Barriers to action
Psychological barriers will inevitably arise in conversations about committed action.
There are four common barriers that can be summarised with the acronym FEAR.
F is for Fusion - Most typically clients will have unhelpful thoughts about all the things that could go wrong with their action plans. They will present arguments about why it is all too hard, hopeless, pointless or doomed to failure. This is an opportunity for practising Defusion.E is for Excessive goals – If our goals exceed our resources, we will quickly fail or give up. Necessary resources could include skills, time, money and physical health.A is for Avoidance of discomfort – Change usually give rise to uncomfortable feelings – most commonly anxiety. If we are not willing to accept this discomfort, we won’t move forward. We will just stay in our comfort zone. This is an opportunity for practising Acceptance.R is for Remoteness from values – If we lose touch with our values in the pursuit of goals the goals can lose meaning and importance, reducing our motivation. Perhaps the goal was never really based on our own core values, but reflected rules, morals or trends that we have picked up from outside of ourselves? Perhaps we never really connected with our values at an emotional level when we set the goal and we were just playing ‘lip service’?
Actively anticipating barriers helps us to prepare ourselves to deal with them. Hayes and Smith (2005) recommend writing down at least one possible barrier to the completion of each goal, or better still, writing down a barrier to the completion of each action associated with each goal.
Similarly Harris (2009) recommends writing down all the things that you are willing to make room for in order to achieve your goal. He suggests itemising: (i) thoughts/memories; (ii) feelings; (iii) sensations; and (iv) urges.
How to deal with barriers
“In an ACT approach you do not “get over” barriers or “get around” barriers. You do not even “get through” barriers. You “get with” barriers" (Hayes and Smith, 2005; p185).
The antidote to FEAR is DARE.
D is for Defusion – We identify the thoughts that hold us back and we defuse from them. Harris (2009; p211-212) provides a script to illustrate.A is for Acceptance – We make room for our painful thoughts and feelings, not because we like them or want them, but so that we can do what matters.R is for Realistic goals – If we lack the necessary resources we have two options. Option One is to create a new goal to acquire the necessary resources. If we lack the necessary skills we make a goal to learn them. If we lack the time we make a goal to rearrange our schedule. Option Two comes in if it is not possible to get the required resources. Then we have to accept the limitations of reality and change or adapt our goal in the best way possible.E is for Embracing values – If we are lacking in motivation, take some time to reflect on why we are doing this; why we are considering this committed action. What is important or meaningful about this action? Does it truly matter? If so why?
Even after we have practiced using these strategies with our barriers, the barriers will still remain. Our minds will tell us that the strategies are meant to get rid of the barriers, but the purpose is to make room for the barriers so that we can continue along our valued directions anyway.
Building patterns of effective action – If we look back over our past life, even before we started using ACT, we will recognise that we have already gone through many cycles of goal setting and encountering barriers. Many of these cycles will have resulted in us giving up on our goals or abandoning commitments that we have made.
Everyone breaks commitments at times. That is part of being human.
Hayes and Smith (2005; p187-188) outline several typical patterns around goal setting and commitments that most people will recognise. When we are affected by fusion and avoidance these patterns can evolve into larger and larger cycles that generalise across multiple domains of life:
- Make commitment – break commitment
- Make commitment – break commitment – quit commitment
- Make commitment – break commitment – quit commitment – feel bad about breaking commitment
- Make commitment – break commitment – quit commitment – feel bad about breaking commitment – fear making commitments – give up on making commitments
We can break this cycle by using the DARE strategies when we notice that we have made and broken a commitment. By defusing from unhelpful thoughts, accepting and making room for our guilty feelings, assessing the practicality of our goals, and reconnecting with our values we can start to build a more effective pattern of committed action.
Make a commitment – break a commitment – lick your wounds – pick yourself up – learn from the experience – get back on track - make another commitment
Off to the right is your old path of avoidance and control. This is the path were life is all about what your mind tells you. Your mind chatters on about dangers, risk, vulnerabilities and you become entangled in verbal predictions and evaluations. You’ve been down this path over and over and over again. It’s not your fault; you’ve done what any reasonable person would do. It just turns out not to be effective, vital, or empowering. “Sooner or later you find yourself back where you started, except now you are weakened. Life is a little bit smaller. More time has gone by, and somehow it’s as if your life hasn’t started. You not only have problems to deal with, but they are the same familiar deadening problems” (Hayes and Smith, 2005; p197).
The path to the left is the less travelled path of mindfulness, defusion, acceptance, and valuing what you really care about. Down this path is vulnerability and risk, but it is about something. You will still have problems but they will be new and challenging. You will still have pain. But while the pain to the right is suffocating and deadening while the pain to the left is bittersweet and intensely human.
Life is a choice. The choice here is not about whether or not you have pain. It is whether or not to live a valued and meaningful life.