Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Trying to Get Your Life Together will Just Make You More Stuck

Why learning to accept my un-balanced self, un-wholeness, and un-togetherness was one of the best things that I have ever done.

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What’s it like to be okay with who you are?

It’s taken me a long time, but I am okay that my life is not together, it’s not balanced, it’s not whole, and no… I am not on top of things.  What does all of this stuff really have to do with life anyway?

Balance is just bunk!

Think about it. Who really needs more balance training than we received when we were two? Between 2 and 92… you got it. (A few exceptions are learning to ride a bicycle, skiing, snowboarding or skateboarding.)

Now that I have accepted my un-balanced self, I am more flexible and less of a jerkish.

Balance is not something that most people should be concerned about unless we are ill or at an age where we need to be mindful of physical changes. Our bodies naturally takes care of balance on it’s own when you get a reasonable amount of exercise so that you maintain your strength and  flexibility. The key to aging well is not so much balance, but strength and flexibility. If you have these, the balance part usually takes care of itself.

I used to waste a lot of time trying to ‘balance’ my schedule, my energy and my thought life. Trying to be balanced just ended up causing a lot of conflict with my family because I was not balanced, I was inflexible, I was a slave to my routine and overall I was a bit of a jerk.

Now that I have accepted my un-balanced self, I am more flexible and less of a jerkish.

Our bodies have a lesson for us: when we work on building and maintaining our “psychological” flexibility and strength, our need to feel balanced won’t matter so much.

Being whole is a whole lot of BS

Being ‘whole’ is also pretty stupid. Most things in our world are not ‘whole.’ As soon as you drive a car off the lot, you lose $10,000. Your new car will collect scratches, scuffs, window chips and probably a few dents. Yet, you get into it every day and it gets you to where you want to go. No problem.

I am okay that my life is not together, it’s not balanced, it’s not whole, and no… I am not on top of things. What does all of this stuff really have to do with life anyway?

Your body doesn’t seem to worry if it it’s whole or not, unless your stomach is empty. Terrible situations happen and people experience illness or injury. They may lose limbs or have other damage to their bodies. They may have to learn how to do things differently, or learn different things… but most times they move on.

Recovering from the emotional part of our traumas can often take much longer to heal than our bodies. Emotional trauma can be more difficult to heal because we each react differently to our experience.

Being inflexible will sink your recovery… and your life

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

If balance and being whole won’t help, what gives? Recovery can teach us that being alive, being a human being “is to know that things are not as they should be and yet to care for them as they are” (Barbara Brown Taylor).

We have all heard the advice: Learn to accept what you cannot change. But what about when you want to change what I cannot accept?

The Serenity Prayer shows the tension between acceptance and change. Most times we think of our lives as either on track or messed up:

  • You are EITHER clean OR you have slipped, fallen or jumped into the canyon.
  • You are in recovery OR you are a junkie, addict or drunk. (Just for the record, I hate these terms because they are stigmatizing, harmful and inaccurate).
  • You are EITHER a good person OR you are a stupid-screwed-up-mess.
  • You are EITHER a good parent OR you are a parenting nightmare.
  • Your day is okay or it was hell.

Any of us can get hooked by rigid either/or thinking. When we are hijacked by our minds and our emotions, we may feel intense triggers to use, feel overwhelmed by anxiety or depression, or by memories that make us feel like we are a failure and no good.

Consider this quote by Steven Hayes, Kirk Stroshahl and Kelly Wilson, authors of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy,

“It is not our thoughts, or the quality of our thoughts that can make us unhealthy. It is a rigid attachment to our thoughts, a refusal to be flexible based on new information or new experience, that can make us unhealthy.”

Learning to be flexible

Our bodies have a lesson for us: when we work on building and maintaining our “psychological” flexibility and strength, our need to feel balanced won’t matter so much.

Flexibility is not only good for your body. The ability to be flexible and adjust yourself will help you more than all of your attempts at becoming balanced or whole. This is a skill that can be developed. It is called “Psychological Flexibility” and it will keep your mind and emotions healthy and growing.

“Psychological flexibility means having an adjustable mind or holding your thoughts lightly.”

Flexibility does not take a lot of work. Why not try an experiment?

Ask yourself, “Am I a both/and or an either/or person?” A minute ago, you read an “either/or” list. Now look at the both/and side:

  • You are BOTH in recovery AND working on yourself even it you feel like you have slipped, fallen or jumped into a canyon.
  • You are BOTH growing AND ALSO working through things like drinking or a mental illness or compulsive habits or a habit of lying
  • You are BOTH a parent makes mistakes and also a good parent
  • Your day is BOTH okay AND hell.
  • You have some ideas about how to live your life AND you are still learning.

Just notice the difference for you between the EITHER/OR and the BOTH/AND thinking. You don’t have to try to fix yourself or change how you talk. Begin by noticing. Often that is enough and awareness of how your words effect you will be enough.

If you enjoyed this post, consider reading some of my other work:

Are Your Words Getting in the Way of Your Life?

You don’t have to try and eliminate these words or any other words from your life. If you try to fight them, or get mad at yourself for using them, chances are the words will just hang on even harder.

How Will a Flexible Mind Support You in Your Healing?

An inflexible mind is like hardening of the arteries, only it’s your soul and your emotions that pay the price. You harden and the cracks drain away your life.

  • This article discusses what research shows about how psychological flexibility can help you improve your well being.

For more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, see this article by Deborah Serani, Psy.D.

I write articles about wellness, leadership, parenting and personal growth. My hope is to deliver the best content I can to inspire, to inform and to entertain. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing.

Lastly, if you like my writing, you can click here to vote for my page on Psych Central’s list of mental health blogs.

Keep it Real

Photo by Dave Humphrey


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