A colleague of mine uses a metaphor about a behavior that I love. He speaks of how we often view making choices about our lives as if we were in a buffet line able to walk around leisurely saying to ourselves “Oooh I’ll have a little of that,” or “Hmm, maybe next time.” When in reality of course life moves so quickly that we don’t get those chances to consider every available option. In hindsight it’s always easy to see what we could have done differently and when. No, making choices for ourselves in any given moment is not mechanistic, it’s not a buffet line, and it’s often not clear. Rather, making choices that are meaningful, healthy, and true to who we are is a process of constant conversation with our self. That’s where the ACT Matrix comes in.
The ACT Matrix is a tool and approach to Acceptance & Commitment Therapy that fosters psychological flexibility, the ability to choose what matters in any given moment, even in the face of distressing emotions, thoughts, and memories (Polk et al., 2016). It’s a way of analyzing the function of our behavior, and by doing shining a light on what governs our actions. How many of our actions are driven by the need to avoid, get away from, or control uncomfortable inner experience? How many are driven by seeking to connect with what matters most? How much of our time is devoted to trying to move away from what we don’t want, and how much is devoted to moving toward what we value?
The concept is simple, two intersecting lines and a circle form a graphical interface for relating to your sense of self. Four questions asked repeatedly become an internal conversation about who and what matters in the present moment, what experiences are showing up, and what you can do externally with your hands, feet, voice, time, and energy.
Why not take some time to have this conversation with yourself now, right here? Let’s start in the bottom right-hand corner of the diagram. Think about your life as it stands today, and ask yourself this question: Who and what are important to me?
Your answers can be long or short, simple or complex. They can include people, places, things, and intangibles, like ideals, qualities, or concepts that you value.
When you are finished, sit with those for a moment, and notice how these things have played a part in your life. Think about what it would be like to lose these things or to be disconnected from them. What damage would that do to you?
Next, move to the bottom left quadrant, and answer this question: What inner stuff (thoughts, feelings, memories, etc.) have shown up to get in the way of the things that are important to you? These can be anything, from individual thoughts (“I’m not good enough”) to feelings (anxiety, hopelessness, fear), to memories of past difficulty.
In the top left quadrant: What do you tend to do when that inner stuff shows up? Think carefully about how you have responded to the items you placed in the box below. What have you done when you were under the influence of these thoughts, feelings, and memories? You may have noticed yourself withdrawing, shutting down, sabotaging yourself or others, giving up. I have done all of these things myself.
Maybe you’ve noticed yourself restricting, burning, binging, or any number of other actions. No matter the form, all of these actions are similar in function. They’re designed (in theory) to help you “get away from” some unwanted or unpleasant experience. We call them Away Moves.
After you have listed yours consider what has shown up on the inside for you afterwards in terms of thoughts or feelings. Are the things you wrote in the bottom left box extinguished after you take the actions you just listed, or do they come back stronger? Do other old friends like guilt, regret, or shame show up too? And if so, what do you tend to do on the outside?
Can you see a cycle forming? We call these Stuck Loops, they happen to everybody on earth at one point or another, they’re a natural consequence of our developed mind which responds to our own inner experience just as well as it responds to any external stimuli. The only difference is we can effectively get away from things that are outside of our body. When we try to run away from our inner experience, no matter how far we go we find it there waiting for us when we arrive.
Now finally, move to the upper right-hand quadrant. Here the question is simple. What can you do that would move you toward the person you want to be and the things that matter in your life? Be careful! This is not “What can I do instead of all those Away Moves?” It’s simply, what can I do that would move me toward what matters. Let the question be that simple. If you value certain people, places, concepts, what is the next thing you can do to move yourself toward them no matter how small? If you value certain characteristics about yourself, what is the next thing you can do, no matter how small, to embody those? And what would it feel like if you could? We call these Toward Moves because they move you toward what matters to you.
In the center of your grid, draw a circle that connects all four boxes and consider the following questions. Who is the person who gets to decide who & what are important to you? Who is the person who experiences all of that inner stuff that gets in the way of living the life you want, even when nobody else is aware of it? Who is the person who does have control over your hands, your feet, your voice, your actions?
YOU! There is a You there at the center of your life. Go ahead and write “ME!” really big inside that circle. If you’ve come this far, right now at this very moment, you are connected to YOU. You have the power to decide what to do in this moment.
The ACT Matrix is fundamentally just a set of questions that you ask of yourself, over and over. A conversation that lasts forever, but one you’re glad to have. When this conversation is an active one, we move into a psychologically flexible stance, and are better able to exert some level of control over what we once saw as insurmountable. We can more effectively learn from our thoughts and feelings and engage in actions that move us toward a more meaningful life, we can break out of that stuck loop!
Allow yourself to ponder these questions from time to time, and notice what happens when you have this conversation on a regular basis.