When most of us run into obstacles with how we think and approach the world — whether in terms of dealing with mental health issues like depression and anxiety or simply making progress with our relationships and work, we typically try to focus in on solving the perceived problem, or we run away from it. In either case, instead of feeling better, we feel more stuck.
My guest today says we need to free ourselves from these instincts and our default mental programming and learn to just sit with our thoughts, and even turn towards those which hurt the most. His name is Steven Hayes and he’s a professor of psychology, the founder of ACT — Acceptance and Commitment Therapy — and the author of over 40 books, including his latest A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters. Steven and I spend the first part of our conversation in a very interesting discussion as to why traditional interventions for depression and anxiety — drugs and talk therapy — aren’t very effective in helping people get their minds right, and how ACT takes a different approach to achieving mental health. We then discuss the six skills of psychological flexibility that undergird ACT and how these skills can be used not only by those dealing with depression and anxiety but by anyone who wants to get out of their own way and show up and move forward in every area of their lives.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How depression and anxiety have typically been managed in the West
- What do anti-depressant drugs do to our body?
- The pros and cons of traditional talk therapy
- What makes ACT different from talk therapy?
- Who is the dictator within? What does it sound like?
- Why your feelings shouldn’t just be ignored
- Defusing your thoughts
- How do you learn to see the perspective of others?
- Using ACT to deal with anxiety
- Using this method to boost job performance and leadership skills
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AoM series on male depression
- Inflammation, Saunas, and the New Science of Depression
- The Meaning, Manifestations, and Treatments for Anxiety
- How to Activate Your Brain’s Happy Chemicals
- Action Over Feelings
- AoM series on resilience
- The Upside of Your Dark Side
- The Rationality of Emotions
- Why Emotions Are Better Than Willpower in Achieving Your Goals
- 4 Myths About Men and Emotion
- Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics
- Steven’s TED Talk
- How the Hero’s Journey Can Help You Become a Better Man
- Get Out of Your Mind
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When most of us run into obstacles with how we think and approach the world, whether in terms of dealing with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, or simply making progress with our relationships at work, we typically try to focus in on solving the perceived problem, or run away from it. In either case, instead of feeling better, we often feel more stuck. My guest today, says we need to free ourselves from these instincts, and our default mental programming, and learn to just sit with our thoughts, even turn towards those which hurt us the most. His name is Steven Hayes, he’s a Professor of Psychology, and the founder of ACT, it’s A-C-T, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. He’s also the author of over 40 books, including his latest, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.
Steve and I spend the first part of our conversation in a very interesting discussion as to why traditional interventions for depression and anxiety, drugs and talk therapy, aren’t very effective in helping people get their minds right, and how ACT takes a different approach to achieving mental health. We then discuss the six skills of psychological flexibility that undergird ACT, and how these skills can not only be used by those dealing with depression and anxiety, but by anyone, who wants to get out of their own way, and show up, and move forward in every area of their life. After the show is over check out our show notes at aom.is/liberatedmind. Steven joins you now via clearcast.io.
Alright, Steven Hayes. Welcome to the show.
Steven Hayes: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So, you are the originator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and author of the book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Towards What Matters, and acceptance and commitment therapy is a way that people… That you people can use to manage what we call mental illness, depression, anxiety, but also can be used for performance enhancement, and other various aspects of their lives. And before we dig into acceptance and commitment therapy, I think it’d be useful to do sort of a short history of how we’ve gone about managing and treating depression and anxiety in the West, because I think that’ll show how ACT is different, A-C-T is different. So, in your book, you talk about broadly in the West there’s been two major ways we’ve gone about treating depression and anxiety. And one is with pharmaceuticals or drugs, and the other is with talk therapy, and people are probably familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy, or psychoanalysis. So, let’s talk about pharmaceuticals first. When a doctor or a psychiatrist prescribes a drug to help someone to manage their anxiety or depression, what’s the underlying assumption about what is the cause of that mental illness, so that the drug can work?
Steven Hayes: Well, really, we’ve gone through about 40 years of biomedicalising human suffering, and the idea was that if we define these things to signs and symptoms, we’d find the underlying disease. And the presumption was it had something to do with the genes and gene systems, and brain circuits, and that you could probably move them around by specific drugs that would move specific problems. Instead, what’s happened over time is that the medications are more and more general, there’s almost nothing out there that people suffer with that you can’t use the so-called anti-depressants, for example, SSRIs, selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. It’s a way of moving around how your body handles serotonin. And there’s the other ones, different neurotransmitters. They’ve got more and more general use for more and more things, and they have side-effects, they have… Your body immediately starts reacting to it, and there’s no real evidence, it’s just not there after… I mean, don’t take it from me, take it from the folks who have organized this psychiatric diagnostic system, the DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
When they did the latest version, they had a little kind of a work group, and they concluded there was no evidence of any specific biological problem that was targeted by these drugs that were there before the intervention. And so, we’ve kinda got into a weird space, where like one out of four women last year were on anti-depressants, and that just doesn’t make any sense at all. 60% of the people who are struggling with anxiety, depression, or other things are on only medications, less than 10% are on only psychosocial interventions, which is upside down. And so, the original hope was that we’d get better and better at detecting the underlying disease. In fact, there’s not a single case of an underlying disease being discovered since… Untreated Syphilis was the last one, nobody has that anymore, you just treat it with antibiotics. So, I’m not against medications. I’ve actually done research helping people get over barriers to using it, but it should be more limited to severe cases, and more limited in terms of how long you’re on them.
