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The ACT/CBS Crowd: Cult or Community?

Guest blog from Hannah Parker & Jennifer Livings

In November 2016, Think Psychology sponsored three people to attend the 3rd UK and Ireland Conference in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and Contextual Behavioural Science.  The intention was to support people to present original research and other innovative work.  The criteria were that (a) those people had never had the opportunity to present at an ACT/CBS conference before, and (b) their earnings were at a level that might otherwise make attendance more challenging.

This guest blog from Hannah Parker and Jennifer Livings covers their reflections upon their attendance at the Conference.

The ACT / CBS Crowd: Cult or Community?

Through the eyes of two first-timers to “The-Third-B-A-B-C-P- ACT-SIG-/A-C-B-S-U-K-and-Ireland-Chapter-Conference-on-ACT-and-Contextual-Behavioural-Science”…it just rolls off the tongue...who said they are overly preoccupied with language…?

As two third-year trainee clinical psychologists we were lucky enough to receive a funded place to at this year’s “The Third BABCP ACT… (see above)” conference, courtesy of Dr Rich Bennett and Think Psychology. In return we were to present a poster of our thesis research. In line with our values, we were committed to disseminating our research to a community we admired and wanted to be a part of. However we had also heard rumours of a cult within ACBS so we were intrigued to see if for ourselves…

What a Welcome!

We arrived in Edinburgh, noticing and observing (without a judgement) a mixture of trepidation and excitement. We somewhat awkwardly stood by our poster on the first evening, becoming aware of the presence of “imposter syndrome”, arriving to keep us company. However any residual anxiety quickly dissipated as we became immersed in the community (…or cult?) of ACT/CBS delegates.

A “bear hug” from Rich promptly welcomed us; something we noticed over the course of the 3-days was the established greeting ritual for all speakers and committee members. Perhaps this was the community (…or cult?) code of conduct? Rich briefed us on the ACBS community, acknowledging that it had, on occasion, been referred to (by sceptical non-members) as a “bit like a cult”, but for us to form our own opinions over the coming days.

Our Cult & Community Observations

So, in the pursuit of scientific enquiry, let’s weigh up the evidence. Starting with some definitions:

  • Community = the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common
  • Cult = social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices (- thanks Wikipedia).

Exploring initially the “cult” definition, it was clear that the ACBS attendees were definitely a social group (see “bear hug”). Novel beliefs and practices could also apply; ACT revolutionised our way of thinking about and relating to our internal and external experiences, as well as our way of working therapeutically with clients. Social deviance? Well…this remained to be seen.

Such a Warm and Friendly Bunch

As the first evening progressed, we were struck by the interest and enthusiasm for ACT and (somewhat incongruent with our expectations), our poster; people wanted to know about our research! Delegates exuded warmth, positivity, and helpful ideas.

As we stood and chatted to eminent and established ACT/CBS practitioners and researchers, the warmth and openness of all was apparent. We were struck by the distinct lack of hierarchy, pre-empted by David Gillanders opening address, “whether you are an undergraduate or have 20-years experience, you are welcome here”. Everyone was valued and important. (…Noticing imposter syndrome reducing in presence…).

Let’s Build Bridges

The conference opened with a Keynote speech by Dr Helen Bolderston, introduced by David (cue “bear hug”). Helen spoke with refreshing honesty around “building bridges” between like minded communities – the conference theme. She brought to the fore the taboo of discussing divisions that can exist within the world of academic, applied psychology, the “my model is better than your model” rhetoric. Her key message promoted the need to reduce these divisions; why reinvent the wheel, when our pooled ideas, efforts, and approaches could be something really special? For example, let’s combine this part of “Model A” with this part of “Model B” to create a “Supermodel” (watch out Naomi Campbell, ACBS are on your stiletto-heels).

As two trainees, we have spent the last “two-and-a-bit” years learning about different models, and noticing a frequent theme in our conversations of “doesn’t this part of [insert new model] feel similar to this part of [insert model we learnt about two weeks ago]?”. Helen’s message of “building bridges not walls” resonated with our experience; why restrict ourselves because we didn’t come up with “idea x”? In the interest of promoting psychological flexibility, let us help make our various theoretical stances and models “friends” rather than “foes”.

One Shared Value

Over the course of two days of workshops, skills classes, panel discussions, keynotes, and symposiums, it became clear that ‘reducing suffering’ was the underpinning value across all models and disciplines. Our individual goals (or committed actions) might be to increase compassion, promote present moment awareness, challenge our thoughts, or myriad other things…but all in pursuit of this shared value.

So with this in mind, collaboration and appreciation for other approaches is surely the most effective way of living in line with our value….

Pause on preaching for now…returning to our scientific enquiry, perhaps the ACT-ways aren’t so novel after all?

Back to the Scientific Enquiry

Now, with regard to the query over social deviance…enter “The Follies”. The Thursday night “showcase” featured an array of performances from the ACBS community (…or cult??) members. ACTs (get it?!) included obliterations of popular music, Dalek-invasions, a guest appearance from “Donald Trump”, gender revelations, and holding clammy palms with the person next to you whilst belting out “We Are The Champions”. This was followed by cutting some shapes on the academic dance floor. Social deviance? Check.

Beyond Ourselves

The conference concluded with a key-note speech by Dr Robyn Walser. In a poignant and moving hour, Robyn compelled us to look beyond ourselves and beyond human experience, into the wider world of earth, plants, and animals. Robyn took us on a journey of sitting with discomfort, as she highlighted the depth of destruction occurring today on our planet. Deforestation. Extinction. Climate change, to name a few. Robyn urged us to take action today, for the sake of ourselves, our animals, our world, and our immediate future generations. We were inspired by Robyn’s courage to ask the challenging questions and push us to sit with discomfort. Whilst in the spirit of ACT, encouraging us to take value-guided action to ensure our world, and all that is in it, continues to flourish in the near and distant future.

In Conclusion

So, in conclusion, are the ACBS singing/dancing/hugging/meditating crowd a “community” or a “cult”? Who cares, it’s all linguistics anyway.

We had a great time. Where do we sign up?


By Hannah Parker and Jennifer Livings.


3rd UK & Ireland ACT/CBS Conference

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Guest blog from Hannah Parker & Jennifer Livings