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Get Unstuck and Live Fully

April 20, 2021

There’s a tale that Diana’s dad used to tell her as a little girl: “It takes so long to paint the Golden Gate Bridge that as soon as the job is finished, the painter has to turn around and start all over again.” Have you ever felt like that in your life?

Black and white picture of Golden Gate Bridge partially covered in fog
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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion


When you are faced with life’s challenges, it’s easy to lose track of what’s important, get stuck in your thoughts and emotions, and become bogged down by day-to-day problems. Even if you’ve made a commitment to live according to your core values, the ‘real-world’ has a way of driving a wedge between you and a deeper, more meaningful life.

There’s a tale that Diana’s dad used to tell her as a little girl: It takes so long to paint the Golden Gate Bridge that as soon as the job is finished, the painter has to turn around and start all over again.

Black and White image of aerial view of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay

Have you ever felt like that in your life? Do you keep facing similar problems, get stuck painting the same spots, or get so busy painting you forget to take in the view? Do you struggle against the discomfort of it all or start wondering if you’re cut out for the job? Or do you find yourself painting for endless hours without a sense of why this is even worthwhile or what direction you are heading?

Life can be a lot like painting the Golden Gate Bridge.

To finding meaning on the bridge of your life, it’s important to:

  • Have compassion for yourself when you make mistakes
  • Pause from time to time and take in the view around you
  • Make room for discomfort when things get boring, hard, or scary
  • Hold your thoughts lightly when they are discouraging or unhelpful
  • Identify the parts of your life that matter most to you, and do your best at those parts
  • Look toward the work ahead with a sense of direction and perspective
  • Keep at it, day, after day, after day

Black and White photo of man using a roller to paint with spotlight

Psychological Flexibility: The Key to Psychological Health

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a modern, evidence-based approach that offers a different perspective on wellbeing. You might think that therapy is about getting rid of “bad” thoughts and feelings and encouraging more “good” ones. ACT, by contrast, focuses on helping us make room for the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings—because not only are they part of life, but discomfort is inherently linked to the things in our lives that mean the most to us (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2016).

Researchers have shown, through thousands of studies, that ACT skills are not only beneficial if you’re struggling with psychological distress, like depression or anxiety, but also if you want to improve your relationships, develop healthier exercise and eating behaviors, cope better with pain or health conditions, or make pro-social changes in the world (Hayes, 2019).

ACT’s aim is to build your Psychological Flexibility. Psychological Flexibility is the ability to be aware of the thoughts and emotions you’re having at any given moment and be flexible in the face of those thoughts and emotions, even when they are painful, so you can make conscious, values-driven choices, rather than impulsive ones. If you are psychologically flexible, you are less caught up in unhelpful thoughts, more self-accepting, and better able to commit to the behaviors that you want to change (Hayes, 2019). And ultimately, when you’re psychologically flexible, you’re able to keep moving in the direction of the things that really matter to you, even when you encounter challenges along the way.

When you are psychologically flexible, you:

  • Are present in the life you have.
  • Know what you care about and live in a way that’s consistent with your values.
  • Accept and allow discomfort and pain instead of avoiding it.
  • Identify and unhook from unhelpful thoughts.
  • Connect with an observer self, one that can see your experience from many perspectives.
  • Take committed action toward what matters most in your life.

The reality is, experiences of discomfort and pain are embedded in every fulfilling life. You are more likely to experience discomfort when you engage in activities that matter deeply to you. When you are psychologically flexible, you are able to fully engage in your life, even when strong emotions and inevitable problems arise.

Psychological Flexibility looks like:

  • Starting a new relationship even if you fear vulnerability.
  • Making a change to pursue meaningful work even when it’s intimidating
  • Being a caring parent even when your child is pushing your buttons.
  • Moving your body even when your mind screams, “I don’t want to!”
  • Taking action against racism, social injustice, or climate change even when it’s uncomfortable or exhausting

Black and White picture looking upward at bare tree trunk and limbs

Psychological flexibility is your heartwood.

In order to build a life that matters to you, it helps to have “heartwood.” In the early 1990s, scientists tried to create a closed ecological system that was self-sustaining called the Biosphere 2. They planted trees. The trees initially grew more rapidly than they do outside of the dome, but then they began to collapse before maturation. Why? Because trees need wind to grow strong and flexible. Wind triggers the tree to build heartwood – wood that is better able to respond the life’s natural stressors.

By opening up fully to all aspects of your experience, clarifying what matters to you, and taking committed action toward your values every day, you will become more resilient and better able to withstand the turbulent winds of life without falling over.

Preparing the Ground

When we are trying to grow and learn something new, we often get in our own way. We might get caught up in criticizing ourselves or others for our mistakes and imperfections. Or we might get so busy making change that we don’t take the time to care for our basic needs. This doesn’t help. When we are hyperfocused on our failures, or neglect our self-care, we are less likely to make progress toward what really matters to us. In fact, there are numerous studies showing that kindness and compassion are key to performance and wellbeing (Neff, 2011). When you focus on compassion, self-care, and intention, you:

  • Uncover the critical inner voice that keeps you stuck.
  • Cultivate a compassionate inner advisor who can advise you in more helpful ways.
  • Learn about your brain’s Threat, Drive, and Caring Systems—which influence the degree to which you’re critical or compassionate.
  • Develop simple self-care practices for emotional and physical wellbeing.
  • Learn to use your time with intention.

