Control or acceptance?

I’ve been reading a wee bit of ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy recently. I’m trying to find a relatively simple way to explain ACT to my patients, many of whom just don’t do reading, and prefer living life in a practical way, rather than an intellectual or even spiritual way. I’m not sure I’ve found an explanation that works terribly well yet.

So this is my attempt at a ‘simple’ explanation of ACT – and I’m keen to hear what others think of it!

The first step in ACT seems to be about recognising that the previous attempts we have made to control our thoughts and feelings about a situation seem to fail. Or they need an awful lot of energy. Or they compromise other important things in our lives. I can’t remember who described it as ‘creative helplessness’, but it is a great term!

The second step is to acknowledge that we have emotions, and that they don’t respond well to either being ignored or to be focused on. But emotions are part of us, and are present when we make judgements about a situation.

It’s natural to make judgements about things – this is how we simplify our lives, by making up ‘rules of thumb’ about how we think the world works based on what we’ve experienced, been taught, or seen happen to others. And the rules we live with we just don’t seem to revisit unless we have to.

Some of us are very rigid about our rules – the world just is this way, and there is no other way… others of us are more flexible and recognise that much of life is chaotic and random, and although we would prefer to have life happen in a much more orderly way, often it doesn’t. It seems that people who live according to the second way are more able to accept situations than people who live according to the first.

So if we’ve lived rather orderly lives, where everything happens the way it ‘should’, we may be secure but our world gets rocked when something unexpected happens. And perhaps some of us are more fundamentally able to be flexible about this, while others of us are not, but it seems that people who can work out a way to flow with an unexpected situation deal with it rather better than people who strongly want it to follow the rules. People who can deal with the unexpected deviation from a script also seem less emotional about it – happy when good things happen, but not awfully distressed when bad things happen.

So what I think mindfulness does is provide a way for us to flow with a situation by enjoying things that move in a direction that we ‘want’ but also allowing us to flow with a situation that doesn’t move the way we want by releasing our emotions, giving them some space to be – then recognising that they soon dissipate.

The tools that mindfulness uses, instead of being incredibly ‘talky’ involve lots of imagery and metaphor – which works really well for a visual creature like me – but I’m not so sure that it works as well for practical types. Mindfulness uses words like ‘gentleness’, ‘flow’, ‘moving with’, ‘openness’ and so on… Not that easy to describe to my practical blokes who are more familiar with a spanner than a book!

Some of the tools of mindfulness are awareness of breathing (not control), awareness of sounds (not naming them), awareness of sensations (not judging them), visualisation (such as putting judgements into ‘bubbles’ and allowing them to float away).

I wonder how I can translate this into ‘blokespeak’!

So my focus for this week’s series of posts is attempting to find some ways to help practical people understand how to become ‘mindful’ rather than ‘judgemental’, work with emotional flow rather than cognitive labelling, and finding out what is important and whether what happens is allowing what is valued in life to occur.


  1. I really appreciate your efforts to find ways to help people understand mindfulness. It can be a real help to all of us, and especially to people dealing with chronic pain. Mindfulness helps us live, with acceptance, in the actual present. This actually reduces pain for most people, since so much of our distress is generated by our efforts to avoid our experience. Our willingness to accept our experience as it is leads us to discover that we are greatly increasing our suffering by worrying, living in anticipations about the future, and tensing up in reaction to our negative experiences. Often, becoming more conscious and welcoming of our actual experience brings a significant reduction in subjective distress.

    One of the great things that the ACT approach adds to mindfulness is that it helps us to focus on what we really value in life and supports us in actualizing those values. Most of the time, our ability to move toward our deepest values depends on our willingness to be truly present with what is happening right now: we take a step forward from right here. So ACT mobilizes us to Accept what is really present and Commit to finding a way to honor our deepest selves in this moment. It’s really an encouragement to have an authentic life!

    There are more links and resources about ACT and mindfulness at my blog, Live Mindfully ( I really appreciate your desire to bring ACT principles to your work and your patients!

    Best wishes,
    Roger Thomson

  2. Hi Roger
    Thanks so much for your encouragement!
    I personally have found as I read ACT that much of what has been useful to me in my journey with depression, fibro and now postconcussion syndrome has been exactly that – going with the knowledge that I can’t do all things, allowing things to ‘float’ so that I can do the valuable things, or important things. And in doing so, somehow the mind chatter dissipates.

    Thanks so much for the link to your blog – I have a feeling I visited the other day, but hadn’t bookmarked it! I’ve added it to my blogroll.

  3. G’day, I like your attempt at a simple explanation of ACT.

    As you say how can you translate this into “blokespeak”. Kevin Polk and his colleagues at VA Togus have tried to distill ACT down to “Let Go, Show Up, Get Moving” for the veterans they work with – I imagine this group would be fairly blokey! I saw Kevin speak about their program a couple of weeks ago and they pretty much use mindfulness etc without calling it that, work from one sheet of paper (with values on one side and barriers on the other), and present ACT in a low key and humourous way. Might be worth checking out.

    cheers, Eric

  4. Kia Ora Eric!
    Thanks for visiting, and taking the time to comment. I do like that ‘translation’ of ACT into blokespeak!
    I also love that idea of values and barriers – what a great idea!
    I found another sort of metaphor if you like, it’s about what happens when a bloke goes out for a long drive (provided they drive or ride!) – how the time flows while they’re still aware of what’s going on, and how relaxed and comfortable they feel while doing it, but they have to ‘ACT’ to stay on the road and get to their destination.
    I hope you visit again – and drop a line every now and then if there’s something that piques your interest!

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