Acceptance & Commitment Therapy- With Ingrid Ord

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I recently had the pleasure of peppering therapist Ingrid Ord with many, many questions.  She graciously responded, and as a result I have sunk deeper into the pillows of grace.

Ingrid works and lives in South Africa. She has been practicing for over 35 years. She also does therapy over Skype with clients in multiple countries.  She specializes in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), with a focus on the grace of God. (You can read more about that here).  She has written a manual that helps professional counselors integrate the message of Jesus into their ACT practice.  Ingrid works with a number of socially anxious clients.  

How Ingrid's faith evolved

Ingrid describes being raised in a family of firm Christian believers who spent a lot of time in church activities.  The draw-back was that she saw a fair amount church dysfunction (i.e., Christians hurting each other). Disillusioned, she turned her back on faith throughout her twenties.  She says, “For fifteen years I refused to have anything to do with Christianity and was a very vocal opponent at university, not something I am proud of.” 

Eventually, though… God drew her back to him.  Shortly after, a number of personal tragedies (the sudden death of her father, the long suffering and death of her first husband from cancer) challenged her new faith. 

Ingrid states, “Through this I started to learn how big grace is and how little we are taught about it (certainly in my experience).  The learning curve continued and other bone-jarring experiences brought me closer and closer to God as I faced life-threatening situations that I was totally unable to do anything about myself. So He taught me humility, and He taught me to have faith by taking me to the edge of the cliff and catching me - so that I now know that I have access to His grace daily, and I know how to open the gift.”

Personal experience with social anxiety

While working in large cities such as London and Dubai, Ingrid says, “I felt like a 'mole' traveling in the underground, never knew where to look, and spent a great deal of time hiding in my room! My most embarrassing moment was taking a client on an exposure exercise in the underground and having a panic attack when she said to me 'you do know that this is the deepest underground tunnel in the world, don't you?'" !

"Strangely enough it (a measure of social anxiety) seemed to develop more as I became older, I think with a sense of vulnerability and a realization that even our nearest and dearest can misinterpret our motives and signals."

What is the most helpful part of ACT?

Ingrid believes that mindfulness is one of the most healing elements of ACT (read more about mindfulness here). 

“Noticing one's self and one's reactions and developing compassion for the self is often a great help.” That compassion for self is rooted in compassion from God, which was manifested through Jesus. It is this very compassion vs. judgment component that Ingrid believes is the most difficult thing for her clients to learn.  “It is almost as if there is an automatic judgment button that gets switched as soon as there is a hint of anything other than total approval (even total approval can switch the judgment button as in when clients think 'oh boy! If only you really knew me!')"

What biblical misunderstanding do many Christian clients come to you with?

"The inability to accept that problems are a normal part of life and are not:
a) punishment from God, 
b) a sign of demonic oppression,
c) part of our 'portion' and something that must be prayed away,
d) evidence that we are not 'walking' with God etc. So much time and effort is wasted in struggling to make problems, pains and illnesses go away that the blessing and gift... is often lost and disregarded."

The one thing Ingrid wishes all Christian clients understood

“I try to point my Christian clients towards realizing how precious they are to God and that their circumstances are no indication of how much He loves them. Over time I try to help them to turn towards Him rather than me.”

In your opinion, how is grace-based ACT superior to other counseling methods?

Ingrid believes it all comes back to judgment. 

“Steve Hayes once did a presentation on judgment, based on research. If I am correct, it went something like this: self-judgment is highly correlated with judgment of others; therefore is someone is judging others, chances are they are judging themselves too. Judgment of others is much harder to work on than self-judgment; self-judgment is present in every psychological disturbance known; therefore if we work on self-judgement, and not spend so much time on trying to stop judging others, then we can impact the tendency to judge others . I know that that is extremely simplified, but to me it is very important in the formulation of how grace helps us.”

Ingrid noted that judgment is also a problem within the Christian church.  A number of Christian counseling techniques tend to be rules based, often enhancing a sense of judgment.

“The judgments might be very subtle or explicit, but the search seems to be to find out what is going 'wrong' so that it may be made 'right'. God is perfect, right? So if there is something 'wrong' it must be with the person suffering."

Ingrid believes a well-meaning counselor may accidentally compound suffering by presenting rules for success/judgment lines, rather than enhancing grace. She says, “Grace is the gift we are given to get through the suffering that is ubiquitous in life, to help us on a moment-by-moment basis to catch the self-judgments, however subtle, and to hand the problem over to God.

"I am not saying that we don't make mistakes, but I'm not sure that any of us is perfect enough to diagnose what is behind what are usually very complex problems. The freedom that is gained by resting in the peace and joy of God, knowing that He is judge and has already paid for it, is immeasurable.

"Recently my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had an operation and is fine now, but it was significantly disruptive to our lives. My Christian friends, who are very dear to me, were offering prayer for total healing, bible verses every day and lots of calls and love. My heart went out to them and I felt a bit of a fraud because the grace of God was carrying me like I was in a featherbed and I actually felt thoroughly spoilt! I am so glad that I did not waste time agonizing over finding the cause or trying to figure out the solution.

"My time was spent noticing the big and small miracles along the way and how God was constantly saying 'It's OK. I'm here, I've got it!' I am so grateful to have had that recent experience to keep me 'sharpened' and I no longer rush around looking for something to ease the pain. I don't think that anything but grace can do that. The process, for me, began with accepting that pain and problems are inevitable and that I will not spend time trying to make them go away or 'fix' them, or try to stop myself from wailing out from pain, if I felt the need. "

Consider this: Ingrid had already lost one husband to cancer.  Facing a second round must have triggered painful memories, fears, etc.  Yet Ingrid was able to rest, in grace, noticing God's love along the way.  That is a supernatural kind of peace during suffering.  The peace that only God's unconditional love can provide. Amazing!

What’s the most beneficial element of ACT?

"I think that mindfulness and present moment awareness are a good starting point to introduce an awareness of the internal triggers as opposed to the external…Noticing one's self and one's reactions and developing compassion for the self is often a great help."

What about using grace-based ACT without a counselor?

"I do think that teaching on how grace really works is probably essential, however God can do anything and does not need us to explain. He has used a donkey (Balaam's ass), pigs (healing the demoniac) and a plant (Jonah) to get His message across."

Therapists or clients engaged in ACT can get a copy of Ingrid’s book, ACT with Faith here. I also want to note that this interview is not meant to elevate ACT as the cure-all for social anxiety (above and beyond other counseling methods).  What I loved about Ingrid is her clear emphasis on grace.  That’s the cure-all for anxiety.  And grace can be incorporated into a number of counseling techniques, as well as… frankly… simple daily living (without a professional counselor). 

We can all start paying attention to the self-judgments we allow to haunt us.  These bits of shame and condemnation steal away from the all-consuming power of grace. Grace is a complete and utter release from judgment. Through Jesus.  Such good news!