Pursue What Matters
Episode 76: Take Action with ACT Skills
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Boy life can be so challenging. How do you take action in the face of life’s challenges? Well join me today because I have some practical skills to help you take action.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:16
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the pursue what matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So Winston Churchill put it best, he said, life is one damn thing after another, and boy is certainly feels that way in 2020, the hits just keep on coming. I feel like I need to knock on wood. But hopefully, we’ll all be okay. And, you know, times like these leave us just wanting to crawl under a rock. But of course, that is not a recipe for happiness. In order to thrive in order to have happiness to have less depression, less anxiety, less stress, we actually need to take action, and face life’s challenges. Of course, we know life will always be challenging, that is a truth. But the way we face our challenges really matters, it makes all of the difference. And so today, I’m really going to help you take action with some practical skills. And I’m going to help you take action with ACT skills in particular.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:50
So ACT is an acronym. It stands for acceptance and commitment, therapy, or treatment, it is an approach to it’s a theoretical approach to, to psychological well being. And it is clinically validated. It’s research driven, and it is awesome. So it is definitely the theoretical approach that I most closely align with. And it really does help people shift the way they relate to their thoughts to their feelings and to their challenges in life. And it’s it can, it can be pretty revolutionary, actually, it is a response to a lot of the classical approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy. In that, you know, the way that I think about it is it helps people to get out of that tug of war with their thoughts and feelings. And so in that way, it’s pretty refreshing. So I did a podcast just not too long ago, Episode 73, which was a book review of the happiness trap, how to stop struggling and start living by Russ Harris. And so that book review really sets the foundation for some of the things I’m going to be talking about today. So if you have not had a chance to listen to that podcast, I would recommend that you take a listen to that, because, you know, this podcast will be complimentary to that one, of course, I will link to that episode in the show notes. You know, you can always listen to it on iTunes, or Spotify, or of course, on my website. But that will definitely set the foundation for the things that we are talking about to day.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:46
So I do want to provide just a little bit of context for what we’re going to talk about. And then we will jump right into helping you with some practical skills. So one of the common beliefs that many of us hold is that if we’re not happy, there’s something wrong with us, which you know, is really not a great way to go through life. But then, you know, first of all, we think something’s wrong with us. And then the way we go about trying to be happy, actually makes us more miserable. And these behaviors drive anxiety, depression and stress. So boy, look at the ways we are undermining ourselves in that process. So in the book, Russ Harris talks about four happiness myths that set us up for misery, and set us up for what he calls the happiness trap.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:43
And so the first happiness myth is that happiness is the natural state of humans. And this is just not true. The second myth is the idea that happiness means feeling good, or, you know, being in this state of pleasure and you No, all of us know that pleasure is fleeting at best, it just doesn’t last that long, even great moments are fleeting, at best, rather, happiness is all about living a full, meaningful and rich life. But it can’t be about pleasure because pleasure is fleeting. The third myth is that if you are not happy, you are somehow defective. And boy, Western culture especially falls into that myth all over the place. And finally, the fourth myth is that you should be able to control what you think and feel. And, you know, what I would say is just go ahead and try it, I dare you good luck with that one. We like to think that we are in control of our thoughts and our feelings, but it’s just not true. And so what happens is that, you know, we believe these myths, and, and then, you know, when we’re not happy, and we, we start to avoid life’s challenges, as a way of attempting to control our thoughts and feelings. But of course, you know, we can’t control our thoughts and our feelings, because life doesn’t work that way. And this leads to experiential avoidance, and more and more negative thoughts and feelings, because we feel worse about ourselves, when we can’t control those thoughts and feelings. And of course, this leads to a very vicious cycle of more and more avoidance.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:36
And so the truth is, we must take action in our lives, and face our challenges. And of course, learn to cope with our difficult thoughts and emotions. So the truth is, the only way out, is through, I’m fond of saying, the only thing to avoid is avoidance. avoidance is boy is a curse, it will take you down. And so let’s head into some practical skills that really can help you take action to face life’s challenges. And so really core to act is helping you develop psychological flexibility. I mean, that is the name of the game. Because in order to face life’s challenges, you got to have psychological flexibility, like, you cannot be undone by life’s challenges. And so I talked about this also in the book review, but there’s a nice little formula that we want to pay attention to. And that is mindfulness plus values plus action equals psychological flexibility.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:48
