What is Acceptance & Commitment Therapy? - Definition & Techniques

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is an approach for dealing with negative emotions, memories, etc. This lesson will discuss the definition and some techniques related to ACT.

Good Morning...or Is It?

It's morning, and you can't face it. You think about the day ahead, and find yourself thinking fondly of cliffs and bridges to jump off of. As you wander through less-than-merry thoughts of hari-kari or death from chocolate overdose, you begin to ask yourself some questions.

Why am I feeling so down?

What is wrong with me?

Whose fault is this?

How am I going to get through the day?

You've heard them all before. Day after day, these same questions come up--no answers, just questions.

What Is Acceptance Commitment Therapy?

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is an approach for dealing with difficult thoughts, emotions, memories, sensations, etc. Using a simple three-step process, ACT utilizes the fact that you can step away from the part of you that is feeling the way you do, noticing, accepting, and even embracing what that person is going through from an objective perspective. The ACT acronym may be used to remember the steps: Acceptance, Choosing a valued direction, and Taking action.


You feel terrible! That's so sad. You have lots of good reasons to feel that way, and can definitely see why you do, but it's going to ruin your day. Accepting an emotion for what it is, experiencing it, and allowing it to exist, is the first step in the ACT process.

Choose a Valued Direction

Now, you're ready to look at the possibilities, based not on the emotions you're feeling, but rather on your core values. Every one of us has fundamental desires and needs. We want something. We have core values, ideas, principles, people, and things that matter to us.

Well, let's see. While your other half is over there feeling miserable, you'll look back at your core values. What matters to you? What are the ideas, principles, people, and things that you care about? Well, maybe you want some coffee; coffee matters.

This may be starting to sound a little crazy, but the human mind has the capability of creating and adopting as many personas as it may need to deal with a situation. Just because you're talking to yourself doesn't mean you're nuts!

At this point, you might want to say, ''Nothing matters!'', but you'll shrug it off and continue. Now you want some breakfast; breakfast matters!

Taking Action

At this point, your thoughts have turned to ideas of coffee and breakfast, and you are now able to spring (or drag yourself) into action. You head for the coffee pot, start up the stove, visualize the food and drink that are coming, and re-focus your thoughts away from the emotions that started your day. You feel better already!

This a very superficial example of the ACT steps, and psychotherapists introduce much more advanced versions of the theory, but the idea is the same:

1. Accept the emotions, memories, thoughts, or other internal events that are taking place. Allow them to be real.

2. Choose a different direction; one that moves you toward something you value.

3. Take action, making that direction a reality.

You reverse the negative spiral. Instead of dwelling on the negative emotions, allowing them to establish a downward direction for your thoughts and actions, you deliberately change the direction and focus on what really matters to you.

ACT Techniques

Psychology offers many effective techniques for applying the ACT process and reversing a negative spiral.

Techniques for the Acceptance Phase

Identifying the destructive thoughts and behaviors is the first step in reversing the process and establishing a positive cycle. As you look through your day, you are looking for triggers, behavior, and consequences.

  • Trigger--What brings the emotion to mind? How does that emotion make itself known?
  • Behavior--What behavior takes place when that emotion hits?
  • Reinforcer--What 'reward' causes the cycle to continue? What consequences act as a reward system (sympathy, relief through chemicals, relief of pressure through avoidance)?

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