I recently had the opportunity to review the new book ACT Art Therapy: Creative Approaches to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Dr. Amy Backos. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has always been a model that I have wanted to learn more about (it was not introduced at all in my graduate program), but for some reason struggled to connect with.
The pieces that I had known about – practicing acceptance of thoughts instead of trying to fight them, being committed to taking helpful actions, identifying and living in alignment with your values – resonated with me and are present in my clinical work in some capacity. But then I would hear about other pieces of the model and feel like I didn’t quite get them or know how to actually utilize them with a client. During the pandemic I even downloaded an audiobook about ACT and then abandoned it before the end of the first chapter as it was presented in a way that didn’t really make sense to me.
So, I was curious when I had this chance to read ACT Art Therapy, and I am happy to say that the book gave me a much clearer understanding of ACT. Although some books that integrate art therapy into an existing theoretical orientation assume that one has previous understanding of that orientation, ACT Art Therapy gives a clear and understandable overview of ACT and how its core principles – present moment awareness, acceptance, cognitive defusion, self as context, values, and committed action – all work together in support of the goal of psychological flexibility. I really appreciated the through overview of the model and the clear information that was provided throughout the book.
ACT and art therapy seem to integrate very well with each other. Backos explains in the book that within the ACT approach, art therapy provides a way for clients to deepen their understanding of their self, use the creative process to engage in meaning-making, experience mindfulness, and practice psychological flexibility.
Another aspect of the book that I appreciated was that it incorporates insights and voices from multiple therapists. Most chapters include a section contributed by another therapist, sharing about what a particular ACT principle means to them or how they have explored it through the lens of creativity.
This book is light on giving specific examples of directives, art-based exercises, or client case examples which did leave me with some unanswered questions about what ACT art therapy actually looks like in practice. But the experience and value of art therapy goes beyond specific directives and exercises. Likewise, Backos (and some of the other therapists who contributed to the book) highlight that working from an ACT art therapy perspective requires immersing yourself in the principles, exploring and living them in your own life, seeing them as an integrated whole, and possible engaging with them in your art-making – not just picking and choosing a few pieces to add into a session.
I decided to explore the ACT principle of cognitive defusion through a suggested collage directive (credit for the directive in the book is given to Melanie Worstell). Backos explains that cognitive defusion refers to recognizing that thoughts are just thoughts, not necessarily truth. In recognizing that, we can start to gain distance from our thoughts, allow them to exist (without needing to alter, fight, or suppress them), and then choose what to do based on our values.
The collage directive that Worstell suggests allows one to explore the idea of taking a new perspective on something or engaging with one’s thoughts in a new way. To try this exercise, take a collage image, cut it into 10 or more pieces, and then glue them onto a page in a way that creates a new image. Then look at your new image, notice what has changed, give it a title, and describe it with three words or phrases.
Below is my own example with the original image and the new, rearranged image. As art therapists, we know that clients will often take a suggested directive in whatever direction they need to express themselves. In that light, I am not sure if I faithfully followed the directive or truly captured the principle of cognitive defusion in my art process. However, I did start with an image that resonated with a feeling and thought that I was having at the time and engaging in the process was valuable in that it did help me to shift my emotions and gain some new perspective. For me, the original image evoked a sense of competition, being unable to rest, and tiredness. In my new image, I was able to rework it into a single, more stable figure, bringing up thoughts of being able to be more still and focus on myself.
If you have an interest in learning more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or want to learn more about how to approach art therapy within an ACT framework, I encourage you to read ACT Art Therapy: Creative Approaches to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you use ACT in your therapy practice? Have you the read the book and what were your takeaways? Please comment below.
Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT-S, ATR-BC is an art therapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, teens, and families. For more information about telehealth and online therapy, individual therapy, child and teen counseling, and art therapy services, please visit: www.therapywithcarolyn.com. Carolyn is also the author of The Balanced Mind – A Mental Health Journal, a guided journal that combines writing and art prompts to support your mental health.
This blog post contains affiliate links and I earn a small commission for your purchases. This blog is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health conditions. All directives, interventions, and ideas should be used by qualified individuals within the appropriate bounds of their education, training, and scope of practice. Information presented in this blog does not replace professional training in child and family therapy, art therapy, or play therapy. Art therapy requires a trained art therapist.