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Welcome to the latest episode of shelf aware books podcast. I’m very excited to get to talk to Dr. Carissa Gustafson. She is a psychologist out in Los Angeles and she has written a new book, which of course, is why we’re here. reclaim your life acceptance and Commitment Therapy in seven weeks. Welcome.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 0:20
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be on the podcast and get to talk with you today.
I’m excited to have you. Well, thank you so much. This is a great book. I like the subtitle strategies to manage depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and more. So before we really dive into the book, can you tell us a little bit about your background, you know, and what made you think about writing a book?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 0:46
Yeah, absolutely. So like you said, I’m a licensed clinical psychologist. And as a part of kind of my training, especially towards the end, I got really into acceptance and commitment. therapy and mindfulness as well, which is a big part of acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the processes included in it. Really, I kind of think of like acceptance and Commitment Therapy or act as kind of a mix between mindfulness strategies and like behavioral strategies. So it’s really, as the name implies a very active approach, but it was something that I really developed a passion for. Throughout my training.
Okay, so did you encounter act in school or did you come across it later on?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 1:33
Yeah. So I was fortunate enough to go to Pepperdine and they had an elective class. there that was taught, taught by Dr. Laura fielding. Oh, offense and Commitment Therapy. Yes. She also has a book that she wrote, I think it’s called adulting. parts about adulting and it’s rushing towards like young adults. But so she taught acceptance and Commitment Therapy there. And then I also did both a pre internship and then my postdoc at the VA in downtown Los Angeles where we had an act seminar that was taught by Dr. Michael care Cashin and Dr. Anna Leshner. And then I also sought out independent training on apt from the CO creators, even Hayes and through the VA was able to attend other trainings through really fantastic act teachers like Robin Walzer. So I was able to during my training and education, like get a lot of exposure to act.
So I noticed in your book, you talk a lot about mindfulness and behavior. Can you tell me when you first got into mindfulness, was it a academic interest or was that something personal?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 2:52
I guess it’s a little bit of both right? So I’m really the bulk of them. mindfulness training that I got was through my, you know, training experience at the VA, mostly through Dr. Michael care cash. And so I mentioned the act seminar, it was really kind of like an act of mindfulness seminar. And I suppose you might say that the class taught by Laura was also kind of an act and mindfulness class as well. But I was interested in it in terms of the clinical applications for mindfulness, but you can’t help but start to live it in your personal life as well. So I kind of was introduced to it through the VA through seminars and classes. But ultimately, you know, it really does become like a very personal process that really impacts the way that you live your life, the way that you work with clients and all of that.
So it’s really had an impact for you.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 3:53
Yeah, absolutely. Very, very impactful. Yeah, since my training at the VA I got very into mindfulness and into like, mindful self compassion quite a bit in particular. So as you kind of read through the book, I try to tie that in a lot. So kind of one of the, the metaphors that, you know, you might see in the book or hear elsewhere is this idea that there’s kind of two wings of the bird and one is mindfulness and the other is compassion and that you need both to apply. And so as we increase our awareness, we also have to increase our compassion because it’s very difficult to to be aware of certain aspects of our experience. As human beings, like there’s just a lot of difficulties that that arise. And as we increase our awareness, we also need to increase our compassion towards ourselves. And that’s something I use a lot in therapy with clients and for a lot of people is kind of a new way of relating to themselves. It seems people really grow up, learning to relate to themselves in a way that’s very critical. And I see that you know, as planning Role maintaining all kinds of things that people might come to therapy for, whether it’s depression or addiction, any number of things
you can definitely tell in your book, you have this balance between that gentle compassion speak, the voice that we all wish we had in our heads at all times. Yeah. So because you’re seeing that in the clinicians office, tell me why a self help book and why now?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 5:27
Yeah, well, you know, unfortunately, like, a lot of people are not able to access therapy. A lot of people are out there kind of struggling on their own with very, very real problems and trying to find answers, or strategies solutions for for navigating the difficulties that are showing up in their own lives and I think, a self help book, it makes it more accessible for people, you know, introducing some of these concepts or ideas or trying to get them to experiment. With relating to themselves with more compassion or their experience with more acceptance, and ultimately working towards building hopefully a full and meaningful life,
