Strengthen Your Emotional Control with Action and Commitment Therapy

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Emotional Control Is a Critical Execution Skill

Increasing your emotional control can make a massive positive impact on your life. Acceptance and commitment therapy is a powerful tool for improving it.

Everyone encounters situations that test their emotional control. Perhaps someone who reports to you at work arrives late to meetings despite your prior admonishments. Or perhaps feelings of frustration with your job sap your motivation. In these situations, you might become visibly upset with your report and make a snide remark. Or, feeling frustrated, you might dial back your effort.

These seemingly isolated instances can undermine your ability to achieve your goals. Emotional control is a critical part of the execution process. The components of execution are called executive function skills. Researchers and practitioners often divide these skills into twelve categories(1). And emotional control is one of these twelve categories. These are the skills that you use to get things done. You use them to formulate strategies for achieving your objectives. And then, you use them to perform the individual tasks that comprise those strategies. Without these skills, you would accomplish very little.

ACT Is a Powerful Tool for Improving Emotional Control

Acceptance and commitment therapy—or ‘ACT’—is a method for strengthening your emotional control skills. It’s pronounced like the one-syllable word ‘act,’ not each letter separately (i.e., “A-C-T”). It helps keep you on track when your thoughts and feelings distract you from the activities that lead to accomplishing your objectives. In many situations, your accomplishments require the support and collaboration of others. And ACT minimizes the impact that a loss of emotional control has on your relationships with other people.

It also helps you manage your relationship with yourself. Inner conflict can provoke anxiety or distress. And emotional control improves your internal relationship with yourself, too.

When your emotional control skills are weak relative to your other executive function skills, you encounter challenges in various aspects of your professional life. Your thoughts and feelings distract you, making it more challenging to complete tasks or stick with plans. Or your emotions interfere with your relationships with colleagues. You might get angry when you perceive unacceptable levels of effort, performance, or adherence to a previously established course of action. Perhaps your level of motivation varies from one day to the next. One morning you wake up feeling optimistic and energized and proceed to enjoy a productive day. But, the next day, for no apparent reason, you don’t feel motivated. You struggle all day to get into the groove. You feel self-critical, which, in turn, further undermines your ability to accomplish the tasks you had planned for the day. You find yourself caught in a vicious circle.

Emotional control, on the other hand, enables you to remain productive and collaborative in challenging situations. It applies to both your internal and external environment. Internally, when you don’t feel like doing something, you have the skills to stay on task. Externally, when other people’s actions don’t meet your expectations, you’re able to remain on an even keel, minimizing the risk of damaging relationships. You’re also able to stay focused and productive when factors beyond your control — like concerns about the economy or politics — undermine your goals.

Practitioners Increasingly Recognize the Power of ACT

ACT has slowly gained traction over the past four decades. It was developed by Steven Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, in the 1980s(2). While ACT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (‘CBT’), it is fundamentally different from the version of CBT developed by Aaron Beck and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. CBT focuses on defeating negative thoughts and feelings while ACT focuses on distancing yourself from them. While CBT has also won more of the limelight, ACT has been gaining ground in the last 10 to 15 years. Increasingly, researchers are demonstrating its efficacy(3), practitioners are using it to treat patients, and writers are extolling its merits to the broader public.

The acronym, ACT, has a second meaning:
Accept your thoughts and feelings
Choose a valued direction
Take action mindfully

These three components work synergistically to improve emotional control.

Two Simple Concepts Underpin the First Step

Two concepts — defusion and expansion — underpin the first principle of accepting your thoughts and feelings. When you struggle with emotional control, you lose objectivity over what you’re thinking. It overwhelms you, taking you hostage internally and potentially hijacking your interactions with other people. When you lose objectivity and perspective of your thoughts, you have ‘fused’ with them. Defusion is the process of unsticking yourself from them.

Defusion from your thoughts requires that you accept them as you put them back into perspective. Instead of ignoring them or reframing them in more favorable terms, you need to recognize that thoughts are simply words and images appearing in your brain. A thought isn’t necessarily of value and doesn’t require your complete attention. You can acknowledge its presence as you would a painting on a wall while still observing the rest of the room. You then use your imagination to put the thought back into perspective. To create distance, you could say the thought to yourself in a TV show character’s voice or imagine it spray-painted on the wall. As long as it’s effective, your technique doesn’t matter.

In contrast to thoughts, defusing feelings requires a technique called expansion. Expansion means that you observe the physical sensation that a specific emotion has in your body. Instead of allowing it to consume you, you give it space. If a pending difficult conversation with a colleague gives you a knot in your stomach, you feel the tension but make space around it. You breathe into it while simultaneously feeling all of the other feelings in your body, for example, in your head, arms, and legs. This process dilutes the response in a larger pool of physical sensations. However, again, you’re not fighting the feeling with logic or tricks to defeat it. You are accepting it within the broader context of all the sensations in your body.

Values Form the Basis of the Second Step

Once you defuse your thoughts and feelings, the next step is to choose a valued direction. Your values are the principles that guide your decisions in life. They represent the person who you strive to be. However, before you can choose a valued direction, you must first clarify what your values are. An efficient way to do this is to select the 5-10 values that most resonate with you from a list(4). Once you complete this short exercise, you can perform this step whenever you find yourself in a challenging situation. Specifically, once you have defused enough from a thought or feeling to regain some perspective, you choose one of your 5-10 values as the basis for deciding your next step.

For example, let’s imagine that a colleague is habitually late in delivering a report you need to do your job. If ‘honesty’ is one of your values, a valued direction would be to schedule a short conversation with your colleague to communicate your feelings. In a nonjudgmental way, you could say that when he delivers the report to you late, you feel angry and frustrated because it prevents you from doing your job. This emotion arises from the need to feel confident that you can rely on one other. It may not be an easy conversation. But it’s a step that aligns with who you strive to be as a person.

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Mindfulness Is at the Heart of the Third Step

The third step — taking action mindfully — guides you in how you reengage with the world. It means that you focus entirely on the task at hand, allowing other thoughts and feelings to come and go without fusing with them. It also requires using all of your senses. The human brain can perform 3-5 functions concurrently. For example, most people can drive a car, listen to music, and talk to a passenger simultaneously. To engage in an activity mindfully, you occupy these 3-5 spaces in your brain with your senses. For example, how does a specific activity appear, what does it sound like, and how does your body feel? You fully engross yourself in your valued course of action.

Mastering ACT Requires Practice and Additional Reading

Commit to developing your ACT skills. Like any skill, ACT requires practice. But it’s worth the effort. Get started by choosing your values from this list. And then start practicing. If this summary isn’t enough, Drs. Steven Hayes and Russ Harris(5) have written several books on the subject. You can find them on Amazon.


(1) The Smart But Scattered Guide to Success. Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2016). Guilford Press.

(2) Contemporary cognitive therapy: Theory, research, and practice. Leahy, R. L. (2004). Guilford Press.

(3) “Acceptance and commitment therapy versus traditional cognitive behavioral therapy: A systematic review and meta-analysis of current empirical evidence.” Ruiz, F. J. (2012). International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy. 12 (3): 333–358

(4)(5). The Confidence Gap. Harris, R. (2011). Penguin Group.