The ACT matrix

What is the ACT matrix?

The ACT matrix (Polk, Schoendorff, Webster & Olaz, 2016) is a practical tool that provides a visual representation of the key concepts and techniques of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), helping individuals gain insight into their internal experiences, values, and actions. The ACT matrix consists of a grid with four quadrants and a double headed arrow through the middle with the words ‘towards’ and ‘away’ at either end.

 

What does each quadrant mean?

The right-hand side of the matrix focuses on actions aligned with what is important. Within the lower right quadrant, we explore the client’s values. To start this exploration, a key question to ask is, “Who or what holds significant value in your life?”. Shifting to the upper right quadrant, we see behaviours that manifest when guided by these values. To expand the exploration, you may pose a question like: “When you are authentically living according to your values, what actions do you envision yourself taking?”

The left-hand side of the matrix describes actions that move away from painful experiences. In the lower left quadrant, we uncover the thoughts and emotions that can arise as barriers when attempting to pursue valued actions. These may manifest as feelings of anxiety, sadness, or anger, alongside thoughts such as “I can’t do it,” “I’ll fail again,” or “I can’t handle these emotions.” To explore this further, a probing question emerges: “What thoughts or emotions arise as obstacles, hindering the expression of your deepest values?”. When clients find themselves entangled in these experiences, it is common to make concerted efforts to distance or diminish them. Behaviours driven by this move are outlined in the top left quadrant. You can inquire here, “When these internal barriers manifest and exert their grip on you, what actions do you take to disengage from them?”

The final element, represented by the central circle, is the client themselves, observing all these distinct components and their interplay. The matrix encourages the client to recognise the observer within them, the one who is aware of these experiences. If they are the one noticing, they also possess the capacity to make choices regarding their behaviours.

By using the ACT matrix, individuals can develop greater awareness and make mindful choices that help them live a more meaningful life.

Hooked or unhooked?

The double headed arrow through the middle bisects the quadrants with the words ‘towards’ and ‘away’. On the left-hand side of the arrow is the word hooked, which refers to the psychological state when we tend to be more under the influence of our difficult thoughts and feelings. On the right-hand side is the word ‘unhooked’, which refers to when we are less under the influence of those thoughts and feelings and more likely to move towards our values.

A step-by-step process for working with the ACT matrix

  1. Identify and label internal experiences: In the bottom left quadrant, individuals begin by identifying and labelling their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. They learn to observe these experiences without judgement, recognising that thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings, rather than absolute truths or commands for action.
  2. Identify automatic responses: in the top left quadrant, individuals learn about their automatic responses to unwanted thoughts and feelings and how these responses can often be unworkable when it comes to moving towards value.
  3. Clarify values: In the bottom right “values” quadrant, individuals explore and clarify their values. They reflect on what is important to them in different areas of life and identify the qualities and principles they want to embody. Values serve as a compass, guiding individuals’ choices and actions.
  4. Connect actions to values: In the top right “committed actions” quadrant, individuals identify specific actions they can take to align with their values. They consider what steps they can take, even in the face of difficult thoughts and emotions, to move towards a meaningful life. This involves setting goals and making intentional choices that are consistent with their values.
  5. Cultivate mindfulness: through the process of engaging with the matrix, individuals practice mindfulness to connect with their present-moment experience. They learn to be fully present and engaged, noticing the sensations in their body, the emotions that arise, and the thoughts that pass through their minds. Mindfulness allows individuals to develop a non-reactive stance towards their experiences.
  6. Notice patterns and make adjustments: As individuals work with the ACT matrix, they begin to notice patterns and feedback loops between the quadrants. They observe how their internal experiences impact their actions and how their actions, in turn, influence their internal experiences. This awareness allows them to adjust and choose alternative responses that are more in line with their values.

The matrix serves as a practical tool for self-reflection, guiding individuals on their journey of personal growth and well-being.

Reference

Polk, Schoendorff, Webster & Olaz, (2016), The Essential guide to the ACT matrix: A step-by-step approach to using the ACT matrix model in clinical practice. Context Press, New Harbinger Publications, USA

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