Using ACT As a Tool To Recognize Behavior Patterns

orange paper boat sailing away from fleet of white paper boats

​By Jessica Borushock, PhD 

Many of my clients come in initially wanting some specific “thing” that will fix their problems: they want to simply do X action and get Y result.

I imagine my clients are not unique in this. We live in a world of fad solutions to our problems, where with every moment something new and shiny vows to change our lives for the better. “Just do this one thing,” it promises. Until the next thing comes along.

I’ve noticed many therapists who use ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) in their practice struggle to find balance in providing tangible strategies for clients while staying true to the approach.

See also: Mindfulness, A Practical Tool for Connecting With Clients

ACT therapists say to me that ACT is too abstract, that their clients demand more instant or solid ways to change their life and world, and they don’t know how to bridge the skills or exercises clients want with the intangibles of the ACT model. They feel stuck.

From my point of view, ACT provides therapists with the most effective tool of all: the ability to recognize our (behavioral) patterns.

Therapy can often get prescriptive: exercise more, modify sleep habits, use this meditation app. While these strategies can be incredibly helpful for clients, we’d be remiss if this was our first and only step. Why? Because just like a fad, it only works in this moment, perhaps only for one limited challenge.

Creating a context where clients need to come back over and over again when anything changes in their world is like seeing a large, gaping wound and slapping on a bandaid. It slows down the flow, but it doesn’t truly heal, or transform, the issue. And with any small change, or the passing of time, that bandaid starts to lose its stickiness. It falls off, it fails, and the client is still left with a wound.

So how do we meet the needs of our clients while still helping them adapt to anything that comes their way?

We help them recognize patterns. 

By training clients how to identify patterns of responding to painful content, exploring patterns of avoidance, and starting the practice of interrupting those patterns, we are handing over the means to close that wound. We are giving them tools to achieve anything they want in life, not just get through this moment.

Our job as therapists is to learn ways to teach, describe, solidify the abstract into our very own tool box (or medical kit) so clients can address any issue big or small.

I explain to my clients that noticing patterns is the most important tool of all, so they understand if they can nail this practice down, they can begin to make values guided decisions when painful stuff shows up–whether that’s choosing to exercise more, modify sleep habits, practice a meditation app or a million other actions that might help them meet their goals.

I do this most through the Life Map, an adaptation of The ACT Matrix. Using a tool like the Life Map is helpful because it:

1) Provides a visual aid to make the abstract concrete.

2) Creates a reference point to come back to over and over again as a way to demonstrate that while one action won’t work for every problem, understanding the function of behavior and the patterns they create can help you choose what action to take time and time again.

When you and your clients take that first step in recognizing patterns, the world will open up. Your clients will have tools to meet any challenge, rather than simply trying one fad, slapping on a bandaid, and hoping that this time it sticks.