A favorite movie of mine is Saving Private Ryan. Be warned that it is very violent but I would say it is in no way gratuitous. Anyway, there is a scene in the movie where the group of soldiers on the mission to save Private Ryan are faced with a dilemma – whether to kill an unarmed German soldier they have captured who has just killed their friend in combat or to release him because they cannot take him with them. It is an emotional scene highlighting the gray area of the battlefield where up and down are not always as they seem. The Captain played by Tom Hanks ends debate when he orders the prisoner to be released and sent away explaining that it would compromise who they are as people to do otherwise. However, it comes with a high price because later in the movie the same German soldier takes the life of another member of their squad.
The Captain’s decision was the right one. But the cost highlights how ineffective it is to send away a problem without full resolution. My own experience in counseling at the VA introduced me to this concept and caused me to investigate the value of a therapeutic approach called ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy). For some time in my life I would “send away” or suppress difficult memories with ineffective solutions that created more problems. And, because I’m human I still do so from time to time. However, the tools I learned in ACT have brought me great relief and I have since taken time to better understand the therapeutic approach to share it with those with whom I work.
Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of treatment that helps people observe their thoughts and emotions without judgment (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wison 1999). From a spiritual lens, the apostle Paul says it this way, “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The basic idea is to identify your values and take action, regardless of your internal state (your thoughts or feelings). Acceptance and commitment therapy does not focus on trying to change thoughts or feelings, but it does emphasize how changing your behavior can help you live a happier life. This type of therapy helps you develop psychological flexibility.
In everyday language psychological flexibility means holding our own thoughts or emotions a bit more lightly and acting on longer term values rather than short term impulses. If we trust every thought or emotion without “taking it captive” and interrogating it we can often overlook more important sustained patterns of action which bring true meaning. Acceptance and Commitment therapy is based on the following assumptions:
- We can learn to observe our thoughts, emotions, and traumatic memories without becoming overly involved in their content.
- Accepting our thoughts and feelings reduces our emotional suffering because we are not trying (in vain) to change our internal states.
- Mindfulness (which can incorporate your own spiritual disciplines if you have some) is a skill that can help you as you practice acceptance.
- Who you are is separate from your thoughts or actions. Some people might call this their soul or essence.
- It is important to identify what you truly value and then work to act in ways that are in line with those values.
If you think this approach to handling your anxiety, traumatic memories, addictive behaviors or other concern could change your life like it has for thousands of others, please contact me.
Hayes, S.C., K. Strosahl, and K.G. Wilson. 1999. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: Guilford Press.