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.
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.
Acceptance vs. resistance metaphors
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.
Cognitive defusion metaphors
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.
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 and 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.
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.
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
The ACT Fundamentals mini-ebook/workbook provides an introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy, including cognitive defusion and aligning actions to values. You can find it on the Resources page.