definitely and in your book is probably one of the ones that I would recommend. First off for folks who have kind of mentioned that some of the other books might be a bit too heavy or maybe worrier. Tell me about your approach in writing the book.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 6:28
Yeah, so it really seemed like you know, certainly this is not the first act self help book out there. There’s others out there but act as an approach I think can become really, it can become really confusing for people. And again, wanting to make it as accessible as possible. I tried to and, and worked a lot with you know, the publisher and my editor and everything like that to make it more straightforward so that people can really implement it, but it seemed like There was a little bit of a need for that for a book to kind of lay out Act in, you know, kind of a linear way. And of course, it’s not a linear process, in terms of kind of the core processes and everything like that there is this kind of dynamic interaction between them, but kind of laying it out with each of the processes week by week, and then having the seventh week to help people kind of bring it together. Really, the intention was to make it as straightforward as possible, as accessible as possible, so that people can implement it, and use the act approaches and strategies that are so
so wonderful and so effective for such a large range of issues. So do you consider yourself a mental health professional who wrote a book or a writer who also works as a mental health professional?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 7:48
That’s a good question. I think. Definitely. The first one is like a mental health professional who wrote a book. I never thought that I would write a book and actually, you know, So if you look at the dedication, I wrote it or dedicated it to everybody who thinks that they don’t have anything to say. Because that’s been, you know, a thought that I’ve had before that like, well, what would I write about? So, like, months before, I had the opportunity to write this book, somebody actually asked me if I had considered writing before and, you know, my automatic thought is like, Well, what do I have to say? Or what would I write about? But that’s, you know, one of those thoughts that you can kind of diffuse from and just notice, like, Oh, that’s, you know, an interesting thought that arose in response to that question, but actually, I do have something to say. So, it was a really rewarding kind of process and experience for me to see that, that I do have something to say or something to contribute to put out there into the world that’s hopefully helpful to other people. And that also kind of hopefully helps people understand their own worth and value. You know,
tell me a little bit about some of the challenges and maybe had to use actor mindfulness to get through yourself in writing the book as part of the writing process. The maybe the thought of you know, Dr. Steve Hays who wrote the original book, and then came out with another book, a liberated mind last year. And here you are writing your book. Tell me did you happen to think of, wow, you know, I’m writing a new book, there are other people writing a book, how did you work through that in your own mind with what your mind was telling you?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 9:33
Yeah, absolutely. All those thoughts come up, you know,
like the self doubt, and well, who am I to write this book? What do I have to say? All of those kinds of thoughts arise, right? So it’s totally, you know, using those mindfulness skills or using, you know, diffusion, to recognize that those are just thoughts that those are just kind of stories or just ideas that the mind is generating And really kind of, again, using the EQ strategies to engage in value directed action. And, you know, keep writing anyways. So totally, you know, as I wrote the book, I was totally applying and using these same strategies, and you can kind of see that show up in some of the examples that I that I include throughout the book.
What personal values were you living out as you wrote the book?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 10:25
Yeah, probably some of my highest values. You know, like, really, the whole reason that I got into psychology or became a licensed clinical psychologist is because I want to help people that are suffering. I think that there’s a lot of suffering out there in the world and that being, you know, a human being in this world can be really, really hard. And so yes, I’m able to see people individually in therapy, but there’s so many other people out there that that I’m, you know, not working with or that you know, might not have access to therapy that I want to help alleviate that suffering and help them learn how to relate to their experience in a way that uses acceptance and compassion. And helps free them from from their struggle, you know, and help them live a value directed life. So, you know, my kind of highest value is is helping to alleviate the suffering of other people. So, writing this book was very much, you know, engaging that process as well.