And so with that ACT has, you know, six core principles that they really focus their skills around. And those six core principles, and we’ll talk about a few skills in each of these categories are, but I’ll name this the six core areas right now, just so you can hear them. The six core principles are first diffusion, and that’s just a hallmark of Act. So the first one is diffusion. The second one is expansion. And the third one is connection. The fourth one is the observing self. The fifth one is values. And the sixth one is committed action. And so I’ll break these down a little bit more and help you understand those and then of course, help you to take action in each of these areas. And so let’s start with solution one, which is core principle one diffusion. And so what we want to do with taking action is we want to learn to defuse painful and unpleasant thoughts. So the key really is learning to relate to your painful thoughts and emotions in a new way. So I want to talk about this. By contrasting fusion versus defusion.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:20
So you know, fusion means blending or melding together, right? So when you think about fusion, you think about something being fused together or stuck together. And so, with fusion, it’s the belief that thoughts are reality. So what you’re thinking is actually happening here and now. So we believe our thoughts are actually the reality. So with fusion, we believe our thoughts are the truth, and we completely believe them. With fusion thoughts are important. We take them seriously and give them our full attention with fusion thoughts become orders, we automatically believe, because their orders with fusion thoughts are wise, we assume they know best, and we follow their advice with fusion thoughts can be threats. So some thoughts can be deeply disturbing, and we feel the need to get rid of them. So you can see with fusion, that thoughts can be really dangerous. They can be dictatorial, they can, you know, they can be all encompassing. And we really have a belief sometimes that our thoughts are reality that they are truth. So that’s what happens with fusion. Okay, in contrast, we have defusion, so d e, f, u, si o n. And with defusion the consideration here is that thoughts are only thoughts. And so the imagery that I want you to think about here is that thoughts are like leaves moving through the mind. Like so. So thoughts are just thoughts moving through the mind, like leaves on a stream, right there. They’re just thoughts. They’re just words, nothing more, nothing less. So whether thoughts are true, is not very important. So far more important is whether a thought is helpful. This is a really important distinction within ACT, we don’t really care whether a thought is true, we really just care if a thought is helpful. So if they are helpful thoughts, then it is worth paying attention to. Otherwise, we just let the thoughts keep moving on by just let it keep going. So I talked about thinking about your thoughts, like leaves on a stream. The other imagery that might be helpful is that your thoughts are like items on a conveyor belt. And you just you don’t have to do a darn thing with those thoughts, they’ll just keep on moving. And you always know there will be more thoughts coming by, and you don’t have to do anything about them. So the aim is not to get rid of unpleasant thoughts, but to see them for what they are, they are just words. And to let go of struggling with your thoughts, we don’t want to believe them, we don’t want to give them too much attention. We, you know, like, we don’t want to freak out about them or anything like that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:45
So the goal with defusion is to disentangle yourself from unhelpful thought processes, so that you can focus on what matters most to you. That’s really the goal with diffusion. And so that’s, that’s why diffusion is core principle number one, with ACT, it is such an important part of ACT, we want to disentangle ourselves from those unhelpful thought processes. So you can really focus on what matters most. So some of the specific skills, the act skills that you could take action with so I mentioned some of these in the last podcast, I want to say I want to share them again, because they’re really so very helpful, is, first of all, you could say the thought I’m having is right. And that act alone helps you to get a little more separation from your thoughts. You can remind yourself that you are not your thoughts. You could say, you know, these thoughts are just stories. Sometimes I’ll say the story I’m telling myself, right now, that comes to us from Brene Brown. The story I’m telling myself is that you don’t want to talk to me right now, you know, one of the things that you can do is name your story or name your themes. So we all have themes. We have themes around rejection, we have themes around, never getting ahead. And with self awareness, you will start to identify your patterns, identify your stories, and so you can start to name them. And that helps you to have perspective to be able to say, Oh, boy, this old story again. So you can say, oh, here’s my rejection story showing up again. And that can be really powerful because it helps you to disentangle from that story so you don’t get caught in it. So the other thing to remind yourself is that the mind never stops telling stories, right? That