Research Paper By Michael Lewis
(Mental Wellness/Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
The default mode network (DMN) is a group of regions in the human brain that show lower levels of activity when engaged in tasks like paying attention, but higher levels of activity when awake and not involved in any specific mental focus. It is during these times that we might be daydreaming, recollecting memories, envisioning the future, monitoring the environment, thinking about the intentions of others, and so on. One could describe DMN as mind chatter.
In general, there are two very distinct elements to the human mind: the thinking self and the observing self. The thinking self is very active taking in sensory input, remembering past experiences, noticing feelings, imagining all kinds of possibilities, and creating stories about the person thinking, basically everything that happens in DMN. The thinking mind often gets it right for evidence shows that it has helped us survive thus far.
The observing self only comes into awareness when a person takes the time to watch what is going on with the thinking self and the present facts not interpretations of those facts. It looks at the process of thinking, the resulting feelings and motivations, and desired actions. The observing self sees the results. It can slow things down. The observing self knows as Victor Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The awareness of the observing mind is difficult for people to access at first. It is not our habitual way of experiencing the world involving stimulus-response cycles over and over. It takes work to access this observing self and a repeated choice to open up to its insight with an attitude of acceptance.
The possible outcomes of these two minds are clear. The thinking mind, while being highly efficient can often interpret things in a way that limits the person from accomplishing life’s tasks. We have all had experiences where our senses have been fooled, memories change with time, interpretations are proven wrong, feelings change from moment to moment, and imagined possibilities don’t exist yet.
As Steven Hayes, the creator of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) points out, “It’s not that we have a bad brain. We have a very good brain. We just have a very bad dictator.” The dictator is the voice of our thoughts that tells us what we think, believe, and feel are true and we should act upon them. ACT helps a person to get some distance from that dictator by accessing the observing mind and turning the thinking mind voice more into an informant just giving information that may or may not be helpful. As we are freed from the dictatorship, we get to choose and decide what is real, helpful, and works to our benefit.
Another innovator of ACT, Dr. Russ Harris defines psychological flexibility as “the ability to be in the present moment with full awareness and openness to our experience and to take action guided by our values. Put more simply, it’s the ability to ‘be present, open up, and do what matters.’ Technically speaking, the primary aim of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility.”He continues:
“The greater our ability to be fully conscious, to be open to our experience, and to act on our values, the greater our quality of life because we can respond far more effectively to the problems and challenges life inevitably brings. Furthermore, through engaging fully in our lives and allowing our values to guide us, we develop a sense of meaning and purpose, and we experience a sense of vitality. We use the word ‘vitality’ a lot in ACT, and it’s important to recognize that vitality is not a feeling; it is a sense of being fully alive and embracing the here and now, regardless of how we may be feeling in this moment. We can even experience vitality on our deathbed or during extreme grief.” (Harris, 2009, pg. 12)
Acceptance of all feelings regardless of whether we perceive them as positive or negative flies in the face of two very common beliefs about how we should be controlling our feelings. The first comes from business in the belief that to be effective in business you are not to show any negative emotion. An individual either needs to be stoic showing no emotion or cheerfulness. The second comes from pop psychology in believing that we should always be happy and seek in a Pollyanna way only experiences that support “good” feelings. The truth about emotions is that they are vibrations in the body, give important information to the individual, and whether we like it or not on the positive/negative emotional judgment scale if we were looking at percentages, the best we can hope for is a 50/50 split.
ACT is a more recent development in the tradition of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Some of the traditional methods of CBT did not prove to be all that effective for long term change and were along the lines of pop psychology. An example of this is the common practice of thought-stopping which entails that a person having a troublesome thought and resulting emotions to yell out “stop” to disrupt the train of thought. A rubber band on the wrist to be popped at the same time was added thinking that human thoughts were like objects that could just be done away with by will and then cemented with negative reinforcement. What has been found through research is that stopping a thought at the moment does not extinguish it but rather strengthens it to return later often with greater force.
ACT focuses not so much on changing or resisting thoughts and feelings but rather accepting them, experiencing them, and then performing a simple “pivot” to a more useful mindset based on a person’s values and then acting. With this as the fundamental underlying theorem, it’s not hard to see why it would be relatively easy to show efficacy as it focuses on what works for the individual by their standard for success.
There are six skills that ACT states are necessary to develop psychological flexibility. Rather than go into a definition of each of these which can be explained in many books, it might be more beneficial to read Dr. Hayes’ “cheat sheet”, which states the desired outcomes of the skills.
The six pivots/skills can be more simply summarized as the following:
- See our thoughts with enough distance that we can choose what we do next, regardless of our mind’s chatter. (defusion)
- Notice the story we’ve constructed of ourselves and gain perspective about who we are. (self-as-context)
- Allow ourselves to feel even when the feelings are painful or create a sense of vulnerability. (acceptance)
- Direct attention in an intentional way rather than by mere habit, noticing what is present here and now, inside us and out. (presence/mindfulness)
- Choose the qualities of being and doing that we want to evolve toward. (values)
- Create habits that support these choices. (action) (Hayes, 2019)
To further give a framework to see how the six skills are interconnected the following diagram comes from ACT Made Simple by Russ Harris and is referred to as the ACT Hexafelex. It exemplifies how the six skills developed in the ACT are meant to work together.