That’s wonderful. So you’re also very, very good with the resources. I’m happy to see a list of resources in the back of the book. Tell me about what books helped you. Were there self help, or psychology or compassion based books, I saw a couple mentions of Tara Brock’s books mentioned.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 11:51
Yeah, absolutely. And I’m actually reading her new book that’s out now radical compassion. Oh, yeah. And I’ll be doing And the radical compassion challenge later this month that starts out and I’m going to an event that she’s having. So yes, I’m very into all of the the mindfulness and the compassion resources that are out there, and really want to get people connected to those things. Because I really think that, that those things are so powerful in helping people learn how to relate to themselves with kindness, their their struggles, their their pain, their suffering with compassion. And again, I think that that’s something that people are not really taught how to do or that they don’t know how to do. So. Getting them connected to those resources is really important to me. What does it look like? If someone’s listening and they’re wondering, Well, what do I need compassion for? How would I even know if I need more compassion? What does it look like for someone who probably could use a heavy dose of terror Brock? Yeah, I mean, like, it’s like, who doesn’t need more compassion? You know, I think I don’t know if there’s such a thing as too much compassion. And I guess sometimes, you know, people’s initial reactions, when I start to talk to clients and things like that about being more compassionate to themselves, is, you know, a little bit of skepticism sometimes or fear worry that it’s maybe self indulgent. So maybe it’s kind of curious to some listeners, or maybe people notice that they’re having some reactions like, Well, of course, there’s such a thing as too much compassion, but I really don’t see it that way. I think probably everybody could use some more compassion in their life, and especially people that are struggling are suffering with something that there’s, you know, probably nothing that’s more needed than then kindness and compassion towards themselves for the difficulty that they’re experiencing, and really kind of embracing that and embracing themselves.
I have seen the same response with well does that mean I’m weak or lazy and nothing You put it very well on why compassion doesn’t mean weak or lazy. It’s a gentler approach. And your book certainly lays that out. I love how you have it broken out a bit with what this helps. And then the seven week program, which is in part two, so how did you decide which of the six core processes in act to start with?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 14:23
Yeah, that’s, that’s a little tricky, right? Because like I said, it’s not that these processes are linear. And so I guess in that way, I don’t know that the order itself kind of matters. But I guess kind of conceptually, I laid it out the way that I did, hopefully, to make it as understandable as possible. But they’re really kind of dynamic. They really kind of interact with each other more than even building upon each other. But we started with diffusion. Because that seems to be really kind of Central first getting people to understand that They’re not their thoughts, that their thoughts are just that thoughts are mental events that they’re not facts that, you know, as human beings. We construct these narratives and stories about ourselves in our lives, largely as a result of of using kind of language, and that that can really become problematic if we’re rigid in our thinking or buying those thoughts.
