The chessboard metaphor in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy explained
Across many different therapeutic modalities, metaphors can be a powerful way of helping people understand themselves better and are often a vital tool in facilitating therapeutic change. But you don’t necessarily have to be in therapy to benefit from the rich array of therapeutic metaphors that therapists use in their daily practice.
In this article, I explain one of my favourite and most used metaphors from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) — the chessboard metaphor.
Thinking of your internal experiences — thoughts and feelings — as pieces on a chessboard is a metaphor that can help you develop the skill of defusion (Stoddard et al, 2014) and acceptance. In ACT, cognitive defusion involves metaphorically stepping back from distressing or difficult thoughts so that they do not have so much power over you or your behaviour. Acceptance means being open to fully experiencing your thoughts and emotions without trying to change them. When you are not so caught up in your thoughts and feelings and willingly experience them as they are (just thoughts, just feelings), they don’t have so much dominance over what you do and the choices you make.
Let’s take the example of Mary. Mary is a 20 something University student who experiences crippling social anxiety. She wants to make the most of University, be more sociable and have good times with her friends, but before going to a party, Mary has thoughts such as “they are all going to think I am weird” and “what if I say something stupid?”. If Mary fuses/believes or buys into the idea that people at the party will think she is weird or that she’ll say something stupid, she will understandably feel anxious and, as a result, might avoid the party altogether.
The chess pieces as thoughts & feelings
A chessboard has chess pieces of contrasting colours on each side of the board. On one side, we can imagine that the chess pieces are all of our pleasant and positive thoughts and feelings. On the other side are all of our negative, unpleasant and distressing feelings and thoughts. There will be infinite numbers of pieces throughout our lives, just like there are endless thoughts and feelings that we experience across our lifetimes.
The chess game as internal struggles
We can see from Mary’s example that even though she wanted to be going out with her friends, what she quickly experienced was negative and anxious thoughts and feelings about what might happen at the party and what people may think of her. So the pieces on one side of Mary’s board were quickly joined by pieces from the other side, and a battle or internal struggle ensued.
Another internal struggle is when we don’t want to think or feel negative or distressing thoughts/feelings. So we actively try and push the pieces off our boards by ignoring them, pushing them away or distracting away from them. Except what we find is that those pieces always come back, eventually. Mary choosing to avoid the party is one way of pushing the unwanted pieces off her board, but what happens the next time there is a night out? More unwanted chess pieces/anxious thoughts will show up for her, and so she gets stuck in an endless cycle of anxiety and avoidance.
When we spend our time caught up in internal struggles, we are not putting our energy into the things that really matter or are meaningful to us. For example, Mary wants to be sociable and friendly, but her thoughts about what others will think of her and her feelings of anxiety are getting in the way of her being that sociable and friendly person.
The chessboard as your observing self
But there is an alternative to constantly getting stuck in internal struggles and being caught up in all chess pieces. This involves taking the perspective of the chessboard instead — be the board.
As the board, you are still in contact with the pieces, still experiencing the thoughts and the feelings, but with one crucial difference. You can observe and watch them come and go. As the board, you are using what some psychologists call the ‘observer self’, which can be defined as the:
Aspect of a human being that underpins all noticing an observing of one’s inner and outer world…awareness of one’s awareness
Russ Harris 2018, p. 201
When you take the observer’s perspective of your thoughts and feelings, they automatically have less dominance over you and your actions. In ACT, this is called defusion. Defusion would mean that Mary can notice in the moment and with curiosity that her mind is coming up with anxious thoughts and experiencing anxious feelings in her body. Note that she is still experiencing thoughts and feelings; she is not pushing them away or trying to distract from them, i.e. she is more accepting of them, as they are, and is taking the perspective of the chessboard. As the board/observer, she is freed up to decide what she wants to do next — either stay at home or go to the party.
How to use the chessboard metaphor in daily life
In difficult moments where you are struggling with something, try imagining a chessboard.
In your mind’s eye, try putting each unpleasant/distressing thought and feeling on a chess piece.
Now that you can see all or most of the difficult thoughts and feelings you are experiencing in this moment on the board ask yourself: am I caught up in all the chess pieces (i.e. am I hooked/fused)?, OR am I at board level?
To help you take the board’s perspective, or to step back from/unhook from your thoughts and feelings, try saying to yourself, ‘I notice I am having the thought that…’ or ‘I notice I am feeling…’
The chessboard metaphor is a valuable way of helping you develop the skill of unhooking/stepping back from difficult internal experiences and moving towards acceptance of them.
Taking the perspective of the chessboard may sound a bit strange, but it is key to taking the observer perspective to your thoughts and feelings.
If you can be more at ‘board level’ rather than caught up in all the pieces, you will not be so dominated by your feelings and what your mind says.
Being less dominated by your mind and your feelings means you have a bit more space and freedom to choose what actions you take, more in line with your values and what’s truly important to you.
Harris, R. (2018). ACT Questions and Answers: A Practitioner’s Guide to 50 Common Sticking Points in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Stoddard & Afari, N. (2014). The Big book of ACT metaphors. A practitioners guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance & commitment therapy. New Harbinger.