Dr. Hayes admits that even using a few or even one of these skills regularly will cause a significant shift in a person’s experience of life, but it is the use of all six that real lasting psychological flexibility is developed and a person experiences vitality. These are not practices that can be learned, used for a short time, and then discarded. Rather these skills are to be used daily and sometimes multiple times a day for a lifetime for there to be efficacy. Dr. Hayes himself admits he is the “master of defusion skills” and yet he finds himself daily experiencing fusion with his thoughts and feelings.
Within the ACT Model, there are specific exercises, which have been developed to learn and practice these skills with some exercises using multiple skills. An individual need not go to training or a therapist to learn the exercises, although Dr. Hayes does admit to getting the full mastery and insight it helps to go to a helper professionally trained especially when uncovering unpleasant emotional states. The skills benefit any human. At face value, some of the exercises seem odd because they are not things that we do daily or what would traditionally be considered practices to reduce symptoms. Rather, what is developed is a method to be flexible in any set of circumstances to pivot into a course of thought, feelings, and actions that most benefit the individual psychologically, socially, physically, and spiritually.
The ACT exercises have been researched and proven effective and described in many books. However, the reader is encouraged to check out one of the books or do a search on the Internet. The exercises are not kept secret. Dr. Hayes encourages people to start slow using only one or two for one particular set of the six pivots. Once a little bit of comfort with those, maybe for a week of use, try another pivot and one or two more exercises. The idea is to take small steps and also to pick the exercises each individual identifies with most so they feel comfortable creating the exercise as a habit.
How ACT methods apply to Coach
Susan David and Christina Congletonwrote an article for the Harvard Business Review that caught the attention of the business world as the next big movement in developing Emotional Intelligence (EQ). They credit the work of Dr. Hayes as the foundation for a four-step process they were using in a coaching capacity with business leaders. While this was applied to the business realm, Dr. David went on to continue presenting and writing so that the message could be brought to a larger audience in many online videos and in her book entitled Emotional Agility which has more specifics about the model described in the article.
Before the four steps can be applied, the authors spend time stating what all humans experience if they are honest with themselves. We tend to get “hooked” by our emotions and thoughts. The metaphor is of a fish biting a hook. It’s as if our thoughts and emotions act as bait, and we as a fish take the bait, bite, and then cannot let go because of the hook. David states the danger of staying hooked is that “Leaders stumble when they are paying too much attention to their internal chatter and allowing it to sap important cognitive resources that could be put to better use.” This corresponds to the ACT concept of fusion. The overall goal of their model is to become “unhooked” and then pivot/choose values informed path that is more functional and leads to ultimate success.
The four-step process is as follows:
- Recognize your patterns.
- Label your thoughts and emotions.
- Accept them.
- Act on your values.
While ACT has a therapeutic application with many exercises to develop psychological flexibility skills, this is a simple formula that is accessible to anyone, easy to remember, and not difficult to practice. That does not mean that there is no work to be done in developing this skill as it’s hard to even embark when hooked. The first step alone involves self-awareness and can be greatly advanced by feedback from a coach or another type of helper who takes the time to study the patterns people tend to get hooked by.
Common themes or problems that come up in coaching are one way to consider these patterns. Marion Franklin in her book The HeART of Laser-Focused Coaching: A Revolutionary Approach to Masterful Coaching has developed a list of 25 common themes that she presents in four categories including valuable insights, personal empowerment, creating connections, and eliminating obstacles. Her book expounds on each of these themes and explains how insightful questions can be developed for each to help a client move into self-awareness. She emphasizes that this can only be done when the coach stays in a “helicopter” viewpoint not getting hooked by the client’s story themselves.
A coach can also aid in the second step by simply asking the questions “how do you feel about that?” and “what do you think about that?”. Also, reflections and empathy that identify thoughts as thoughts and feelings as feelings will help a client to get awareness. Dr. David also presents a couple of easy statements that help a person get this awareness such as “I’m just thinking the thought that…” or “I’m just feeling the feeling…” For clients having difficulty identifying a feeling, there are feeling charts with faces or feeling wheels that can be of use.
The third step can be advanced by a coach keeping an impartial accepting presence and making observations about the client’s presentation without judgment. In this way, the coach models how to accept whatever is presented and when challenging or pointing out insights shows that acceptance does not equate agreement. This is very much like taking the role of the observing mind.
Finally, the fourth step can greatly be advanced by a coach assisting a client to identify what are the values that are important to them. Values often get uncovered in the coaching process. Sometimes values that are not genuinely reflective of what the client truly desires and clients then have a choice. Then ultimately, a coach can assist a client to design actions that honor their true values so they can start to experience vitality in their life and work.
David, Susan&Congleton, Christina. Emotional Agility. The Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2013.
David, Susan. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.Avery, 2016.
David, Susan video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/0_6hu6JLH98
Franklin, Marion. The HeART of Laser-Focused Coaching: A Revolutionary Approach to Masterful Coaching. Thomas Noble Books, 2019.
Harris, Russ. ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publishers, 2009.
Hayes, Steven C.. A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019.