Steven C. Hayes is a clinical psychologist who pioneered ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ (ACT). ACT is a type of behavioral therapy, with its core philosophy which revolves around (1) changing one’s relationship with their thoughts and feelings rather than trying to change their content, and (2) turning towards one’s suffering in a way that is non-judgmental and compassionate.
The book ‘A Liberated Mind’ (2019), is a distillation of the principles of ACT. It attempts to teach the readers a set of skills that they can use to develop what the author describes as ‘psychological flexibility.’
Read this book summary in 10 Minutes
A Liberated Mind Summary
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“Over the last thirty-five years, my colleagues and I have studied a small set of skills that say more about how human lives will unfold than any other single set of mental and behavioral processes previously known to science. That is not an exaggeration. In over one thousand studies, we’ve found that these skills help determine why some people thrive after life challenges and some don’t, or why some people experience many positive emotions (joy, gratitude, compassion, curiosity) and others very few. They predict who is going to develop a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression, trauma, or substance abuse, and how severe or long-lasting the problem will be. These skills predict who will be effective at work, who will have healthy relationships, who will succeed in dieting or exercise, who will rise to the challenges of physical disease, how people will do in athletic competition, and how they will perform in many other areas of human endeavor.
This set of skills combines to give us psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the ability to feel and think with openness, to attend voluntarily to your experience of the present moment, and to move your life in directions that are important to you, building habits that allow you to live life in accordance with your values and aspirations. It’s about learning not to turn away from what is painful, instead, turning toward your suffering in order to live a life full of meaning and purpose.
Wait, turning toward your suffering? That’s right. Psychological flexibility allows us to turn toward our discomfort and disquiet in a way that is open, curious, and kind. It’s about looking in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way at the places in ourselves and in our lives where we hurt, because the things that have the power to cause us the most pain are often the things we care about most deeply. Our deepest yearnings and most powerful motivations lie hidden inside our most unhealthy defense systems. Our impulse is usually either to try to deny our pain, by suppression or self-medication, or to get caught up in dwelling on it through rumination and worry, allowing it to take charge of our lives. Psychological flexibility empowers us to accept our pain and live life as we desire, with our pain when there is pain.
I believe psychological flexibility is a means of achieving human liberation; it is the counterweight that people need to rise to the increasing challenges of the modern world. And hundreds of studies show that the skills that allow us to develop psychological flexibility can be learned, to a degree even through books such as this one.” (P18; Steven Hayes, A Liberated Mind).
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Measuring Psychological Flexibility
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Psychological Flexibility & The Need To Pivot
In his book, Steven Hayes details the specific set of practices that one can use to cultivate psychological flexibility. He labels these practices as ‘pivots.’
Hayes explains: “I’ve dubbed the initial moves to embrace these practices ‘pivots’ because the word pivot in English comes from an old French word that referred to the pin in a hinge. Pivots in hinges take the energy that is headed in one direction and immediately redirect it in another. When we pivot, we take the energy inside an inflexible process and channel it toward a flexible one.”
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Pivot #1 DEFUSION
“Cognitive fusion means buying into what your thoughts tell you (taking them literally, word for word) and letting what they say dictate what you do.
On the contrary, defusion is seeing thoughts as they actually are —ongoing attempts at meaning-making—and then choosing to give them power only to the degree that they genuinely serve us. This flexibility skill involves just noticing the act of thinking, without diving in. Our made-up word for “just noticing” is defusion. With this ability to distance from our thoughts, we can begin to free ourselves from our negative thought networks.”
Pivot: “I struggle with my thoughts and feelings” => “I willingly accept my thoughts and feelings even when I don’t like them”
Exercise: Give Your Mind a Name and Listen to It Politely
Give Your Mind a Name and Listen to It Politely “If your mind has a name, then it is different from “you.” When you listen to someone else, you can choose to agree with what they say or not, and if you don’t want to cause conflict, it’s best not to try to argue the person into an agreement with you. That is the posture you want to take with your internal voice. Process work has shown that naming your mind helps with this. I call mine George. Pick any name you like. Even Mr. Mind or Ms. Mind will do. Now say hello to your mind using its new name, as if you’re being introduced to it at a dinner party. If you are around others, you can do this entirely in your head—no need to freak people out.”
Exercise: Appreciate What Your Mind Is Trying to Do
“Now listen to your thoughts for a bit, and when your mind starts to chatter, answer back with something like “Thanks for that thought, George. Really, thank you.” If you speak to your mind dismissively, it will continue right on problem-solving. Be sincere. You might want to add, “I really get that you are trying to be of use, so thank you for that. But I’ve got this covered.” If you’re alone, you could even say this out loud. Note that your mind will probably push back with thoughts like That’s silly. That won’t help! Respond again with, “Thanks for that thought, George. Thank you. I really do see how you are trying to be of use.” You could also even invite more comments with dispassionate curiosity: “Anything else you have to say?”
