Wednesday, 20 November 2019

When The Fear Won't Go Away

As part of my job I am ‘lucky’ to be offered the opportunity to teach other clinicians the theory and skills needed to use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in their own clinical practice. I put ‘lucky’ in inverted commas becomes this privilege comes with a price tag: anxiety. You may be surprised to hear that I experience anxiety, when people first come to see me they often want to be anxiety (etc) free and anticipate as a psychologist that I must be. I make no apology for bursting that bubble, as in doing so I hope that you may be able to see more clearly that anxiety is a normal part of life, usually showing up when you care about something.  The skills I teach are about how to flexibly respond to difficult emotions with kindness and by allowing them to be there just as they are, start to even use them to your advantage. So I thought I’d use my recent experience of anxiety, when teaching at ACT Week at The University of Birmingham, to share some key principles of the ACT processes with you, in the hope that it might give you some ideas about how to befriend your own inner demons.

What I love

What’s so important here that I am willing to experience anxiety?

I love sharing my passion and enthusiasm for a therapeutic intervention that I find effective and I want to facilitate others’ learning and development in this area.  I enjoy the opportunity of connecting with people at the start of their ACT journey and of being able to offer support informally and formally after the event.  As a trainer I want to be authentic and bring my clinical and personal application of ACT to the party - to share what the theory looks like in practice, how to use it clinically and 'be' it, modelling how I use the skills personally to live more of the life I want to.  I want to be able to show that we are all ‘in the same boat’, that no-one is broken, rather that we can all get stuck in the struggle with normal experiences.

I value personal challenge, learning and my own development and want to learn skills to enable me to be engaging and effective as a trainer.  I enjoy the variety that preparing and delivering teaching brings to my usual day to day one-to-one therapy and supervision interactions.  The learning required to refresh and update skills also massively improves those interactions as it expands my knowledge and repertoire of tools (it is easy to fall into a habit of using a favoured few metaphors and exercises otherwise).

I also love being a part of a welcoming, inclusive supportive community of clinicians whose values are the same as my own.  I get a sense of belonging from being a part of this ‘tribe’ and want to share this and encourage others to join.  

What I fear

What internal demons show up and potentially get in the way of what matters? What hooks me? What do I do when I’m hooked?

For some time before and during the event I notice a tightness throughout my core, my chest and my gut, my jaw goes tight and because of this tension headaches are common.  I normally take in paracetamol and in previous years I've taken wet wipes and fresh deodorant to cope with the nervous sweating too! (I'm finding it easier to share over a blog....and now I'm wondering if it is too much….!) It’s like my body can’t cope - and actually it is! It's working perfectly fine, doing what it’s evolved to do when perceived danger is present, preparing me to fight, flee or freeze.

Sally FM (the name I’ve given my mind) has a long back catalogue of tracks to play on repeat around my inadequate skills and knowledge as a clinician and as a trainer.  She is fearful of my inadequacies being exposed and tries to protect me with scaremongering tales of not being able to answer questions and messing up demos to get me to stop - every year she says to just get through it and for goodness sake don't put yourself through this again!  Sally FM tells me that I'll let my usual co-facilitator down (and I notice I'm getting tearful as I write this, a measure of how much I love and respect him as a person, clinician, supervisor and trainer). She tells me I'm the pity invite to train and that he really wishes he'd asked someone else and now he's landed with me and doesn't know how to get rid of me. She compares me to other trainers who are more read/skilled/compassionate/engaging/funny blah blah blah!

When I'm hooked like a fish on a line it can take me off course and lead me to excessively read texts again and source new ones in preparation, I can be seen sticking to ‘comfortable and safe' sections of teaching content to be delivered, and deferring to co-trainers for things I know they like to do and are “way better than you at” (Sally FM says).  When hooked by her familiar stories of inadequacy I can try to include too much information, examples and exercises and be rigid with slide content/order rather than responding to the room and allowing people time to experience what I am trying to introduce.  I can become quiet and rush the punchlines in the examples/jokes (“because you’re just not funny and this is awkward”).  Sally FM tells me that I may share too much (In preparing for this I re-read feedback comments I have received….they all appreciated my sharing…. “Oh but what about the ones who wrote nothing?”)  It really is like a never ending game of chess between the positive and negative thoughts, maybe it is time to be like the board - in contact with the ‘demon pieces’ but not hooked into a battle with them…

Staying flexible: surfing the wave

What you would see me do if I was really ‘being’ the trainer I want to be

I have a clear recollection of a moment choosing to pause during ACT week and trying to 'drink in' the experience.  As I do this I feel a real sense of calm, of meaning and purpose.  This can help me stay flexible, getting present and noticing what is really here rather than the story Sally FM plays.  It is the time of year that I feel most alive, in touch with my own inner experience and what matters (it’s also the time of year I feel most scared).  It is helpful to hold that ‘in my pain I find my values and in my values I find my pain’; just like everyone.  There is nothing to be got rid of here, the anxiety is simply coordinated with how much this matters to me and if getting rid of the anxiety meant getting rid of the experience of teaching then I just would not make that choice.  Being in a room full of people who want to be there and know more about ACT is a heady cocktail, there is such an electric buzz.  It was my favourite year this year, I think because I wasn't holding on so tight, allowing myself to be more flexible in delivering content and playful in what and how content was shared: the difference between riding the rollercoaster holding on with white knuckles or throwing your arms in the air! 

Whilst noticing my own inner experience I really try to connect with who matters to me in the room, the delegates, in how I respond to questions/comments and in demos.  I am humbled by their willingness to be so open and really 'go there' and want to encourage and reinforce this bravery through eye contact, pausing and giving space, touch and writing lots of feedback notes giving thanks, expressing appreciation and recognising accomplishment.

Seeing as my inner demons are so strong I try use them to hopefully mine and others advantage and ‘model the model’ (as I am doing here).  The feedback I get is that this has enabled others to do the same in noticing, making room for and sharing their own thoughts and emotions.  People have said it has inspired them to show more vulnerability with clients in the service of enabling the client to be more willing and accepting of their own difficult experiences.  I introduced Sally FM last year and again this year, both times I have received fun feedback notes of my own about retuning her to DAB, and I can't (obvs!) and I'm not sure that I would want to because she is a measure of how much I care and so the time she is not there and goes ‘off air’ is when I am maybe just being static white noise and should maybe go 'off air’ myself.

Taking ACTion

Accepting what demons show up, Connecting with what matters & Taking ACTion

And as I post this I feel a little naked and exposed in sharing my vulnerability and that’s OK if it helps others make room for their demons and embrace a life led by meaning and vitality.

I am also taking ACTion towards being the best trainer I can be by putting myself forward to become a peer reviewed trainer by the ACBS. Something that pretty much everyone fails at first time, and that’s OK because in going through this and getting and acting on feedback I will become more of the passionate, engaging and effective trainer I want to be. I’ve been told that if something is worth doing properly its worth doing poorly first, so here I go…If you were to take ACTion towards something that is important to you, what might that be? What can you do about that today?


  1. Thanks Sally, I appreciated your honesty and courage to share. ❤🙏 It's great to know there are other flawed, anxious, people out there, just trying to do their best. I see you.

  2. Hi Sally sometimes I get that wrapped up in myself I fail to see that there are anxious people out there coping with life the best way they can.

  3. Beautiful, Sally. Committed Action is a wonderful concept, yet it's tempting to think everything gets easy just because we've seen it as that. Thank you for sharing your experience that it often doesn't do that, AND it's still worth doing. SO glad that you're a part of ACT BIG, the West Midlands Massive and a great buddy to kill time at an airport with....♥️