And instead, we’re… We’ve created this thing where many people are on a high level of meds for a long period of time. Your body reacts to it, and produces even permanent changes in your body. You’ll probably see on the television, you can now get the medications being sold on regular commercial on televisions, to control the side-effects of the medications that are being sold, to control the behavioral health problems. So, everywhere in the world where that model has come in, a train wreck has followed. If you take developing countries, and you put that model and everything gets worse, and in the United States, we’re more than a standard deviation in a statistical measure from how things are normally distributed over the last 30 years, worse with young people than we were, and so, something is going in the wrong direction.
Brett McKay: It sounds like the underlying… What the assumption is, is that anxiety, depression, it’s a physiological issue that you can manipulate with a drug.
Steven Hayes: Yeah, you can for sure dampen down your system for detecting anxiety and feeling anxious, for example, and you can mess around with major nerve transmitters that have multiple functions, and have some effects in terms of the lows, but also the highs by the way, if you wanted to do it you could market anti-depressants as anti-joy drugs, ’cause they bring the top down too, not just the bottom up. And, we’ve gone… It makes sense, but it… Superficially, it makes sense, but long run, I’m not sure it does make sense. It should be more limited, ’cause some of these emotions are signs of things that are going on in your life. And you need to step up to that. I mean, if you’re feeling anxious all the time, what’s up with that? And yeah, there is a genetic loading. But what you then do with that is really what determines how it’s gonna play out in your life. And I think the evidence on that is pretty substantial.
Brett McKay: Okay. So pharmaceuticals, the research… We’ve been doing this since the ’40s, ’50s.
Steven Hayes: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Research says it’s effective for some people. It sounds like for severe anxiety, depression, it can be useful. But for most people, not that effective.
Steven Hayes: And from our limited period of time, because here’s what happens, as soon as you say you have something and you listen to the commercials, they say, it “may be based on an underlying neurological problem.” Well, it may be based on monkeys flying out of your ear. You can say that and you can sell it that way, but they can’t say it is based, because there’s no evidence on that. People who get depressed don’t have differences in their underlying level of serotonin before you give them a drug. After you give them a drug for long periods of time, high levels, then they do because your body down-regulates it. It fights it off. And now, there’s a very long-lasting effect of not responding normally to that neurotransmitters.
But for normal people once you start saying you have something and it’s built into your body, of course, you’re gonna turn to meds. But you’re also gonna bring your horizons close, you’re gonna aspire less. It’ll look like de-stigmatizing, but it ends up being walking you into a cul-de-sac. People around you start treating you differently. The research on all that is really clear. So, you’re setting something loose inside the minds of people that are not necessarily empowering to step up, move forward, what can you actually do? But why don’t we focus on that first and use the meds, absolutely, but more limited, taper them off, keep them shorter, and use a rationale that empowers people to change their lives, not just sort of hammer down their physiology.
Brett McKay: So the other approach to treating anxiety, depression has been talk therapy. And the grandfather of talk therapy was Sigmund Freud.
Steven Hayes: Yeah.
Brett McKay: What was his approach to talk therapy and what does the research say? Does that work?
Steven Hayes: There’s elements of it that work. But one of the problems that happened, ’cause we’re going back 1O0 years and Freud didn’t really have scientific principles of behavior psychology and so forth to rely on. So he had kind of a pseudo-neurology metaphor. He was interested in function, what’s going on underneath the surface. And that’s good. But he wasn’t guided by experimental science, ’cause it wasn’t there. And so, some of the ideas are truly goofy, that you really have a secret desire to have sex with your mother, and that’s really producing a conflict. Oh, please. And so, parts of it like defense mechanisms, that you’ll, for example, sometimes put on others things that you see in yourself that are painful and difficult, projection, that’s real.
But it wasn’t linked to science well enough to move forward. And soon enough there was a rebellion against it, mostly by the humanistic folks who thought, we should be a little more practical, focus on meaning, purpose. That’s what I cut my eye-teeth on and I still like that. But again, without good clear science on what do we mean by meaning and purpose, and all the rest? So, it wasn’t until the behavioral folks came along with scientific principles out of their animal lab that we got out of that era. But then they had problems too. But talk therapy, it’s been on an arc in the culture. We’ve been learning how to do it, and I think we’re able to do it better. I kinda like calling it do therapy, not talk therapy, because I only wanna talk enough to get people to do something different. If it’s just blah, blah, blah, I’m not sure that’s gonna really change anybody’s life.
Brett McKay: Well, I mean… So I think one of the things with Freudianism psychoanalysis, their goal is like, if you can figure out what’s causing the underlying issue, then somehow the issue is gonna resolve itself. If you can figure out, oh, if you had something that happened in your past and you bring that to surface, then somehow that’s gonna be able to allow you to move forward. And as you said, the humanistic and then the behavioralist, and then later cognitive behavioral therapy said, “Well, maybe not. Maybe we need to instead try to figure out how to help people in the moment so they can move forward instead of just looking back.”
