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An Interview with Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D. on Acceptance and Committment Therapy

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 21st 2007

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Steven Hayes, Ph.D.The things that separate people from other animals on planet earth are our ability to use language; to create mental symbols that represent aspects of reality, to assemble these symbols into a complex map of reality, and to communicate about relationships between symbols with other people. Our symbolic language abilities allow us to be very efficient problem solvers, but also mediate or influence our experience of the world. Where animals live in the now, experiencing everything in front of them directly, we tend to live in the past and the future. Our use of symbols means that reality and fantasy are hard for us to distinguish between even under the best of situations. We form beliefs about experience, some of which are staggeringly inaccurate, and those beliefs end up restricting what we do and experience. We become prisoners of our own fears.

Dr. Steven C. Hayes' Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a relatively new variety of psychotherapy that puts cognitive behavioral techniques into the service of helping people escape their symbolic prisons by teaching them how to become more conscious of and less embedded in their symbolic prisons. When painful experience is not avoided anymore people become more able to connect with what they value and then to act (commit) to actions that are consistent with their values (rather than consistent with avoiding what they fear). Though experiential in orientation and practice, ACT is firmly based in science, and is supported by multiple clinical trials that provide evidence for it's efficacy.

As an ACT patient, your job is to be open to being with your pain; not avoiding it, but also not buying into it either. When you become free to not avoid painful memories and feared experiences, you become free to not let your pain and fear determine what your life will be about. You can then connect with your values, and take seriously the techniques that will help you realize your goals.

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About Steven Hayes, Ph.D.

Steven Hayes, Ph.D.Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D. is author, researcher, and founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). He is also Nevada Foundation Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. An author of 30 books and nearly 400 scientific articles, his career has focused on an analysis of the nature of human language and cognition and the application of this to the understanding and alleviation of human suffering. In 1992 he was listed by the Institute for Scientific Information as the 30th "highest impact" psychologist in the world during 1986-1990. Dr. Hayes has been President of Division 25 (Experimental Behavior Analysis) of the American Psychological Association, of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology and of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy. He was the first Secretary-Treasurer of the Association for Psychological Science, which he helped form. He has received the Don F. Hake Award for Exemplary Contributions to Basic Behavioral Research and Its Applications from Division 25, and the Impact of Science on Application award from the Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis. He also served a 5 year term on the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse in the National Institutes of Health. For a while, his popular book Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life was the number one self-help book, reaching #20 overall on Amazon and briefly outselling Harry Potter for several days.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Who is this guy Paul Smolen and who cares what he thinks... - ACT/RFT supporter - Nov 30th 2011

Wow!  After reading such a negatively charged response from an unknown nobody like Paul Smolen, I only had one thought come to my mind, JEALOUSY!  ACT brings so much attention to human language and cognition that was missed by some of the world’s most infamous psychologist.  The way ACT and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) has significantly impacted the psychological world, it will never go away, nor should it!  Sorry you have problems Paul.

Helped tremendously. - John M - Mar 14th 2011

Back in late 2006, early 2007 , I had a very troubling time where I could not seem to have any feeling of hope. I had much to be happy about but was drowning in a sea of negativity. While I was not suicidal, I didnt want to live like that at all as I was almost despondant. I had to commit myself to a several days inpatient program and several months outpatient therapy.  Of course, the Docs immediately put me on anti depressants against my best wishes, as I explained to them that I didnt just want to treat my symptoms, that I wanted to find out what the hell was wrong with me. I had never heard of cognitive therapy before then, and this was my second round of inpatient care, the previous one 13 years prior. When I first heard the term cognitive therapy, I wondered what heck was it. In my state of mind, it was hard to grasp, but I truly didnt want to be on mind altering drugs as I loath them. My prior experience with Paxil was enough to convince me that I should try to understand the problem, not bury under meds. I did and outpatient program that lasted about six weeks, and then I found via the web, a therapist who introduced me to ACT and Mr Hayes book was deployed. Its complex and I would struggle with some of it, but I would go back over and agin until I understood the concepts. There were other things I was reading at the time that actually helped me understand Mr Hayes concept, especially that which delves into language and behavioural patterns. I did learn to manage my issues using these methods, and I assume thats because I wanted to.  I think you learn that there is no cure, but that you can manage if you can recognize what is going on.  I read the "negative" comment below and I just feel bad for that person as it seems that his mind was made up, that he is resigned to his misery, or that he cant grasp the ACT properly. I will tell you , its not easy, it is complex, but that if you want quality, you will have to earn it. If you just want easy, take the drugs.

RE: radio interview / book - paul smolen - Sep 13th 2009 - - Sep 26th 2010

If you believe that, have the courage to do your homework in detail and write it up in article form.

RE: radio interview / book - paul smolen - Sep 13th 2009

To whom it may concern,

I’ve read Dr. Hayes’ book, listened to his radio interview and have given his approach to therapy careful though. Also, I am in a therapy program that happens to be ACT oriented. My personal feeling about ACT, Dr. Hayes, etc., is that this approach is just another case of snake oil being foisted by the good Dr. I believe my professional background in advertising gives me some skill in spotting not so much the “psychobabel” mentioned by Dr. Hayes in his book, but good old American BS as we in advertising would refer to this pablum. His (Dr. Hayes’) book follows a formula that is typical of this type of self-help book. Space prohibits me from going into specifics at this time. Needless to say, I am not impressed and hope to begin a more complete and professional form of therapy soon.

Yours very truly,

Paul Smolen


Dr. Dombeck's Note: I cannot comment on Dr. Hayes' book aimed at lay people, but I can comment on Dr. Hayes' work as a scientist within the Behaviorist Clinical Psychology community, and a few personal thoughts having taken one workshop with him over a decade ago. Dr. Hayes is the real thing - a very well respected psychologist whose reputation is not based merely on good marketing (like Dr. John Gray of Mars and Venus fame) but rather on the merits of his experimental work. Dr. Hayes is more like Dr. John Gottman (the marital psychologist) in this regard - though he has started to write books intended for the public, his reputation as a scientist is extremely solid.

Dr. Hayes' ACT has always been a hard sell within the psychological community, because it is not typical behavioral therapy. Typical behavioral therapy is very logical in nature and almost mechanical in form. ACT is much more emotional in nature and appears to be irrational as well. So it's a turnoff for many behavioral psychologists. If I could sum the goal of ACT up in a sentance (badly), it would be that people get trapped in verbal models (rules, values) which become constricting and limiting, causing distress and in some cases, depression or anxiety. ACT therapists use emotional/irrational as well as rational techniques to help people to detach from these rules and gain practical and emotional into how they have the power to choose to play by different rules and thus alter their emotional state. ACT uses various techniques including mindfulness meditation to encourage this detachment and revaluing. I don't know how well written his book for lay people is, but this therapy is (when conducted by someone who understands it well, generally a good therapy for emotional problems. It will appear rather threatening to people who are rigidly attached to particular ways of viewing things, as the goal of this therapy is to break down rigid attachments. Hope this description is helpful.

Very Interesting - Mark - Jun 5th 2009

Just getting around to listening to this now.  Great introduction to the ideas with ACT.  Got me interested to know more.

Thanks for the podcast.

just a typo - Anned - May 17th 2007
it says in several places committment instead of commitment

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