Is Toward & Away The Most Workable Language?

I have been experimenting with some new language in the ACT Matrix which I think has real potential.

First let me go into what the current language is and then into why changing it up may be more workable for some.

The ACT Matrix hinges on two discrimination tasks. That is to say the ability to notice the difference between two things. Using the Matrix trains these particular type of noticing abilities. The two noticing tasks are: noticing the difference between moving toward and moving away, and noticing the difference between internal experience and outer/external experience.

Of course in order to notice the difference within these two sets of pairs, you must first be able to notice each independently.

So the task is noticing internal experience, noticing external experience, and noticing the difference between them.
In junction with, noticing moving toward (anything), noticing moving away from (anything).

Inner experience refers to the stuff that shows up which is private to you, or which only you can be aware of unless you reveal it in some physical way, such as thoughts, images, and emotional experience, among other things.

External experience is roughly the experience we can receive through our physical senses, as well as content which exists in the physical world.

Both of those descriptions are incomplete, and up for debate but they get the broad strokes across.

Then we loop in things like Importance or Values, as things to move toward, and inner experience or hooks to move away from.

Now where Toward & Away can become problematic is that they are very easy to misconstrue into referring to concepts which they don't, and which are not very workable. See my video "What Do Toward and Away Really Mean?" for an illustration of what I'm talking about.

The misconception is that the horizontal line on the matrix is about moving Toward values and moving Away from values, rather than moving Toward values and Away from internal experience. Reading it here in text form it's easy to think okay . . . what's the big deal? That's what's so insidious about the misconception.

Linguistically, the words toward and away are seen as in opposition to each other, when in the matrix they are not.

Spatially, the words toward and away are in opposition to each other. You can move toward an object and away from it. But save for some convoluted geometry not at the same time. In the Matrix you can be both moving toward and away at once, in fact this happens frequently.

Both clients and therapists can have this misconception, I had it myself for a time. It may just be a mark of those beginning to learn and use the matrix. The concept of toward and away are incredibly easy to learn and understand, which is a part of the reason those words & concepts were chosen. At the same time, the linguistic and spatial histories of those words are difficult to escape.

When we set toward and away as meaning in relation to either values OR inner experience, the Matrix becomes much less effective. It essentially becomes an experiential avoidance tracker and not much else. (I.e. focusing on only part of the six core processes of Psychological Flexibility and not all of them.)

The misconception is one of Toward VS. Away rather than Toward & Away.

The ACT Matrix is easy to train, it's part of the reason I use it so much here on this site. In my own practice I use it only moderately, though I do find it one if the simplest ways of training ACT, running meetings, motivating staff, and more. I've taught it to school teachers, therapists, and people in fields unrelated to helping or education. The bottom line is that it's easy to teach, easy to learn, but does take some skill and experience to use to the full effect. I wonder how many of those people I've trained are stuck by the Toward VS. Away misconception without even realizing it, and in trainings that I do now I add in a portion specifically on the risk of this misconception, using something I call my ACT Matrix Map.

Many of those who use the Matrix sporadically or as an additional tool among hundreds may not have reason to move beyond this misconception, because the Matrix will work well enough for their purposes. Those who make the matrix central in their work and conceptualization of ACT and individual cases, should indeed ensure that they are not getting hung up on the misconception and take special care to watch their language when talking about Toward & Away, lest they unintentionally reinforce the misconception to those who think a lot less about things like how ACT works.

Ultimately what I'm saying is that using the matrix with people requires a certain amount of training for both the individual and the professional.

But what if the amount of training could both be reduced and hedge against the misconception by shifting the language to something less linguistically oppositional, while maintaining all of the workability of the matrix at its best?

Here is what I've been experimenting with:


Survival Vital Matrix.png

Introducing the Survival-Vital Matrix.

The beauty of Toward & Away was that the distinction was easy to understand on a physical level. We've all had the experience of moving toward and away from things. We can feel this conceptually and kinetically. Here I present an alternative to that. Survival & Vital, both of which I argue are visceral experiences which can be tapped into during training, and be used to clarify the discrimination.