Steven Hayes: Yeah. Going on… You know, we are historical beings. So our childhood does influence us for absolute certain, sure. But it’s the past that’s in the present that we really need to focus on. And the past that’s then gone, not so much. And without really good scientific principles to sort through that, psychoanalysis is pretty darn wild as how you would look at your own history. I think the more practical focus of the humanistic and behavioral and cognitive behavioral weighing of what shows up here and now pretty much has won the day, just in terms of evidence for doing good with people. But then when you do that, you still need principles, you need a way to figure out what’s really going on here. And science has an arc to it. At one time physicists were talking about phlogiston. They don’t talk about it anymore. Psychologists still are talking about Freud and that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, because we’ve moved so far and have so much more knowledge about how psychology works, how our… Biopsychosocial processes, the things going on in your mind, the things going on in your culture, the things going on in your body come together to either produce problems or promote your prosperity. So let’s use that best available evidence.
Brett McKay: So okay, the most recent iteration, that the most widely used form of talk therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. And this is… You got your start when you started working with patients, you used CBT. So let’s talk about what CBT does. And then, I think that’ll be a good way to springboard to talk about ACT.
Steven Hayes: Yeah, it’s a good way. CBT came out of the behavioral therapy tradition where we were trying to apply the principles that came out of the animal learning lab, like reward and punishment, for example, or classical conditioning like Pavlov’s dogs. And good things happened there, but the thing is, is that what you and I are doing, and non-human animals don’t do, they communicate, but they don’t talk symbolically. And so, that we call mental health problems for a reason. I mean, our chatter, our minds, our analysis, problem solving, symbols, reasoning, thinking has a huge effect on our lives. And that’s pretty new on the planet, you need principles for it. When the… And I’m old enough to see this whole arc, because I was a behavioral therapist before I was a cognitive behavioral therapist, and I’ve been presidents of the CBT society here in the US, etcetera. So this is my family. But when people realize the limits of just conditioning principles out of the animal lab, they needed to go into like, “What are you and I doing right now? And how does that change how we interact with the world? How does cognition alter how we interact with the current situation in our own history?”
But again, we didn’t have good principles and so the… But these are good scientists. And so they started trying to figure out on the fly what a theory, good theory of cognition might be. And so, rational and irrational cognitions, logical errors, those kinds of things that are out there now in the culture, those emerged by just talking to clients and trying to measure carefully how they thought, and then categorize them into ways of thinking they were helpful or hurtful. And what CBT tries to do in addition to using behavioral things such as exposure, training and skills, conditioning, that we’re gonna go in there and try to detect and challenge and dispute and change ways of thinking that are illogical or maladaptive.
Brett McKay: And some examples of maladaptive thinking would be like black or white thinking, all or nothing thinking.
Steven Hayes: Sure.
Brett McKay: Catastrophizing.
Steven Hayes: Yeah, exactly. Like, “I’m never gonna be able to function again, because my blah, blah, blah. My girlfriend broke up with me, or I was fired from this job, or… ” Well, that’s not how life actually unfolds. You’re gonna probably figure out some other way forward, but your mind will catastrophize and give you an absolute all or none, black and white, horrifying kind of image if you’re prone to that way of thinking. The problem with it is doing this logical thought doesn’t mean that we’re doing what’s actually helpful. So for example, if you have an odd thought that came from your family of origin. Let’s say, you’re very self-critical of yourself, but when you really slow down and listen to it, yeah, that’s mom’s voice, and so you came by it honestly. Yeah, but you’ll go to grave with that memory. You probably was… It’s a well-grooved track. You’re gonna be able to think those kinda negative thoughts.
If I’m asking you to check, challenge, dispute and change, it’s gonna… Thoughts it’s… I’m first gonna say focus on the thought. Well, these are goofy thoughts already. Maybe that’s the last place you wanna focus. Maybe you wanna focus on your purpose and what you can actually do with behavior to do a better job of succeeding, etcetera. So, what’s happened in CBT over time is that the core assumptions of the cognitive change methods that are inside classic CBT have been weakened, because the data don’t suggest that they’re the critical part of those collections. And so, along comes people like myself and the ACT work, except in [16:39] ____ memory therapy work with a really different perspective other than that classic idea that we have to catch our bad thoughts and get rid of them, umm, maybe not. Maybe we need to relate to them in a very different way.
Brett McKay: So that’s the big… Like from a big picture point of view, that’s what makes ACT different from CBT. CBT is you’re focused on those negative thoughts so you can challenge them, and then by challenging them, you’ll overcome them. ACT says, “No, actually, that might actually make things worse and you just need to learn how to accept and move on and live more a forward-looking type of life.”
Steven Hayes: Yeah, and… Except but also sort of change their function. How you relate to your own experience is what really determines how it plays out in your life. A lot of this stuff is conditioned. If I said, “Mary had a little… ” and you grew up in this society, there’s only one thing you’re gonna think. If I demanded that you think differently, suppose lamb was a horrible word, you could do it, but what we actually do is to say, you thought cup. “Mary had a little cup, not a lamb.” Well, you’re right back to lamb again, because it’s kinda like a bad cell phone commercial, “Am I there yet, am I there yet?” Every time you ask it, you’re coming right back and re-grooving a connection to parts of the things that you wanna change. And what happened in the work that I did when I realized, because of my own personal struggles, initially, and then my clients, the limits of behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy as it was back in the ’80s, I spent about 15 years essentially trying to hack the human mind.
Brett McKay: And what you discovered through many years of research that there are six processes or skills that lead to greater cognitive, emotional and attentional flexibility. And the first one is noticing your thoughts, and what gets in the way of that process is something you call the dictator within. Who is this dictator and what does he sound like?
