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A psychology of action

Many clients come to therapy complaining that they’re stuck. For example, they can’t make decisions, they can’t get themselves to act in ways they want, nothing brings them satisfaction, or they can’t let go and relax. Why is this happening?

According to some researchers, human experience and behavior flow in a natural cyclical rhythm called an “action cycle.”* This cycle takes into account the spectrum of human experience (e.g., physical actions, emotions, beliefs, context) that must interface and integrate to result in a given action. Discussing the theoretical underpinnings of the action cycle is beyond the scope of this article. However, the cycle is applicable to simple, reflexive actions as well as complex, multifaceted actions. It is comprised of four stages that, when completed, begins anew leading to increasingly more adaptive action.

The action cycle is a model we can use to study the self. Understanding the four stages of the action cycle and common barriers that block the normal flow of movement through the cycle may help you understand where and why you get stuck.

Four Stages of the Action Cycle

1) Clarity/Insight: This stage of the cycle refers to our ability to gather information from our internal experience and from the external environment. When our awareness is open, we’re able to observe and take in information at the sensory, emotional, cognitive and soul levels of our being. As we stay with ourselves, with an attitude of gentleness and kindness, our sensitivity deepens and we get clear about our thoughts and feelings and how these interface with the information we’re receiving from the environment. We integrate this information into an insight about what action may be needed in a given moment. A simple example: you detect physical sensations of hunger, you’re at home with a well-stocked kitchen, so you decide to make a turkey sandwich.

2) Effectiveness/Response: This stage of the cycle refers to our ability to respond effectively, directly, and honestly. Insight from the previous stage may result in an internal action (i.e., a creative reorganization of awareness that we didn’t hold before) or an external action. When our actions are deliberate and intentional we feel connected to our actions and we own the outcome. We feel responsible. The deeper our insight and the more present we are when responding the more accurate, effective, and productive our responses will be. In our example, you have the insight you want a turkey sandwich and you respond by preparing and eating the sandwich. You may be quite intentional and deliberate about this action (e.g., toast the bread, precisely spread the mayonnaise, sit at the table to focus on your meal, taste the moisture of the turkey as you eat the sandwich) or not (e.g., throw the sandwich together and eat quickly while standing over the sink).

3) Satisfaction/Nourishment: This stage of the cycle refers to our ability to be satisfied and nourished with our actions. We are evaluating the results of our actions and deciding was that satisfying? Did I get what I want and need? The more effective our actions and the more present and sensitive we are to satisfaction, the greater our sense of enjoyment and pleasure will be. In our example, you can digest the food and barely notice you’ve eaten or feel nourished on a profound level.

4) Relaxation/Completion: This stage of the cycle refers to our ability to finish a task, to let go, to slow down, to come to rest. After satisfying action has taken place it is natural to relax and integrate all that has come before. We let go and reorient to our hierarchy of needs. This quieting allows for greater awareness, clarity, and insight to arise for the next turn around the cycle. In our example, you’re restful after enjoying the sandwich and you relax as you wait for the next fresh insight to emerge.

Barriers to the Action Cycle

At each stage of the cycle, certain physical and mental organizational habits — or barriers — may block the normal flow of movement through the action cycle. These barriers tend to develop in childhood in response to caregiving inadequacies and, while adaptive at the time, have outgrown their usefulness or appropriateness.

Our goal is to become aware of and study these barriers. As we do so, it’s likely memories and feelings will emerge that help us understand and process why the barriers originated in the first place. Increasing our awareness will allow us to experiment with new, more effective and satisfying responses that help us get unstuck and achieve the goals we desire.

1) Insight barrier: This barrier refers to an inability to gather information or to understand and utilize information effectively. Individuals with an insight barrier block incoming information and don’t know what they want. They have a hard time sensing their own experience and/or connecting with others and the world. If you experience difficulty at this stage of the cycle, you may have experienced your environment and caretakers as unsafe. You learned to block out overwhelming and traumatic information.

Some of you learned to withdraw into a world of fantasy to disconnect from yourself and others. It was better to “not know” and to look away. This disconnect helped you avoid painful experiences. However, as an unconscious habit today, this strategy blocks you from knowing your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations and it blocks you from taking in new information from the environment.