streams just going to keep on flowing. That conveyor belt is going to keep on rolling. You don’t have to listen, you don’t have to obey, you don’t even have to respond, you know, your mind will keep on chattering. And you can go ahead and still live your life, you can still live to your values, despite the stories Your mind is telling. And that’s really powerful. That’s liberating. That’s freedom right there. So you also don’t need to take your thoughts seriously, you just remind yourself, these are only thoughts. Like I don’t, I don’t need to get caught in these. So you can also thank your mind for all the thoughts, even the ridiculous thoughts. So sometimes I will actually say to myself, sometimes out loud, sometimes just in my mind, thank you for that thought. You’re done. Now. I don’t, I don’t need that advice from you anymore. So we just acknowledge the thoughts. We acknowledge some of the judgment, the judgmental thoughts, some of the criticism that we hear in our minds, you could also use a silly voice to challenge a thought in your mind. And that can really shift you out of some of the fear mongering, that can sometimes happen. So these are all defusion skills to help you take action. And these are powerful skills, that with practice, they get easier. So again, the goal is not to get rid of the thoughts, but it is to shift how you relate to your thoughts.
Dr. Melissa Smith 16:35
Okay. So now let’s head on to solution number two, which is expansion. Now, expansion is core principle two, of ACT. And this is where we want to learn to make room for our unpleasant feelings instead of trying to suppress them or push them away. So right, one of the one of the ways that we get caught in the happiness trap is that we try to avoid our unpleasant thoughts. So that’s one of the reasons we want to use diffusion. And we try to avoid or suppress our unpleasant feelings. And so this is one of the reasons that we want to use expansion. And another word for expansion is acceptance, right, we want to make room we want to accept all of our emotions. Okay, now, that might be hard for you to accept because often what I hear from people is like, I don’t want to make room for sadness, I don’t want to make room for anger. And especially if you have been taught that it is not okay to be angry about something, this will be kind of challenging for you initially. But the reality is, as humans, it is natural and normal for us to experience the full range of emotions. So Russ Harris describes emotions as as weather systems, right, that depending on the situations we are facing in life, our emotions are like weather systems. And so some days, our emotions are Sunny, and some days our emotions are stormy, or cloudy, or rainy, or windy. And so, you know, think about the emotions that might go with those weather systems. And you know, our work, our job is to accept, expand, expand, and make room for all of those emotions, rather than trying to suppress them, or to push them away. Because that’s part of the human experience. And so can we make room and accept those emotions, so making room for whatever you are feeling, without judgment now, that’s the key. So if you think about acceptance, acceptance, you know, kind of includes this idea of no judgment. And so this is important. So a little term that I like to use, I think I got this from Eckhart Tolle is: this too. So you know, especially if it if it’s an emotion that’s maybe painful or difficult for you to accept, to be able to say this too, to, you know, okay, like, this is painful, but this too, I can let this in, as well because this is part of what it means to be human. This Too. So being able to name your emotions without judgment, being able to express your emotions without judgment. And this is where empathy can be so powerful to have someone who can show up for you who can empathize. eyes with you, you know who’s not going to have empathy misses or who’s not going to judge you, that can be so incredibly powerful. So that is the second solution expansion or acceptance either term is used within the ACT literature.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:20
Okay, so now let’s head on over to solution three, which is connection. And connection, of course, is the core principle number three, in ACT. So this is where we really want to help you connect in the present moment. So another way of thinking about this is mindfulness. Right, everywhere we go, we run into mindfulness, I wonder why it’s such an important principle of healthy living. So this is where we want to be fully present, instead of either ruminating in the past, which is a recipe for depression, or anxiously awaiting the future, which is where we get caught in anxiety. So to be fully present, so a few skills that can be very helpful for you to be connected in the present moment would be first awareness of breath. So just noticing your breathing. Now, if you have a smartwatch, it’s so funny, because as I’m doing this, I just noticed my watch, and it said you need to breathe. So I need to be taking some deeper breaths as I’m talking here. Because it just cued me to breathe. So a smartwatch is an awesome way to help you with your awareness of breath. Of course, you do not need a smartwatch to do that. But awareness of breath. So taking 30 seconds, taking a minute, several times during the day. And just noticing your breathing, you could use paced breathing, whether it’s box breathing, whether it’s you know, using the help of a breathing app, or a smart watch or something like that. But just noticing your breath, you could take five breaths on inhale, five breaths on the exhale can be very simple. But awareness of breath is one of the best things you can do to help connect to the present moment.
