What Does “Mastery” in ACT Mean?

In part 1 of this 7-part interview, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainers, Robyn Walser, PhD, and Emily Sandoz, PhD discuss what it means to master ACT.

Emily: Hi guys, welcome to Praxis TV. My name is Emily Sandoz. I have been involved in ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy for some time. I’m an associate professor at University of Lafayette and a member of a training community and the executive board at ACBS and the editor and chief of the journal of contextual behavior and science. I’m really excited to be here today with Robyn.

Robyn: Hi Emily, I’m Robyn Walser and have been a member of ACBS since its inception, which is a long time ago now, I’m not even sure the number of years, 15 or 17. I’ve been doing and participating in ACT since 1991 and really enjoy the work and being part of the community and I’m excited about he opportunity to do a little bit of conversation on Praxis TV.

Emily: Yeah, and one of the things that you’ve done that stands out for me, Robyn, is that you’ve done a lot of presentations on supervision and training. That’s been a big part of your professional activities, is that right?

Robyn: Yeah, correct. I’ve been looking at you know how to guide people into using ACT fluidly and so have done a fair amount of supervision across the years. Training in how do you take act and bring it into a clinical setting, and so I’ve been quite invested in that particular issue.

Emily: Right. So, for me and related to our topic today, our topic today is how do we bring people to mastery in acceptance and commitment therapy, and what does mastery mean? How are we doing at that? For me the experience that comes up is, having worked with Dr. Wilson for my graduate training, he does a lot of training and I ended up kind of following him around a lot and I would be able to watch people from the very beginning come in wanting this kind of didactic, how is this different from what I am doing or what is the theory, or give me some tools I can go home and use and what Kelly did was not that. So what they would have is this experience. What Kelly and I would talk about in debriefing is who got what we wanted out of it and how could we tell? How could we see from the outside and did that even mean they were going to go home to their offices and do something different with their clients? I think was where my interest in training and more specifically training in mastery came up. So what is mastery mean to us?

Robyn: I think that is a really good question and haven’t been well defined. I remember when I first started first workshop days with Steve and diving into ACT and what was it all about and really feeling an experiential connection to it. And feeling moved by the work in it and quite liking this idea that human beings are not broken because they have certain kinds of thoughts, that they’re not dysfunctional and irrational because a thought keeps reoccurring and really came to appreciate that notion. And quite liked the idea of being open to your experience and human beings have a lot of different experiences, joy and pain, and being able to connect to those without needing to run away was very moving. And then taking that experience and translating it into the therapy room was not as easy a task. How do you go from feeling connected and moved by something to fluently implementing functional analysis and the core behaviors? It was not an easy task.

Emily: Yeah. It turns out just going in and telling people about it was not, you know, giving them rules to follow or explaining, I mean all of those things I think were my efforts early on to make enough sense of the experiential training I had to convey that to people and seeing very quickly it didn’t translate into any behavior change, at least it didn’t seem to.

Robyn: Yeah I think that across the years people have been talking about how important a functional analysis of behavior is and I know that there are some great books on it and but I don’t think is that you necessarily get that in the trainings, although these days I think trainings are moving closer to that. And so when I think about what is mastery I think about being able to fluently implement the six core processes. And bringing it to whatever is contextually showing up in the room at this moment without just resorting to a technique or rule as you just mentioned. You are able to rapidly do a functional analysis looking for patterns of behavior and implement the core processes ultimately creates psychological flexibility seamlessly. That’s sort of one way I think about mastery. How do you think about mastery?

Emily: Yeah the same way. So you said a couple of times seamlessly and fluidly and that idea of there being not an interruption. Not an, “okay let’s try and exercise.” And that’s coming up because I have no idea of what to say next. The way that I described it to someone once is that they asked me whether it is directive or not and it was a very early – psychotherapy was the class I believe – and it was another student that was asking and knew I had some experience in ACT and asked if it was directive or is it nondirective. Just thinking about the experts that I had seen because I was a very novice therapist and I think when people have expertise in ACT it’s like they are directive, they’re definitely running the room, but their clients wouldn’t know it if that makes sense. It doesn’t feel like the client is waiting for them to pass the ball back or waiting for the next instruction or the next thing to happen to them. The client’s experience is one of a gentle sort of flowing conversation that touches on some hard things and hopefully if the person is sort of exhibiting that expert mastery that they are interacting with those difficult things and I think that’s what we mean by flexibility. I don’t even know that the clients could point to a particular thing that caused them to see it differently that day or to feel it or have more openness or more of a diffused way of observing those thoughts. I don’t know if they would know what caused their flexibility and I think that there’s something in mastery about that. Not doing it to them but with them, but still definitely in charge of the context that’s producing the behavior.

Join Master ACT Trainer, Robyn Walser, PhD, to Learn a More Flexible Application of ACT!