With no previous ACT training, I attended ACT BootCamp Tampa in November along with a diverse mix of mental health professionals, students, and administrators. Even as a beginner, the practical power of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) was not lost on me.
I learned that ACT is a set of tools for living that also happens to be professionally relevant for clinicians. The six core processes of ACT are valuable in any relationship and especially when you are alone with your thoughts.
In an important sense, you leave something at BootCamp. You discover some personal baggage—problematic beliefs, habits, ways of relating—and you let it go. After 4 days and 32 hours of training, here is what I left in Tampa:
The personal barrier
First of all, you may think that you are going to BootCamp to enhance your work with clients—and that does follow—but surprise! You are there to work on yourself. Trainer Robyn Walser, PhD, explained to us that “part of doing [ACT] well is bringing it into your life.” ACT is about the necessary self-work it takes to connect with those who are suffering, to be an example of self-compassion, and to live your values in the face of whatever distressing thing may happen to you.
The BootCamp experience can and should be personal, but that does not require you to disclose personal information. With that said, the most illuminating client/therapist role playing exercises I witnessed were with those who chose to bring their own struggles into the client role. There was a noticeable depth to these connections—in the personal investment, the compassion extended from the therapist, and the sense of real progress. It was easy to see how a degree of vulnerability can make a critical difference.
The burden of competence
BootCamp trainer and co-founder Steve Hayes, PhD, explained that when we believe there is a right answer and we fail to find it, the human instinct is to defend against the appearance of incompetence. In a therapeutic relationship, this response from a therapist signals to the client that what they’ve been doing is okay. It’s an endorsement of the client’s defensive avoidance. As BootCampers, we were asked to think about our own methods of running, fighting, and hiding, and what we are willing to feel. “Give up on the right answer or the right next step,” Steve assured us. “The measure of your success is not how good you are. It’s how flexible is the space?” I was convinced that we have to let go of managing the appearance of competence in the service of genuine connection.
Tom Szabo, PhD, BCBA, describes the next small group role-play.
The rush to problem solve
The rush to problem solve was explained as a way for therapists to manage their own discomfort with a client’s pain. Trainer Kelly Wilson believes that clients are better served and respected when they are treated as a “sunset to be appreciated” rather than a problem to be solved. See if you can let go of asking and answering questions, Kelly suggested. “Let go of progress a bit.” Don’t rush questions. “Inhabit” them. “Important things show up when you slow down and get out of problem-solving mode.” And they did. We saw how a simple breath is a good way to pause, slow down, and stop scrambling for answers.
The elimination game
Like other people, I had the naïve belief that it was a therapist’s job to make bad feelings go away. This expectation is so ingrained that even mental health professionals internalize it and feel its pressure.
An integral part of ACT is the recognition that we hurt where we care: our greatest joys and values are behind our greatest pain. To love deeply is to risk deep suffering and loss. There is no way around it, explained Robyn. “If you are living your values, guess what you’re going to feel? Pain.”
Creative hopelessness in ACT is taking what is superficially the barrier and making it the opportunity. From a therapeutic perspective, only because you have known pain can you sit with others in their pain, appreciate its gravity, and honor it. Don’t wish that away, said Kelly. You are in possession of the instrument you need. “Not you minus this,” as he put it. You.
In fact, we can lose vitality in the pursuit of happiness. Steve cited research that shows that the chronically depressed avoid joy just as much as they avoid sadness. Joy and sadness are so closely connected that the risk of sadness can be too great to risk joy. BootCampers were invited to let go of feeling better in favor of “feeling our feelings better.”
The control agenda
Less is more! I love this and other ACT directives where I get to do less and things get better. This is a big one for people who enjoy being “responsible” or feel responsible for the behavior of others. You may think that your methods of control are holding everything together, but it turns out that they are usually part of the problem.
If you are not overtly trying to control your unruly problem, you are worrying about it, trying to figure it out, crack its code. Robyn explained that “control works in small and limited ways. When you stop trying to manage the problem, to control it, to take responsibility for the outcome, something will show up. I don’t know what will happen if you do, but I have a sense of what will happen if you don’t.” This is a difficult one, but Robyn advises, “Don’t give [control] one more minute. Just breathe the loss.”
Waiting for something to be different
I am good at excuse making and fault finding, so when Robyn shared that “Getting it right is a powerful motivation for avoidance,” that really stuck with me. We were asked to consider the cost of our avoidance. What has been the cost of tabling your life? What stories have you been telling yourself to support your avoidant behavior?
Robyn captured the hope and courage that we should insist on: “I don’t refer to clients as fragile. They are absolutely capable. Something can be done. Even the smallest thing. If you are waiting for cognitive change, good luck. Act with your feet, not your mind.” The point is that you may not feel ready for change, and you are not going to get it right. You’re going to struggle and ultimately learn.
Who is BootCamp for?
The running joke at BootCamp was, “We’re going to take a break and come back for some more suffering.” It was funny and not sad because we knew that it was a productive, welcome kind of suffering. All of us were taking the time to really get somewhere new. BootCamp is a personal investment in a big leap forward for anyone who is ready.
ACT BootCamp is for students, new practitioners, and established mental health professionals from different traditions. I also met ACT veterans who wanted to practice “walking the talk” and receive feedback on how to approach clients with unique challenges. I met administrators who wanted to be better leaders and behavior analysts who wanted to incorporate ACT into their scope of work. Everyone at BootCamp was engaged because ACT is much more than a professional tool. BootCamp is for everyone because ACT is for everyone.
If you can find your way to Nashua in November, do yourself a favor and register for ACT BootCamp. Have a look at your own baggage and leave it there.
By Abby McLean, Former PRAXIS Blog Editor