Dr. Melissa Smith 22:33
A second thing that you can do is awareness of sound. So you spend 30 seconds noticing sounds. So you can be paying attention to sounds within your own body sounds within the room sounds outside your window, you just take 30 seconds, and you listen. Another tool here that you could do would be to notice five things. So there are three levels to this. So the first level is to identify five objects that you can see, the next level is to identify five sounds that you can hear. And then the third level is to identify five things you can feel against the surface of your body. And that’s known as noticing, notice five things. So five objects, you can see five sounds you can hear, and five things you can feel against the surface of your body. And that’s a great way to connect in the present moment.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:56
Okay, so now let’s head on over to solution four, which is the observing self. And this is core principle number four. Okay, so this can be a little bit of a tricky one for people who maybe don’t have much experience with mindfulness, but it’s a really good one and an important one to understand and to start grasping. So you know that the concept here is that we each have two parts of ourselves. So we have the thinking self and the observing self. And so the thinking self is that part of ourselves that thinks plans, judges, compares, creates, imagines, visualizes, analyzes, remembers daydreams, and fat sizes and so you can think of this part, the thinking itself as the mind, right and the minds very important, right? Like the mind really helps us power our life. So it’s great, and it’s very important. And then we have the observing self. And the observing self is fundamentally different from the thinking self. It is aware, but it does not think. So it’s the part of you that is responsible for focus, for attention, and for awareness. So it can observe or pay attention to your thoughts, but it can’t necessarily produce them. And so while the thinking self thinks about your experience, the observing self registers your experience directly. Okay, so that that’s right, like conceptually, that can be a little bit confusing. But let me give you an example. Because I think the example will hopefully make sense because we all have this experience. So let’s imagine you are watching a sunset. So you, you know, it’s a beautiful sunset, let’s say it’s a beautiful sunset, and you are fully in the moment of awe. When you are fully present in that moment of awe. You are fully in your observing self. You’re just in the moment in awe. But then maybe you’re thinking self jumps in. And you notice some thoughts. Boy, I wish I had my camera, or Oh, I’m hungry, or Oh, am I going to be late getting home? And so you’re thinking self jumps in to that moment of awe. So you’re observing self is registering the experience directly? But then your thinking self jumps in with all of these, all of this chatter? Where’s it? Where’s my camera? I wonder if she likes a sunset, I wonder, you know, are we going to get something to eat after this. So the more attention you’re observing self pays to the running commentary of your thinking self. So, so right, the more you’re observing self, is focused on this commentary of the thinking self, the more you lose direct contact with that sunset. So if you’re not careful, you’re observing self is going to lose connection with that moment of awe, because of that chatter of the thinking cell. And so the work here with solution Four of the observing self, is we really want to help to bring out that observing self, so that it doesn’t get caught by the thinking self. Now, again, the thinking self is super important, we need the thinking self a lot, right? Because the thinking self is how we power, many of the things that we do every day, but we need a balance. Because right, Otherwise we just have endless chatter all the time. And that’s, that’s not good for us. And so some of the ways that we work on establishing a little more balance between the observing self and the thinking self, would be. So I’m gonna walk you through this. So it starts with taking 10 deep breaths as slowly as possible. But I’m going to, I’m going to tell you what I want you to focus on with it, because here’s the thing, that thinking self is going to get in