Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is about acknowledging our emotions from a non-judgmental standpoint, which equips the person to better handle uncomfortable emotional states. Impartial acceptance of emotions is very important with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Instead of “I shouldn’t feel sad; I need to be strong”, ACT would reframe the statement as, “I feel sad right now, and that’s okay.” To be clear, ACT isn’t about suppressing or eliminating painful emotions, but being mindful and comfortable with those difficult emotions. The goal is to acknowledge our emotions, accept them without judgment, and let them pass through us. Here is an exercise that helps facilitate that.
ACT Exercise for Accepting and Being Mindful of Your Emotions
Grab a sheet of paper and two different colored pens. Next, create two columns on your paper with the one on the left titled, “How I Currently Feel.” After you’ve set a timer for 2 minutes, write down every emotion that you’re currently experiencing. There’s no judgment with this activity, so feel free to write down whatever pops into your mind. Simply try to complete this statement, “I currently feel…” If you find yourself stuck, think back to the basic 4 emotions: mad, glad, sad, scared. Once the two minutes are up, you are going to move to the next section.
The next column will be titled, “How I’m Going to Feel.” As the name implies, this section will be about your predicted emotions. Take your current situation, but imagine that it’s two weeks later. Which feelings will you still hold, which ones do you think will fade away? Just like the previous section, take 2 minutes to write down whatever comes to your mind.
Try to be fair during this section. It’s possible that you’ll still feel sad, irritated, or nervous with the given situation. If you truly foresee yourself feeling those emotions, definitely write them down. You’re not shooting for optimism or pessimism, but realism. If you are having issues imaging this transition from your current emotions to your future ones, try asking yourself these questions:
- “Given the situation, how would my friend feel two weeks later?”
- “What is a realistic prediction of how I will feel?”
- “Am I minimizing or maximizing my future feelings?”
- “How have I acted in the past concerning this issue or a similar one?”
- “How will things improve within two weeks?”
- “What will stay the same?”
A non-judgmental, honest assessment of your emotions connects to the main goal of this exercise.
Goal of ACT Exercise
It’s easy to believe that how we currently feel is how we will always feel. However, emotions are fleeting. What seems embarrassing in the moment can be a funny story in the future. Writing down how you feel increases your mindfulness, allowing you to better accept your emotional experience. Following this, writing down how you will feel in the future reminds you of the passing nature of emotions. Doing these actions in conjunction allows you to feel and acknowledge your emotions, without being overwhelmed by them.
Sometimes, life can be truly challenging. The last thing that we want to do is minimize those adversities. At the same time, maximizing them isn’t helpful, either. The goal is to accept our experiences for what they truly are. Once we do that, we are in a better position to guide our life in the ways that we want. Let’s make this ACT exercise clearer by providing an example. After her partner broke up with her, “Vanessa” decided to do the exercise.
|How I Feel||How I Will Feel|
|Hurt||Still sad, but not as much|
Understanding the Transition from How You Feel to How You Will Feel
A core tenet of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is holding a non-judgmental, honest view of one’s emotions. People have a tendency to either maximize (e.g., “This is the worst problem ever!”) or minimize their lived experiences (e.g., “This isn’t a problem; everything is fine!”). When predicting how you will feel for the exercise, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy would encourage you to be honest and realistic with your emotions. Regarding Vanessa, is it realistic to expect her to be completely over her ex within two weeks? At the same time, will she feel as devastated two weeks after the breakup as she was the first night?
An old axiom is that time heals all wounds. However, time isn’t always enough. Sometimes, we need a small shift in our perspective to engender positive change. We can get stuck in our emotions, erroneously believing that they are permanent. To break free of that, back up your beliefs with evidence. What’s the data that supports your predicted emotions? Once again, the goal isn’t to be overly optimistic or pessimistic, but realistic. Another way to fairly predict your feelings is to imagine a loved one in your position. How would you react to their situation? How do you expect them to feel in the future? To reiterate, an honest, non-judgmental assessment of your emotions gives you the tools to shape your life in the way that you desire. Think about it this way: if I want to fine tune my car, I first need an accurate assessment of what’s good and what needs improving. This connects with the example with Vanessa.
As you can see, Vanessa will still hold difficult emotions in the future. However, this is normal, and a fair assessment of her situation. Her partner broke up with her; therefore, she is going to need time to recover from that. To be clear, this activity is not to convince you that everything will magically be better in the future. Life will always have its challenges. However, through a non-judgmental assessment of our emotions, we may learn that our challenges aren’t permanent. This then gives us the strength to shape our lives in the way that we want.
To locate an ACT therapist contact 215 922 5683 x 100 at The Center for Growth and locate a therapist near me.