I remember a time when village celebrations would always include a tug-of-war contest. Team A would hold one end of the rope, Team B would hold the other end and between the two teams there would be a large puddle of dirty water. The idea was to pull the other team into the mud. I am hoping that one Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) metaphor, which describes a tug-of-war contest with a monster, will help you understand just why ACT is so important in the toolbox of any therapist or counselor. Il start by walking through the metaphor (and I’m paraphrasing here rather than extracting the actual metaphor from the ACT book!)
Imagine you are in a tug-of-war contest with a big, ugly monster. Between you is a large and seemingly bottomless hole. If you lose the contest you will surely die. So you start pulling. You look up to see the monster holding the rope with one hand while sipping his Mojito in the other (this monster is upper class). After finishing his drink the monster decides to take the contest a bit more seriously. He begins pulling and you find yourself moving closer and closer to the hole of death. (Thanks to Rob Archer for the image below, his website below is definitely worth a visit http://www.thecareerpsychologist.com)
ACT is one of many therapeutic approaches. People reading this might be enchanted by the mysteries of Psychoanalysis, others might enjoy the non-directive nature of Person Centered Therapy and most will be familiar with the in’s and out’s of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Each therapy offers different ideas as how to manage psychological issues, but which is the best? At this time that question is difficult to answer. Psychology is still a young science; it will take years of rigorous research before we can confidently take a stab at answering it. For now, regardless of which is most effective, I believe it is the responsibility of any therapist to own a toolbox that houses a number of approaches.
But what right does ACT have to be among the heavy hitters of Psychotherapy? Psychoanalysis, Person Centered Therapy and CBT are incredibly well established approaches with decades of history behind them. The answer to my question comes back to the toolbox. ACT deserves to be in any therapist toolbox because it offers an approach that is entirely different to what has come before.
What do I mean by this? Many therapies involve changing people’s thoughts. It makes sense right? If you can change someone’s thoughts then you can change their behavior. And evidence suggests that this approach can work. In other words, in some contexts you can defeat that monster and pull him into the hole of death. You can struggle with those thoughts and feelings, and emerge victorious. However, on some occasions, that monster cannot be defeated. And the most sophisticated cognitive change strategies in the world will be ineffective. When this happens, perhaps another tool will be useful in helping you win the fight against the monster?
One question many people do not ask when struggling with unwanted thoughts, which is at the heart of the ACT approach, immediately highlights how ACT is indeed a different tool. The question is: do you have to struggle with the monster? You see ACT doesn’t encourage us to fight our thoughts and feelings as if they are real things. Instead ACT asks us to understand that all of our thoughts and feelings are there to be experienced. We do not have to change them in order to live our lives. If we are depressed and lying in our bed then we will have thoughts like ‘I feel terrible’. Some therapies would encourage us to change that thought so that we can rise out of bed. ACT, on the other hand, teaches us that we don’t need to change the thought, we don’t need to battle it like we would do a monster, and we don’t need to fight it. We can simply acknowledge its existence, get out of our bed in spite of it and get on with the act of living.
Back to the Metaphor: when negative thoughts and feelings come along, one tool we can use is to try to change those thoughts, or try to beat that monster in the tug-of-war contest. Our other option is to have those thoughts without fighting them or letting them influence our behavior. ACT helps us to see that we no longer have to struggle with our monsters; we can simply drop the rope.
How liberating could that be? To live a life where your unwanted thoughts and feelings are not the enemy. Where they are like a radio playing in the background; they are always there but we can choose not to pay much attention to them when they are being unhelpful. ACT is important because it is an approach like no other. It helps us to let go of the way in which our thoughts and feelings rigidly influence our behavior. And it is a tool that any therapist should add to their repertoire.