Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Acceptance and commitment therapy, known as ACT, offers a unique approach to mental well-being. Unlike traditional therapies focusing on managing or controlling negative emotions, ACT encourages embracing them.  

Understanding ACT

At its core, ACT is not about changing or eliminating difficult feelings. Instead, it promotes understanding and acceptance. 

Imagine feeling anxious about an upcoming interview. Rather than suppressing this anxiety, ACT teaches you to acknowledge it, understand its origin, and move forward without letting it influence your actions. 

ACT works effectively because avoiding your mental health issue might seem like a solution, but it is often a temporary fix. If you constantly dodge situations that make you uncomfortable, you miss out on valuable experiences. 

Instead, ACT equips you with tools to face these situations head-on. By accepting your emotions and committing to your values, you can create a more fulfilling life for yourself.

How ACT Works

ACT operates on two main principles: acceptance and commitment.

  1. Acceptance: Acceptance is about embracing every emotion, thought, or sensation without judgment. Think of it as giving yourself permission to feel without the added pressure of needing to ‘fix’ anything.
  2. Commitment: Once you have accepted your feelings, the next step is commitment. This means identifying your core values and taking actions that align with them, regardless of the emotions you might be feeling. For instance, if you value personal growth but fear change, ACT encourages you to pursue growth despite the fear.

Furthermore, ACT challenges the notion of suppressing painful emotions. Instead, it provides tools to accept these feelings. 

The theory says that fighting negative emotions increases distress. It encourages mindfulness, aligning actions with personal values, and behavioural change.

Core Principles of ACT

ACT’s primary objective is to improve psychological flexibility. This means engaging fully with the present moment and making choices that align with your values, even in the face of challenging emotions or thoughts.

The six core processes of ACT include: 

1. Acceptance

At the heart of ACT is the principle of acceptance. Acceptance involves actively embracing life experiences without unnecessarily changing their frequency or form. 

It is about accepting the negative emotions without ignoring or suppressing them, especially when doing so would cause more harm. 

For example, people with anxiety are often taught to feel all the emotional and physical signs when they feel anxious. They are guided through reflective techniques, to simply observe these changes caused by anxiety without immediately reacting or getting defensive. 

Similarly, people with chronic pain are guided to observe pain in multiple parts of their body from a place of curiosity and inquisitiveness. 

However, psychotherapy methods such as ACT and CBT would only help people with chronic pain to manage it better. They do require medications or other medical interventions for holistic support. 

Acceptance and diffusion (eg looking/observing thoughts rather than interacting with them) are used along with other core processes of ACT. 

2. Cognitive Diffusion

Cognitive diffusion emphasises altering our relationship with our thoughts. It is about understanding that thoughts are merely events in our minds, not definitive truths.

For example, imagine you are constantly preoccupied with thinking, “I’m not good enough.” Instead of trying to suppress or counteract this thought, cognitive diffusion teaches us to see it differently. 

Picture this thought as a cloud floating across your mind (you can think of your mind as your ‘mental sky’ to help with the process). The thought is there, but it does not define your entire sky. 

Another technique involves verbalising your thoughts repeatedly. By saying “I’m not good enough” aloud multiple times, you start to detach from its emotional weight. Over time, it becomes just a string of words and loses its initial impact. 

Alternatively, consider giving your thoughts a physical form. What colour or shape does “I’m not good enough” have? By doing this, you externalise the thought, making it something you can observe rather than something that consumes you. 

Labelling is another powerful tool used in cognitive diffusion. Instead of dwelling on the thought, you can say, “I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough.” This simple shift in perspective creates a distance between you and the thought and allows you to view it objectively.

3. Being Present

Being present is about fully engaging with the here and now. Instead of getting lost in thoughts about the past or future, ACT encourages a mindful awareness of the present moment. 

For instance, imagine savouring every bite of a meal rather than thinking about tomorrow’s to-do list or watching a series on Netflix. 

This approach creates a deeper connection with our surroundings and inner experiences. By being present, we can observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment. 

Moreover, being present allows for greater flexibility in our actions. Our actions align more closely with our core values when we are attuned to the present. 

Instead of reacting impulsively, we respond thoughtfully. For example, in a heated discussion, being present can help you listen actively and respond with understanding. 

In essence, ACT works on the idea of ‘self as process’. It means recognising and describing our inner experiences, thoughts, and events. 

4. Self as Context

Self as context (also known as ‘the observing self’) is a framework that focuses on concepts such as ‘I versus You’ and ‘Now versus Then’. Both these concepts are known as relational thoughts. 

In other words, the framework emphasises that we are not our thoughts or feelings. Instead, we are the ‘consciousness’ observing our experiences. 

Unlike other techniques, the self as context takes a spiritual angel to represent and understand our verbal interactions. 

Self as context has shaped the foundation for both ACT and relational frame theory (RFT). 

The observing self focuses on the ‘I’ perspective that evolves from several moments of perspective-taking relations (known as deictic relations in RFT). 

In simpler terms, it is the way we understand and relate to the world based on our point of view and the point of view of others. (ie looking at the world from a first-person and third-person perspective).

