You Got A Problem?

People are problem solvers. If something gives us pain, we will find a way to get rid of it or avoid it. When the hornet’s nest shows up over your front door, you will either find a way to remove it or you will start using the back door.  Because humans problem solve so well, we have civilization. We solve the problems of not enough shelter, food and water, and too much ignorance and sewage and too many enemies. As civilization grows the problems do too. If we solve them our civilization gets to survive. If we ignore them, maybe they will go away, or maybe another civilization will come along some time to take our place.

On an individual level, we try the same thing on our psyches. If we have an emotional pain, we either try to fix it or we try to avoid it. If you are stressed out, you might drink a lot of alcohol to help you relax and forget. If your neighbor bugs you, you might walk the other way when you see him coming. You might avoid leaving the house so you don’t have to deal with him. If those strategies work well in the short run, you might do them some more. In time, these avoidance patterns may become habit or addiction. The down side of drinking too much or being afraid to leave the house can ruin one’s life and eliminate the possibility of real happiness.

When we become phobic of our own emotional experience, we find ourselves in a dilemma where the strategy we use to avoid emotional discomfort is the thing that keeps us from being happier. The solution here is to increase our ability to recognize when our avoidance is getting in the way and to find more effective problem solving. These are the goals of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (referred to as ACT), which is a mindfulness based cognitive behavior therapy. According to an article by Russell Harris, MD, suffering is reduced by developing psychological flexibility. ACT uses six principles to this end. They are:

Defusion, which means being able to observe the language we use in our thoughts and not be fused with the thoughts. Fusion is used here in the sense of being melted together. In ordinary consciousness, we may forget that we are not our thoughts. We tend to over-identify with them.  If I tell myself that I can’t handle a situation, I feel like I can’t. If I notice that “I just had the thought that I can’t handle this,” I may experience some distance from that thought. I have defused from it.

The second ACT principle is Acceptance, which means “making room for unpleasant feelings, sensation, urges, and other private experiences; allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them or giving them undo attention.” (Harris)

The third principle is Contact With The Present Moment. This is basic mindfulness. Being in touch with one’s own experience, not avoiding it or over-interpreting it, but being engaged in the Now.

Fourth is The Observing Self.  This is recognition that thoughts arise in our minds and that the mind also witnesses the thoughts arising. We are not just our thoughts, but are also the observer of them.

The fifth principle is Values. “Clarifying what is most important, deep in your heart; what sort of person you want to be; what is significant and meaningful to you;  and what you want to stand for in this life.” (Harris)

The sixth principle is Committed Action. Once you recognize your own values, you set goals and take action to achieve them.

So ACT gets us into a healthier problem solving mode in which we are paying attention, allowing our experience to occur without being overrun by our aversions and cutting through false identifications with the products of our mind. It encourages us to act with intention.

If you would like to further explore ACT methods of self-help, you might be interested in the workbook “Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life,” by Seven C. Hayes, PhD with Spence Smith.


Russell Harris. “Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” Psychotherapy in Australia Vol. 12, No. 4, August 2006.

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