I really liked your discussion in your explanation of identifying unhelpful versus helpful thoughts. And for those listeners who aren’t familiar with actor might be just slightly curious. I’m going to quote you back to you. Sometimes it is difficult to identify which thoughts are helpful and which thoughts are unhelpful. Now, some people may be used to maybe a more traditional CBT style of arguing, arguing with thoughts isn’t quite accurate, but trying to check the validity of thoughts and act comes at it from a different angle. Can you explain that for us?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 16:03
Yeah, absolutely. Right. So the traditional kind of cognitive behavioral therapy approach or CBT approach is to kind of look at your thoughts and examine are these rational? Or is there a distortion here? And kind of replace maybe a thought that’s unhelpful, with a more helpful thought? Right? So like if somebody is maybe kind of rather depressed and thinks that nobody really likes them, maybe trying to replace that thought with Well, you know, maybe not everybody likes me, but certainly there’s some people that like me, my co workers and other things like that. But the issue with that is that it’s not always effective, right. So like, people might be able to recognize that their thinking is kind of unhelpful, or maybe it’s not totally accurate, but still have this attachment to it. And so, act, unlike kind of traditional CBT, and really, I think of act as kind of part of the evolution of CBT or I kind of see it as fine under that umbrella. But it has people relate to their thoughts a little bit differently. So instead of just kind of examining, is this true or not? Or is this helpful or unhelpful? It kind of looks at, you know, again, the first kind of process that the book lays out in week one defusing from the thoughts. So recognizing that it’s just a thought, just a mental event. That it’s not a fact that it’s kind of just a story that we might be telling ourselves and in that way, getting some distance from it. And then you can kind of examine, well, how is this impacting me, right? Because it’s not that it’s always a problem. If we’re kind of fused with our thinking or attached to our thoughts. It’s really more about the impact, right? So if you are kind of bought into negative beliefs about yourself, like nobody likes me, that might kind of cause you to weirdly withdraw or isolate Again, something that’s really common to depression. And then it doesn’t really give you, you know, the life that you want. When people are fused with their thoughts, they tend to really kind of restrict or narrow their lives and in that way, are not engaging in the kind of full meaningful value directed lives that we’re kind of hoping to have people build through act, right. So somebody who’s really depressed might really value connection. But if they’re kind of fused with these thoughts, these unhelpful thoughts that they’re unlikable, they’re not probably having those kinds of connections that they want. So act approaches things a little differently than traditional CBT. Because it’s not so much about just replacing the thought with a more helpful thought, but diffusing from it and seeing it for what it is, right. It’s just a thought or just a belief, just a narrative. It doesn’t necessarily have to be true. So it’s more about using those kinds of mindfulness skills to get that separation or distance. from it, so that you can still engage in valued action or building a meaningful life, which in this example might be about connecting with people, even if you have these thoughts like, Well, nobody likes me.
So that can take folks a little while to get used to. But then on page 46, you hit him again. So you have two headings, your thoughts won’t go away. And if my thoughts won’t change, or go away, why am I doing this? Right? Tell me what you tell clients when they come to you with these questions, because you obviously put it in the book for a reason.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 19:35
Right? Yeah. So that’s the place where a lot of people kind of get stuck is they want these thoughts to go away. They don’t want to have these thoughts anymore. And they see the thoughts themselves as being a barrier to making changes in their life, right. Like Another example might be somebody with social anxiety, you know, like they might want their thoughts that show up around wanting to be approved of by other people or not wanting to be rejected by other people to go away before they try to connect with other people. But you know, what a lot of people experiences that like the thoughts Don’t go away, they still might show up. And we don’t actually need them to go away in order to engage in meaningful, you know, value driven action, like connecting with other people and building relationships. Our thoughts don’t have to dictate our behavior. We don’t have to change our thinking, in order to change our behaviors, even just using those mindfulness skills, using cognitive diffusion can help us recognize them for what they are so that we’re still able to build a meaningful life.
So it’s like the pink elephant experiment. You can say, well, don’t think about a pink elephant. But even if you go five minutes without thinking of a pink elephant, you’re still checking Am I thinking Have a pink elephant Now, what about right? What about now?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 21:02
Yeah, exactly. And that’s kind of something that I will kind of tell clients a lot, right? So like, when we try to stop our thoughts or suppress our thoughts, oftentimes it backfires. And they they just come out, you know, more frequently are louder. And so we can, you know, use the skill of also acceptance, just accepting that these thoughts arise sometimes.
Unknown Speaker 21:27
They don’t have to get in the way.