Others of you learned to remain in a state of high physical and emotional arousal to elicit contact from others. Rather than withdrawing, you constantly monitor others and crave contact with others to feel safe. There is a need for intensity to feel alive and you use this intensity to keep others close. Peace and quiet are threatening as you fear the other will leave. There is a lack of distance with others which leaves little ability to understand yourself or your situation clearly, resulting in distortion. Some separation is needed for clarification. As an unconscious habit today, this strategy blocks you from getting the perspective necessary to think things through and gain insight.

If you have an insight barrier, it’s important to achieve safety within yourself and with others. Somatic grounding and work with boundaries (e.g., what do I want to let in, what do I want to keep out) will be helpful.

2) Response barrier: This barrier refers to an inability to respond with appropriate, effective action. Individuals with a response barrier may be completely inhibited and take no action, they may take inadequate action, or they may respond impulsively. If you experience difficulty at this stage of the cycle, you may have been made to feel wrong about your actions as a child. You were blamed and made to feel guilty.

Some of you may have felt forced or coerced into behaving a certain way. You needed to be obedient in order to avoid criticism, rejection, or punishment. You learned that you can’t do what you want, so you became an expert at delaying action and bearing up. You may feel like a victim. As an unconscious habit today, this strategy blocks you from taking action as you delay, procrastinate, and resist no matter how much you wish to be active.

Others of you learned that it wasn’t safe to be direct and honest with your actions. You felt manipulated and ridiculed for your actions or had the experience of expressing what you want being used against you. Rather than being inhibited, you learned to take indirect action and to react without deliberation. As an unconscious habit today, this strategy blocks you from effective action as you respond to situations indirectly by manipulating others to get what you want, or with impulsivity and lack of reflection.

If you have a response barrier, it’s important to acknowledge just how difficult it is to say what you really want. You’ll need to practice giving yourself permission for action as well as receiving recognition and validation for your actions.

3) Nourishment barrier: This barrier refers to an inability to recognize and take in nourishment. Individuals with a nourishment barrier tend to see less than there really is and to avoid wanting or expecting too much. If you experience difficulty at this stage of the cycle, your needs may not have been supported or met as a child and consequently, your actions didn’t feel deeply satisfying.

With inadequate support, some of you learned to do things by yourself and without help. You developed the belief that you don’t need anybody else, it’s better to be self-reliant. Opening yourself up to receive nourishment is experienced as threatening. As an unconscious habit today, this strategy blocks you from recognizing support that is available to you and you defensively push away and dismiss available support and deep satisfaction.

Others of you developed the belief that you can never be vulnerable. Admitting your need for anything — especially tenderness, love, softness — feels weak. As an unconscious habit today, you tend to be inhibited or excessive about receiving nourishment. You may reject having needs and refuse to be vulnerable or you may struggle with addictions (e.g., drugs, alcohol, food, sex).

If you have a nourishment barrier, it’s important to recognize and admit your neediness underneath your tough, self-reliant exterior. You’ll need to gently face the pain from your past and practice opening yourself up to trust others as available, supportive, and nurturing.

4) Completion barrier: This barrier refers to an inability to bring things to an end or to finish. Individuals with a completion barrier are persistent. If you experience difficulty at this stage of the cycle, you may have experienced criticism as child in which who you were wasn’t okay.

Some of you may have been criticized for not doing things well enough or good enough. You developed the belief that you have to work hard in order to be worthy. You were rewarded for persistence. As an unconscious habit today, you have perfectionistic tendencies and have difficulty completing projects because you can always do a little bit more or do a little bit better.

Others of you may have been reinforced for a role you played in the family (e.g., the peacemaker, the rebel, the jokester) and you got attention for this role and not the real you. You experience dropping the role, letting down your guard and relaxing into being you, as dangerous and unenjoyable. As an unconscious habit today, you have difficulty completing and relaxing into relationships.

If you have a completion barrier, it’s important to recognize how hard you work to keep up the ideals you think are expected of you. You’ll need to practice softening and relaxing the body and learn that others can and will accept you as you.

Action: Contemplate how the action cycle applies to your life. When do you move through all four stages of the cycle in a smooth, integrated way? When do you get stuck? What developmental beliefs and actions seem to contribute to your barriers? An attitude of curiosity, openness, and easy experimentation will increase your awareness and ability to change.

*this material is drawn from Pat Ogden & Kekuni Minton (2012) A psychology of action: An introduction to the action/sensitivity cycle in Level II: Training in emotional processing, meaning making, and attachment repair.

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