Steven Hayes: Well, it sounds like what goes on in your mind when you’re quiet and you just had an argument with your spouse or your girlfriend or something. Or when you’re thinking about some great plan you’re gonna have, or whether you’re gonna succeed at something. It’s that voice that tells you what to do, how to solve the problem and by the way, who you are and what’s wrong with you. And it’s the problem solving voice, the figure-out-the-problem. And that’s great in the external world. Figure out how to do your taxes, fix your car, it’s great. Figure out how to have peace of mind or purpose, not so great. Figure out who you are, what you really care about, not so great because this… You are not a problem to be solved. There’s vastly more to you than just that one part of you, number one. Number two, as soon as you’re in that mindset, whole great portions of you are your own enemy because you’ve got lots of things that you don’t like about yourself. You always will.
If you make that pros and con list and strengths or weaknesses list, that’s gonna show up. But the question is, what can you do from here to move in a direction that you really care about? And sometimes that requires first getting your feet on the ground kind of more the way you would if you saw a sunset tonight. You wouldn’t try to solve the problem of the fact that it was a particular color. You’d just say, “Wow.” You probably won’t say, “Got a little bit too much pink over there.” It just wouldn’t occur to you. Well, when you come into your own life, you wanna have that kinda wow appreciation of the wholeness of your life and then, “What can I do to move forward? Okay. I want some problem solving with language in there,” but the dictator within has been so fed by modern media and by just the way that we are told to try to deal with our problems that we get entangled with it, we disappear into it. Some for months, years at a time.
And meanwhile, eventually you get the point where you need mindfulness classes just to show up in the present moment. You’re so used to disappearing off in the woulda, shoulda, couldas, or I should have done… Rumination, worry, etcetera. And so we need to learn how to rein in the human mind to not have it just run us around like a leash through a ring in our nose. And if you don’t, you’re gonna suffer a lot ’cause there’s a lot of programming in your head that is not wise, you know it’s not wise, and yet you can’t resist just almost immediately reacting to it when it shows up. And next thing you know you’re arguing when you don’t want to, you’re defending when you don’t need to, you’re forgetting when you need to remember, you’ve lost direction and purpose. Getting your feet on the ground, showing up, being more mindful, notice what’s going on requires a different mode of mind than that dictator voice.
Brett McKay: And so examples of the dictator voice is like if you’re feeling down is like, “Be positive, don’t be negative.” You’re feeling anxious, the dictator saying, “There’s nothing really here for you to be afraid of. You’re… ”
Steven Hayes: Exactly.
Brett McKay: That’s probably what it sounds like.
Steven Hayes: Yeah. And the thing is that it’s superficially soothing, it might even be a little helpful in the moment sometimes if you have something really to do. But you get into a chronic mode like that and next thing you know, the side effects of that and the dumbing down of that for example, “Let’s just be positive, let’s just be positive,” you probably have been around people who are just relentless in that. And frankly, sometimes it’s irritating. Bad things are going on or reactions you’re having that you really need to read, you need to notice that you feel uncomfortable right now, you’re feeling anxious right now. Well, maybe that person you’re about to date is not for you or maybe that job you’re about to take is not really what your gut tells you to do. You can close off your access to the whole of your history by just putting these kinda meta-rules down like, “I’m only gonna think positive thoughts.” That’s nonsense. Negative thoughts have a role. Getting entangled with them, disappearing into them? Okay. But you can get entangled and disappear into positive thoughts. Have you ever been around a narcissist? You ever been around somebody who thinks they’re the greatest of the great and the grandest of the grand no matter what happens? Do you enjoy that experience?
Now, of course you don’t wanna be around folks who are gonna go, “Woe is me. I’m probably pathetic. Help me, help me.” No, you don’t wanna be around that either. But both of them are the same deal of us disappearing into our minds and not showing up as the whole persons that we are. And learning how to do that is something that we’ve… Some of that’s in our spiritual and wisdom traditions but it’s now in our psychotherapy traditions, and some of the methods, some of the methods we’ve invented, you can see the benefit in 30 seconds. You can do things that you can put onto the factory floor, or into a business meeting, or into your workout. That’s why it doesn’t just go to anxiety and depression. These processes are central to leadership, running a business, doing this podcast, they’re central to everything. And so take advantage of your pain and struggle to learn skills that you can use across the range of things that challenge you in life. That’s a lot wiser way forward and that’s I think where all of the evidence-based therapies are trying to go, at least the newer ones that the actors sort of had a leadership role in creating.
Brett McKay: So the first skill of psychological flexibility is to notice your thoughts. Just witness them, observe them, just be curious about them, instead of trying to fix and change them which gets you even more tangled up in them. And another part of this, another skill of cognitive flexibility is opening to your emotions, which can mean instead of trying to escape from painful feelings and the hurt you’ve had in the past, sometimes you just need to turn towards them.
Steven Hayes: You can’t run away from your doubts, your difficult memories, past betrayals. Good luck doing that. You can maybe they’ll joke as… Sort of a bottle in front of me or a frontal lobotomy, neither of which are good. Some brain injury or being drunk, maybe you could get away with that but then you can’t get away… You know, then that has a cost. So grow up, you gotta figure out a way to show up to your history as it is, not as what your mind says it is, and do something healthy with it other than run away, run away, run away, which makes it more central and a way more perverse in its impact because you get stupider, not smarter. You stop being able to read what’s going on. There’s really good evidence to this. People who are suppressive of emotions and thoughts create self-stupidity. They make bad choices, they put themselves in dangerous situations. Why? Well, it would be just like what would happen if I eliminated the feeling in your fingers. What’s gonna happen to your hands?