So you use the word acceptance, what is acceptance to you, I’ve heard a couple people who maybe don’t quite have the training and act and hear the word acceptance and think well wait a minute, I don’t want to accept abuse. I don’t want to accept sexism. I don’t want to accept the things in the world that that aren’t right to me. So how do you explain acceptance?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 21:54
Yeah, I think that that can also be kind of a stumbling block for people because Maybe the way that they’re understanding acceptance. But acceptance absolutely does not mean that something is right. Or that it’s okay. It just means that it is. Right. So especially with some of the examples that you gave, like abuse or sexism, accepting that those things are part of our, you know, society reality, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay that it’s right. They’re not. It’s just kind of an acknowledgment that this is this is part of our experience. And that might be a way for people to understand acceptance a bit differently is it’s really kind of just an acknowledgement of what is
and adding compassion. I like how in the acceptance into week two, you have the accepting our experience with compassion exercise, and one of the things that I wanted to mention was, this is the best book to get on paper. I am one of those people who will not write in a book Like it is sacred, it should not be written in. This is one of the few books that I think it’s okay. There’s plenty of space, there’s room to write, you have things marked off in strategy bubbles. This is a great book to put your thoughts on hold, or put your thoughts down on paper, and then go back a year later, two years later, and see how you’ve moved on and progressed each time you go through the book.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 23:26
Yeah, absolutely. Right. So each each chapter is really kind of packed with strategies, exercises, worksheets, spaces for, you know, people to write down their thoughts, like you said, or reflect on, you know, their experience as they work through each of these six core processes.
So in week three, you start talking about mindfulness. And I like how you describe mindfulness is not about clearing your mind. I think that is the number one misconception people have about what is mind blowing. So how do you describe what mindfulness is?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 24:03
Yeah. So I like to use Jon Kabat syns, you know, definition of mindfulness. But really, it’s best it’s very easily understood. Right. But yeah, I think even more than kind of defining mindfulness for people, it’s just important to clear up the misconceptions, and then allow them to kind of experience it because what happens is kind of like you’re noting, people when they do engage in a mindfulness exercise, particularly if they’re trying it on their own, maybe they’re using an app or something like that. And they don’t really have a community or group to process their experience with, they’ll think that they’re doing it wrong. They’ll say, Well, I kept you know, thinking or I kept getting distracted or I couldn’t clear my mind, you know, and unfortunately, sometimes you might hear that in certain mindfulness exercises, but the the point isn’t to clear your mind at all. And one of my kind of favorite things that got Care Cashin from the VA would say, you know, is that when you notice that you’re distracted, that is a moment of mindfulness that is mindfulness. It’s when we’re not aware, right, that we’re mind bliss. And so clearing up those misconceptions for people like Well, I’m supposed to clear my mind, I think is really important. And then really kind of allowing them to experience what it’s like to be present, right in a way that’s non judgmental. in a way that’s very intentional. And so in the book, you’ll find a lot of both kind of formal mindfulness exercises where maybe you’re sitting and closing your eyes, and attending to your breath or to sound and you’ll also find a lot of informal mindfulness exercises as well where you’re kind of you’re not taking time out of your day, you’re going about your day, but bringing that same quality Have awareness to the present moment in a way that’s open and curious and kind.
To allow people to really experience what mindfulness is, that’s a great way to kind of segment in your own book, you go from mindfulness to the observer self. And that noticing self and I love the the section on 90 for the you that has always been there. This must really, really kind of jar people the first time they hear it, how do you usually explain the notice herself?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 26:36
Yeah, I think that the observer, self or self as context is like one of the processes that can be a little trippy are a bit much for people to kind of wrap their heads around. But that idea that you that has always been there is hopefully something that people can to some degree, kind of connect with them. as they’ve aged as they are roles and responsibilities and life have changed, that there’s this part of themselves that is ever present. That’s always been there, you know, throughout, throughout the changes in their life that there has been this, this self that has been observing all of these things.
