By Paige Mandel MS, RD
Often times, many thoughts rise to the surface when we begin to think about food and our bodies. Whether it is food or non-food related, as we go throughout our day, we talk to ourselves and tend to label our experience instinctively, defining ourselves by our associated feelings. Once you create this label in your head, you believe that thought to be a truth, and you start to draft your narrative.
In approaching food decisions, eating a meal, looking in the mirror, getting dressed, or just going about your day, your perception of the physical body is magnified by your thoughts and feelings, amplifying negative self-talk which could trigger anxiety and/or guilt. The more you allow yourself to act on these negative thoughts, the more your narrative adapts to this perception versus reality. This is where the work comes in. It’s entails enhancing quality of life and mindfully acting upon core values rather than self-perceptions. Enter, Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT).
ACT is a therapy that uses your learned experiences, and creates distance from the uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unwanted thoughts or feelings which ultimately provides an effective tool for you to handle them when encountered. This distance from perception creates space for meaningful quality of life. There are six core principles of ACT meant to guide you in learning to accept your inner thoughts by committing to your core values and shifting your narrative to yield a more enjoyable, mindful life.
ACT trainer Russel Harris, eloquently defines the six principles1 :
1. Cognitive Defusion: learning to perceive thoughts, images, memories and other cognitions as what they are—nothing more than bits of language, words and pictures—as opposed to what they can appear to be—threatening events, rules that must be obeyed, objective truths and facts.
Step 1: Bring to mind an upsetting and recurring negative self-judgment that takes the form “I am X” such as “I am incompetent,” or “I’m stupid.” Hold that thought in your mind for several seconds and believe it as much as you can. Now notice how it affects you.
Step 2: Now take the thought “I am X” and insert this phrase in front of it: “I’m having the thought that….” ‘Now run that thought again, this time with the new phrase. Notice what happens.
In step 2, most people notice a “distance” from the thought, such that it has much less impact. Notice there has been no effort to get rid of the thought, nor to change it. Instead the relationship with the thought has changed—it can be seen as just words.
For instance, when approaching a fear food, a food you have inherently labeled as “bad” for whatever reason, your instinct may be to avoid this food as that alternative may seem easier in the moment. For the sake of example, let’s call this food pizza. In this case, avoiding the pizza will make it even harder to allow yourself to eat it in future situations, let’s say at a social gathering or restaurant. Such avoidance keeps you from pursuing your values and goals, of “normal eating,” allowing all foods to have a place in your intake. Yet, when you implement ACT, you force your self-dialogue off track to be curious about the situation in front of you. If your self-talk narrates “I am gross because I ate the pizza/if I eat the pizza,” or try rephrasing that dialogue to “I am having the thought that I am gross because I ate the pizza/if I eat the pizza.” This rephrasing does not avoid the uncomfortable experience, but rather creates distance from your self-perception and reality, explicitly stating that you are simply having a thought, just like the many thoughts and ideas that run through your head throughout the day, as opposed to a characterization of your reality.
2. Acceptance: making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations, urges, and other private experiences; allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention.
3. Contact with the present moment: bringing full awareness to your here-and-now experience, with openness, interest, and receptiveness; focusing on, and engaging fully in whatever you are doing.
4. The Observing Self: accessing a transcendent sense of self; a continuity of consciousness that is unchanging, ever-present, and impervious to harm. From this perspective, it is possible to experience directly that you are not your thoughts, feelings, memories, urges, sensations, images, roles, or physical body. These phenomena change constantly and are peripheral aspects of you, but they are not the essence of who you are.
5. Values: clarifying what is most important, deep in your heart; what sort of person you want to be; what is significant and meaningful to you; and what you want to stand for in this life.
6. Committed Action: setting goals, guided by your values, and taking effective action to achieve them.”
You may notice that your commitment to your core values rather than your self-perception will create space for you to act as your most authentic self. These small shifts in language translate to larger shifts in self-compassion, self-acceptance and a more fulfilling quality of life.
1. Leader in training videos for mental health professionals Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): An Overview. https://www.psychotherapy.net/article/Acceptance-and-Commitment-Therapy-ACT