In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it’s important to make committed actions based on your values. And just before writing this, I was thinking about the sacredness of life and how it’s so important to protect. But suddenly in the kitchen there was a swarm of ants, and I wanted nothing more than to commit a mass genocide via chemical warfare. That’s the tricky thing about values, they are flexible and they can change moment to moment.
And that’s a huge challenge right? The me of 30 seconds before seeing the swarm had a really different perspective on the sanctity of life than the version of me facing the swarm. ACT promotes ongoing non-judgmental contact with internal and external environmental events as they occur, so I can observe and describe the experience of homicidal rage towards ants –I experience muscle tension, it’s a hot energy, my mind blames of the ants for not having a nice apartment, and it presents images as borax- as ongoing internal events. Meanwhile my external environment I see thousands of ants working in dangerous conditions to try to bring food back to their family, a dirty counter top, and notice that it’s 70 degrees in the apartment. I didn’t notice the calming feeling of the air until I took that time to step back and ask myself “what’s happening in this moment?”
ACT also teaches that we should accept reality for what it is, without avoidance if we can. My rage towards the blasted ants won’t change the fact that there are no potted plants inside my home (even though my partner and I removed them because they kept building colonies inside them), it will only serve to feed my rage and take me away from present moment awareness. If I look at the facts, the fact is, there are a bunch of ants clinging to the free food left for them like good scavengers, and I am experiencing the desire that they would not be here.
ACT also teaches the concept of cognitive defusion, which is a fancy way of saying recognizing that my unhelpful thoughts are just thoughts, and not necessarily reality. My experience of such a thought in this moment comes from the weighty experience of judgment labeling myself a murderer and therefor a bad person for the act of ant-homicide I’m about to commit. But labeling myself as a potential murderer and a bad person doesn’t help me at all, it just serves to create my own set of psychic torture. I can be someone who both respects the sanctity of life in one moment, and wants to end life of a different species I’ve labeled as vermin the next moment. My mindbody has the ability to hold these two seemingly mutually exclusive ideas or even behaviors – I am a healer after all – and I don’t need to label things in an all-or-nothing context.
Another tenant of ACT is recognizing the self as context. I’m the territorial creature who wants to protect my home. I’m also a moral thinking creature that wants to act in the best manner. I also exist in a culture where extermination of other creatures by chemical warfare is totally legit. I also recognize that though I exist in such a culture, I need not engage by my cultures rules given that historically most cultures tend to get some things wrong when it comes interpersonal or inter-species relations. When I take time to look at myself in different contexts, I can see why I can have seemingly conflicting motivations.
How I choose to respond to the hoard of ants in my home, whether via chemical warfare, cleaning, or some other method, is up to me. If I connect with the present moment, my values, see myself in the context I exist in, engage in cognitive defusion, accept reality for what it is and then make a committed action based on my awareness of those factors, I can make my best choice possible that is true to me and my values. These 6 factors are the basis of Acceptance Commitment Therapy and aid in developing cognitive flexibility, accepting the bad, good, and everything in between, and living by our own values.