The Survival-Vital Matrix works in much the same way as the traditional ACT Matrix. Only some language needs to be changed. When setting it up in the beginning a metaphor explaining Toward & Away is no longer necessary, but a similar one can be used to describe the difference between Survival and Vital. An animal exhibits both survival and vital tendencies, actions, and we are presuming inner experiences. Our helpful rabbit that is used to train Toward & Away in the traditional matrix can show up here too. A vital life for a rabbit might be one of mating and endless bounties of carrots & cabbages, in addition to being valuable for survival. Though when the beast comes with its glistening teeth a rabbit would do best to be quick in hopping away from its carrot pile, for survival. 

We are after all organism bred through millions of years of evolution, we have at our core a history of survival, it is embedded in our very DNA. This cannot be denied, and it can be felt, all of us have felt it. What are some of the inner things we do as a part of our survival history? Plan for the future, dwell on the past, problem solve, try to control, and on and on. All of these things are survival strategies in the end. We ruminate, we worry, we panic, and more. 

Note that the vertical line of this matrix is identical to the traditional matrix. The bottom portion of the matrix relates to inner experience and the top to outer experience. 

What are some of the outer survival "moves" we make as organisms? We cut others off, we become short with our words, we close ourselves off and stay in, and more. 

All of those things which would typically be seen in the traditional matrix are valid and fit here, in the same quadrants.

Now Vital of course means absolutely necessary/important/essential, as well as full of energy/lively, as well as fatal interestingly enough.

So the question in the lower right hand quadrant becomes, Who & What Are Vital In Your Life? 

Who and what is of absolute importance, essentially necessary, to make your life vital and meaningful? What are those things which you are willing to let be fatal by how close you keep them? What would feel fatal to you to do without? And so on. The questions here create themselves.

On the bottom left the question becomes, What are some of the natural survival mechanisms that show up on the inside of you, which may get in the way of those things that are vital to you?

Fear of course is one of the most fundamental survival mechanisms, as well as all of our other old friends that we see in the therapy room. This survival idea is easy to grasp for just about everyone. If an explanation is required one can be easily and spontaneously given based on nearly any animal or human example. 

The top left hand quadrant becomes a matter of What Survival Moves can you be seen doing in response to those inner survival mechanisms? 

The top right becomes What moves could you be seen doing that would engage in a Vital life (or connect you with some of those vital people and things listed below)?

Here there is no opposition suggested between Vital moves/actions and Survival moves/actions, in fact the arrows on the horizontal line may just be lopped off completely. There's really not a directionality to the thing. Survival moves and Vital moves can be done in tandem, and often are whether we like it or not. The danger comes as in the traditional matrix when our lives become stuck on one side of the matrix or the other, rigidly. We are not moving toward vitality, or away from survival, nor vice versa. We simply are as human beings, subject to the opportunity to choose our own behaviors to a degree that not many other organisms have, and so have some say in the choosing of vital moves in any given moment, while being subject to the survival "instincts" of our biology. 

The horizontal line still expresses workability, and individual actions can be broken down and analyzed as done in the traditional matrix. The vertical line is still all about those mindfulness skills, and we'd harness it in the same way.

Gone though, or at least less tangible, is the "sealing the deal" that often occurs when you present the matrix to a first time user, of picking which side of the matrix they would choose to live on the majority of the time if given the choice. But maybe a substitution would be "If you could choose a life that was either subject to your survival mechanisms/instincts for the majority of your life with little say in choosing what you want your life to be about, OR a life where you possessed a greater understanding of the balance between Survival & Vital and learned new skills of unhooking from some of those survival instincts when they aren't needed, so that you could engage in actions of your choosing, which life would you choose?" I don't know, that one is very leading, but so was the original deal sealing in my opinion. A more elegant option will present itself after some time. 

I will be making a video of this matrix in action in the next few days to continue on this topic. But for now I have not run into any challenges when using the matrix in this way, though my use has been limited. I wonder if training this matrix would be as simple, and in the long run avoid some of the same challenges that the traditional matrix has. 

If you are willing, see if you can sort your life into this very familiar framework of Survival & Vital, notice the cues that happen within you and any urges that come along with them. If you could choose your actions in that given moment, which action would be most workable to you? And if you could choose to engage in a vital move right now as you finish reading this sentence, what would it be? 

Jacob MartinezComment