This week I have been reading, and enjoying, the ‘The Little ACT Workbook’ by Michael Sinclair and Matthew Beadman. I’ll write a concise review, which makes absolute sense given the concise nature of the book, before trying to articulate how it provoked me to carefully consider what we mean by the word ‘willingness’.
The book is written brilliantly in that it clearly articulates what ACT is all about in a truly accessible and relatable way. It does this using a gentle tone that is perfectly suited to the people most likely to benefit from a book like this; those suffering with lower levels of distress. It uses great case examples to illustrate points, it threads ACT-consistent language into the stitching of the book and it includes helpful summary points. In fact, if anyone out there is looking for a brief but useful primer to the ACT model then I think that this book offers something that no other ACT book does.
The criticism that I have of the book is an issue that could be levelled against all self-help books; it felt more didactic than experiential. In other words, finishing books is reinforcing so when it came to the exercises I found myself moving through the pages pretty quickly without really ‘experiencing’ them. To be fair, the authors signpost not to do this at the beginning of the book but maybe, and I say this with no experience of writing a self-help book, stronger signposting in the body of the book would have helped to guide the reader i.e. ‘after this page, stop reading and see if what we have said in this chapter resonates with you over the next week – then come back to the book’ or ‘try this exercise 3 times in the next week then come back’. Such guidance, in addition to the creation of a material-filled website, might better support readers in an on-going basis as they surf these tricky waters.
The final thing that popped out at me when reading the book is what I want to spend the rest of this blog talking about. The description of ‘willingness’, presented in such an accessible way, awakened uneasiness in me that I’m going to try to articulate now.
When I first began my ACT journey, I thought that acceptance, in the model, referred to a feeling i.e. if we can turn up our willingness feeling dial then we will be better able to act willingly. But then, as I have laid out in another blog, you realize that willingness can’t be a feeling. Why, because if the pitch in ACT is that it is very difficult to control our feelings, then why should the feeling of willingness be any different? I think it may be difficult to conjure up a feeling of willingness.
So you can imagine my relief, after delving into the literature a little more, when I found that willingness is considered an action. But if willingness is an action, then why do we need committed action in the hexaflex? It gets worse; not only is willingness an action but also most writers suggest that willingness involves an openness, acceptance and curiosity about unwanted thoughts and feelings. What are openness, acceptance and curiosity? Are they feelings? If so, see previous point about feelings. Some people say they are a stance – what in the hell is a stance? Stance sounds like private events to me, the same private events that we pitch as being difficult to control.
You see, I like to view my unwanted thoughts and feelings like a radio playing the background: I acknowledge them and their potentially unhelpful nature enough to give me the space to choose my actions. But I don’t really interact with them, in my internal world, much more than that. I don’t actively focus on them, I don’t actively accept them, I don’t actively feel open to them and I am not actively curious about them. They just sort of exist. I actively watch them, but apart from that it’s a pretty passive process, like clouds passing in the sky.
So if willingness actually involves awareness and acknowledgement of our unwanted guests, rather than active acceptance, then is that not what we try to do with the ‘contacting the present moment’ part of the hexaflex? Given these lines of argument, what I am wondering is whether acceptance even needs to be a part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
In other words, in therapy you may want to consider doing the following things:
- Listen with Empathy and Compassion.
- Improve Self-ing. Have clients contact self-as-context (defusion) and self-as-process (contacting the present moment) so to increase awareness of the thoughts, feelings and stories that minds can feed us, and to increase awareness of the fact that that sometimes some of those internal private events aren’t helpful / functional in the way they influence our behaviour.
- Improve Valued Action – use increased awareness about the nature of minds to help people act in a way that is consistent with who they want to be.
I’m going to call my new therapy Values and Self-ing Therapy (VAST) but the funny thing is that it won’t really look any different to ACT. In other words, although my therapy will involve only 5 out of the 6 ACT components, it will still look like ACT, which adds to my feeling that we don’t need ‘willingness’ in the hexaflex.
Importantly, you need to know that I write these blogs in the hope that they will stimulate thought and not because I think what I say is ‘right’. This post especially leaves me feeling vulnerable so I am hoping that people who disagree will take the time to teach me alternative views of ‘willingness’ that make it a crucial component in the ACT model.