Back in February 2014, I published a piece here at ANC about how I first learned about the famed clinical psychologist and researcher, Dr. Steven C. Hayes, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. Here is what I wrote:
“I credit my current evolution as a therapist to a moment in February of 2006 when I found the latest issue of Time in my mail drawer at work and read these words, ‘Before he was an accomplished psychologist, Steven Hayes was a mental patient.’
What a great first line. How could you not want to read more?
“Deep down, we all know that love isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
-Steven C. Hayes, PhD
“The article continued, ‘His first panic attack came on suddenly, in 1978, as he sat in a psychology-department meeting at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he was an assistant professor. The meeting had turned into one of those icy personal and philosophical debates common on campuses, but when Hayes tried to make a point, he couldn’t speak. As everyone turned to him, his mouth could only open and close wordlessly, as though it were a broken toy. His heart raced, and he thought he might be having a heart attack. He was 29.’
“When I finished reading about ‘The Third Wave of Therapy,’ (also titled, ‘Happiness isn’t Normal’), something in me knew I was about to change.
“Professionally, I had spent the last 15 years obsessed with Russell Barkley and his work with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, David Burns and his work with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and John Gottman and his work with Couples Therapy. I had trained extensively with Barkley and Burns every chance I got, but I could see my next mentor would be Hayes and his enigmatic yet pragmatic Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
“I immediately understood ACT offered me what I had always sought: the opportunity to synthesize spirituality and psychotherapy; mindfulness and relationship; enlightenment and the everyday psychological crises of depression and anxiety; and hard science and the pursuit of true mental peace.
“The article asked, ‘What’s the best form of psychotherapy? How can you overcome sadness? Controversial psychologist Steven Hayes has an answer: embrace the pain.’
“Once I read the Time article, I Googled Steven Hayes, discovered he was a psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno and I sent him an e-mail, asking him about any upcoming opportunities to train with him. When he responded, he wrote that he was literally on a boat motoring across the China Sea, which I later learned is typical for Hayes. He never stops working, no matter what else he might be doing.
“Hayes has been one of the most productive psychologists in the world in the last few decades in terms of original research and published articles and when I look at his Vita, it is hard to imagine that one person could have accomplished all that in one lifetime. But that is Hayes.
He is the developer of Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and has guided its extension to ACT, “a popular evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based methods. There are now about 3,300 scientific studies on this work (including over 310 randomized controlled trials) and a worldwide association of over 8,000 professionals actively developing it.”
His popular book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life was featured in Time Magazine and for a time, was the number one best-selling self-help book in the United States. Hayes has been listed as the 30th “highest impact” psychologist in the world and ranks among the most cited scholars in the world.
In my piece I wrote, “I had hoped his next workshop would be in his hometown of Reno, a mere four-hour drive from my home in Northern California. Instead, I learned it was in Vancouver, Canada later that year, and unknown to me at the time, would involve considerably more effort, patience and self-control to reach than I ever exerted before in traveling to a workshop.”
After that initial training, I was hooked. In the next 12 years, I traveled to Portland, San Diego, Berkeley, Reno, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle and Burbank for additional ACT training with Hayes and if things work out, I’ll be back in Portland next year for my third four-day Boot Camp training.
I tell you all this because, after publishing 45 books and over 600 scientific articles, he has just come out with what is certainly his most important work written for the general public called A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters, what Hayes calls a “think book / self-help book / personal story / science story and shows why psychological flexibility matters.”
This volume is described as a “landmark book” written by “the originator and pioneering researcher of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)” and “lays out the psychological flexibility skills that make it one of the most powerful approaches research has yet to offer. These strategies have been shown to help even where others have failed. Science reveals that they are useful in virtually every area – mental health, physical health, social challenges and performance.”
What I have learned in all my years of ACT training is that Hayes and his colleagues “cracked the code” regarding how human beings create their own suffering through their desperate attempts to avoid it. The more we strive for happiness, for example, the more fearful we become that we will fail. And as we operate out of fear, we are motivated to resist or run away from our inner experience. As a result, we become psychologically rigid and increase the likelihood that we will become depressed and anxious. And while all of this doesn’t work for us, our minds too often tell us to just keep doing it anyway.
From the book we learn the key to mental peace and healthy relationships is psychological flexibility. “We struggle because the problem-solving mind tells us to run from what causes us fear and hurt. But we hurt where we care. If we run from a sense of vulnerability, we must also run from what we most value. By learning how to liberate ourselves, we can live with meaning and purpose, right along with pain when there is pain. This seemingly simple approach goes against our instincts and mental programming, but ACT’s flexibility skills counter our unhelpful tendencies. These skills include noticing our thoughts with curiosity; opening to our emotions; attending to what is in the present; understanding the art of perspective-taking; discovering our deepest values; and building habits based on what we deeply want.”
As the Time piece describes, Hayes discovered the power of ACT through his own personal struggles with a crippling panic disorder early in his career. After many years of suffering and futile attempts to “gain control over the attacks,” he hit bottom and “a door opened up.” He realized that the thoughts in his head, what he calls “the Dictator Within” had become his “ruler.” He had allowed this tyrannical voice to inhabit the part of him “that is aware and can choose” and forced him to disappear “for years on end into my own mind and its dictates.”