the way. So I’m going to just tell you what you would do. And then it’s something that you could practice. So the other thing I just want to say with this podcast is I have a really great resource that’s going to have all of these skills on them. And so you know, I don’t want to leave you hanging, there’s going to be a really great resource for you. So you don’t need to take notes or anything like that. And so you can head to my show notes, and get your hands on this resource. And hopefully, it can be a useful guide for you on taking action with these skills. So with this, observing versus thinking so. So you would take 10 deep breaths as slowly as possible. And the thing that we would do, what we would want you to do is let any thoughts and images come and go in the background, really like cars passing outside your house. And if a thought enters you briefly acknowledge it, but let it keep on going. So this comes from Russ Harris from the book. And so you briefly acknowledged the thought but you let it keep on going. So what you might notice is that a thought hooks you and you lose track of the breathing exercise. So by hook Harris means it captures your attention. And it distracts you from the breathing exercise. Okay, so you notice that a thought hooks, you and you, you lose track of the breathing exercise. So once you realize you’re hooked, notice what distracted you. So what’s the thought that distracted you and then unhook yourself and return to the breathing exercise. So there. So that’s what I would want you to do with this breathing exercise. So when you notice, oh, I’m distracted. Okay, let’s go back to the breathing exercise, and continue on with the 10 deep breaths. So what with this exercise, you learn three things first, to let thoughts come and go to how to recognize when you’ve been hooked by thoughts, because the reality is we get hooked by thoughts all the time. And third, how to gently unhook yourself, and refocus your attention. And this really is the heart of meditation, because meditation is not the absence of thoughts, because as if, right, like, that’s not even a thing. It’s hard to do that. But it’s all about, you know, noticing your thoughts. And, you know, unhooking yourself from those thoughts. And you know, refocusing your attention. And so this is actually a really nice step by step guide for what you would do during a meditation practice. And so your observing self focuses on the breath, and the thinking self chatters away in the background. So that’s the distinction, right? So you’re observing self versus you’re thinking self and so again, the goal here is that we just want a little more balance, that you can start to make that distinction between the observing self and the thinking self. And that that balance really adds so much value to your life for creating a rich and meaningful life.
Dr. Melissa Smith 32:11
Okay, so now let’s move on to solution five, which is values. And this is core principle five. And this is all about connecting to your values helps you to live a meaningful life. And of course, this is the foundation for happiness. So I’m going to talk about values along with solution six, which is committed action, which, again, is core principles, six, so I’m going to talk about these two together, because they just go hand in hand. So in order to create this rich and meaningful life, you have to take effective action that’s guided by your values, so they go hand in hand. So when we think about committed action, you know, you have to do this again. And again, no matter how many times you fail, or go off track. So it’s not enough just to act once it committed action is by design, you have to be committed to your values, you have to be committed to facing your challenges. It’s not enough to just take action once, okay. And then, of course, living to your values, despite life’s challenges. And that’s really you know, the furnace of fire, that’s where we really see what we are made of. And so with your values, you decide what’s important to you, you decide what you hold dear. And, you know, even identifying one value, that’s important to you, it might be a relationship, it might be a value around integrity, it might be a sense of purpose, to a mission greater than yourself. And then with action, we want to take appropriate action consistent with those values.
