Switching Off Autopilot to Live a Life Worth Living

“I feel so empty. Why am I always like this? Why can’t I just get out of bed and function like a normal human being? Will life always be like this? What is even the point…this is too hard.”

Have you ever noticed these thoughts running through your head? Perhaps you have tried to snap yourself out of it, and it might’ve gone something like this: “Other people have it so much worse – my life isn’t even that bad! I have no right to feel this way…I’m so pathetic and ungrateful.”

You might then find yourself spending hours in bed and scrolling mindlessly on your phone. Or maybe you’ve been trying to keep yourself busy doing things just to distract yourself, excessively exercising, or making a concerted effort to never be alone…all for this to just feel like a constant struggle to keep difficult emotions and thoughts at bay.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT offers a different way forward. This therapy approach is based on the principle that life is inevitably painful and that a meaningful life cannot evade feelings of sadness. disappointment, frustration, rejection, and loss. Even on what “should be” the happiest days of our lives, our brains have the capacity to relive painful memories, grieve what could have been, or get trapped in fear of what the future may hold.

Instead of getting caught in a delusion of control and a desperate pursuit of happiness, ACT proposes that we foster a true acceptance of what is outside of our control, learn ways to sit with painful thoughts and feelings such that they do not control us, and ultimately, commit to moving towards what enriches our lives in a personally meaningful way, even if it gets uncomfortable or challenging.

Even though ACT does not focus explicitly on reducing symptoms, it has been shown to be effective at treating anxiety disorders, depression, addiction, and chronic pain conditions.

What does ACT involve?

ACT begins with building a foundation of mindfulness, as opposed to operating on autopilot, just going through the motions, or getting caught up in one’s thoughts, memories, or worries. Mindfulness is about fostering an open and curious awareness of one’s present moment and experience, and increasing the flexibility of one’s attention in order to then intentionally direct, broaden, or focus one’s attention.

With this foundation, one can then learn the practice of Cognitive Defusion – the process of ‘de-fusing’ with one’s thoughts. This involves stepping back to observe your thoughts and memories, rather than being caught up in them or pushed around by them. The thoughts in our mind can often be mistaken as accurate representations of reality, function as rigid rules for how we live, or strike us as issues that we must immediately grapple with and overcome in order to be free of them. Without getting caught up in whether these thoughts are even true or false, ACT helps us work towards transcending this struggle by inviting us to explore whether these thoughts (and our subsequent actions) ultimately enrich our lives in a meaningful way and help us to become the person we want to be.

Alongside this practice, ACT helps us to foster true Acceptance of our painful feelings and sensations – to step away from the constant struggle of fighting, resisting, avoiding, or being overwhelmed by them. Absolute control over our thoughts and feelings is impossible, and sometimes, attempts to control or change our circumstances, even when possible, can reduce our quality of life. Metaphorically, ACT helps us to realise that we may have been struggling against and sinking further in the quicksand of our difficult emotions, or desperately caught in a ‘tug-of-war’ against them. With this realisation, ACT helps us to stop struggling and to ‘drop the rope’.

Rather than being reactively compelled or confined by our thoughts and feelings, we can instead be intentionally driven and guided by our Values – the things that matter to us and which provide the building blocks for a meaningful life. Ask yourself: how do you want to be known and remembered by the people that matter to you? As a compassionate person who generously gave their time and energy in service of others? As a curious person whose life was full of new experiences and learning? Whatever your values, they serve as a compass that provides direction and guidance in your ongoing journey, and can be particularly important to clarify if a lot of your life has thus far been dominated and driven by fusion with your thoughts and avoidance of painful experiences.

Finally, ACT helps us to translate our values into Committed Action, which can involve learning strategies to break old patterns or to overcome obstacles to a more meaningful life, and establishing immediate, short-term, and long-term goals that are manifestations of our identified values.

Ultimately, no psychological treatment can provide absolute freedom from difficult or challenging emotions – nor would this be a healthy or realistic way of being. However, if you are resonating with feeling a lack of direction or purpose, and wanting to live a more fulfilling life, ACT may provide a very beneficial framework for exploring your patterns and facilitating meaningful change.


A-tjak, J. G., Davis, M. L., Morina, N., Powers, M. B., Smits, J. A., & Emmelkamp, P. M. (2015). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for clinically relevant mental and physical health problems. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 84(1), 30-36.

Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications. Livheim, F., Hayes, L., Ghaderi, A., Magnusdottir, T., Högfeldt, A., Rowse, J., … & Tengström, A. (2015). The effectiveness of acceptance and commitment therapy for adolescent mental health: Swedish and Australian pilot outcomes. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(4

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