If anyone out there is interested in using ACT within their practices, or if they fancy running ACT research, then I would encourage them to attend the worldwide and regional conferences that are advertised on the ACBS website (http://contextualscience.org/acbs). I have just returned from the UK and Ireland ACBS conference held in Dublin. At this particular conference, in addition to fostering a wonderful sense of community, I felt inspired to avoid complacency as we try to develop a model that is better equipped to manage human suffering. The message of the conference was that ‘we are not there yet’. The Psychological Flexibility model has gathered much evidence but it is not complete. The people I met at the conference were fully aware of its potential but they were fully aware that much work needs to be done. They were also willing to dedicate their lives to figuring it all out knowing that it may come to nothing. Why? Because as the statistics for mental health problems stack up it is becoming truly obvious that we have to try.
Dr. Dennis Tirch gave a wonderful plenary at the conference about the similarities and potential integration of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and ACT. I loved every second of it and at some point I hope to review his recently released book on that very subject (https://www.newharbinger.com/act-practitioners-guide-science-compassion). During the talk Dennis repeated one of Steve Hayes’ sayings that I hadn’t heard for a long time: ‘Kill Your Self Every Day’.
Steve did not mean literally to kill yourself (in fact, if someone were able to kill themselves repeatedly then we all would have heard something about it by now!). He meant that over time we build stories about ‘who we are’, but that often those stories can hold us back. Therefore, kill your stories about ‘who you are’ every day so that you can escape their grasp.
Our view of ‘who we are’ is usually based on our experience. Maybe at some point in the past we have been in a situation where we have felt something, named it and then assumed it is a part of us. An example; I remember being a 15-year-old boy asking a 15-year-old girl out on a date. She said ‘No’. Apparently my poems just didn’t do it for her. Anyhow, my friends said that I didn’t look confident when I approached her and I certainly didn’t feel confident. With that story in my mind, every time there was an opportunity to interact with a girl I avoided it, because I’m just not the ‘confident’ type. Notice what happened there, a story I had built up from one experience had imprisoned me. Kill your stories every day because they are metaphorical shackles, not real ones. Once we let them go, we become liberated.
I hear people say things like: ‘there is no point in going for the interview because I’m not a confident person’, ‘I’m not going on the date because I’m incompetent when I first meet someone’, I’m not going to do that follies skit because I’m just not the type of person who can do public speaking’, ‘there is no point in exercising because I’m just a fat sort of person’. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
If we think that personality traits are fixed then we are stuck. Our lack of confidence, our first date skills, our public speaking abilities and our fat genes are things that can never change. That’s unacceptable for me. So from a purely pragmatic point of view, I’m going to believe that our personalities are stories, and that our stories do not have to direct our behaviour.
When you start to think about our personalities in this way, everything becomes possible. If you kill the self-story that you are not clever enough to go for a promotion, you get to try for that promotion. If you kill the self-story that you are not mentally tough enough to lose weight, you get to go to the gym and try. If you kill the self-story that you are not a sociable person, you get to try to connect with people. New learning about your ‘self’ only happens if you give it a chance. So let’s believe that personality is this wonderfully flexible thing and that in fact, you ‘are’ how you choose to ACT every day.