By: Annette Bogard, M.S. L.P.C. N.C.C.

The adage ‘everything old is new again’ applies to a type of therapy that focuses heavily on practicing mindfulness. Meditative practices might bring to mind images of sitting crisscross-applesauce, palms upward and chanting “Om,” but none of those things are necessary for practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply being intentional about noticing thought processes instead of engaging with the thought content

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, is an evidence-based therapy approach that recognizes the powerful influence of the language we use in our minds on the way we feel about and respond to our circumstances. I personally don’t respond well to being told what I should think so that I will feel a certain way. For example, a mother might admonish a child to think of those less fortunate who don’t get to have dinner rather than complaining about the pork chops and asparagus on their plate; she tells her child to feel grateful that they have dinner at all. Mom may be correct in spirit, but it is unlikely to change the way the child thinks or feels about tonight’s dinner menu. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice that encompasses paying attention on purpose to the thoughts, feelings, moods and body sensations we experience. We have very little control over thoughts that pop into our minds or feelings that show up whenever they choose. So rather than fixating on these private experiences (the feelings or what the thoughts are about) it can be more helpful to notice them and pause to consider whether these are something to which we want to give a lot of time and attention.

Russ Harris, M.D., psychotherapist, author and renowned ACT trainer often rhetorically asks his audiences for a show of hands of those who think life is too easy. Clearly, life can be hard and full of difficult challenges. The year 2020 alone brought a host of extraordinary circumstances: a world-wide pandemic, fear, parents becoming teachers, loss of loved ones, job loss, financial strain, food and housing insecurity, loneliness, social injustice, political and civil unrest. The list goes on.

Contending with even one of these issues is stressful, but when heaped upon day-to-day responsibilities it may overwhelm us. Our brains are often very busy: constantly telling us things, ruminating on events of the past, or worrying about what lies ahead.  The unfortunate logical outworking of this pattern is a distracted mind with only a tenuous grasp on what is happening in the here and now.

To further illustrate the concept, Dr. Harris lists five common myths about mindfulness, summarized below:

Myth – Mindfulness is meditation. Fact – There are many ways to develop mindfulness skills and meditation is just “a tiny subset” of them.

Myth – Mindfulness comes from Buddhism. Fact – Mindfulness is a mental skill set practiced in nearly all major religions.

Myth – Mindfulness is a type of relaxation. Fact – Actually, mindfulness is fully possible (and really helpful) in very stressful situations. It is embracing the present moment even when it involves difficult emotions or thoughts.

Myth – Mindfulness is a way of controlling our thoughts and “being positive.” Fact – Mindfulness is being aware of our thoughts as they come and go, choosing which ones we pay attention to regardless of their content and realizing that our thoughts aren’t necessarily facts.

Myth – Mindfulness is a way to feel good and control our feelings. Fact – Mindfulness is actually allowing ourselves to feel and fully experience the full range of emotions, all of which are part of the human experience. 

You might think, “Sounds like a lot of work. Why bother?” According to Steven Hayes, founder of ACT, mindfulness skills “determine why some people thrive after life challenges and others do not, or why some people experience many positive emotions and others very few. And at the center of these skills is the open and flexible stance toward one’s own pain.”

Developing mindfulness promotes psychological flexibility, an indicator of good mental health and resilience. The opposite is psychological inflexibility. Hayes says when one is psychologically inflexible, “you get stuck on fears, worries, and self-doubts – and then judge yourself for having these thoughts and feelings in the first place. Instead of living by your better intentions, you get sucked in by moods, thoughts, and momentary urges, making you act in ways detrimental to your health and well-being. More and more, you live life on automatic pilot, while life is passing you by.”

A common response to difficult thoughts and feelings is avoidance of the people, places or situations that cause them. However rather than alleviating anxiety and other uncomfortable private experiences, avoidance will likely perpetuate them. Hayes asserts, “tough emotions aren’t problems to solve. We can learn from pain and wisdom is born from suffering.”

In a relationship, psychological inflexibility might be defensiveness, insults, knee-jerk reactions or even abusive behaviors. University of Rochester researchers Daks & Rogge studied the effect of psychological inflexibility on romantic relationships and found that it not only causes distress on the individual, but also decreased satisfaction with their partner.

Research by Neff & Karney (2009) found that a primary factor in successful relationships is a couple’s ability to separate their relationship from their here-and-now experiences. Furthermore, they found that spouses who link their overall satisfaction about their marriage to their day-to-day experiences have decreased feelings of satisfaction overall. For example, if your spouse is a “backseat driver” criticizing your behind-the-wheel performance, in the moment it may be annoying or even insulting. And what you once may have shrugged off, over time may create feelings of resentment and angry thoughts like, “I’m so done with this. I really can’t take it anymore.”

Remember, thoughts come and go constantly. A mindful response to this situation is pausing to intentionally observe the thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally. “I’m having the thought that I can’t take it anymore.” “I notice I’m having the thought that I can’t take it anymore.” “My mind is telling me I’m done.”  Thoughts aren’t facts. Emotions show up whenever they choose and stay as long as they like. Mindfulness allows us to separate from our thoughts and choose which ones are worthy of our attention and energy. Let that sink in. We can choose whether we allow ourselves to get caught up in our thoughts and feelings; we can pause and decide whether it would be helpful to act on that immediate impulse.

The point of cultivating mindfulness is freeing up our mind to be fully present and aware, enabling us to focus on the things that we believe matter most regardless of any psychological discomfort we may be experiencing. Generally speaking, mindfulness allows us to experience the full range of human emotions while still making steps toward the life we want to have.   

Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Harris, R. (2017, November 16) The Happiness Trap: The Five Myths of Mindfulness (Video). YouTube.

Hayes, S.C. (2020, December 8). The psychology of relationships.

Hayes, S.C. (2016). What I learned about anxiety by giving a talk about anxiety. Psychology Today. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from

Hayes, S.C. (2016, February 22). Psychological flexibility: How love turns pain into purpose [Video]. TED.

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