Employing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in Your Careers Practice


Dr Nadine Hamilton is the CEO and Principal Psychologist at Postive Psych Solutions. She is the author of the best-selling book "Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian" and her research and work within the veterinary profession for the past decade was instrumental in leading the start of a paradigm shift occurring within this industry. 

Helping people choose a new career can often be challenging for a number of reasons, not least when they have self-esteem or self-confidence issues and their mind is working overtime! Their mind could be telling them they “can’t do it” or they “don’t have what it takes”, or even the good-old “I’m not good enough” story.  Or, your clients may be at the opposite end of the spectrum who have unrealistic expectations and beliefs about themselves and the scope of their expertise or what is possible to accomplish.

So, how can you deal with these kinds of situations?

One approach that may prove helpful is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT - typically pronounced as the word ‘act’ rather than a-c-t). While the full breadth and strategies of using ACT is beyond the scope of this article, we can still explain some of the core aspects of ACT. Designed to help people move forward in a way that is in line with their values, ACT is a psychological intervention developed around 30 years ago by Steven C. Hayes and colleagues. It helps people to become aware of their automatic reactions by assisting them to think and feel what they are physically thinking and feeling in that moment, rather than their assumption of what they are thinking and feeling.

Fundamentally, the acronym of ACT can be described as:

A = accept the feelings and thoughts you have, and be in the present moment
C = choose a direction you value to move yourself forward
T = take action toward that valued direction.

ACT is associated with relational frame theory (RFT), which is a behaviour-analytic approach oriented to our cognitions (thoughts) and language. It refers to our specific types of relational responding as relational frames. When there is a consequence to an action which then results in that action increasing, this is assumed to be due to the principle of reinforcement. RFT suggests that unpleasant personal experiences such as negative thoughts or emotions, can therefore be exacerbated by their learnt way of responding (that is — through reinforcement).

ACT is about values-guided, and mindful, action where we can accept our internal experiences and avoidance, put our problematic and troublesome thoughts into context, explore the goals and values we have, and commit to move forward in the direction of our life values. Essentially, ACT aims to create a full, meaningful, and rich life while being able to accept the inevitable pain that often goes along with it.

When working with career clients who are doubting their abilities or have unrealistic expectations, ACT might be helpful to encourage them to focus on, and act in line with, their values (the things that give them their sense of meaning and purpose, the things they want to stand for). ACT assumes that when we act in line with our values we have a sense of wellbeing – whereas when we act against our values we experience more suffering.  So, when the negative self-talk comes in and the client starts “buying into it” and believing all the words their mind is telling them, remind them to acknowledge them, and then just accept and notice the thoughts and/or feelings they are having – rather than automatically believing them as if they were true. It might help to remind them that we cannot control our thoughts, but we can control how we respond to them.

So, let’s now take a moment and look a little deeper into this.

Think back to prehistoric times when our predecessors were out hunting and gathering. If they heard a sound, or saw a shadow, their minds likely would have perceived it as a threat – i.e. a predator coming to eat them (unless they were being mindful). They had to act pretty quickly, and basically would have had two options - stay and “fight” for survival, or take off in “flight” for survival (known as the “fight-flight response”). Based on this scenario they would have automatically assumed the “worst-case scenario” and acted on this - regardless of whether their perception of the threat was correct or not – i.e. the predator is there to eat them.

Our minds are like story-telling machines constantly telling us stories, but not all of these are true and if we are not mindful we will get “hooked” right into these stories. Before we know it, the thoughts are controlling our behaviour. They are also like problem-solving machines imagining every trigger (or threat, or problem) is something to believe and get attached (or “fused” or “hooked”) to.  If this thought is unhelpful or unrealistic and we act on it, chances are the response will be unhelpful or distressing in some way.

Practicing mindfulness regularly can be a helpful way to start getting used to noticing the thoughts and experiences we have in the moment, and can assist us to stop and reflect on what is happening. When we do this and commit to act in a manner that is consistent with our values it gives us a better chance of feeling more comfortable with the outcome and consequences.

It can also be beneficial to remind clients that just because they are thinking something about themselves (be-it good, bad, or indifferent), it does not mean it is real and factual. Regardless, it is their actions that will have the consequences, not the thoughts or feelings per se. That is – the thoughts and/or feelings are not necessarily the problem, it is their actions that will have the consequences. It can also be a timely reminder for clients that our minds are very powerful and believe what they perceive – not to mention that our thoughts are like boomerangs and keep coming back!

For example, say you have a client who is terrified of interviews, reminding them to “just notice” the thoughts, accept their thoughts, and then choose a desired action in line with their values is more likely to elicit a more helpful and appropriate response rather than them acting on autopilot, believing their negative self-talk, and then acting as if that were true – resulting in unhelpful consequences and suffering.

Practicing mindfulness and using strategies from ACT could help your clients gain confidence and address their negative beliefs more appropriately.