Dealing with negative thoughts: the ACT perspective

Sorry the post is so long, but I haven’t written anything for five months šŸ˜€ I’m making a return to posting by picking up the same theme I left off with: the possibility of actively changing your thought patterns and beliefs.

In addition to the book I mentioned in my last post:

I’ve now read another couple of relevant books:

The second of these is based around Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which attracted my interest as it claims to be scientifically backed; it seems to incorporate mindfulness and elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), both of which have been shown to be effective at giving you control over your automatic thinking. The book is annoying in some respects, not least in its bold assertion of ACT’s uniqueness and its continual rubbishing of other strategies – annoying when I’m trying to put different ideas on the same table and see where they overlap or complement each other as well as to clarify any conflicts. This biased trumpet-blowing seems typical of self-help writing, though; I guess it’s a competitive marketplace…

The Chimp Paradox was even worse; a writing style dumbed down to the point of actually obscuring the points it tries to make, and a lot of cute metaphors of chimps and gremlins, computers, autopilots and so on, that – as far as I could tell – doesn’t actually amount to anything original or deep. Its method seems to boil down to essentially the same principle as CBT: using reason to challenge distressing thoughts. This is mostly what I’ve been trying to do. And, I’ve come to think, it’s essentially what Iā€™ve always been doing in my private diaries. Itā€™s really just a natural mental process, in a way; we all have reason, and we try our best to use it to keep our thoughts in check. Self-aware people are already slogging away at CBT before they even know about it. The main benefit of talking therapies, as I see it, is to have an outsiderā€™s perspective to help identify wrong thinking – not to teach you how to reason (which you already know, and which clearly hasn’t helped much if you’re getting therapy).

So I’ve come to accept that change is a lot harder than it looks. I used to look back over my diaries and feel ashamed that I was still struggling with the same issues despite repeatedly “reasoning them out”. Now, I sympathise with myself; I see only a mammoth effort, a valiant and braveĀ attempt to change things in the face of terrible odds, and I don’t see it as a failure. I am wrestling hard with my mind and my mind is unfortunately winning a lot of the time. It’s not my fault. But why? Why the constant battle? Why, after all these months of writing, am I still falling into the same negative unhelpful thoughts and feeling awful?

The ACT book likensĀ changing your thought patterns to learning a new language and trying to stop using your native one. Apparently neuroscience has shown that new thought patterns are laid on top of the old, and do not replace or erase them. One thing I do love about the book is its no-nonsense debunking of popular self-help myths; I suppose this has helped as much as anything. It’s validating to be shown (with evolutionary arguments) that the mind naturally produces negative thoughts, and that it isn’t possible – or necessary – to stop it. I also rejoiced at the citing of a pile of evidence that self-esteem isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (you can read an article on this here). I suppose one consequence of our cultural optimism about self-help is the disappointment and shame that comes when we struggle. You ought to increase your self-esteem; you ought to get rid of that negative thinking. Well, no, actually – and perhaps these expectations are making it all worse.

I’m not saying that nothing can or should be done to improve one’s condition. Just that I’m bloody tired of debating with myself over my thoughts, trying in vain to get them to change with real conviction, and that lowering my expectations has felt beneficial. One ACT idea that does seem helpful to me is simply to practise identifying your recurring thoughts,Ā recognising the same old unhelpful mental broadcasts like a radio show – with a sense of humour, even. A bit like spotting a bird that you remember because you sketched it in a notebook the last time you saw it – “Aha, it’s the blue-footed booby again!”. Where ACT differs from CBT is that it doesnā€™t try to replace that thought with another; instead it puts the emphasis on ‘de-fusing’ yourself from the thought. Seeing the thought as an event that you can just observe, like a leaf passing down a stream. Feelings are similarly treated by ‘expansion’ – making room for them to be there, without judging them as a problem and wrestling with them. Mark Tyrrell similarly suggests asking the question: ā€œAm I reacting to something in my imagination, or something in reality?ā€ Even just realising that your mind is throwing up things to torture you would probably mean you have already de-fused from those things, separated yourself a little bit from them. Why is this helpful? Ultimately so you can avoid acting on it; so you can get enough of a moment of sanity to remember whatā€™s important and act on that instead. Difficult thoughts and feelings are only a problem insofar as they sweep us up into their grasp.

