Research Paper By Kimberly Hickey
(Life Coach, CANADA)
Fear prevents many people from reaching their full potential and moving forward in life. When clients become stuck in a rut it can be difficult to take action. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be used as a tool for coaches to help client regain their momentum and achieve their goals.
Although predominately used in the clinic field and proven effective with a diverse range of life circumstances such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, stress (at the workplace and otherwise) chronic pain, weight control and smoking cessation, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a great addition to the coaches’ toolbox.
This paper will focus on how coaches can use ACT within their coaching practice by harnessing powerful psychological techniques to assist the client in identifying passions, set values-based professional and personal goals, overcome barriers or roadblocks such as fear, and realizing their full potential. Client will learn how to accept aspects of their situation, co-exist with fear and painful thoughts and emotions and commit to forward actions that will lead to success and a more meaningful life.
What is acceptance and commitment therapy?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (pronounced as the word ‘act’; not by initials) is a form of psychotherapy based on behavioural theory and relational frame theory created in the 1980’s by US Psychologist, Steven Hayes. It is an approach to behaviour change that is rooted in mindfulness and values with parallels to Buddhism. ACT’s core message is to accept what is out of your personal control and commit to action that improves and enriches your life. The main goal of ACT is to maximize human potential for a meaningful life.
ACT does this by:
Teaching mindfulness skills/techniques to deal with painful thoughts and feelings effectively, thereby having less control or influence over the client
Helping the client clarify what is truly important to them by becoming aware of their core values and using this information to guide, support, inspire and motivate to improving their life for the better.
ACT does not aim to reduce symptoms of pain and suffering, but recognizes that pain and suffering is a part of life and can be a valuable teacher. The attempt to actually get rid of a ‘symptom’ actually creates more of the ‘symptom’ and creates a struggle. Unfortunately, many people have the goal to eliminate pain and suffering all together. The misguided belief that one can control, avoid or eliminate all pain and suffering has been coined by Russell Harris, physician and lead ACT writer, trainer and therapist, as the “happiness trap”. This goal may seem ideal at first, but it is counterproductive and can actually lead to increased suffering because it is an impossible goal to achieve.
ACT theory revolves around 4 key concepts:
The brain is a 24/7 thinking machine churching out thoughts and processing information. Like viruses on a computer, illogical thinking and negative self-talk can cause you to freeze, slow down, and get stuck.
Current thinking and feeling are filtered through past frames of reference therefore past learning plays a huge role in how you process painful or threatening situations in the present. A major leap in human development is the minds ability to use the past and present to jump ahead and anticipate the future. This can create excess worry, anxiety and the reluctance to take action.
Words and language play key roles in well-being and with our past frame of reference usually chock full of words and language they can either be used to positively motivate us or negatively discourage us.
Thinking cannot be controlled, but our behaviour or how we respond to our thinking can be.
ACT and the Connection to Coaching
As with ACT, coaching is not focused on the clients past and painful thoughts but geared towards future success. ACT interventions centre around two main processes: acknowledging and accepting of unhelpful thoughts which are out of personal control while committing to action towards a valued life.
As a coach does not provide the answers, or come up with the difference between right or wronf for the client, ACT also does not focus on whether what you are thinking or feeling is right or wrong but rather asks whether or not this thinking is helpful in achieving goals.
ACT and coaching is truly interested in discovering the clients authentic self. In order to uncover this self, focusing on the clients values and what is truly important to the them in life is a main focus of discussion.
As with ACT, committing is a huge proponent of the coaching process. Success is more likely when valued commitment is in place.
The World Health Organization estimates that depression is currently the fourth biggest, most costly, and most debilitating disease in the world, and by the year 2020 it will be the second biggest. Almost one in two people will go through a stage in life when they consider suicide seriously, and will struggle with it for a period of two weeks or more. With these facts being known, it would be plausible that many of our clients have experienced, are experiencing or will experience some form of mental health of stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, meaninglessness, low self-esteem and so on.
Benefits of ACT for Coaches
- Facilitates empathy, compassion, respect, and unconditional positive regard
- Allows you to stay focused and present, even when your client is not
- Helps you stay grounded, centred and composed, even in the midst of clients’ emotional turmoil
- Enables a healthy attitude towards outcomes: neither complacent nor overly-attached
- Helps you maintain direction and focus
- Increases your skills at observing your clients’ responses
Teaches coaches that, they are in the same boat as their clients—so they don’t need to be enlightened beings, to ‘have it all together’ or know all the answers
How to use ACT with Coaching Clients
According to research, coaches do not need to be a psychotherapist to use ACT principles and practices with clients. What coaches do need is to understand their limitations as a coach and refer to a therapist or other professional, as needed. As a coach, you are morally, ethically and legally required to refer to appropriate services when the needs of the client exceed the coach’s abilities and credentials.
The very first step to using ACT with clients is to ensure the client understands the purpose and benefits of using such a model. ACT can be adapted and simplified to meet each clients unique needs. Coaches can assist clients in overcoming mental roadblocks such as fear and reaching their full potential by using the following 5 principals of ACT.
