Love Through the Lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
When I was young and single, my approach to Valentine’s Day was often “the boycott”. I quietly protested the existence of the holiday with my all-black ensembles and resting sad face, and I wanted the coupled and the purveyors of Valentine’s Day merriment to see it, (and preferably feel guilty for shaming the lonely by flaunting their abundance of love and romance). It was a classic, young, passive-aggressive kind of move—the effect being a satisfying pity-party at best, and an added obstacle to the love I so desperately wanted at worst.
It made me feel better in the moment, though. It did. I felt it was a righteous defense of the singles of the world to shine a light on how Valentine’s Day—with its ubiquitous jewelry store commercials and drugstore candy end-caps—alienates and devalues the single person. And if it were truly personal activism, (albeit quiet and not-so-productive), or even just made me feel a little better and caused me no harm, what’s wrong with that? Well, maybe nothing. If it were just that, it’s a harmless coping mechanism and maybe even a helpful defense of the underdog, but unfortunately behavior that simply demonstrates the pain of inadequacy and scarcity rarely helps bring abundance and meaning into our lives; in fact it often scares it away.
Had I known then what I know now about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based psychotherapy and approach to personal growth with mindfulness, self-compassion, and commitment to values at its core, I might have done things differently. For starters, I might have re-framed my goal to attain love as a mission to live a life of love, putting the emphasis on love as a deeply-held value rather than a brass ring to grab. If ACT had been in my tool kit then, I might have turned my attention in an honest, compassionate way to the uncomfortable feelings and powerful, repetitive mental scripts that were running my show. I might have cast an observing eye on the thoughts I had about love and allowed for the feelings I had, because without doing that our human default is to believe the self-sabotaging thoughts, (i.e. self-critical, nay-saying, regretful, “can’t thoughts”), we have and impulsively react to them—either by escaping them, (through suppression or bad habits that distract from and dull the discomfort they cause), or trying to act on them—in ways that usually become obstacles to pursuing what we actually want.
Instead of mindfully observing my thoughts and accepting the reality of my feelings as ACT and the Eastern philosophies on which it’s based suggest, I bought into thoughts like: “I’ll be alone forever,” “I’ll have to settle,” “I should be married by now,” and “Other people have managed to find partners by now. . . I haven’t, so there must be something wrong with me,” and I often wallowed in the heavy, dark, lonely feelings that filled my body. I had the same, typical thoughts many have about solitude—thoughts which reflect the critical and absolutely unproductive “should’s” of a society built on the never-ending pursuit of success and avoidance of discomfort. Our own internal monologues tell our culture’s story that success equals attainment and self-blame is the best way to keep us safe and motivate us to aim high. I didn’t question the truth of my thoughts or the way they sapped me of the confidence and motivation I needed to seek out what I wanted and act in a way that reflected Love as a value. If I had the lens of ACT back then, I might have been able to see that I valued not just love as a noun, but loving as a direction, an active verb.
So what does all this have to do with Valentine’s Day, that mid-winter love-fest inspired by a saint or a greeting card company, depending on your perspective? Traditionally, Valentine’s Day celebrates romantic love. Maybe, if you have kids or are one—you use the occasion to celebrate the love between parents and their offspring, or even affection between friends. As children, we excitedly wrote the names of all our classmates on small cards with flirty jokes and sayings on them and passed them out at school. As teenagers, we may have swallowed our alienated angst and tried on romance with a girlfriend or boyfriend or turned to self-righteous loneliness or our inner lone wolf. As adults, though, what are our options?
If you are sold on Valentine’s Day as a celebration of romantic love and you happen to have a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or even a date, you are good. You have snagged what you’re supposed to have on Valentine’s Day. Even if you don’t get all lit up with passion like you used to or you don’t even make a point of celebrating the holiday, you still, in theory, have the relationship and hopefully some mutual feelings—the love as a noun. Of course, this is no guarantee you are living in a loving way with that lover of yours—but you have the love object. Nice job!
The problem comes if you are unwittingly counting love among your possessions, a check-box checked in your list of life accomplishments or “should’s.” Now, granted, most of us aren’t knowingly checking check-boxes or counting bedpost notches, player-style, but our culture spins a compelling yarn of success as attainment around each of us. We are raised with a destination mentality, (eg. reaching the destination of a college degree, a marriage, a house, and children = happiness and success!), so even if we pursue love with values of companionship, connection, and the like in mind, it is a rare person who does not also carry the goal of achieving love and relationship as possessions, a goal that often masquerades as the value of love. It is a subtle but important distinction.