Well, there’s lots of things feeling in your fingers are useful for. Yeah, okay, if you’re putting your hands on sandpaper that might feel painful, but lepers lose the feeling in their hands and they do things like accidentally put their fingers in the fire. And that’s metaphorically what goes on when we create stupidity in order to avoid pain. Better to show up to the pain, and learn how to inhale it, get with it, and then refocus it, and find it. You will find is inside some of these self-doubts, painful memories are the seeds of what you really care about. In part, that’s why you care about it. If you think back over the things that are really important in your life, like the big lessons, the big ones, I bet you there’s really painful ones on that list. So, don’t take… Just don’t… The Siren song of less pain is always better? It’s just not true. We learn from our mistakes. We learn from our painful times, so we gotta keep our feelers out.
Brett McKay: Okay so ACT, you’re not trying to quiet or silence those negative feelings. Instead you’re trying… You’re trying to relate to them differently.
Steven Hayes: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And so, let’s talk about some principles that you’ve found in your research and your work that allow people to do that.
Steven Hayes: Yeah, so… Relating to ’em differently, turns out there’s lots of ways of doing that and it’s not to diminish, it’s not to eliminate, it’s to put how central it is in your behavior under your control. So that… Let’s say you have a thought that is painful and self-critical, but it doesn’t have much utility in the moment. Let me give you an example, I was giving a talk at Stanford and I was talking about how much sleeping medications had gone up and it had gone up over a few years, $3 billion and I… In a talk at Stanford you don’t wanna do this, I said, “And it’s gone up $3 trillion.” Well, I didn’t catch it at the time, but I’m sleeping. Same night I sit both upright in my bed from a dead sleep and I realize how idiotic that is. That’s off by 1000 times, and I say out loud, “$3 trillion! You idiot! You idiot! You did it at Stanford. They were recording a talk.” So I’m into that, right? Well, A, I wanna sleep. I don’t really wanna sit here and convince myself what an idiot I am. B, the talk is already done, I’m not going back and redoing it, right? Well, I catch this and I use a classic ACT method, which is to take a dominant thought that’s not helpful to you, distill it down to a word, and repeat it out loud at least once per second, fast, out loud for 30 seconds.
We’ve done the research on all the parameters, 30 seconds is the sweet spot, at least once per second. All this stuff has been researched in a lab, that’s how geeky we are. So I sit there on the edge of my bed, down there in Palo Alto, and I say, “Idiot, idiot, idiot, idiot, idiot, idiot, idiot, idiot” for 30 seconds and then I go back to sleep. If you just try that, take something that really just pounds you, “I’m unlovable, I’m stupid, whatever,” something that… The kind of thing that wakes you up at two in the morning, that sticky, probably old… Just try it. It would only take 30 seconds. Do it when nobody’s watching and don’t… You probably don’t wanna do it in front of anybody, they’ll think you’re pretty looney tooney. But, distill it down to words, say it out loud fast for 30 seconds, just watch what happens. By the end of that time, the word’s losing its meaning, you’re noticing that you’re thinking, your jaw’s getting tired, you realize, “At one level I’m just talking.” You can hear the sound of the word, it sounds differently, and the distress produced by the word goes down very substantially.
If that’s all been researched, there’s probably a 100 studies on that now. We were the first to do it. It was invented by a guy named Titcher, who was the father of American psychology. He wrote about it in 1907. We were the first to ever use it clinically. We call this myth “defusion”, which is a made-up word that means… Infusion means to pour together, like lemonade, three things but it tastes like one thing. You don’t really taste the sugar separate from the lime, the lemons separate from the water. Well, give you 30 seconds of it, you’ll diffuse a thought. It’s kind of like pulling it at its joints. And then the next time you have that thought, you’ll have a little bit of a sense of, “I could just notice it, notice that I had that thought. I’m stupid. Okay, thank you mind very much for that thought. I got some work to do though. Yeah, thanks for trying to help me out, but… ” So…
And there men doing other diffusion methods Thank your mind. Give your mind a name. “Thanks George, trying to help me here, but frankly, I’ve got that covered.” It’s not to diss your mind. It’s not like you’re trying to just turn off your mind. You’re just trying to do what you would normally do if you had kids in the back seat of the car quarreling, you’d know how to turn it off mentally. You can do the same thing and not in the way that’s avoidant but in a way that’s, “Okay, I’ve listened. I’ve taken what’s useful here. I’m gonna leave the rest.” And change your relationship to your thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations. Put it under your conscious control. That way you can allocate attention to what’s important. You don’t have to waste attention on what’s not, but you still have a channel open. You’re not suppressing you’re open, and defusion will help you learn how to do that.
Brett McKay: And it sounds like the goal of defusion is to help people be more cognitively flexible?
Steven Hayes: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Instead of trying to put order and try to quilt everything, you’re just like, “Okay, I’ve got that thing, but I can still act in a way I want to act even though that emotion or feeling or thought is there.”
Steven Hayes: Yeah. You can bring it along with you. In fact, right inside the, “Oh, you stupid idiot,” is, “I do wanna do well.” Okay. Well, let’s use my mind to focus on how to do well in group things, et cetera. What’s right inside that anxiety about an upcoming date, let’s say is, “I do wanna have relationships that work.” Okay. Well, let’s focus on that and your feelings are not your enemy. They’re an echo of your history and what’s showing up in the present moment. Your thoughts, your memories have a role, have a place, but they’re not your boss.
