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Imagine 3 scenarios, one or more of which might be familiar to you:

  1. You’d like to go to the party, but you’re afraid people will reject or dislike you.
  2. You’d like to start a family, but you can’t shake the feeling that you won’t be a good parent.
  3. You’d like to excel in your profession, but you’re always struggling to meet deadlines, and worry that failure and disgrace await you in every meeting.

What grabs your attention in these three situations? Is it the fear, the struggle and worry? Or is it the conviviality of friends, the profound love of a parent for a child, and the satisfaction and rewards of a successful career? Would you rather work hard to get rid of the former or to embrace the latter? Or, a better question might be, which have you worked harder for in the past?

If you’re like most people with anxiety problems, your answer to the last question is clear: you’ve worked very, very hard to get rid of feelings of worry, fear, uncertainty, and shame. And maybe you’ve done this work because it seemed as if you needed to eliminate these obstacles before you could go after those things you wanted in your life. But what if you didn’t have to do that?

Imagine the previous 3 scenarios, but with a slightly different focus:

  1. You go to a party while fearing that people might reject or dislike you, and you find that somehow you’re big enough to carry fear with ease.
  2. You start a family while feeling that you might not be a good parent, and find that sweet moments with your children aren’t diminished in the slightest by feelings of inadequacy.
  3. You excel in your profession, all the while struggling to meet deadlines and feeling as if failure and disgrace await you at every meeting, but when you begin to discuss your struggles and feelings, you find out that both the most and least successful people you know feel much the same.

Pretty big difference, isn’t it? The second set of scenarios is certainly not all wine and roses. It hurts. It’s scary. At the end of the day, you’ve suffered —but you’ve also enjoyed the company of your friends, the thrill of watching your children grow up, and the accolades (and paychecks) that come with productive work. The difference between the first and second scenarios lies in your ability to bend, stretch, and extend yourself in the directions you want to go, even when those directions seem fraught with peril. The difference between the two is your psychological flexibility as you engage live your life. Increasing that flexibility in the service of what you value is the goal of ACT.

It won’t happen overnight. A lifetime of missing parties, fretting about the future, and sitting silently in meetings isn’t undone by knowing anything. Knowing, though, can precede doing. If any of this gives you a little space to move, it can help you start to wiggle. Wiggling can lead to stretching, stretching to stepping, stepping to striding— and when you can stride off in the direction you choose, you’re free.

ACT can’t shield you from the things that might go wrong in your life. It can’t protect you from disappointment, rejection, and loss. But ACT can help you open up to the richness of experience while living your life, and connect with a sense of purpose and direction that might, to this point, have been obscured by your struggle with anxiety. It can show you how to find the space you need to live your life in a way that matters to you, even while you remain, as ever, living in a world with its astonishing potential for both pain and joy.

Adapted from “Things might go terribly, horribly wrong : a guide to life liberated from anxiety” by Kelly G. Wilson and Troy DuFrene, 2010, New Harbinger Publications.


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