Dr. Melissa Smith 34:11
So again, the only thing to avoid is avoidance. And, you know, how do you know if it’s appropriate to act? Because I think that is a fair question. our emotions, prime our body to act, but it’s not always appropriate to act. And so this is where your values really, really matter. Because when you have these impulses to act or these urges to act, you have to slow yourself down. This is where mindfulness really, really matters. Because mindfulness helps you to slow yourself down in the moment and ask if I act on this urge, will I be acting like the person I want to be? Will this action Take my life in the direction I want to go? So you’re asking yourself a question around your values. Sadly, what happens is that too many of us do not have our value showing up in our daily lives. They’re not showing up in our daily actions. And our values are absolutely useless, if they are not guiding our daily actions, if they’re not the metric by which we are making our decisions. And so these questions, if I act on this urge, will I be acting like the person I want to be? Or will it help take my life in the direction I want to go, are incredibly helpful to to guide that action. And so those are the questions to help you. And so, you know, a couple of steps, you want to acknowledge what you’re feeling, right? Like I’m having this urge to do x. And then step two, check in with your values and ask yourself those questions. Because right, like we have urges a lot to do a lot of things. And that doesn’t necessarily mean, it’s a good idea. And so there’s a distinction there. And you need to, you really need to clarify that. And so of course, if the answer is yes, then act using that urge to guide you and give your momentum. But if the answer is no, then take action. That’s more in line with your values.
Dr. Melissa Smith 36:38
Okay. So this is where I want to talk about urge surfing. And this is the last thing that I want to talk about, because this is a core component of Act. And it’s awesome, it’s very useful. We use it in eating concerns work all the time, it’s really very, very helpful with addictive processes, but really any kind of anxiety, response or when you’re feeling those emotional urges or impulses. So, with urge surfing, we really don’t want you to battle with your urges, but instead to get curious about them. So if you decide not to act on your urges, then you watch them, just like an ocean surf. So that’s why we call it urge surfing. So you think about your urge, like an ocean surf. And you watch that urge rise crest and then fall again. And so the shift that happens is that you don’t need to fight the urge. And so many people that struggle with urges, have spent so many years and so much energy trying to fight their urges, and like that is so much wasted energy. And so we don’t want you to do the battle in your head. So instead, you’re there at the edge of the water, not resisting the urge. You are making space for the urge. So think about expansion, think about accepting you are acknowledging this urge, right? Like that urge is right there, you got that you’ve got that big wave coming in. So you’re there at the edge of the water, you’re not resisting the urge, you are making space for the urge. So think about this, if you give an ocean wave enough space, it will reach a crest and then it will harmlessly subside. And so this is urge surfing in action. And so we want to use an ACT acronym to help with urge surfing. So first is A Accept your thoughts and feelings. So you acknowledge that you got this urge coming on strong. Right? Right now I really have an urge to do X, you don’t try and deny it. You don’t beat yourself up for the fact that you have this urge. There’s no judgment, there’s no shaming app, you openly acknowledge it. And then C is Connect with your values. Right? So you check in with your values. And you ask yourself those questions. If I act on this urge, will I be acting like the person I want to be? Will this action take my life in the direction I want to go? You let your values guide your action, and then T, Take effective action? So if the answer to those questions is no if I act on this urge, it is not going to take me in the direction I want to go. Then you take effective action and maybe that is you know what, I need to get myself to some emotional support. Because this urge is really strong right now. And if I don’t get myself to some effective emotional support. I’m not going to be able to withstand this urge for long. And so with urge surfing we want to use this ACT acronym. So A Accept your thoughts and feelings, C Connect with you values, T Take effective action. And so urge surfing is a really effective tool that we use with ACT and it can be so incredibly helpful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 40:29
And so again, I have a really great resource for you on these skills to help you take action with ACT skills. So head on over to my website to check out the show notes and to get the great resource for this episode. And you can do that by heading to my website at www.drmelissasmith.com forward slash episode dash 76 one more time that’s www.drmelissasmith.com forward slash, episode dash 76 I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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