How Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Can Help You Live on Purpose

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

~Mary Oliver

It’s not news to you that we only get one life. We all know there are no “do overs”. And despite knowing this, many of us spend our lives not fully present. We get stuck in a pattern of living on autopilot—mindlessly going through the day, rushing from one menial task to the other. Our days become ruled by obligations and rigid routines. We’re always distracted, always busy, and forever multitasking. There’s never enough time. We rarely, if ever, pause to check in with ourselves—to truly know how we feel and what’s important to us. And all the while, we never truly experience the abundance of joy and fulfillment this one precious life has to offer. We allow our emotions to control our lives. We spend our days desperately seeking immediate pleasure and avoiding fear and anxiety at all cost. Can you relate? Does any of this sound familiar? As one of my mentors, Dr. Robyn Walser often remarks, “That is one way to live a life.” It’s true. Being on autopilot is one way to live a life. The question is: Is this the way you want to live your one wild and precious life?

If you answered “no,” there is good news: You can wake up from autopilot! At any given moment, you can decide that you want to change the course of your one precious life.

“Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me.”

~Carol Burnett

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hays, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) is one therapeutic approach that can support you in shifting from being a passenger in your own life to jumping in the driver’s seat. The goal of acceptance and commitment therapy is to help you live a more flexible life—a life where you are fully present, embracing the good, the bad, and the ugly, and spending your time doing what matters most to you. A flexible life is one that is lived outside of your comfort zone. It is not governed by rigid rules or limiting habits and patterns. When we live flexibly, we accept the reality that pain—physical and emotional pain— is an inevitable human experience. We do not go out of our way to avoid pain and we don’t become consumed by our pain. Rather than allowing painful thoughts, feelings, and sensations to dictate your life, ACT helps you to align your actions with your values, in spite of how you feel. With ACT, no matter how anxious, tired, worried, or sad you feel, you can still do what is important to you. Changing thoughts and feelings is not a prerequisite for living a meaningful life. The focus in ACT is changing how you respond and relate to painful and undesirable thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations.

There are six core processes that ACT practitioners guide you through to help you live a more flexible life:

  1. Mindfulness—Being fully present in the here-and-now with gentleness, openness, and without judgement.
  2. Acceptance—Willingness to embrace the reality of what is without trying to make it different.
  3. Cognitive Defusion—Ability to detach from and observe painful thoughts rather than automatically accepting them as true and becoming controlled by them.
  4. Self-as-Context—Ability to distinguish your identity, worth, and value, from painful thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Awareness that you are larger than any one experience.
  5. Values—Inner knowing of what is most important to you and what you want your life to stand for.
  6. Committed Action—Taking intentional action towards your values.

In the end, you will ultimately decide the quality of your life. ACT was developed to address a variety of life challenges and concerns. Therefore, no matter what challenges you are facing, you may find ACT to be beneficial in giving you the perspective and support needed to live your one life well. Although we will experience pain in life, there is also much joy, positivity, and fulfillment to be experienced. We just have to remember that we have control over our experience. We get to decide how we respond in the midst of our highs and lows. We create our lives from moment to moment by the actions we make, the perspective we take, and the habits we build. You only get one wild and precious life. Here is my wish for you:

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you be present on purpose.

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Robyn L. Gobin, PhD

Robyn L. Gobin, Ph.D is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor who specializes in interpersonal trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and women’s mental health in marginalized populations. Dr. Gobin earned her Ph.D. from the University of Oregon, and she has trained at the National Center for PTSD at the VA Boston Healthcare System, Brown University, and the San Diego VA. Her research focuses on reducing mental health stigma, understanding the cultural context of trauma survivorship, and alleviating the mental health effects trauma by developing and testing novel interventions. In her clinical practice, Gobin integrates mindfulness and acceptance-based therapies with evidence-based treatments for PTSD to promote healing among women and marginalized groups.