My conclusion is that itā€™s very hard to overcome problematic thinking patterns, and mostly that’s OKĀ ā€“ no-one is without problems,Ā and yet we somehow manage to carry on our lives. What I’m going to put my efforts into now is a quiet combination of (1)Ā identification and de-fusion from troublesome thoughts, and (2) yes, practising new, more helpful thought patterns ā€“ soĀ that thereā€™s something better that might be able to jump in in that moment of sanity. IĀ think seeing it as a new ā€œlanguageā€ is the right analogy though, as there can be no expectation that unhelpful thoughts will ever dry up. And they donā€™t need to if you have a way of dealing with them.

This entry was posted in meditation, personal reflection, science, self-improvement, suffering. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Dealing with negative thoughts: the ACT perspective

  1. Marahm says:

    I’ve been smiling all the way through your post. Much of what you say is true and nothing more than common sense, but most of us are in perennial denial of common sense. I am sixty-two, and I never imagined (at the age of thirty) that I’d still be hashing out the same self-generated negative thoughts, or performing the same self-destructive actions that have plagued me since adolescence. Don’t misunderstand– I am “normal” in the sense that I work, function adequately, and bring happiness into the lives of people I love. I’m even happy, most of the time.

    Ten years ago, I discovered Progoff’s Intensive Journal,, which seemed to offer the silver bullet for smashing obstacles to growth. It works better than most popular self-help techniques, and therefore it is not very popular. It requires a significant commitment from participants, and you have to spend a weekend in group, learning the exercises, but it does go a long way towards the elusive goal.

    • Sarah says:

      I consider myself fairly “normal” too, in the way you describe, although sometimes I don’t feel normal. I guess some people have more of an internal struggle through life than others.

      Thanks for the link. I’ve read through some of the site, and it is intriguing. One thing that has struck me about integrating our life experiences into a coherent whole is that the story we tell can vary greatly depending on our mood, who we’re telling it to, and over time. Storytelling is crafting meaning, in a way. And perhaps it could be transformative to rewrite some of the stories I tell myself about myself.

      • Marahm says:

        You are absolutely correct to observe that our stories vary, depending upon our moods and audiences, and even over time. The Intensive Journal takes that fact into consideration, and shows how our various stories– as well as our mutable stories– reveal aspects of ourselves that are as true as they are consistent. I hope you are inspired to seek out a Journal workshop; I promise you will not be disappointed.

        • Sarah says:

          That’s quite a recommendation! I’ll keep an eye on the site for workshops in the UK – the only dates up there when I looked seemed to be in the past, but I imagine there’ll be more.

          • Marahm says:

            UK? I didn’t realize you were in the UK. There are workshops in Italy and Switzerland, I believe, but those places would be quite a trek, unless you happened to be there anyway for another event. I had to drive two hours to attend my first workshop, but that was OK.

            If you were to gather a group of ten to twenty people, I’m sure Jon Progoff would consider sending the European workshop leader to the UK.

            • Sarah says:

              Aha, I found some in the UK!

              I could maybe go to that one in London. I’m in Edinburgh, Scotland, but London is a cool place to visit šŸ™‚ I’ll do a bit more reading and have a think about it.

              • Marahm says:

                Going some distance to attend a workshop intensifies the experience. Five years ago I went to New Jersey (had to take an airplane) to attend a three-part workshop. That was expensive, but I’d do it again.

                • Sarah says:

                  Marahm, I have booked a place on the workshop šŸ™‚ It seems like it is aimed at just what I need. I am very much in a time of transition – in particular, looking for work that suits me as a whole person, or a way to bring my whole self to my work rather than feeling I have to be someone I’m not in order to succeed. I’m not sure I “get” how the journalling works, but I think it’s worth a try!

                  • Marahm says:

                    Great, Sarah! The journaling works partly because it is done in a group. You’ll be surprised at the intensity of the effort, and the deep mood that grows within the group of people who are doing the same work at the same time.

  2. LK says:

    Nice to have you back! I always had good luck with CBT but this ACT sounds interesting.

  3. susanne430 says:

    Nice to see you again, and I found this really interesting. Thanks for taking time to share it with us!

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