You don’t turn your life over to them. They’re part of you, they’re in you and with you and part of you. And you’re bigger than all of that. So can you create room for your whole history, allow it to inform what you do, but don’t let it dictate to you what to do. And if you learn these kinds of cognitive and emotional and attentional flexibility skills, well, then you can have a history that has painful things in it, we’ve all got that. But you don’t have to get stuck on it wrapped around it. It’s not like a cord wrapped around an axle it’s too knotted up you can’t proceed until you untie the knot, we can untie this knot by relating to our minds and our emotions and our history in a different way that’s more flexible.
Brett McKay: So the fourth ACT skill is learning to see the perspective of others. And the other skills can lead to it because as you get better in touch with your own sense of self, you can get better in touch with other people.
Steven Hayes: There’s a part of you that will connect you to others. I’m here, you’re here, we’re here. There’s a we inside this me of awareness. So that’s what’s in the wisdom traditions, spiritual traditions and mindfulness traditions. And it’s why meditation is everywhere. You can hardly open up a magazine without seeing meditation as a word. And people are learning in the cacophony of Western culture, “We better find a way to put our feet on the ground and show up in consciousness and connect in consciousness to others.” So that defusing from the self-story of step one, catching that there’s this awareness part of you that from which you can have difficult emotions and carry them without domination, difficult thoughts from which you can allocate attention flexibly.
So the ACT work consists of backing out of the conceptualized self, the ego, if you wanna use that word and showing up to this more transcending observer, witnessing person behind your eyes, sense of self. Not alone and disconnected but connected in consciousness to others. And from there, a lot of things are possible. And there’s a reason why you dumped endorphins when your mama looked in your eyes. There’s a reason why you have whites around your eyes so that you can see from across the room where others are looking. We’re very in touch with the consciousness of others and from there, we can do wonderful things in our communities and businesses and teams. And we’re not solitary creatures. We’re connected through language and consciousness and our underlying biology to the troop, the tribe, the band, the community and that’s the place we can do spectacularly great things.
Brett McKay: And I think it’s important for people that we reiterate this point. So I think when people hear, “Oh, it’s acceptance therapy, it just means I’m resigning myself to my current situation.” That’s not what you’re talking about. Acceptance, acceptance is basically accepting reality as it is, accepting those emotions that you have and not having to judge it to like right away.
Steven Hayes: Yeah, it’s a dangerous word acceptance and sometimes I think it made a great acronym, acceptance and commitment therapy, ACT, I mean how can you get better than that? As I say, if you really wanted to do therapy instead of talk therapy, ACT is perfect. Let’s get about acting, but the word acceptance it’s true has some connotations that aren’t helpful. It’s still in English though what we meant by it. If you had a precious gift, a really precious one, and you gave it to somebody that you love, I bet you, you might say, “Here, would you accept this?” You don’t mean, “Will you tolerate it? Can you resign yourself to it? Will you put up with it?” You mean, “Will you take this gift that I’m offering you and take it willingly by choice? Okay?” So what your capacity for emotion and thought and memory and bodily sensations, that’s a tremendous gift.
And life is offering you a gift, a precious gift. Yeah, I know your mind doesn’t like it, but let’s take something like, okay, I’ll take one. If you were to Google my name for a Ted talk, you’ll find I’ve done a couple. In one of them, I walk through the ACT work and my turning away from the dictator within on a night on the carpet when I think I’m having a heart attack and it turns out I’m having another panic attack all the way back in 1981, almost 40 years ago. And I tell the story of catching that meaning and purpose is in there too, that right inside my anxiety and so forth I caught, was the memory of my dad threatening violence to my mother and coming home drunk. By the way, a loving, wonderful person, don’t judge him just he had problems and so did my mom. But I’m a little dude I’m underneath the bed crying. And saying under the bed, “I’m gonna do something.” Well, I had so forgotten it. It wasn’t even until the ACT journey that it showed up. I mean I knew there was domestic violence in my home I knew that, but I just didn’t know how deep the wound went. And when I found it, it was like, “Oh, of course I’m a psychologist. Oh, of course I’m interested in helping people who are suffering,” ’cause these early traumatic things are there in many, many, many people’s lives.
My point being, there is a precious gift that’s offered. The anxiety I was feeling linked me over to the gift of my own history. And yeah, I’m feeling nervous. My first panic attack happened when I was in a department meeting with, as I say in the TEDx talk, watching full professors fight in a way that only wild animals and full professors are capable of. And the reason it was so anxiety-provoking for me I didn’t find out until years later. It was reminding me of hiding under the bed and hearing my dad shout at my mother and threaten her with violence. And so, knowing that, it makes sense of why I’m working so hard to help people with trauma and anxiety and depression. Because I couldn’t do that at eight years old with my parents, but I can do it now. And so inside your pain are the things you most care about. Think about it. The things that you are moved emotionally in a “negative way.” Pick anything. Now, flip it over. What does that suggest you care about deeply? If you’re terrified of intimacy, I bet you you’ve been through betrayals. And inside the betrayal is yearning for loyalty and trust and intimacy, isn’t it? That’s why it cut you through the heart. And the same thing, go over and over it again.
