I had some very clear ideas of how I was going to spend my 40th birthday. I felt that the number 40 had some weight to it, I really wanted to make something of the day. So I planned skating on sparkling ice on the lake with my husband in the early morning sunshine, drinking hot chocolate from a thermos, then cake with my co-workers in the afternoon, and dinner out with Australian Shiraz as a compulsory component. A new metropolitan-style restaurant downtown was my choice and I looked forward to a nice family meal. And work, of course, during the day, as it is my passion, so wouldn’t leave that out.
As it turned out, there were some problems executing the plan. The weather was a terrible grey with fog and rain in the morning. The ice – if any – would be wet and unsafe. Joel had been sick for days and the dinner reservation had to be cancelled. The cake at work found a happy, but decimated group of very sweet co-workers – the rest of them sick at home or away for work. Luckily, there was an urgent deadline job to do and a grant application to put in so the work bit went fine. No Shiraz on reserve at home, though.
I guess the point is that I didn’t mind. Not the least bit, in fact. I accepted the day to be as it was and not the way I had wanted it to be. Bicycling in the rain to get some dry crackers and apple juice for my sick son was maybe not what I had planned, but was perfectly content doing. A pity that he threw it all up a couple of hours later.
Acceptance is not the same as losing personal agency. In fact, it is only through agency we can gain control of our situations and act in responsible ways. A sense of personal agency is empowering, even in the most miserable situations. We don’t always have a free choice. But we can choose how to act in a given situation.
Acceptance and commitment therapy is a therapy form taking advantage of acceptance of all feelings and experiences as a basis for change. In stead of avoiding, repressing or rigidly reiterating hurtful or unwanted feelings and using them as an explanation for destructive behaviour, ACT advises Accepting your reactions and being present, Choosing a valued direction, and Taking action. It sounds pretty straightforward when you think about it.
To me this sounds much like the type of self-regulation we are trying to promote in children using the Triple P parenting program. Good parenting is all about teaching children to experience their feelings, impressions, and impulses, and yet not to be ruled by them, but be able to regulate the direction and actions they take. To wait for their turn, to continue trying to solve a maths problem even if it’s difficult, to control the impulse of hitting their mate in the face for calling them a loser at soccer.
Effective self-regulation is actually quite a big ask and there are a lot of adults out there who could do with more such skills. Sometimes, lack of self-regulation is overt, you can easily tell when someone seems out of control. However, sometimes it is subtle: have you ever had a co-worker whose problems somehow always turned out to be your problems? Well, that’s a sign of self-regulatory processes in need of a brush-up.
The good news? We can promote self-regulation in each other. If I have a problem and someone helps me find the answer based on my own resources rather than giving it to me, I improve my problem-solving ability and self-efficacy. I learn that many of the answers I might be looking for are well within my reach and will use that experience next time I encounter a difficulty. Thus, interaction with others becomes a way of gaining insights rather than projecting fears and feelings of inadequacy on those we meet.
So I Accepted that my birthday turned out differently than I had planned, Chose to direct my bike towards downtown and Took action: a new dress on sale crowned the day’s ACT. Self-regulated and done! And Joel is all better now.