My Relationship with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Learning How to Drop the Rope

​Many years ago I initiated a relationship that has since developed into a deep, committed love. I’m not describing a relationship with any human, or even an animal. In fact, I’m referring to my relationship with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I realize this probably sounds weird. I first heard about ACT in grad school. Rigorously trained in CBT, ACT was the radical, cool therapy that challenged what my professors taught me. I never had a thing for bad boys, but I decided to start flirting. Things got heated when I learned about the metaphors. ACT texts are heavy with metaphors. They’re offered as a strategy to help us get out of our heads and to connect with concepts on a more experiential level. Panicking? Is it like quicksand or a tornado? Judgmental thoughts? Let’s hold them the same way you would hold a cactus in your hand. Apprehensive to take a risk? Is it like jumping off of a high dive or a skyscraper?

I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to apply metaphors to everything. I felt like I had access to a magical book that helped me communicate with clients in a completely new way. I saw understanding set in their eyes as we discussed concepts I had previously struggled to put words to. I watched my therapeutic relationships become more deep as we developed our own codes for unique experiences. I was thrilled to watch clients become empowered as they found language to describe what they were going through. I became gaga for ACT and dove in feet first. We were in the honeymoon phase.

Things got serious when I came across a metaphor that changed everything. There are several variations, but the core components remain the same. We imagine ourselves on the edge of a deep cavernous pit. It is dark, scary and we can’t see the bottom. In our hands is a rope. A thick, rough burlap rope. Across the pit and on the other end of the rope is a monster. This monster represents every internal experience that we struggle with:  the emotions we don’t want to face, the memories we don’t want to be reminded of and the nasty, critical thoughts that we try to shut out. We’ve been playing tug-of-war with this monster for a long time and he’s giving us a run for our money. Every time we try to numb, disconnect, fight, avoid or think our way out of our internal experiences we tug a little bit harder on the rope. Our ultimate goal is to is to pull the monster in to the pit and say goodbye to his ugly face forever. However, we’ve been pulling on this rope for a long time to no avail and it’s starting to get old. This is where we encourage our clients to evaluate their options. After talking through the alternatives, they land on the conclusion that the only viable option is to…drop the rope. Drop the rope! I remember the first time I heard this phrase and it struck me in a deeply powerful way. The fight is futile and we’ll never win. There is no safe, realistic way to erase memories, turn off emotions or shut of our inherently critical minds. So we drop the rope, let got of the struggle and find somewhere more meaningful to focus our energy and attention. I had a new boyfriend and I wanted to tell everyone. If I was an impulsive person, I would have tattooed “drop the rope” somewhere on my back. Or maybe even on my forehead.

Years later, ACT and I are still going steady, and I found myself in the middle of a rough couple of weeks. A few of my clients were struggling, others were acting out, and with each session I grew more frustrated and freaked out. One afternoon, I was sitting in front of a client who I’d been working with for 8 months. She is bright, beautiful and bursting with potential. We started to battle. I was working my tail off to convince her of her potential, that things can be different, the past doesn’t define her and she can find meaning in a life of her own making.  She was digging in just as hard. Change was impossible because the external players weren’t changing, too much damage has been done to follow her dreams, and loving connectedness isn’t in the cards for her because of what she has been through. With each point, I scrambled to find a counter-argument. I felt desperate to convince her that I was right. My anxiety rose and my tone became more tense. Our connection was weakening and I stopped seeing her clearly. I was treading water and getting tired. What was I fighting with so fiercely? Was it her? Was it her and all of the other clients that were challenging me? Was it my job? My profession? I took a beat to introspect. I realized I was feeling scared. Scared that I would be ineffective in helping someone I had come to care about. I was feeling helpless and sad that I had invested time and energy in to her well-being and she was effectively telling me that nothing had changed. I was worried that I was a bad therapist and that she deserved better.

Then it hit me. I was in the metaphor. I was teetering on the edge of a pit and tugging away at my own monster of emotions. Each time she said something that activated my sense of inadequacy, I yanked back in an effort to make those thoughts and feelings go away. She had no idea, but my client had a front row seat to this game and was inadvertently being exposed to the backlash. I gave myself permission to drop the rope. I exhaled and felt myself letting go. All of a sudden I was back in the moment with her, we were in it together, and I could feel the connection restoring. That’s when I knew ACT would be my lifelong partner. We always have the chance to drop the rope because we will continue to unknowingly pick it up time after time. In a therapeutic relationship, this metaphor gives us the chance to take the pressure off of ourselves and to be fully present with our clients. That may be more powerful than any intervention we can offer.

I hate to sound like someone who goes on and on about their relationship. It’s just difficult to keep it to myself. Luckily I’m not the possessive type.

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