Tuesday, 5 August 2014

An Illustrated Tale - Introduction to ACT

ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  I've been doing quite a bit of research on ACT and it appeals to me on a number of levels.

There is a popular book based upon ACT called the Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris.  In that book he shares a metaphor for ACT which I have built upon and illustrated below.

Imagine your life is represented by a ship, on the open ocean - you are the captain.

But have a look at the radar trace for the last five years (in red).  You seem to have been going around in circles for some time.  There have been a few times when you've made good headway towards Goal Island but then you've drifted back to the circular path.

You heart sinks as you notice other ships (green and blue), apparently steering confidently to the shore, managing to avoid some dangerous looking rocks.


Imagine the moment you set a course for your goals which are beautifully aligned with your values - the essence of you.


The very moment you change course something terrifying happens.




From beneath decks all of your demons appear.  They have horrific claws and fangs and make a ear-splitting racket.


There are several different species of demons:  
  • Some of them are emotions - like anger, fear or hopelessness.  
  • Others are memories of times when things haven't gone to plan.  Times when you've failed or been humiliated.
  • There are also the demons of thought (e.g. I can't do this, I'm bound to fail) and some are mental images in which you see the catastrophes coming to life.
  • There are more, how about URGES?  For example urges to smoke, over eat...
  • And finally on the demon front, there are those uncomfortable physical sensations, like shortness of breath or a leaden feeling in your stomach.
One of the very interesting features of ACT is that it doesn't pretend that the demons don't exist.  It also does not propose that the demons should be eliminated.  Because ACT knows that there are an infinite supply of demons. Even if the current ones are thrown overboard there will be more waiting below decks.  

What ACT does is help us understand how and why we've created these demons.  Russ Harris explains how the evolution of the human brain has led to this type of thinking. 

The demons are clever - if you're out at sea dreaming about what could be your demons remain relatively quiet below decks - lolling about and drooling. However, as soon as you show signs of taking action they begin to rouse themselves, poised for a demonic display.

If we can continue on our purposeful course whilst the demons are around us - that is the key.  As you become accustomed to looking at them and hearing their messages you can realise that the monsters aren't really that threatening. There are techniques that can be used to distance yourself from their messages. The aim is to co-exist with your demons and continue on your chosen trajectory.


You'll find you can really focus on your goals as the power of the demons diminishes, some of them will loose interest and you'll get more and more used to the others. Harris extends the metaphor to describe the appearance of dolphins and mermaids to assist you as you move further towards your goals (but these are a step too far for my current cartooning skills).


This metaphor really strikes a chord with me.  I'm doing more research into ACT and I'm very excited to begin my Uni Course in September as the head of my MSc is a globally recognised expert in the application of ACT in the Workplace.

So what can you do?

Here's a two Stage exercise to start you off.

Stage 1 - What projects or activities are you putting off?  Make a list.  Be honest and take your time.

Stage 2 - If you could acknowledge your demons for what they are, and not be afraid of them (because they really can't hurt you) what would be the next step you would take?  List these next to each project or activity you recorded at Stage 1.

How do you feel about taking that next step, knowing what you know about your demons?  "Their power relies totally on your belief in their threats".

In ACT the ways to reduce the impact of these thoughts is called diffusion - a subject for a future blog.

Thanks for reading.

Ross