Control as the Problem

Don't Think About a Puppy
For the next few seconds, I’d like you to not think about a puppy. You can think about anything else other than a puppy. If thoughts of a cute little puppy that wags her tail and jumps on you to lick your face come up, go ahead and push those thoughts away and don’t think about them. You can think about anything else, but whatever you do, don’t think about a puppy.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

The Pendulum
Imagine a feeling—any feeling or emotion. How long will it last? Now imagine a pendulum swinging freely. The higher you lift it in one direction, the more power you give it to swing up on the other side. Perhaps you’ll notice the power of its swing in the weight and resistance of the bob—the weight at the bottom of the pendulum—as you let go.

Feelings are like the pendulum; they swing. That’s unavoidable. You may like one side more than the other. Yet if you try to fight the swinging nature of the pendulum and get the bob high up on the side you prefer, you’ll give it more power to rise high on the opposite side—the side you dislike. You may be able to stop it for a short moment or lift it higher than its natural cycle. But doing so will take a lot of energy on your part, and it doesn’t work anyway, since sooner or later the bob will end up on the side you dislike—along with all the extra power you’ve been giving it. That’s just the way pendulums work: the higher you move the bob in one direction, the more powerful the movement in the opposite direction is. The pendulum may swing more for some people than for others. Some may like it, and others may get motion sickness from the movement.

Now suppose there’s another option here besides grabbing the bob and trying to move it in one direction or another. What if instead you could climb up the string to the attachment? Being up there means that you’re willing to let the pendulum swing—you don’t expend your energy on the pendulum, and you don’t give the side you dislike any extra energy. At the attachment of the pendulum, you can let it swing without getting motion sickness. The whole of you isn’t swayed by the swinging of the bob, but the swinging is still there.

Willingness is about how open you are to experiencing the natural swing of your emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations, and memories when they show up on one side, maybe in the form of happiness or fond memories, or on the other, as in sadness, disappointment, or anxiety. (In the preceding sentence, choose internal experiences relevant to the client.) Your experience with the pendulum can tell you that when you aren’t willing to have one side, you’ve got it. It’s when you’re really unwilling to have anxiety (or another emotion relevant to the client’s situation) that anxiety is something to be really worried about. That’s when you give anxiety more power by lifting the bob as high as you can to get rid of it.

You’ve tried for so long to control the feelings and thoughts you dislike, and you’ve gotten more of the same. Now there’s a choice here. Instead of trying to control the swing, you’re free to climb to willingness—to the attachment point of the pendulum. From the attachment, you can willingly let the pendulum swing both ways. Sometimes there’s anxiety, sometimes not. And in both cases, you won’t end up in an unworkable struggle that will only lead to undesired consequences.

You can’t control the swing. All you can control is whether you’re grabbing the bob or sitting on the willingness attachment. Let me ask you now: are you open to exploring how life might be different if you shift your focus from riding on the bob to sitting on the willingness attachment.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Ball in a Pool
What if what you’re doing with these thoughts, memories, and feelings is like fighting with a ball in the pool? You don’t like these things. You don’t want them, and you want them out of your life. So you try to push the ball under the water and out of your consciousness. However, the ball keeps popping back up on the surface, so you have to keep pushing it down or holding it under the water. Struggling with the ball in this way keeps in close to you, and it’s tiring and futile. If you were to let go of the ball, it would pop up and float on the surface near you, and you probably wouldn’t like it. But if you let it float there for a while without grabbing it, it could eventually drift away to the other side of the pool. And even if it didn’t, at least you’d be able to use your arms and enjoy your swim, rather than spending your time fighting.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Room Full of Duct Tape
Picture your life as a room. One day you notice that a pipe near the ceiling in a corner is dripping. The sound of the falling drops makes you nervous, and you’d like to get rid of it. So you repair the leak with a length of duct tape and your peace of mind is back–until the water finds its way through the tape and the dripping sound is back: plop…plop…plop… So you put another length of tape around the first repair and it’s quiet again.