However, our self-awareness is like a background or setting from which we communicate. What we’re aware of is never the main topic, but the ideas usually exist in our subconscious mind. 

Read: Practising Self-Compassion

Even science shows that it is pretty hard to identify where or how our self-awareness starts and ends. 

Yet, our self-awareness helps us in several different ways. When we see ourselves as a ‘viewer’ or ‘observer’ (which is the ‘self as context’ idea), we can look at our feelings and thoughts without getting too caught up in them.

Observing our experiences, rather than actively engaging in them, can offer us a fresh perspective. 

Through the observing self, we might easily accept things as they are without getting too emotional. 

Professional Therapists in Singapore can help you develop and strengthen this way of looking at yourself and your experiences.

5. Values

In ACT, values are the guiding principles for meaningful action. They represent what truly matters to an individual – and it goes beyond fleeting desires or societal pressures.

For example, imagine you are choosing between a job that pays a lot but is far away and another that is nearby but pays less. ACT helps you figure out what truly matters to you. 

Instead of thinking, “I should want this because everyone says so,” you will begin to ask, “What do I really want?” 

ACT does not influence your choices, but it helps you gain clarity on what aligns with your core values. Therapists help you acquire tools, like acceptance and diffusion, to get rid of confusing thoughts. 

In short, ACT helps you live a life that feels right to you, based on your deepest beliefs and desires.

6. Committed Action

ACT places a significant emphasis on ‘Committed Action’. It is about taking steps that align with one’s core values, even when facing challenges.

For example, imagine you value health but struggle with morning jogs. Committed action means going for that morning run even when you feel too lazy to get up from the bed. 

It helps you align your actions with your values. In other words, it helps you push through that initial reluctance because health matters to you.

ACT incorporates many familiar techniques like exposure, skills acquisition, and goal setting to help with personal development. However, the distinction lies in the approach. While traditional methods might focus on achieving specific goals, ACT emphasises values-driven actions.

For instance, while a goal might be to read ten books this year, the underlying value could be lifelong learning. Goals are milestones, and values are the journey. 

But as with any journey, you may face obstacles. This is where ACT helps you with evidence-based techniques. 

What to Expect in ACT Therapy

In ACT therapy, the initial focus is on understanding your core values with the guidance of your Singaporean psychologist

Each subsequent session involves a retrospective examination of your week. Along with your therapist, you will highlight actions that align with your values and address those that deviated.

If you acted differently from your values, you would explore the root causes of your actions. Using ACT techniques, the therapist will help you handle difficult thoughts and feelings without getting overwhelmed.

Your therapist will teach you about acceptance and how to separate yourself from your thoughts. This helps you react less to negative thoughts and focus more on your values.

You will also practise guided mindfulness, which is about being present and aware without judging yourself. Your mental health therapist will give feedback and help you align your actions with your values.

Outside the therapy environment, you may be given specific tasks. These assignments, such as mindfulness and self-care tools, are designed to reinforce and apply the insights gained during your sessions.  

What Can ACT Help With?

ACT offers a transformative approach to various psychological challenges. Let us delve into its key applications:

Stress Management

Stress can be overwhelming and often leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. ACT equips individuals with tools to embrace and observe stress rather than resist it. This helps reduce stress symptoms.  

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD can trap individuals in repetitive behaviours and thoughts. ACT helps in recognising these patterns. 

It also helps detach and view them as mere thoughts and not as something that influences or directs behaviours. This detachment helps people with OCD to control their thoughts and actions better.

Eating Disorders

Disordered eating often stems from deep-rooted beliefs and emotions. ACT helps individuals confront these issues. 

People with eating disorders develop a healthier relationship with food by accepting these emotions and committing to value-based actions.


Phobias are having a fear of a specific object or situation. Fear can be extremely overwhelming. 

ACT helps the individual coexist with their fear rather than aiming to eliminate it completely. 

Through ACT tools and gradual exposure, the person will learn to confront their fears mindfully and realistically. 

Relationship Issues

Couples can face several problems in their relationship, such as communication issues, arguments, and so on. 

ACT tools can help couples develop realistic couple goals. Couples can learn how to communicate honestly and respect each other’s values through scientific tools.


Low self-worth can be paralysing. Through ACT, individuals learn to detach from negative self-perceptions.

Online Singaporean Therapists help people recognise that their worth is not tied to their thoughts. One can develop a more compassionate and realistic self-image by detaching from negative self-judgments.


Post-traumatic stress can be debilitating. ACT aids in accepting the traumatic experience and helps people to move forward with their lives.

Workplace Challenges

Acceptance and commitment therapy uses experiential exercises (ie activities based on personal experience to encourage positive psychological change) to manage and cope with workplace stressors like conflicts, communication issues, and burnout. 

Personal Growth

Other than specific issues, an ACT Therapist can also help improve their client’s overall personal development. 

Personal development could include self-awareness, assertiveness, confidence, working on self-image and self-worth. 

Some tools to encourage growth include mindfulness, clarity, and intentional actions (ie something you actually want to do).

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Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) | TYHO | Talk Your Heart Out