Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Metaphors

Acceptance and commitment therapy metaphors: passengers on a bus, tug of war, leaves on a stream, and the chessboard

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is really big on using metaphors to convey key concepts. This post will take a look at a few of them.

Self-as-context metaphors


A core message of ACT is that our self is the context for what happens inside our heads, not the content of it. One metaphor for this is the chessboard. The pieces are our thoughts and emotions, and the players are our meta-cognitions and meta-emotions that respond to (and try to control) what’s happening on the board. Our self is the chessboard. The players and the pieces may come and go, but the board is still there, witnessing it all without being changed by it.


Another version of this is the classroom. The students (aka thoughts) may be well-behaved, poorly behaved, or somewhere in the middle. The teacher’s role includes evaluating those students and trying to keep them in line; this is where metacognition (thinking about thinking) comes in. Then there’s the classroom. It’s not judging; it’s just there, holding the whole class. You’re neither the students nor the teacher; you’re the classroom in your mind.

The sky and the weather

While the weather can range from warm sunny days to cold blizzardy ones, the sky is still the same sky. No particular weather feature lasts forever; storms, no matter how bad they are, come and go. While your thoughts and emotions may get stormy at times, you are the sky, not the storms, and those storms will pass on their own.

Acceptance vs. resistance metaphors

ACT identifies resistance as the main source of suffering in our lives, and acceptance is the way to alleviate that suffering.


If you get caught in a riptide and try frantically to swim to shore, it won’t accomplish anything other than exhausting you, and you may drown as a result. On the other hand, if you stop resisting and just let it carry you for a while, it will release you, and you’ll be able to swim to shore. You don’t want to be in that riptide, and you’re definitely not celebrating being in the riptide, but accepting it is the fastest way out.

Very similar to this is the quicksand metaphor. If you try to fight it, you’re likely to get sucked in, whereas if you relax, you’ll float to the surface, and from there you can escape.

Deck of cards

If you’re playing a card game, you get dealt a given hand. You may not like the hand you’ve got, but what’s going to give you the highest odds of success, playing the hand that’s in front of you or trying to play the hand you wish you had?

Tug of war

If you’re in a tug of war and your team pretty closely matches the other team, you could be stuck forever pulling back and forth. There’s another option, though; you could quit fighting, drop the rope, and go do something that you actually want to do with your time.

Passengers on a bus

As you’re driving your bus along the road called life, you’ll pick up passengers along the way. Some will be well-behaved, others will be noisy, and there may even be a creepy dude masturbating in the back. You could try to oust the rowdies, but chances are the bus will crash while you’re at it. On the other hand, you could crank up the tunes and drive the bus however and wherever you want, while that handy plexiglass divider keeps the riff-raff at a distance.

Ball in a pool

Say you’re in a pool with a blown-up ball that you don’t like. You can try to submerge it underwater, but it’s going to keep popping up. You can keep trying to keep it underwater, but it’s not going to stay there, and you’ll just tire yourself out. If you just let it be, it’s still there and you may not like it, but instead of wasting your energy on it, you can use that energy to do your own thing and go for a swim.

Cognitive defusion

ACT says that we have a tendency to get fused with thoughts, trying to make them part of ourselves rather than recognizing that they’re just thoughts passing by. Cognitive defusion is about getting unhooked from your thoughts and understanding that they don’t define you.

Thoughts as leaves on a stream: an ACT metaphor

Leaves on a stream

Imagining thoughts as leaves on a stream is a way of seeing how transient thoughts are. They come, they do their dance, and then they’ll be carried off. They don’t change the nature of the stream itself; they just float on top of it.

Sometimes, our minds are overly eager beavers; instead of letting the leaves float by, they start making a dam to try to manage them or keep them away. The thoughts then get caught up in the dam rather than being able to float by.

When we try to fight the thoughts, our beaver mind thinks it’s going to be helpful and strengthen the dam, but that just makes the situation worse by getting those thoughts even more entangled. This can mean that thoughts related to transient, minor safety threats get caught up in your head and stick around far longer than they should.

On the other hand, if you just let the thoughts be, they would eventually flow on along.

Mailbox metaphor

Chances are you get junk mail, both in your postal mailbox and your email inbox. When you see these, how do you react? Do you track down each of the senders and spazz at them in an attempt to stop the flow of junk mail? If you were to do that, how effective would it be?

Chances are, the junk mail is going to keep on coming, and the easiest thing to do is to recognize that a given piece of mail is junk and then not pay it any further attention. Defusing from junk thoughts is similar—you can notice them, recognize them for what they are, and carry right on along with your life.

I like a lot of the ideas in ACT, including the metaphors. The idea that acceptance is actually the fastest way out of an unpleasant situation is something I find particularly appealing. Did any of these resonate with you?

More ACT resources

Acceptance: It's raining – I'm better off getting out my umbrella than trying to stop it

31 thoughts on “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Metaphors”

  1. The ‘hand of cards’ metaphor is kind of where I’ve ended up thinking about my autism and mental health situation, as in, it’s not what I would have chosen, but I have to make the best of it. However, I see it could lead to unhelpful comparison with other ‘players’ who have been dealt a better hand.

    1. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I suppose, as with life in general, if you’re primarily focused on someone else’s hand that you don’t have, you’re probably less likely to take advantage of what you do have.

  2. I like the leaves as well, and also the bus. But especially the leaves! I have been using the train ~ me being the train, moving through various scenes, which are feelings, some good, some icky, but they all do pass. Or rather, I pass, cugging along until the end of the line…

  3. The riptide or quicksand metaphor is one that comes up for me quite often…both in my writing and art. This concept is something that frequently shows up in my dreams.

  4. I hate metaphors, Just say what you want to say in the cleanest most succinct way. So all of those ferkackta metaphors, some of which made my head hurt, boil down to accept the situation and then go from there? Well, duh, just say that. (Can you tell I’m grumpy today? I know, I know, how does that make it any different than any other day. )

  5. I’ll have to think about this more deeply. I’ve never considered the self as being the context in which thoughts, emotions, meta-cognitions, and meta-emotions take place. Nor have I heard the terms “meta-cognitions” and “meta-emotions” until today. If something strikes me, I’ll let you know.

    Intuitively, the “piano” comes to mind as representing the self. It does not change, no matter how it is treated by — what exactly? Fingers, hands, eyes? Musical thoughts in the brain? You might be able to help me out here . . .

    1. This isn’t exactly the same thing, but I think a piano would be a great way of thinking of human potential. It’s up to the individual to learn how to play and seek out influences that will guide them. There are many different kinds of sounds that are possible with that one instrument and everything the individual brings to it.

  6. I really like this post. I’ve been meaning to read about this for a while and you’ve summarized it beautifully thanks. I can see why it would be helpful for many people now.

  7. I really like this post. A lot of it hit home in that these are things I could/should be doing, but seem to struggle with. My mind is a chaotic place most of the time, and I struggle to make sense of a lot of it, when really I should just let it be.

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