Of course, the peace and quiet doesn’t last very long. You have to fix the leak again and again. That’s not a big problem since duct tape is pretty cheap and you always manage to keep a spare roll handy. This goes on for months or eve years until one day you notice that these big clumsy repairs are slowly filling the room, leaving less and less space for you to live and bringing the dripping nearer and nearer to you.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Life's a Beach: Struggling in the Rip
Sometimes life is like swimming at the beach. We launch headlong into life expecting to have a fun, relaxing, and refreshing time. People ply us with good advice: “Don’t forget the sunscreen.” “Swim between the flags.” “Stay out of the water for thirty minutes after eating.” “Watch out for sharks.” So we jump in, splash around, and have a good time. Depending on your personality and experience, you may be carefree, or you might be anxiously watching for sharks or continually monitoring the flags to make sure you’re in the right place. Or maybe you’re the sort of person who loves to flout the rules, so you swim anywhere.

Suddenly your pleasure is interrupted by an unpleasant sensation. You’re knocked off your feet. You can no longer touch the sandy bottom, and you notice that you’re headed out to sea. You panic and immediately set the goal of getting back to shore and take action to achieve that goal. You do it without thinking. It’s instinctive. You start paddling furiously against the rip current. Sometimes you seem to be making a little progress, but then you start to tire and notice that you’re losing the battle. You swim harder. You roll over on your back and kick with your legs. But you’re getting nowhere—and getting exhausted. You forget why you came to the beach in the first place. You begin to tell yourself, “If only I had stayed between the flags” or “I wish I’d done more swimming training before I risked it all by coming to the beach,” but none of this wondering how you got into this position is any help. You’re still paddling furiously and getting nowhere.

Maybe you call for help, and here I am, a lifesaver come to the rescue. So notice: Here I am with a board to rescue you, and I suggest that you grab the board. Before you can grab the board, you need to stop paddling furiously. Even though every fiber in your body screams in protest, you must stop paddling and try something different—grabbing the board.

Now, I’m a very contrary lifesaver. My job is not to rescue you, but to teach you to rescue yourself. The thing about life is that you can get sucked into a rip current at any time. That rip may be depression, grief, anxiety, or urges to eat, gamble, spend, or use drugs.

I want you to learn how to get out of trouble when you get stuck in a rip. So I invite you to swim slowly across the rip. I offer to swim alongside you. As you do this, you’ll feel the tug of the rip. You’ll get carried out to sea further than you’d like to be, and your mind will flash all sorts of scary scenarios before your eyes. That’s what minds do. Mine does it too. I’m not asking you not to be scared, anxious, or depressed. I’m asking you to swim across the rip while experiencing those thoughts and sensations. Eventually you’ll come to calm water and be able to get on with enjoying your day at the beach.

What I’m inviting you to do is to give up paddling furiously and allow the uncomfortable sensations and scary thoughts of being carried out to sea to be present. I’m inviting you to reconnect with what really matters: having fun at the beach for whatever reasons that’s enjoyable for you. I’m inviting you to take effective action, and what that is depends on the situation. If you’re safe, it means enjoying the sun and the surf for your own reasons. If you’re stuck in a rip of this particular problem you’re facing, it means stopping the struggle and taking small strokes in the direction of where you want to be, whatever experiences come up.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

The Circus Act: Juggling and Hula Hoops
Trying to control your thoughts and feelings is like being part of a circus act—one with jugglers in one ring and hula hoopers in another. Just about anyone can toss one ball back and forth. Lots of people can even juggle two balls. Likewise, it’s pretty easy to get a single hula hoop to circle your hips a few times. Similarly, it might seem like suppressing your thoughts or avoiding feelings is doable and effective and doesn’t come at much of a cost. But what happens as you add more balls or hula hoops? You have to concentrate more to keep things going. In fact, you can hardly concentrate on anything else. After a while, all of those balls and hula hoops restrict your movement. And pretty soon, the balls and hoops all come crashing down on you. Something that started out as simple and harmless becomes impossible to keep up.

SOURCE: Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of ACT metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.