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The basics of using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to treat Third Culture Kids


We at Cross Culture Therapy see Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a bridge between the day-to-day stress relieving practices of Mindfulness and the more long-term treatment of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

We utilize two basic techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in our treatment of Third Culture Kids and Cross Culture Kids. They are the decentralisation of thought processes and the practice of expansion. We also teach the client the detrimental effects of using control strategies and underline the importance of objective descriptive techniques as part of ACT treatment.

This blog post is going to give you a short introduction into these concepts of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. If you feel like the information provided here is too brief, please subscribe to our email newsletter as there will be individual articles for all four of these concepts in the future.


The Decentralisation of Thought Processes

This is one of the fundamental concepts of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and also the place where (in our interpretation at least) Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy meet. In Mindfulness we are taught to be aware of the ways of the mind, to watch the thinker and to focus on the present moment through various meditation techniques such as traditional sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful movements etc. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy we look at the automatic thoughts and core beliefs of a patient and apply techniques to alter them. Decentralisation (ACT) is the process of watching one’s automatic thoughts and purposefully creating distance between them and oneself.

An example of a typical automatic thought would be, I’m stupid. There are many ways to apply decentralisation to this thought (all of which we will touch upon in future posts). One way is through the I think that I technique.

I’m stupid → I’m thinking that I am stupid. → I am aware that I am thinking that I am stupid.

It is through the repeated use of techniques such as these that we create distance between us and our thoughts and realize that they are simply words. Automatic thoughts are often considered as truths but through decentralisation we make ourselves aware of their nature as mere fragments of sound whose meaning and truthfulness are swayed by our subjective interpretation of the world and ourselves.

A simplistic example of how this can be applied to the thought processes of Third Culture Kids and Cross Culture Kids would be as follows.

I don’t belong here. → I’m thinking that I don’t belong here. → I am aware that I am thinking that I don’t belong here.

My friends in my passport culture think I’m weird. → I’m thinking that my friends in my passport culture think I’m weird. → I am aware that I am thinking that my friends in my passport culture think I’m weird.

The Practice of Expansion

The practice of expansion is, in many ways, applied to counter the side-effects of overuse of control strategies. Therefore, both of them will be discussed in this section. Control strategies are the techniques we unconsciously apply to drown out negative thoughts and feelings. This can take the form of consuming copious amounts of food, binge watching TV, excessive sleeping, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the avoidance of social activities, not attending a course at school for fear of failure etc. Whereas the short-term effects of control strategies are often positive (i.e. feelings of relief, relaxation etc.), in the long-term they are ineffective and are likely to cause stronger negative thoughts and feelings. This is where the practice of expansion comes in. Here we are taught how to find the place in our body where our negative feelings manifest, to accept their existence and to create space for them. It is through the creation of space that we realise how insignificant the feelings are and, in turn, we weaken their effect on us. This can be applied in several instances in the Third Culture Kid experience. One example would be in the repatriation process of the Third Culture Kid, wherein experiences of isolation and avoidance tendencies are common.


Objective Descriptive Techniques

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy we also train our patients to see the world objectively. It is through the objective description of people and occurrences that we strip away ill-intent and malice and create a world wherein thoughts of judgement do not exist. When describing a person, we may use the occupation of that person to identify who they are (i.e. actor, banker) but it is not necessary to point out how good or bad said person is at doing their job or how they look whilst doing it (i.e. terrible actor, crooked banker). When describing an occurrence, we can identify the sequence of the occurrence and even perceived feelings within the participants, but must avoid describing the experience in subjective terms. In the retelling of an argument we make a point of describing how both people’s feelings were perceived and what could have caused those feelings, instead of describing it through one person’s point of view. Again, this can be applied to many aspects of the Third Culture Kid and Cross Culture Kid experience. One such example would be in heated arguments about a possible move where mother and father are seen as “stupid” and the move itself thought of as a “great injustice” by the child.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you are interested in having a therapy session with us at Cross Culture Therapy, click the Book A Session tab on our website and schedule one at a time of your convenience.


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