In the west, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the goal of life is to be happy. Therefore it’s not at all surprising that the majority of us struggle with negative feelings when they inevitably emerge. But in spite of the promises of an ever growing collection of products that promise us happiness, there is virtually no evidence that we are getting happier overall (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).
In their book, “The CBT Practitioner’s Guide to ACT: How to Bridge the Gap Between Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,” Joseph Ciarrochi, Ph.D., and Ann Bailey present an alternative to what they call the “happiness-control agenda.”
The goal of their approach is to help clients (and ideally ourselves, too) let go of the agenda to seek perpetual happiness in favor of a way of living that allows space for difficult feelings while still pursuing what matters most to us. This is called radical acceptance.
“Once we let go of our attempts to directly make ourselves happier, then we can free up our energy for other things. We no longer have to avoid things that are stressful or that risk disappointment. We can learn to carry our distressing emotions with us and pursue our most deeply held values,” write Ciarrochi and Bailey.
Ciarrochi and Bailey suggest Socratic questioning as an effective way to guide clients toward radical acceptance. The questions aim to help people see the ways they attempt to control their internal experiences, to examine how well those strategies have worked for them and to open up to the possibility of greater willingness to experience the full gamut of human feelings, not just the pleasant ones.
Allowing clients to answer these questions on their own produces a much different result from simply telling them that their attempts to control their internal experiences are fruitless.
“Once clients realize how much time and energy they have wasted trying to control their experiences, and how much they have given up (for example, valued activity) to control those experiences, they will be in a better position to let go of the control strategies. They will be more prepared to try the alternative, that is, willingness to have whatever private experience shows up in the service of their values and goals,” Ciarrochi and Bailey write.
The following questions, which are excerpted with permission from Ciarrochi and Bailey’s book are meant to guide clients toward a greater willingness to experience the feelings that challenge them.
1. What do others tell you to do when you feel bad?
When clients begin to realize how common it is for others to encourage us to control our feelings, they’re able to see how pervasive this happiness agenda really is. They’re also able to see that such strategies are normal and understandable. This awareness will boost the likelihood that they will readily identify and admit to the ways they attempt to control their feelings in their own lives.
2. What have you been struggling with?
In this question, the client is asked to take a close look at their own internal experience. This might include anxious thoughts like, “I’m going to get fired from my job,” or “my boyfriend is going to break up with me.” They may also include difficult physical sensations, like shortness of breath or tightening in the chest often associated with panic.
Asking this question allows for an immediate opportunity for clients to begin practicing acceptance. Notice if the client begins to engage in behaviors meant to escape from what they’re experiencing, like making a joke or changing the subject. If they do, gently guide them back to the present moment and the feelings they’d described.
3. How have you tried to get over it?
This question asks clients to identify the ways in which they’ve attempted to manage (or control) the thoughts and feelings that challenge them. There may be many different strategies they use or only a few. Encourage them to name as many as they can; this will help them see how pervasive such strategies can become when left unchecked.
Ciarocchi and Bailey emphasize the importance of distinguishing between attempts to control that are rooted in experiential avoidance (such as using substances, binge eating sugary foods or working exceptionally long hours) and strategies that are constructive and solution-focused (such as seeking advice from a friend, making an appointment with a doctor, or researching a particular issue).
4. How well have these things worked in the short run/long run?
Here, clients are introduced to the notion of workability. Ask the client to think about how well a strategy has worked for them, and whether it has provided a long or short term solution to that with which they struggle.
It’s important at this point to maintain a nonjudgmental tone. Rather than imply explicitly or subtly that the strategy doesn’t work, the client will be best served by coming to that realization on their own.
5. What have you given up because of your struggles?
This question represents the threshold into helping the client begin to identify what matters most to him. Let the client know that you understand the desire to get rid of hard feelings. If necessary, reiterate that this urge to escape unpleasant feelings is a normal human response, but one that can inhibit our ability to pursue what truly matters to us.
6. Why do you try so hard to change what you think and feel?
Here, you can help the client explore and better understand what motivates them to try to avoid their feelings. Ciarrochi and Bailey write:
You might want to (1) get clients to identify when, in their lives, control was taught or modeled by others, (2) explore whether clients believe that control works for other people (and therefore it should be easy for them), and (3) give examples of when control works well in the outside world but not so well in the inside world of our minds.
It may be helpful to provide an example that compares the way we use control in our physical world (adjusting the thermostat when we feel too hot or too cold) and the way we attempt to do the same with our internal worlds.
7. Why is changing your thoughts and feelings so hard?
This question is designed to bring clients into contact with the futile nature of experiential control. There are a number of acceptance and commitment therapy metaphors that effectively communicate our limited capacity to control our thoughts and feelings. A fantastic resource for therapeutic metaphors is “The Big Book of ACT Metaphors.”
8. If trying to change what you think and feel doesn’t work, then what can you do?
Finally, you will introduce the options of willingness and acceptance as alternatives to the aforementioned control strategies. While we may not have the option to pick and choose when painful internal experiences may occur, we can always choose willingness to experience them when they do arise. Radical acceptance is always an option.
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