Benjamin Schoendorff, Ph.D. and Kevin Polk, Ph.D. are experienced psychologists and practitioners of acceptance and commitment therapy. During the course of their work, they’ve observed that the complexity of the ACT model can at times be confusing to both clinicians and clients alike. So they set out to develop a tool that would make ACT more simple, approachable, and effective.
Enter: The ACT matrix.
The ACT matrix is two intersecting lines on a piece of paper.
The vertical line represents experience, and is split into sensory experience on the upper half of the line (ex. smells, sounds) and mental experience on the lower half (ex. interpretations of verbal information, thoughts).
The horizontal line represents behavior, and is split between two types of behavior; actions aimed at moving away from unwanted experience (ex. anxious thoughts) and actions aimed at moving toward what’s important (ex. a family member).
Providing a Perspective
The matrix provides a perspective through which we can view our experiences, sort them and ultimately act in a way that is more psychologically flexible even when obstacles like fear, worry or anxiety are present.
As humans, our behavior is motivated by both sensory and mental experiences, but it often requires a concerted effort to differentiate between the two. And this is where the matrix becomes helpful.
With clients, Schoendorff and Polk suggest drawing the diagram on a piece of paper or wipe board and labelling each axis. Then, ask the following five questions to get the client oriented toward looking at their experiences through this perspective.
- Who and what are important to you?
Asking who is important first works best because clients will often find it easy to identify someone right off the bat. Then, ask which things and areas of life are important to them. They may say work, education, physical health, personal development, healing, growth, having fun and so forth.
Ask clients to record their answers to these questions in the lower right quadrant of the diagram.
“Although we often use the word ‘values,’ we rarely if ever use it with clients, as we’ve found that the word can at times be sticky and send clients into their head. We’ve found that referring to who or what is important when we want to point to values is often a more effective way to help clients contact what matters to them,” write Schoendorff and Polk in their new book The Essential Guide to the ACT Matrix: A Step-by-Step Approach to Using the ACT Matrix Model in Clinical Practice.
- What shows up and gets in the way?
When you ask clients whether or not they feel they constantly do things that are moving toward who or what is important to them, they’re probably going to say no. Take this opportunity to tease in a bit of self-disclosure; let them know you don’t always move toward your values either.
Then, get into understanding and identifying the obstacles that make this so in the client’s case.
From the matrix point of view, there are two kinds of obstacles: External obstacles, like geographic factors and other physical limitations and internal obstacles, like thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and so forth.
One example of the latter may be anxious thoughts about going to an event at which a loved one will be performing. Whatever it is that the client shares, have them write it in the lower left quadrant.
Keep in mind that this is jut about orienting the client toward viewing and sorting experiences with the matrix, not about recording every single thing that matters to them, or every obstacle that gets in the way of them moving toward their values. If the matrix works for you and your client, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to use it again as a perspective-taking tool throughout the course of your work together.
- Who is at the center of the point of view?
With this question, you’ll remind clients that they alone are in the driver’s seat when it comes to making choices about who or what matters. You’ll also remind them of the fundamental fact that they are not their experiences, internal or external. They are simply the one noticing such things.
Have them write “Me noticing” at the center of the matrix, and circle it. Remind them that throughout their life, they’ll want to do their best to stay—or bring themselves gently back to—that position of noticer as often as possible.
- What can you typically be seen doing to move away from the unwanted stuff that shows up inside of you?
You’re now moving into the upper half of the matrix.
“In the lower part, you’re talking about stuff no one else can see, like thinking and feeling. It’s helpful to let clients know that the upper part is about what everyone can see us do,” write Schoendorff and Polk.
It may help to give an example here. Such as, you’re scared of dogs so you move to walk on the other side of the street when you pass by a house that you know has one. Clients “away moves” may include things like drinking, smoking marijuana, having casual sex, avoiding interactions with certain people, sleeping or fighting. Have them record their answers in the upper left quadrant of the matrix.
- What can you do to move toward who or what is important?
Finally, you’ll ask clients what they can be seen doing to move toward who or what matters to them. Examples might include visiting, calling, attending an event and so forth. Again, have the client record their answers, in the upper right quadrant.
Building Psychological Flexibility
Often times the same behaviors will show up on both sides of the upper half of the matrix, as both “away moves” and “toward moves.” This is an opportunity to remind clients that they are the only ones who can choose or notice who and what is important to them, and the only ones who can identify whether or not their behavior is truly moving away or toward those things.
Once clients have done this exercise, you’ve opened the door to building psychological flexibility through this perspective. Then, you can ask clients if they’d prefer a life on the left side of the matrix—in which what they do is mostly about moving away from obstacles—or the right side of the matrix—in which their actions are aimed toward moving closer to who and what are important to them.
If you’d like more information about using the ACT matrix in sessions, check out The Essential Guide to the ACT Matrix: A Step-byb-Step Approach to Using the ACT Matrix Model in Clinical Practice.
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