If you’re really anxious around people, I bet you you really care about being with people. If you’re really struggling with depression, I bet you you really would like to feel again in a way that’s whole and free. Not be like a metaphor of a divot in the road, depressed, squeezed down like, life squeezed out of you. Just go through the list. And so, acceptance is from the original Latin root meaning to receive, as if to receive a gift. Septarian in Latin. And it’s still in English. And we’re not interested in wallowing. I have zero interest in rolling around in your pain for no point. But showing up to the whole of your history so that you can be empowered, to be all of what you could be? That’s awesome. And being able to use your history to help you be an ally, even the painful parts? That’s wonderful. You can learn to do that and you’ll be more effective in every area of your life. That’s what the data shows. So stop running away. Plant your feet. Show up. Open your eyes. Learn the skills to do that without being overwhelmed or wallowing, and now focus on what you really wanna create in your life. And get about the “do therapy” part of ACT. What are you gonna do with that?
Brett McKay: I really like that idea of accepting and looking… And it means accepting those emotions you have for what they are, completely. The negative and the positive… And trying to find the positive, the underlying positive. ‘Cause that goes to… A part of ACT is finding out what you value, which will allow you to, this is the final step, to take action. To do something about what you value. So those negative emotions can help you find out what you really value in life, so that you can take action on those positive affirming values.
Steven Hayes: Yeah, exactly. And it turns out, by the way, if you run away from negative emotions, pretty soon you start running away from positive emotions. I didn’t know that when we started the ACT work, but we found that. And how pathetic is that? In the name of feeling good, you can’t feel at all. So let’s do a good job of feeling. Let’s feel good, and then move our attention towards what we really wanna have as qualities of what we do. How do you wanna be as a whole person in this world? And there’s four ways into that. You can take pain and flip it over, what I just talked about. You can think of the really sweet moments in a given area: Your work, your relationships, anything that’s of importance to you, the really sweet ones. Unpack them. You’re gonna find the qualities that you want in your life. Think of your guides and heroes. We’ve all got guides and heroes. Why are they heroic? Why do we hold them up? Because something about the way they are, it shows the kind of values we wanna put in our behavior.
And finally, it’s authorship. If you’re just writing a story, how would you write this? What’s the next chapter gonna be about? Not at the level of who’s gonna show up, what the details are, that’s not in your control. You might have a disease right now you’re not gonna find out till you just go to the doctor. You may have a plane fly into your garage in the next moment. That can happen. But what is the arc of this story about? Are you writing a tragedy? Is that really what you’re up to? Or are you gonna write a hero’s journey? It turns out, that’s really in your control. So those are the four ways in. And when you do find that, then now you’ve got a beacon. Now you’ve got a lighthouse out in the distance. And when you’re lost, you can raise your eyes and see it. If you’re about being a more loving and compassionate person, what are you gonna have to do in the next moment to do that? If you’re about really contributing to the well-being of others, what are you gonna do? If you wanna be successful and your mind says, “That’s all money,” what are you gonna do with that money? And what we found is if people don’t do that, they start taking their goals, the concrete things they can achieve, to be their values.
And the pathetic thing that happens is that even when they meet their goals, it feels empty. It doesn’t really scratch the itch. You see it with money. Almost all of us would like to be more successful financially. But if we forget why we want to do that, what are we gonna do that’s pro-social, that’s in our hearts, that’s of importance? We just end up thinking that if we have enough dough, that we’ll no longer have self-doubts or people will love us or whatever. It predicts misery. That research has been done. Happiness becomes inversely related to financial success if you do that. I mean, what a joke. It’s pathetic. And you’ve got miserable billionaires. So how about if we focus on what brings meaning and purpose by choice, by who we are? And get in front of that person in the mirror. Use those four methods of pain or sweet moments, heroes or guides or the kind of story you’re writing, and dig down. And you make some choices. What’s it gonna be? What are you up to with the life moments you got? Now work on putting that into your behavior. That’s an engine for success, not just from the outside, but from the inside.
That’s why it applies everywhere. It’s why it applies to sports, or business, or dieting or exercise, or stepping up to the challenge of physical disease. Or yes, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, trauma, and all of those, because these core skills are just life skills. They’re success skills. They’re creating a life worth living skills.
Brett McKay: No, I love this. I mean, so I think there’s a great big picture of review of ACT, and there’s a lot more details that you go into the book, and then your other work. But I think something that’ll be useful to end our discussion here is kind of give some very broad examples of this working through. Let’s say like an anxiety problem that someone is struggling with. And then also I’d love to see like how this would work out with someone who’s trying to enhance their performance on the job at work in their leadership position. So let’s start with someone who’s dealing with anxiety. They’re stressed about social… They have social anxiety, for example. So let’s start with like that diffuse… So if they’re experiencing that emotion you start off with… You diffuse that emotion first, correct?
Steven Hayes: Well, diffusion is especially good for thoughts because we’re taking… We’re dialing down the literal meaning part so that we can notice that we’re creating thoughts in our minds in real time. That’s the core diffusion, to look at your thoughts, not just look at the world structured by your thoughts and missing that you’re doing that. That is your thinking that’s doing that. Some of which is automatic, you don’t completely control it. So we start off to spin around the six processes. Show up in consciousness, catch that person behind your eyes, focus over there and notice that you’re thinking. And own that, you’re having thoughts, cool. Are your thoughts your enemy? No. But do it with a little sense like you’re looking at your hand with… That’s, you know, 18 inches out from your face, not your hand up on your face. Don’t let those thoughts get up on you because then you can’t see anything else, it’s just like putting your hands over your eyes. But diffusion moves it out, you still see the thought, you still know what it means. But just like if I took that, you know, stupid stupid or idiot idiot at the Stanford, “Okay, now I can see that I’m thinking.”