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Pivot #2 THE SELF AS AN OBSERVER
Involves noticing the narrative that we’ve constructed about ourselves and forming a different perspective. Hayes describes the process as connecting more deeply with a perspective-taking self—which is a sense of observing and witnessing with a degree of detachment.
Pivot: “The person that I call me, are my thoughts and feelings about myself” => “The person that I call me knows what I’m thinking and feeling but is detached from them”
Exercise: Distinction Between Awareness and the Content of Awareness
“Take a breath or two, notice who is noticing that sensation, and then note your experience. Whatever your mind settles on—an external object, an internal sensation, a thought, a feeling, a memory, or so on—get clear on it. Then restate the experience in three forms: first, “I am aware of [state the content],” and then, after a pause, add “I am not [state the content],” and then after another pause, add “I contain awareness of [state the content].” For example, “I am aware of the television. I am not the television. I contain awareness of the television” Or “I am remembering a memory of being five. I am not a memory. My awareness contains a memory of being five.” Five or ten minutes is plenty of time for this exercise, and after the first engagement with it, you should practice it regularly for several days. Then, for ongoing practice, you can simplify the task. Just notice the experience and then state “I’m not that; my awareness contains that.” Don’t get drawn into an argument—instead, see if you can touch a deeper awareness that your attachment to any content is distinct from awareness itself.” (P182; Steven Hayes, A Liberated Mind.)
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Pivot #3 ACCEPTANCE
Be willing to experience difficult thoughts and emotions even when they seem painful and create a sense of vulnerability.
Pivot: “I constantly struggle with my thoughts and feelings” => “I willingly accept my thoughts and feelings even when I don’t like them”
Exercise: Say ‘Yes’
“A core skill in acceptance is to be willing to have events be what they are. You can start practicing just by looking around. As your eyes land on anything, see what it feels like to look at it from the point of view of “no” meaning “no, that’s no good; that has to change; I want that the hell out of here; that is unacceptable.” Simply look at a specific thing you see, and mentally adopt a “no” approach to it, then move to another item as you scan the room and do the same, over and over. Do this for a couple of minutes.
Now repeat the scan but this time do it from the perspective of “yes” meaning “yes, that’s OK; that is just like that; it does not have to change; I can allow that to be just as it is.” Simply look at a specific thing you see, mentally adopt a “yes” approach to it, then move to another item as you scan the room and do the same, over and over. Do this for a couple of minutes.”
Take a pause and see if you can sense how different the world seems inside ‘yes’ versus ‘no.’ ” (P198; Steven Hayes, A Liberated Mind.)
Exercise: A Wider View
“Feeling something painful or difficult tends to cause us to focus our attention narrowly, allowing pain or fear to loom large in our minds. If we bring a wider perspective to the experience, we can more effectively open up to the gift buried inside it. Take some time to conjure up a difficult experience, bringing it fully to mind, and then consider these questions.
- Is there a specific bodily sensation that is associated with this experience, and can you say “yes” just to that sensation? Give yourself a minute to consider that and to see if you can. Don’t rush.
- Is there a specific thought associated with this experience, and can you say “yes” just to that thought? Think that thought as a thought and drop any sense of struggle with it. Just notice it.
- If you were to look back on your life from a wiser future, would you say there is something in this experience for you to learn from? Pause with this question. Don’t get all mind-y. Don’t try to figure it out or second-guess yourself. Just gently look to see, from a distant and wiser you, what might be inside this experience that would help you on your path?
- What does this experience and your struggles with it suggest you deeply care about? In your pain, you find your values: what does this painful area say about your values and vulnerabilities? What does it suggest about what you want?
- If someone else you care about was struggling with an experience like this, how would you feel? What might you suggest that they do? Picture a friend with the same issue and allow yourself to connect with both of these questions. How do you feel about them, knowing they have this issue? What would you say to them about what they might do?
- What would you have to do to let go of a struggle with this experience? You picked something you say “no” to—what would you have to give up in order to let go of an attachment to that “no”? This is a subtle question: don’t rush your answer. Open up all of your channels of sensing and being aware. Try to feel the answer more than overthink it. Is there something there you are holding on to?
- If you could feel this experience without defense, what would you be able to do in your life? Allow yourself to reach out and dream. Imagine you could take the experience along with you for an adventure. If you could, what journey would that be?”
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Pivot #4 PRESENCE
Requires pivoting away from attention driven by past and future towards attention in the present.