Coaches can help clients observe their thoughts instead of actually feeling as though they are their thoughts. People often confuse their thoughts about something, particularly something that is troubling about their future, with actually experiencing the event. Our mind is very creative and can exaggerate or catastrophist any given satiation. When clients believe in every thought they have, it can become a mental roadblock from taking action. As an impartial observer, thoughts can become less dangerous, threatening or controlling and it becomes clear that thoughts are only one aspect of their being but not the essence of who they are.
A process called defusion can help clients separate from their unhelpful thoughts that are keeping them from moving forward. Activities to detach from thoughts include:
Clients can repeat the thought out loud, over and over again, until it becomes meaningless sound
Imagine the thought in the voice of a cartoon character
Sing it to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’
Add the statement I am having the thought that…
in front of any unhelpful thought they are having. For example, “I am having the thought that I am stupid” acknowledges the thought but does not assign weight or value to it.
For many, it is safer and less painful to remain in their comfort zone, not taking on new challenges and adventures. Avoiding experiences can limit client growth and the opportunity to develop new, positive experiences. The more a client steps out of this comfort zone, the more likely the client will take further risk in the future, thereby increasing confidence. For many clients, they will put off making any decisions or taking action until they feel they have complete control over all variables.
Although it is not an easy thing to do, accepting or acknowledging pain and unhelpful thoughts can lessen the internal struggle and empower the client to commit to forward action to accomplish goals or change their situation. Avoiding, eliminating or attempting to control unhelpful thoughts will only increase its strength. Clients can learn what they can exert some control over (behaviour/response) and what they cannot control.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that the client wants to feel bad, but realizes that even with these unhelpful thoughts they can move forward nonetheless. Being human means being imperfect, making mistakes, contradicting ourselves occasionally, losing patience, etc. Willingness also becomes a highlight of the acceptance principle because clients must be willing to move forward and take action regardless of these unhelpful thoughts. An example of a powerful question used to determine willingness could be If taking your life in the direction of this value means you need to make room for feelings of anxiety, are you willing to do that?
A body scan can be used to help clients become aware of an unhelpful thought and how it is affecting them emotionally and physically. Once awareness has occurred clients can make room for it, allow it to be there without a struggle. Once acceptance takes place, the struggle ends and clients are able to move forward.
Mindfulness basically means living in the present moment, in a state of awareness that allows you to focus with openness, curiosity, flexibility and to observe whatever arises in a non-judgemental way. Stops us from worrying about the past or future. Although mindfulness has only recently been embraced by Western psychology, it is an ancient practice found in a wide range of Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism and Yoga.
Mindfulness is about waking up, connecting with ourselves, and appreciating the fullness of each moment of life. Kabat-Zinn calls it, The art of conscious living.
It is a profound way to enhance psychological and emotional resilience, and increase life satisfaction
In ACT mindfulness serves to overcome barriers that get in the way of acting on our core values and to engage fully in the experience when acting on values. Meditation is seen as only one way out of hundreds to learn the skill of mindfulness such as mindful eating, showering, washing dishes, mowing the lawn. Ask clients to experience each “task” with all their senses. Let’s take mindful eating for example: clients can explore what the piece of food looks like, smells like, feel the texture on their fingers, take one bite at a time, slowly enjoying the flavour, notice the texture on your tongue, as thoughts enter your mind, simply let them pass through and return to the sensations you are experiencing while eating.
Values are what you want your life to be about, deep in your heart. It is what you want to stand for, what matters to you in the big picture. Values conflicts are among the most common reasons for getting stuck. When clients are clear about their values, they are able to take action on goals that are meaningful and important to them and therefore function at a higher level.
Many people do not take the time to clarify their values and simply live in accordance with the values and goals set for them by others (family, friends, culture, society). This can be dangerous and lead to becoming stuck and experiencing conflict. Without values they are subject to peer pressure and societal expectations.
As a coach you can never take for granted and assume that all your clients value the same things equally.
Clarifying values involve 4 steps:
- Identify and explore values
- Rank Values
- Make others aware of or affirm values
- Act on values
Clients hire coaches to help them set and achieve goals and success increases tremendously when goals mesh with values. The previous 4 core principles of ACT greatly impact the success of goal setting and attainment. When goal setting with clients focus on their core values, what is most important to them and ensure goals that are set are realistic and incorporate measureable objectives. Each small step should be celebrated and any setbacks be used as a learning experience. Help clients define their goals using the formula “Who will do what/how much by when”. While guiding the client through the goal setting process ask questions about where they are now, what still needs to be done, what skills or resources they have to assist them in reaching their goal and explore and roadblocks that may arise along with possible solutions.
A powerful question in the ACT model that can assist clients from becoming stuck from unhelpful thoughts and mental roadblocks is: Is this thought/feeling helping me act in a way that is congruent with my values and goals and allowing me to reach my full potential?
The 5 principles outlined above serve as a starting point for coaches to implement ACT into their coaching practice. There is much more information and many more activities that would allow coaches to tailor this model to each unique client.
With fear and other negative self-talk and thoughts being a significant roadblock to achieving goals, coaches can use ACT to assist clients in becoming mindful of, accepting and defusing their negative thoughts and clarifying their values, thereby decreasing the internal struggle and increasing their willingness and commitment to achieving their goals and reaching full potential.
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