I still remember the mental prison that accompanied my eating disorder: the non-stop calorie counting, body checking, comparison, and constant planning on how to keep doing it all “right” while somehow staying afloat in the rest of my life. For me, this actually became my biggest motivation for getting help and working toward recovery. I wish that, when I was going through that process, I had known about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and its realistic approach for how to deal with difficult thoughts.
These days when I teach ACT concepts to my clients, they often express a sense of relief and curiosity as they realize, “So, you’re saying it’s normal that I can’t just stop or change my thoughts? But if I can’t… then what do I do with them?” ACT asserts that, not only do we have limited ability to control and avoid internal thoughts and feelings, but that when we try to, we often create much more suffering for ourselves. Thus, it confronts this “control agenda,” challenges us to ask ourselves which of these control strategies are actually “workable” and which aren’t (many — like ED behaviors —often take us further from a meaningful life), and offers alternate ways of dealing with those uncomfortable internal experiences as we acknowledge the truth that we can’t just “get rid of them” like we want.
In ACT, we’re less concerned with proving whether or not a thought is true and more concerned with looking at what happens when we become “fused” with it.Think of the common ED thought, “I’m so fat.” Even if that thought isn’t objectively true, simply being told that by someone else doesn’t really help. And if you are considered overweight by certain medical standards, you could say “see, it’s true! So I am totally justified in beating myself up all day.” Not so fast. Because what happens when you beat yourself up about that (when you get totally fused with that thought)? You feel discouraged, eat more, and then say, “see, exactly. I’m disgusting.” As one of my favorite cartoons says, “Hate is not a magic wand that shrinks thighs.”
So, again, we’re more concerned about whether the thought is workable than whether it’s true or false. Sometimes, being fused with thoughts is okay; for example, when you’re totally engrossed in your creative work, a movie that you’re watching, a game you’re playing with friends. But often, we find that the thoughts we fuse with are not workable — they’re getting in the way of living and negatively impact your choices.
But if we can’t just get rid of them like we’d want, then what?