Moving toward freedom

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I have been asked by the good folks at Comporte-se in Brazil to become a columnist for their blog. Here's the first installment of my column in its English version.

I want to start this blog by thanking Comporte-se (Behave Yourself) for extending the invitation to blog on their site. I hope it will serve as a discriminative stimulus for me to blog regularly. I’d started a blog in French some years ago but as I got into writing books, let it go by the wayside.

With this blog, my aim is to present a way to apply third wave behavioral principles to your professional and personal life. This blog will thus be based on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), one of the leading third wave behavioral and cognitive therapies, but also integrate principles from other cognitive and behavioral approaches. Its aim is to help you bring more freedom into all areas of your life by better recognizing the behaviors that move you toward freedom. Each blog post will conclude on an exercise you can explore and see if it makes a difference to your life. Though I write for psychologists, I hope it will be useful to others to, as being useful is very reinforcing to me.

B.F. Skinner, one of the most influential behaviorist psychologists, thought of freedom as moving away from aversive control. In ‘Beyond freedom and Dignity (1972) he wrote: ‘Almost all living things act to free themselves from harmful contacts’. But that only tells us what they move away from — aversives. Just as important are the things that almost all living things move toward — and these we can call appetitives.

Behaviorism aims to be the science of human behavior. Science is a game that identifies the determinants and functional relations of studied phenomena — in other words what controls phenomena. So, to the behaviorist, behavior free of any control cannot be part of science. Behaviorism will aim to look at the kind of control behavior comes under. It follows that, in behavioral terms, to be free could be thought as coming under the control of things we move toward rather than things we move away from. In more technical words, to the behaviorist, freedom is coming under appetitive control.

In life as in therapy, it is thus important to know what we are moving away from but, if our goal is freedom, even more important to know what we are moving toward. Seems simple enough and all living things instinctively know what to move away from and what to move toward. Take the time to observe a bunny rabbit in a field and you’ll soon know what’s aversive and what’s appetitive to him.

Yet, when it comes to us humans, things are far from being as simple as it is for our furry friends. Where it gets complicated is that we don’t just move toward and away from things, like tasty carrots or hungry wolves, that can be perceived with our five senses in the world out there. We also attempt to move toward and away from things that appear in our inner world, appetitive or aversive aspects of our private experience. This is what Skinner called the part of the universe that only one person can observe. And when we verbally competent humans start observing that part of the universe that only one person can observe, funny things start to happen.

Inner experiences that have been related to experiences perceived through our five senses start acquiring the same functions as these experiences in the world out there. So that we not only move away from predators and other dangers we perceive through our five senses, we also try to move away from the inner experience evoked by these dangers — whether they be images, feelings or thoughts. According to the model underlying acceptance and commitment therapy, these efforts to move away from our inner experience are amogst the root causes of psychopathology. Such actions can easily crowd out actions to move toward the things that are important to us, resulting in a life that gradually narrows, and loses vitality and meaning.

But functions don’t just transfer and transform from five senses to inner experience, they also transfer from inner experience to inner experience, encouraging us to try to move away from thoughts about thoughts of dangers, feelings about ‘bad’ feelings, etc. Caught in a cycle where we desperately try to move away from unwanted inner experience, this is how life can quickly narrow down and become limited to actions engaged in the service of moving away from what we don’t want to feel or think. The trick here is that it’s both perfectly natural to want to move away from unwanted experience, and potentially very dangerous to try and move away from unwanted inner experience. We call this the trap of the struggle. When caught in this trap, we engage a great many actions the main purpose of which is to move away from (or modifiy in some sense) our inner experience.

Yet, when we look at that part of the universe that only one person can see, we also see things that are worth moving toward. These are the important directions in which we’d like to lead our lives. Technically, they are verbally constructed appetitives. In ACT, we also call those values. Values are thoses things that are reinforcing to us when we move toward them. What actions represent moving toward what’s important? Such a question can only be answered by ourselves, in person and in the moment. I am writing this blog post because it is important to me to share this approach that has brought such rich meaning to my life and that of my clients and trainees. I could also be doing it under the control of other contingencies (for example not to feel guilty or because I like to see my name in print), but only one person can tell how I engaged that action, and that person is me. I will own that not feeling guilty for stopping to write a blog and liking to see my name in print are to some extent present as I engage the behavior of writing this blog. Yet, I choose to write it in the service of what’s really important to me, which is making myself useful by sharing this approach. Similarly, only you can notice when you engage actions to move toward what’s important to you, and when you engage them to move away from what you don’t want to feel or think.

In order to become freer, it can thus become important to learn to discriminate whether we act to move away from unwanted inner experience or whether we act to move toward what’s important to us.

Here’s an exercise for the next seven days: see if you can simply notice actions you do to move away, and action you do to move toward. If you like that exercise or wish to explore it further, see if you can keep a note of these actions, what thoughts and emotions showed up and how it felt to do them. Once you have done that, maybe you’ll be able to notice that actions that you engage to move toward what’s important feel different from actions that you engage to move away from what you don’t want to feel, even when these actions make you feel better, as when they make an uncomfortable feeling temporarily vanish. What you’ll have learned to recognize is the peculiar taste of freedom, or what it feels to come under appetitive control. It does not always feel good, but it always feels free.

ACT is thus an approach that takes freedom very seriously. It promotes our ability to identify what is important to us and move toward our values through our actions while noticing that actions engaged in the service of moving away from unwanted inner experience which stop us from doing what we would freely choose to do if we were not trying to escape our inner experience.