Then use that skill to open up to your emotions, your memories, et cetera, and see if you can kind of taste them, kind of sense them and take in the gift that they offer. And then when you’ve done that, notice that you can allocate attention in a flexible, fluid, and voluntary way. You just did it. You can carry it over into what’s in the present moment around you, within you and without. What’s of importance here, what should be focused on, what should be shifted to focus on something else, do you need to broaden your view, narrow your view? And then come over to what you really wanna be about, meaning and purpose. And now what would it take to create habits around that? Those are the six things. So with the social anxiety, let’s say, catch that the person… You’re a whole person who’s witnessing this. Notice that you got chatter about how you may be inadequate, people may not like you, blah, blah, blah, blah. But also there’s thoughts in there about how you would really like to do things socially.
It’s not all negative thoughts. Notice that you’re thinking, notice that it produces some reactions, anxieties, things in your body, great. Notice that, but try to [49:00] ____ with equanimity, open up to it, be like a table with things put on it. Rather than trying to get up there and you know move everything around on the table, just be the table, hold everything on it, and now come into the present moment. What’s of importance here? And one of the things you’ll find is that witnessing observing part of yourself now in the present moment can go behind the eyes of other people. If you’re socially anxious, I would take the time to notice you got a conscious human being around you. Maybe several. And they may be doing the same thing you are. They may also be worried about are they gonna be liked, worried about your opinion of them. And you’re so in your head that you’re not even noticing you got other living, breathing, conscious creatures around you called human beings. So take a little time to take this witnessing noticing part of you, and put it behind the eyes of others, and get the sense of who you’re with and what that affords, the connection that’s possible.
Now, what do you value here, what are you trying to create? You’re just trying to impress? You’re just trying to have a bullet list of how great and grand you are? Really? That’s what you are up to? How about listening, connecting, relating, loving, liking, supporting? How about compassion, how about… Could you do something other than be a performer on a stage? Could you actually come into conscious connection with the person who’s here with you.
That’s like the social anxiety anti-drug because when you do that, now we’re putting that anxiety to kind of reach out and touch the consciousness of another. And now what do you wanna do with that connection based on your values, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna ask the person to do something with you? Are you gonna create something together, are you gonna be together, are you gonna meet again, are you’re gonna do something? What do you wanna do? And so that arc will walk you right out of social anxiety, and will take the anxiety that you feel with others into being able to do things that are values-based with others in which your own history now doesn’t mock you, but becomes kind of a goad for the kind of person that you wanna be, your best self. Which is not the self aggrandizing clown suit nor the, you know, Paul pathetic, you know, “Help me, I’m so weak and helpless.” It’s this owning your history, showing up, connecting with others and doing things that bring meaning and purpose into your life and to others. And the joy of creating a life worth living is right there in that. Spin around these six flexibility processes.
There’s lots of books, and lots of things for free. You can just Google acceptance and commitment therapy and find vast amounts of things, YouTube things and things for free. You don’t have have to pay anything. And I have written a book recently called Liberated Mind, you mentioned it at the beginning, and I have another one, a self-help book that beat Harry Potter for one glorious week in 2006 when it was written up in Time called Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life. And those may be kind of entering into the world of ACT. There’s hundreds of books now literally millions in print mostly not by me, because it is a vast world-wide community that’s trying to put these processes into people. Now, you did ask, what about workouts?
Brett McKay: Yeah, workouts or work. This isn’t I was just sitting there… This isn’t just for managing mental illness, this can be used to…
Steven Hayes: Well, just take leadership, for example, at work. There’s pretty good evidence that transformational leaders, people who can take the perspective of workers, who take the time to see the world through their eyes, who are open to what they’re feeling and thinking, which means you have to be open to the reactions that you have in the world of thought, and emotion. And that can create at work a values-based community that’s about something bigger than ourselves that’s not just about me, me, me, it’s about we, and that can use our behavioral skills in a way that we create environments that are flexible and allow people at work to do creative things to best pursue the values that are there inside the business. There are good randomized trials with controlled studies showing that bringing ACT into leadership training produces more effective leaders with more successful businesses.
And so, this spin around that I was talking about with social anxiety could apply to leadership, it could apply to your relationships, it can apply to your workout routine, it can apply anywhere that the human mind goes. Because your mind is not always your ally, it can tell you to do things that are self-aggrandizing, disconnecting, fearful, limiting, mindless. And if you don’t learn how to put your mind on a leash and then use your skills to build a more flexible, cognitively, emotionally, intentionally behaviorally, flexible way of moving towards your values, you’re interfered with and… I was, before the COVID thing I had the great joy of going and spending time with a major league ball club. I think I can say the name Toronto Blue Jays where the performance coaches, and sports psychologists are all ACT all the time. People won gold medals at the Olympics doing it. This is not… Yeah, it’s for depression and anxiety, but these skills are life skills. Learn ’em and see if they don’t help whatever it is that you’re up to. And it’s not a panacea, but it’s the 20% that those at 70% or 80% percent, and they’re learnable. And they’re learnable, fortunately from books and apps and so forth. Therapy can help. And when you have, know that the data shows, lots of horizons become more reachable.
Brett McKay: Well Steven Hayes, thanks for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Steven Hayes: It’s been awesome. Brett, thank you for having me on.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Steven Hayes, he’s the author of the book A Liberated Mind. It’s available on amazon.com, and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work and Acceptance Commitment Therapy at his website stevenchayes.com. Also check out our show notes at a aom.is/aliberatedmind where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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