I did something for my mental health today. I made plans.
Not the kind of “Zoom on Tuesday” plans, but real, tangible plans for the future.
Now, it took me a major screw-up at work to come to this realization. I had been doing things with no real trajectory or outcome set. In other words, I wasn’t living my life as a values-driven person making goal-oriented committed action. In other other words, I was floating around aimlessly and calling it work.
No wonder I didn’t feel so good.
As many know, I have been studying Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT – all one word, not an acronym, please) for a long time. That said, I still like to attend trainings with a beginner attitude. They never disappoint. Right now, I’m attending the ACT Immersion Intensive led by Dr. Steve Hayes himself. And his messages are coming along at just the right time. I could go on about how he put science in perspective for me, and how I didn’t know that he, too, got sick on one of his first interviews as an academic, but I’d digress. What I really want to talk about is values, defusion, and committed action. The cool thing is that you can tie all this back to and with behavior analysis.
Let’s talk values first. Values are what matters. Those things that in the long run are the ones that will make you most proud and content. What you want to be and be remembered for. I realized my biggest value is service – making people’s lives better with my research, writing, and clinical work. To teach others about behavior analysis. You can break down values even more finely, but that is the big one for me. Without people, I’m just a little lost. If you click on the link above, you’ll find some exercises to determine what your values are.
So, how can I make those into concrete behaviors/goals? Well, what does someone who serves others DO? Well, they do scholarship of consequence. Stuff that has impact on people’s lives, not just academics for the sake of academics. When I present or teach, am I using the best methods to disseminate the best evidence out there? Or am I recycling the same old thing year after year? When I work with clients, am I focused on the client right now, not the bills I have to pay or whatever comes after my session? Am I using the best evidence-based practices I can with this person? Am I assessing them within their context? I now have a ton of things I can work with, right?
I’m also not able to be of services when I’m sick. If I’m not at my best health, mentally or physically, I can’t do any of the above things well. Kind of well, maybe. Maybe one or two of those things. But I’ll crash and burn if I don’t care for the old engine in me. So it’s important I keep a good diet, exercise the recommended 150 minutes a week or more, and engage in regular leisure (I can never spell that word on the first try) and stress reduction activities. See this extra interesting article on long hours and your health. It is clear I need to leave the basement once in a while.
The next part is committed action. This is where it is easy to fall down on the job. Committed action means that you do those things you said you’d do, which in turn allows you to live your life with integrity. What gets in the way? Well, our mind tells us lies. Lies like “I’m not smart enough to publish this article.” Or “I can never lose the weight, so why even try?” Or, “do you understand that everyone thinks you suck?” Those lies are really powerful, and they are called fusion. They lead to us staying away from taking the big leap, also called experiential avoidance. The difficult thing is that those lies never really go away. You can’t unlearn them, you can’t thought stop them. So you have to learn to turn down the volume. The process of turning these thoughts down is defusion. I like to think of defusion like when I turn down the radio to see better when I’m looking for an address.
From there, I have to break down my goal behaviors into little chunks and take a small bite each day. The fusion is there in the form of self-doubt, but I will take steps not to let that stop me. I personally find the planners from Productive Flourishing pick up where the ACT processes leave off. So now, I have a clearer idea of where I need to go and how I need to behave to live my truth.
If you like audio exercises, try these. As always, I’m sharing my ideas, not endorsing anyone or providing clinical advice.
The cool thing is, all this taken together can really help you see clearly and make decisions about your life. It’s been shown in all kinds of studies and with all kinds of people (learn more at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science website). If you’re struggling with some big avoidance problems or the kind of fusion that comes from heavy trauma or mental illness, you are best served going through these processes with a trained therapist. However, if you are just trying to get your ACT together – see that pun? funny, right? – you can do much of this work on your own. A classic self-guided book is Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life.
Which is what I am about to do.