The main reason as to why our mind tends to revert into the past and future, as Hayes tells us, is because of a yearning to know where we are in our life’s journey. In one way, it is a yearning for orientation. “No one wants to be lost,” writes Hayes, “If you suddenly found yourself in a strange place, you’d look around hard, trying to figure out how to get back. The problem is that instead of orienting us to where we actually are and the opportunities we have, our problem-solving mind tries to orient us by ruminating about what’s happened in our past and worrying about what will happen in our future. We get fixated on questions like “Why am I here? and “How can I get somewhere else?” and “What’s going to happen? How can I control it?” We are mired in the cognitive weeds of our minds.”
Pivot: “I spend most of my time lost in thought about the past/future” => “I purposefully pay attention to what’s happening in the present moment”
Exercise: Simple Meditation
“A wonderfully simple method of meditating was laid out by a friend of mine from graduate school, Raymond Reed Hardy, in his book Zen Master. What he suggests is not new—it is just the simplest possible beginning. Here are the instructions. Sit down, back straight, eyes slightly open, cast your eyes downward at a forty-five-degree angle, and maintain a soft focus (don’t sharpen your visual attention to any particular point). If you are uncomfortable sitting cross-legged, sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Allow your mind to come to rest on your breath. Each time you find your mind has drifted away, release it from that train of thought and then allow it to settle again on the breath. That’s it. Do it for a few minutes a day.
How can such a simple practice work? It builds your attentional muscles. Each time you notice that your mind has wandered, you are strengthening your ability to notice and to regain focus.” (P221; Steven Hayes, A Liberated Mind.)
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Pivot #5 VALUES
Requires pivoting from socially compliant goals to chosen values. It involves discovering what is truly important to you.
Pivot: “I do not know what I want from life” => “I am clear as to what I choose to value in life”
Exercise: Values Writing
First, choose a set of values that you deem are important to you. Examples include Freedom, Responsibility, Courage, Productivity, Family, Commitment, Passion, Education, Open-Mindedness, Patriotism, Service to Others, Perseverance, etc.
Second, order the values according to their importance. Then, write about each value for 10 minutes as to why it is important to you. Use the following g questions as a guide:
- What do I care about in this area?
- What do I want to do in this area that reflects that caring?
- When in my life has this value been important?
- What might I do to manifest this value more in my life?
- When have I violated this value and has that been costly?
Hayes further advises: “Try to focus your writing on the qualities of your life as you want to live it—qualities of your own that you hold as being of intrinsic importance. This is between you and you; it’s not about seeking approval or following a bunch of rules. You are not trying to avoid guilt or tell a self-justifying story.
Exercise: Writing Your Story
“This is a slight modification of the values writing task. Before I ask you to write, though, I want you to think. Imagine that the next year is going to be a key year in defining who you are in your life. If you were to become more fully you during this year, while at the same time still supporting those you care about, what would your process of “becoming more fully you” look like over this next year? Where do you wish to grow? What kind of person are you yearning to be? If you were writing the chapter of the next year of your life, what would the theme be? Now that you have the set, do ten minutes of writing about the next year and what you hope to become.” (P235; Steven Hayes, A Liberated Mind)
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Pivot #6 ACTION
Being committed to pursuing goals that you value.
Pivot: “I do not act on the things I care about” => “I identify the actions I need to take to pursue valued goals and I see them through”
Exercise: Make Small Adjustments
“The wonderful (and terrible) thing about human behavior is that it tends to support itself. Lives fall into behavioral patterns. We do what we do because it’s what we’ve always done. This can become problematic for all the reasons described: we can fall into psychologically rigid habits. But small behavioral direction changes can build to create a huge change in direction over time. The trick is to calibrate your efforts. Initially, it’s best to make changes that are simple and quick. If you want to read more and watch television less, start with no television after work until you’ve read for thirty minutes. Even if the commitment you’ve decided on is small, it can help to make it smaller still. Make it fifteen minutes of reading, or cut out a single show you think is mindless but you find yourself watching anyway….
It does not matter how small it is. You’re making progress.” (P248, Steven Hayes, A Liberated Mind)
Exercise: Work New Habits into Established Routines
“It is wise to create new behavioral habits that are initially anchored to your regular activities so that they can cue the new behavior. It is far easier to combine habits than to swap them out cold. For example, suppose you want to eat more fruit and less refined sugar but you find that you are regularly eating a cookie soon after you wake up. If you have a morning coffee, you might focus on creating a habit of grabbing an apple as you grab your coffee, taking it to your favorite chair, and taking a small bite before your first sip.
Or suppose you want to be more effective in managing your work habits. You might set a goal of answering all e-mails each day so your inbox doesn’t get overstuffed. Soon you’ll likely have some tough days and not get them all answered, and you might then just give up. If instead, you established a habit of answering e-mails for, say, thirty minutes over your morning coffee (with an apple!), that e-mail habit would be easier to establish.”