Willingness and Acceptance

Eating an Apple
Acceptance is like eating an apple. One reason for eating an apple could be because you’re trying to lose weight, so you’re trying to stay away from things that are “bad” for you. So instead of your usual snack of a cupcake, you tell yourself you’ll have an apple. You may “choose” an apple, but what will it be like to eat that apple? As you eat it, you start comparing it to the cupcake. With each bite, you’re thinking about how the apple isn’t as sweet, fudgy, and good as the cupcake. Then, when you’re done, you eat the cupcake anyway. What we’re talking about here is another way to eat an apple: allowing it be an apple, rather than needing or wanting it to be something it’s not…noticing the crispness of each bite, the juiciness, and the sweetness for what it is and not for what it isn’t–a cupcake.

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.

Crying Baby on the Plane
Imagine yourself sitting on a plane for an overnight flight. You have the whole row to yourself and think, Perfect! I can stretch out and really get some sleep. Then, just before the cabin door is closed, a young couple comes on board with a screaming baby. You think to yourself, “The poor people who have to sit next to them all night!” Just as that thought crosses your mind, you see the couple moving toward you. They’re seated next to you! You shuffle your stuff to make room for them, but in your head you’re saying, Noooooo! They smile and thank you for helping them get to their seats, and all the while their baby is screaming. They try everything to soothe him. They try the bottle, and that just makes him scream louder. They try his favorite toy, but he keeps screaming. What are your options here?

You can spend the next eight hours giving them dirty looks, scoffing at their failed attempts to quiet their child, and letting them know that this kind of behavior is absolutely unacceptable on a plane. Alternatively, you could join them in trying to quiet the child: playing peekaboo, giving the child your phone to fiddle with—doing anything to shut the kid up. Or, you could choose to do what you would otherwise do on an overnight flight while taking in the sounds of that child as they are and recognizing that the child is doing exactly what children do—not wanting or liking the sounds the child is making, but also not needing the sounds not to be there. And all the while, you’re also noticing that no matter how long the child cries, he won’t cry forever, and that wanting him to quiet down will never be what’s needed to quiet him.

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.

Understanding the Car
I’m sure you know that these days cars are like large, moving computers, with big and small computer chips that control everything from temperature to the brake system. Now, except for people who work with computer chips or cars, very few people understand how computer chips work. Do you know all of the intricate details of how computer chips work? I understand that you came here in a car, and that car probably has one or more computer chips in it. So, let me ask you this: After our session, will you stand next to your car until you understand how it works, or will you accept that it works, get in it, and drive home? If your goal is to get home, how will understanding the car help you get there?

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.

Engaging the Clutch

It’s as if you’re driving a car on your journey through life. However, you begin to notice that the engine in this car is very finicky, almost like it has a mind of its own. It occasionally revs up very high or bogs down low. In the process, the car speeds up or slows to a crawl, regardless of the speed limit, upcoming turns, or what the traffic is like around you. Naturally, this makes it difficult for you to effectively drive in the direction you want to go. Your initial response is to try to control the pace of the engine by hitting the brakes when it speeds up and hitting the gas when it slows down. In response to the engine acting up, you slam on the brakes or press the gas pedal for all you’re worth. However, over time you notice that this doesn’t work very well or for very long. In fact, the engine revs up even higher or bogs down even lower when you try to fight it. What’s more, when you’re putting all of your energy into those pedals, your attention is no longer on the road or the direction you’re headed.

What if there were an alternative to the gas pedal and the brakes? What if you looked down to find that there was a clutch pedal hidden in a dark corner of the floorboard? Instead of trying to control the finicky, unpredictable engine, you simply take the car out of gear. This eliminates the need to control or change the pace of the engine. Whenever it begins to race or bog down, you simply push in the clutch. Then, when the pace of the engine is appropriate or effective for the road that you’re on, you let the clutch back out. The engine no longer controls the speed of the car. You do. Now you’re free to concentrate on the road ahead of you.

We can think of our minds as being like the engine in this example, and willingness, acceptance, and mindful awareness as all being like the clutch. When the mind begins racing, telling us to run away or escape, showing us images of possible dangerous scenarios, reminding us of painful past events, or bogging us down with evaluations, judgments, and negative predictions, we can choose to engage the clutch and willingly observe these things without allowing our behavior—the car itself—to automatically speed up or slow down. When we find that the mind is being helpful, we can release the clutch and allow it to do its work. We can never successfully gain control of the engine, but we can gain control of the speed and direction of the car.

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.

Passengers on the Bus (video)
The Struggle Switch (video)
The Unwelcome Party Guest (video)
Assorted Metaphors (drawings)
What happens when you practice emotional avoidance?

When we are distressed, we tend to narrow our focus and see fewer alternatives. Life is a banquet, but sometimes we only see a single bowl of cold porridge.

Struggling to get rid of our emotions can be like playing tug-of-war with a monster.

What would happen if you let go of the tug-of-war? What’s the alternative to struggling?

Fear and desire are two sides of the same coin. If you avoid fear, you also avoid desire.

Negative emotions and thoughts are like bees without stingers. They seem scary. Do you really have to run from them? They can’t hurt you.

SOURCE: Ciarrochi, J. (2013). ACT images related to willingness and acceptance. Retrieved from http://www.acceptandchange.com/visual-metaphors/.