Black and White picture of single Samanea Saman tree (aka Monkey Pod or Rain tree) growing on beach

Live in the Now

Throughout the day, our attention is pulled many different directions, and we waste a lot of mental energy worrying about our future or ruminating over our past. When our minds are elsewhere, we lose sight of the moment that’s happening here and now. By becoming more aware of the present moment, you can fully experience your life as it’s unfolding, and make more conscious decisions. When you practice Present Moment Awareness skills, you will:

  • Move from living on autopilot to living with intention.
  • Savor more moments of your daily life.
  • Have greater self-awareness of your body’s sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
  • Find a steady center in the face of difficulty.
  • Bring more awareness to your relationships and work.

Greet the Monsters in Your Head

One of the biggest barriers to living life effectively is getting stuck in your own head. Unhelpful thinking, like self-criticism, rigid beliefs, and “shoulds” can trip us up, stall us, or make us inflexible in our approach. We don’t have to convince ourselves that these thoughts aren’t true, but rather see them for what they are—thoughts, not truths—and hold them more lightly. In doing so, you learn to:

  • Notice your chatty mind.
  • Step back and create space from your thoughts.
  • Use humor and playfulness to get unstuck from thoughts.
  • Let go of trying to control your thoughts.
  • Get more flexible with rules, being right, and “shoulds.”
  • Practice choosing to pay attention to thoughts that are helpful, not harmful.

Black and White picture of pensive man

Open Up, Allow, and Be Curious

If you reflect on your past, anything you’ve pursued that has mattered deeply to you has involved some degree of discomfort. In order to live with meaning and purpose, you will at times experience emotions, thoughts, and sensations you might rather avoid. The desire to avoid discomfort is understandable, but that inflexibility comes at a price. Psychological Flexibility means opening up to all aspects of your emotional experience, even the unpleasant ones, in order to do the things that matter to you.

By focusing on Acceptance you will:

  • Explore the messages you’ve been taught about emotions.
  • Recognize the signs of avoidance in your day-to-day life: like numbing out, distracting yourself, opting out of opportunities, or speeding through life.
  • Uncover the consequences of avoiding pain and discomfort
  • Increase your curiosity and openness to face all of your emotions, thoughts, and sensations, pleasant and unpleasant alike.

Black and white picture of woman with metallic colored eyes

Take in the View

The ability to shift perspective is key for empathy, innovation, and positive change. When we are stuck in our self-stories—the story we tell ourselves about who we and others are, what we can and can’t do, and what we deserve—we can miss out on so many life experiences unfolding every day. Perspective taking helps us open the aperture of our lens, take an observer stance, and flexibly shift into seeing a situation from a new point of view. Being able to take on others’ perspectives lies at the heart of compassion, conflict resolution, social justice, and developing a wise mind—a mind that can draw upon the wisdom of both your emotions and your rationality.

When you practice Perspective Taking you will:

  • Identify some self-stories that keep you stuck
  • Get more flexible in your self-labels and categories
  • Broaden your perspective to a “sky mind”, accessing the part of you that notices rather than just the part of you that thinks.
  • Explore perspective taking over time
  • Use perspective to explore broader possibilities in your life

Choose Your Direction

What brings you meaning, purpose, and vitality in your life? What do you really care about? And what type of person do you want to be? In ACT, values are defined as descriptions of how we engage in the actions that matter to us. They’re the qualities that we want to reflect in our actions: kindness, courage, spontaneity, you name it. Values, unlike emotions or thoughts, offer us a direction that gives meaning and vitality to our lives.

When you practice focusing on Values you will learn to:

  • Tell the difference between a pleasure-filled life versus a meaningful one.
  • Identify what you want your life motto to be.
  • Explore your values within domains that might be important to you, like family, career, community, or spirituality
  • Realign with your values when you get off track
  • Explore impermanence, as a way to continue determining the values and actions that mean the most to you

Falling on Purpose

Committed Actions are ongoing steps we take in the direction of our values, even when those steps are difficult. Living a values-driven life is a big job. Some days, your progress may seem slow and your motivation may wane. By focusing on getting moving, using principles from behavioral psychology and habit formation that help you stay flexible when change gets hard so you can remain committed, you will learn to:

  • Use values to increase your motivation to change.
  • Focus on the process of taking action, rather than outcome.
  • Develop small habits that are achievable, even when your motivation is low.
  • Explore obstacles to changing your behavior.
  • Create contexts, consequences, and a team to support the changes you desire.
  • Develop a flexible and sustainable action plan.

Black and white picture of a pile of wrenches

Flexible Integration

Implementing the processes of self-compassion, mindful awareness, acceptance, willingness, perspective taking, and committed action—ACTing Daily—creates a life you can savor and feel proud of.

Turns out, the story about the Golden Gate Bridge is only a tale; the painters don’t start at one end, paint all the way through, and start over. In reality, a crew of painters works continually to keep the bridge up, doing maintenance as needed. And much like those painters continually working on the bridge, the processes of Psychological Flexibility are lifelong.

Black and white picture of Golden Gate Bridge partially covered in fog

We have been practicing ACT for many years, both professionally and personally, and there’s still more for us to learn and practice every day. When the paint starts chipping off, as it inevitably will, ACT can help you to continue to live your values-driven life.

Excerpted from ACT Daily Journal: How to Get Unstuck and Live Fully with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Diana Hill, PhD and Debbie Sorensen, PhD. Reprinted with permission from New Harbinger Publications. This article originally appeared in the Wise Brain Bulletin, which is published 6 times a year by Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.

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