Pursuing the goal of finding love and living life as a loving person do not have to be, mind you, mutually exclusive. In ACT language, living in a valued direction and pursuing goals related to love are both “workable” and actually encouraged if the pursuit of the goal reflects your chosen values. The point is that goals and values are not the same thing and goals should stem from values. In love, for instance, if I have a goal of getting and staying married, that goal should primarily reflect not the cultural story, “adults should be married,” but the core values that marriage embodies for me—values like lasting connection, companionship, mutual support, and commitment or loyalty to someone loved.
According to ACT, having love is not enough to live a values-based, verb-infused life. It is in the acting loving that real, values-driven love is made and lived. From the perspective of ACT, the main idea in Life is to live fully—not necessarily a life of complete happiness, but a meaningFULL life—and the key to living meaningfully is to identify your values and do your best to behave in a way that reflects those values. Sounds simple enough, right? In theory, maybe.
(For some tips and prompts on clarifying values from Steven Hayes, founder of ACT, check out this brief 2009 article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/get-out-your-mind/200906/holding-back-life).
In practice, clarifying and living values is hard work because:
1. It is difficult to distinguish which values are core values and which values are actually external expectations foisted upon us by others that actually don’t align with who we are as individuals.
2. There are so many values to try to focus on in just 24 hours a day.
3. Values often conflict with each other in every situation life throws at us—forcing us to choose some over others or to choose to focus more heavily on some over others.
4. Pursuing some of our values may be difficult when we lack time, money, and health, or gender, race, sexual orientation, and class privilege.
5. Our fear of not being what we think we’re supposed to be and our sense of obligation to others like to throw up thick smokescreens that confuse and shame us into acting against what we actually believe in most deeply.
So what’s a person who’s only human to do? What do we do if we want to love based on the value of Love, the verb, rather than seek and hold love as a possession with little connection to what love is really all about?
1. We acknowledge our imperfect humanness and accept the fact that the mind has all kinds of ideas about love and relationships designed to keep us safe from getting hurt, protect us from feeling unacceptable emotions, and motivate us to meet our perceived obligations as an adult, a spouse, a friend, a parent. . .whatever roles we voluntarily and involuntarily take on.
2. We observe that some of those ideas are preventing us from using our core values as our most important compass in seeking love, behaving in a loving way, and continuing to nurture love with love.
3. We ask ourselves what our core values around love and relationship really are. We fearlessly look at what loving really and truly means to US, not what Disney, Hollywood, our parents, or even the people closest to us say it means.
4. We notice when the expectations of others, including our larger culture, are pretending to use the voice of our own hearts to seduce us into acting on ideas we don’t truly believe. . . and we practice observing those thoughts coming and going through our heads rather than impulsively acting on them.
5. We notice when uncomfortable feelings and the desire to avoid or reduce them are motivating our behavior instead of our ideas about what is most important to do based on our innermost values. We notice as much as we can about those uncomfortable feelings, (again with the noticing—are you noticing a pattern of noticing in these suggestions?) and we practice holding those feelings with acceptance and compassion for ourselves. . .because it hurts to feel pain and someone in pain deserves compassion! Even you!
6. We focus on connecting to our core values about love and relationship, even in seemingly trivial day-to-day situations, and commit to decisions and behavior based on those values—even when it hurts, even when it’s hard, even when it conflicts with ideas we’ve always had about what we’re supposed to do.
Got it? Easy-peasy, right? Wrong, but it's worth it.
Living in a valued direction is a tall, tall order, especially in love, an arena so very fraught with triggers that go right to our earliest, most fragile attachment wounds and leave us feeling so exquisitely vulnerable to our most primal fear: being alone and unloved. And yet, if we do not get to know ourselves and attend to our values, we predictably and repetitively wind up in unhappy relationships with people who get between us and our authentic selves. Even if we learn enough about ourselves to find “the right people” for us, if we do not continue to recognize and honor our core values related to love and relationship, we easily fall into patterns of behavior that ward off love, erode it, and preclude meaningful love.
It is not always easy to manifest our values in how we relate to love—or anything else. Each of us is in a life-long process of falling off and getting back on the wagon of our intentions, but committing to driving and taking care of that wagon is a worthy goal that tends to help make life more meaningful and less tinged with regret. When we approach love as a verb—a path to walk rather than a destination to reach or possession to obtain—Valentine’s Day is much more than a celebration of our love lives; it is a sacred day to celebrate the love we stand for all year long.