The Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, take on self-acceptance promotes individuals taking what is often called an observer perspective on their experience. This essentially involves the realisation that you and your experiences are not the same thing. ACT practice around self-acceptance involves working on three main skills, outlined in turn below.
This skill can be developed by improving mindfulness, either in the sense of formal mindfulness practice, or by promoting attention to the present moment in everyday life. Such mindful awareness is aimed at changing the context in which critical thoughts arrive. Mindfully seeing thoughts as an ongoing process, for example, by noticing bodily responses to them, is a context associated with lower distress and behavioural impact. A further facet of mindfulness involves developing a non-judgemental stance toward thoughts and fostering the ability to accept difficult thoughts with openness and without defence.
Discriminating our self from our self-stories
An increased ability to notice self-related thoughts implies the opportunity to take a more distanced perspective on them. It also suggests greater discrimination between the self and the story that is being told about the self. It follows, that if one can notice one’s thoughts, one cannot be one’s thoughts, no matter what those thoughts might say. There are many techniques in ACT that work to foster the observing self perspective. A notable example, widely promoted by Russ Harris, is the ‘Sky and Weather’ metaphor, which utilises a quotation attributed to the Buddhist author, Pema Chodron. The quotation, “You are the sky. Everything else…it’s just the weather” refers to the transcendent nature of the sky when it is related to the weather. The sky is the container for the weather. It is the context for it, or the place where it happens, and no matter how violent the weather might be, the sky cannot be damaged by it. This metaphor relays the concept that the self is the context for the thoughts about the self, but that the self is bigger any such thoughts or other experiences.
Choosing a behavioural response
It is not necessarily the case that getting better at noticing thoughts and discriminating them from the self would lead to Dave or Yasmin choosing different behavioural responses to their thoughts, although in my experience, this is often the outcome. Whilst it may be the case that behaviour change in a direction away from a previously held negative self-story is desirable (e.g. taking up an opportunity that was previously being avoided), in truth the aim is freedom to choose how to respond to our thoughts.
Freedom to choose is the essence of ACT, which strives to foster greater psychological flexibility. In over one thousand research studies it has been shown that psychological flexibility is related to many different measures of wellbeing and quality of life. Accepting ourselves as fallible human beings, and seeing difficult thoughts and feelings, not as symptoms, but as an inevitable part of what happens when we pursue meaning and purpose in life, is an important part of this process.
Dr Richard Bennett works as a clinical psychologist and runs a private practice, Think Psychology, in Birmingham. He also works at the University of Birmingham, where he leads a postgraduate programme training CBT therapists. Through the University, he organises the annual Birmingham ACT Week, training healthcare professionals in ACT theory and practice. Dr Guy Meadows of the Sleep School is a regular contributor to Birmingham ACT Week, where he delivers training on the use of ACT for insomnia.