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Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

A man looking out into the sea.

What is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)?

ACT is a mindfulness-based behavioral therapy that encourages psychological flexibility. It aims to help you accept what can’t be changed and commit to action where change is possible.

ACT challenges the notion that pain, stress, and negative thoughts or emotions are inherently bad and should be avoided. Instead it proposes that trying to avoid or control distressing experiences actually leads to more pain, stress, and negativity. Acceptance, rather than control, can lead to committed change.

What does ACT treat?

ACT has proven helpful for a variety of conditions, including:

Principles of ACT

Acceptance and commitment therapy can be broken down into six principles:

  • Cognitive defusion
  • Acceptance
  • Connection to the present
  • The observing self
  • Clarified values
  • Commitment to action

Cognitive defusion

“Cognitive defusion” is the recognition that our thoughts, feelings, and memories are cognitive processes, as opposed to truths that must be believed. This may seem obvious, but most of us don’t interpret our thoughts merely as thoughts. Instead we view them as moral failings, threats, orders, predictions, or objective truths.

Cognitive defusion reminds us that our thoughts are just thoughts. Instead of trusting them as the sole basis of our reality, we can accept them as part of a larger body of information we can use to make decisions.

Acceptance

Acceptance involves observing our thoughts, feelings, and behavior nonjudgmentally. It allows us to struggle with distressing thoughts, emotional pain, stress, and other unwanted experiences without labeling them as “bad” or “wrong,” which can create even more distress.

With acceptance, you have permission to feel all your feelings and react accordingly. An acceptance approach rejects judgment so you can acknowledge and engage with your feelings.

Connection to the present

Cognitive defusion and acceptance are hard if you aren’t grounded in the present moment. If you’re reliving past experiences or worrying about the future, you may react to present stress in self-protective ways that don’t suit your values. Connecting to the present moment can often overpower unhelpful or unwanted thoughts or feelings, empowering you to choose how to act.

The present is where we experience joy, delight, surprise, beauty, and inspiration. We’ve all had experiences, however fleeting, that felt powerful enough to bring us fully into the present: first kisses, game-winning shots, standing ovations, acceptance letters, job offers, and more.

But being present shouldn’t be reserved for surprises, milestones, or special occasions. Like any skill, connection to the present moment is something you can practice. Mindfulness offers tools to help you learn and practice living in the present moment.

The observing self

To connect with the present, first you have to connect with your “observing self.”

Imagine your consciousness as having two parts: the part that experiences and the part that observes. You think, and you observe your thoughts. You feel, and you observe your feelings. The observing self is the place from which you can observe your thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally.

Another way to think about it is that you can use your sense of self as context to interpret your experiences. You are your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but you’re also more than the sum of those parts. You can bring your sense of self as a tool to help you process your life, instead of relying on experiences to build your sense of self.

Clarified values

Values—our beliefs about what matters most to us—help us figure out how we want to live. They inform the actions we take and the behaviors we choose. When you clarify your values, you identify what they are and how you want to act on them in your life.

Keep in mind that values aren’t the same as goals. You may have dreams, but how do you want to reach them? Will you be satisfied with achieving your goals if you cheat, lie, or steal to reach them? Many people would say no, because those actions contradict their values.

Commitment to action

Once you’ve identified your values, you can commit to actions that fit them. Instead of being overwhelmed by big thoughts or feelings, you now have tools to defuse your thoughts, accept your feelings, stay present, remember your values, and choose your behaviors.

ACT therapy techniques

These ACT techniques can help you accept what you can’t change and change what’s in your control:

  • Clarify your values: Dedicate time to determining what’s most important to you and how you want to live your life.
  • Identify your triggers: Try to identify the thoughts, feelings, and circumstances that make it harder for you to make values-based decisions.
  • Observe: When you identify your triggers, try not to judge yourself or go right into problem-solving mode. Instead observe your thoughts from the place of the observing self.
  • Practice mindfulness: Practice being present in the moment without judgment or interpretation.
  • Remember to have self-compassion: Your behaviors won’t change overnight. These skills take practice. Have compassion for yourself, and offer yourself grace when you make mistakes.

ACT vs. CBT: What’s the difference?

ACT has qualities in common with other therapies, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). ACT has even been described as a “third wave” approach that expands on CBT’s original principles. Both approaches offer helpful ways to engage with your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, CBT and ACT are two separate types of therapy, and they have meaningful differences.

CBT encourages you to evaluate and challenge unhelpful or unwanted thoughts. ACT moves away from trying to eliminate or correct these experiences. Instead it encourages you to live a meaningful and enjoyable life while accepting the reality that pain is an unavoidable part of human existence.

To create change, CBT relies on analysis and problem-solving, while ACT relies on observance and acceptance. People who are treated with ACT learn to detach themselves from unhelpful thoughts or experiences instead of getting caught up in them or struggling against them.

Find an ACT therapist

If you want to learn to accept what’s beyond your control while also taking committed action where change is possible, search our directory for an ACT therapist near you.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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