Instead, that night, he had a startling epiphany, as he describes in a TEDx talk a few years ago. He realized he was not his thoughts. He realized that within him was something clearly separate from the Dictator’s stories about him. He realized that he inhabited a space from which he could mindfully watch his situation from a different perspective and that this “I” was more clearly him and “had no edges that could be consciously felt – it was just awareness; awareness from the perspective of here and now. In a profound sense, I was awareness itself.”
Many of our clients come to us because they are stuck and cannot find a means of liberation from their confusion and distress. They are ready to change but don’t know how. Hayes’ experience tells us something important about the need to shift or pivot from what isn’t working and move toward what is ultimately values-based, life-giving, meaningful and rewarding.
Hayes writes that he pivoted “from my conceptualized self, as defined by the Dictator, to a perspective-taking self. I saw with sudden clarity that the stories my analytical mind told me about myself were not me: the stories were rather the product of a set of thought processes that were in me. Those processes were tools I could use if I chose to, but I did not have to listen to them and certainly was not defined by them.”
He writes, “From that new perspective, making the pivot to defuse from my thoughts – from taking my thoughts literally to watching the process of my thinking as a process – was only a hair’s width away.”
This first pivot, Defusion, allows us to “put our mind on a leash.” Within all of us, Hayes argues, is a healthy, “yearning to create coherence and understanding out of our mental cacophony.” Too often, we seek to control our thoughts, a rather impossible task as anyone who has tried to “clear their mind” can understand. We don’t control our thoughts. Each of us will have 50 or 60,000 thoughts today, few of which we intentionally chose to have. And not one can be consciously deleted.
Regardless, many of us will try to control our thoughts and impose “a false order,” adhere to “rigid rules,” seek approval from others and conform to what we think others expect. We end up living “a narrower life,” trapped inside of our judgmental minds, instead of enjoying and savoring our “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver wrote. Too many of us focus on our existence as a problem to be solved, rather than a process to be experienced, “or a sunset to be appreciated,” as Kelly Wilson once wrote.
The Defusion pivot allows us to pay “attention to the thoughts that are useful to us for living in accordance with our values, and letting go of a focus on thoughts that are unhelpful.” In this way we channel “our yearning for coherence into life expansion.”
In ACT and A Liberated Mind, there are six psychological processes or pivots that seamlessly combine to produce psychological flexibility. Besides the Defusion pivot, there is the Self pivot, which Hayes demonstrated when he was able to adopt an awareness perspective in dealing with his Dictator Within. This pivot channels our yearning for belonging and connection and “swings it in the direction of reconnecting with our transcendent I/here/now sense of awareness, allowing that awareness alone to be at the core of what we take ourselves to be.”
The Acceptance pivot transforms our unworkable emotional avoidance of our difficult, painful feelings and shifts it toward an open curiosity of all our emotional experiences. We realize we must be willing to be vulnerable as we allow life to be what it is, if we truly want “the good stuff,” like joy, peace and love.
The Presence pivot allows us to step back from a mind obsessed with the past and future, a mind too often filled with regret, resentment, fear and worry as it struggles with thought, imagination and memory. Meanwhile, the only “thing” that actually exists is here and now, not in the mind. We can’t control the past or future. Like a flashlight in a dark room, all we control is where we point the light. What are we attending to and how are we attending to it and what are we choosing to do in this present moment? When we wake up to what is present, we shift from “mindless disconnection” and focus on non-judgmental, flexible, and “useful noticing.” We connect with all our senses like a curious scientist who is open, receptive and aware.
With the Values pivot, we recognize when we have lost our way as we seek to rediscover what is truly meaningful in our lives. Hayes writes, “There is no yearning more important to human beings than to freely pick and pursue our life direction.” Too often, we adopt a path chosen for us by others, or one that we expected to be more fulfilling than it turned out to be. Too often, in our material world, our sense of worth is defined not by who we are, but what we possess. For some, the fear of failure forces them to seek safety, security, comfort and control over what they most deeply need and want. When we make the Values pivot, we discover our lives are more meaningful when we courageously pursue purpose instead of running from our pain.
Finally, the Action pivot brings all of the pivots into focus as we “step up the plate, ready to swing.” Many of us, like me, feel drawn to seek unattainable perfection in all areas of our lives. We judge ourselves and find fault with the quality of almost anything we do. If we aren’t careful, this could inhibit us from acting on the things we care about. Many perfectionists are severe procrastinators. We can’t fail, we tell ourselves, if we don’t try. We avoid making new friends, applying for jobs or opening up emotionally to our partners because deep down we are afraid to act on what we deeply cherish. When we are willing to fail and make mistakes, we are more open to learning and developing the capabilities and competence we deeply yearn for. When you pivot and commit to positive, healthy change, “you connect with your deepest values from your most authentic sense of self.”
In one of my trainings with Hayes, someone once asked him if one value stood out as most important. I was surprised to hear him say “yes.” The ultimate value is “compassion” he said in that it conveys the spirit of what we call psychological flexibility. In A Liberated Mind, he writes that psychological flexibility involves “moving forward with self-compassion, not berating ourselves for inevitable missteps, and buying in when our judgmental minds, label them, or ourselves as failures.” In other words, we can’t be psychologically flexible unless we develop compassion for our self and others.
Hayes concludes his book in the same manner in which he concludes any training I have ever had with the man. He reminds us to “choose love over fear.” He writes, “when each of us learns how to put our own mind on a leash, and become more able to open up, show up, and move forward toward what we deeply care about, we shine a light into the darkness that helps others do the same. There is a good word for it: the word is love.”