brains have become masters at this task. Painful thoughts, moreover, are what make us human, as they go hand in hand with caring for something or someone. Unlike in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the aim in ACT is precisely not to waste our energies on fighting, changing, or reasoning our troubling thoughts out of existence. Instead of trying to convince our minds to think other kinds of thoughts, we should accept them, and let them go.
Let’s try to think about how we may translate these insights into the social domain. First, we must simply accept our entrapment in bubble-thinking. Then, by taking a step back from our political narratives, we can create a healthy gap between our interpretations and our identity. As with our thoughts, we could seek to take a more meta-psychological and meta-political view: the perspective of an observer. This entails acknowledging that our way of viewing the world, just like everyone else’s, is less a definitive truth and rather one possible set of interpretations amongst others. Friedrich Nietzsche already made this point more than 100 years ago. If we accept this, we come closer to occupying a more epistemologically humble position. We don’t have all the answers. We have blindspots, we are believers in specific narratives, and we have strong filters and defences in place that structure how we make sense of the world.
Another important step is to understand the difference between political narratives and deeper values. The former are causal interpretations that are often based on values, but which are not identical with them. Our values will inevitably be unique and different, and will in many cases remain unreconcilable. And that is fine. Some may cherish compassion, creativity, and self-actualization, and others, family, tradition, and service as their highest goods. Discussions of deeper values can more easily be conducted respectfully than discussions of our inevitably tribal interpretations of the world. In addition, if we dare to step into the values space, it is likely we will find more to agree on with each other – if, of course, not everything. Very few people, for example, will actively hold environmental destruction, changing the climate, harming social cohesion, or widening the gap between rich and poor as their values – but these may be unintended consequences of other values.
If we were to defuse from our political narratives (whilst remaining committed to our deeper values), then we could stop wasting our collective energies on endless narrative warfare. We could instead commit to taking action on shared value-based goals that are in the interests of everyone – regardless of our partisan affiliations. Examples of such goals are the long-term survival of humanity on planet Earth, ensuring the survival of our democracies, and creating a fairer and kinder society. If only we could emerge from our embeddedness and lay down our narrative armors, we could use our energy in much more productive ways, tackling the urgent problems that all of us face. We could agree to disagree on certain issues, whilst coming together in the space between thought and the observing self – the space between political beliefs and our shared humanity. This space holds our collective potential. Meeting in that space, we could commit to taking wiser action, together.
Harris, R. (2007), The Happiness Trap. Based on ACT: A revolutionary mindfulness-based programme for overcoming stress, anxiety and depression. London: Robinson.
Hayes, S.C., Strohsal, K. D. and Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford.
Hill, J, and Oliver, J. (2019). Acceptance and Commitment Coaching: Distinctive Features. Oxon: Routledge.