Definitely. And that has tripped me up more than once. So I’m sure you run into it frequently. So I like how you then move on from that notice yourself into values. And I know for values that can sometimes be very hard for people to determine, what do you do for people who were stuck and say, Well, I can’t figure out my values. I have so many I love all the things.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 27:46
Yeah, you know, I’m one way and this isn’t, you know, the easiest thing to ask people to do. But one way of kind of figuring out where your values are is to ask where it hurts to ask where the pain is. Because where there’s where there’s pain or perhaps, you know, suffering, that’s to me kind of a sign that there’s a value there that there’s something meaningful and important that showing up there. And that’s something that I’ll review a lot with clients, that those things are kind of late, that the things that we really care about, that are really meaningful and valuable to us on the other side of those things. There might be pain. So that’s, you know, you can kind of ask people, well, what do they care about what’s important to them? What do they value? How do they want to show up in the world? What kind of life Do they want for themselves, but oftentimes, it’s probably where the pain is, right? So you brought up like sexism before and if, if that’s a source of a lot of pain or suffering, then then maybe the value is something around equality or women’s rights, those kinds of things.
So when people have identified their values, do they find it easier to take action or do they still run into conflicts?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 29:04
Yeah, I think it depends on kind of how they’ve done with the other processes like diffusion, like acceptance, like present moment or mindfulness the observer, self or self is context. Because the way that I see it, it’s like those processes, the kind of mindfulness based mindfulness and acceptance based processes are what help people to then engage in, you know, action towards their values, right. So if you’re able to use diffusion, for example, use acceptance, use those mindfulness skills to create the the flexibility that’s needed. You know, then you’re able to kind of hopefully work towards building a meaningful life without your values, but I think that’s why I kind of cover some of the other processes before the last, you know, few chapters where I get into values and get into committed action is that those are kind of foundational in a way to building the flexibility that’s needed to to do those things. But those aren’t easy things to do.
So if you pick up a copy of the book, and you’re reading it, and working through it, and you’re still struggling, that’s normal, right?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 30:21
Oh, totally. Right. So like, you’ll even see prompts in the in the book, you know, like, even in the last chapter, week seven, where we’re bringing it all together, that if you’re still struggling, you know, that’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Again, be compassionate, kind, gentle with yourself, and maybe go back and review for example, diffusion. And notice, are you getting stuck on a thought here? Are you buying into a thought thinking that it’s a fact rather than a thought? Or are you having trouble with acceptance for example? What’s kind of getting in the way and that’s totally totally normal?
Sometimes when right writing the book, they are picturing or thinking of someone in particular, who were you thinking of when you were writing this book?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 31:07
Mm hmm. Probably like a whole, a whole bunch of people, right. So maybe sometimes thinking of myself and thinking of some of my own experiences or even you know, like, we talked about the the process of writing the book for me and some of the thoughts that would show up. Sometimes various clients that I’ve worked with, you know, over over the years or any number of people really.
So the book title, again, is reclaim your life acceptance and Commitment Therapy in seven weeks. It’s available on Amazon and all your big book retailers. Where can people find you?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 31:45
Yeah, people can find me by going to my website. So www. Dr. caressa. Gustafson calm. I’m based in LA if that’s helpful for people to know, but The best place to reach me would be through my website.
Great. I really, really enjoyed your book, and I really enjoyed talking to you. Before we go, are you reading anything now yourself fiction, nonfiction? What’s on your nightstand?
Dr Carissa Gustafson 32:14
Yep. So, right now I’m reading Tara Brock’s book radical compassion. And as I mentioned, I’m excited to attend an event that she’s having later this month at inside LA and to do the radical compassion challenge later this month. And then I also have, you know, there’s always like tons of books that I have that I want to get to. So I also have books, you know, in my queue on my Kindle, by jack kornfield. That I want to read. He’s one of my favorite authors as well, and you’ll see some of his quotes in the book. Sharon Salzberg is another one of my favorite authors. So yeah, there’s lots to get to.
Never Ending stack have to be read.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 32:58
Definitely Well thank you very much for all your hard work and getting this book out into the world for folks to get a copy of it.
Dr Carissa Gustafson 33:06
Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on.
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