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A Less Mysterious Mindfulness Exercise

24 [deleted] 18 September 2012 11:33PM

At the beginning of the year, I stumbled upon a self-help book based on the ideas of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I assimilated it insights and started practicing a simple exercise and quickly noticed its effectiveness, to the point of becoming convinced that I had found a fully general mindhack that would help me deal with all psychological issues that I had or could have in the future. I even still believe it now, after eight months. I want to share this newfound knowledge in the hope that it will help others but I don't feel competent to write a comprehensive introduction to ACT. So I'll focus on describing my experience and hope for the best. I start with some conceptual background and the exercise follows.

A one-sentence summary of acceptance and commitment therapy could look like this: in order to live effectively, we have to accept our negative emotional states and commit ourselves to acting according to our values. The alternative to acceptance is emotional avoidance — trying to make bad thoughts and emotions go away — and it doesn't work. Trying to suppress thoughts or emotions backfires as everyone can see by failing to not think about a pink elephant for the next five minutes. Less direct attempts at experiential avoidance fail too. For example, not engaging in social interactions in order to avoid social anxiety until you eventually start feeling really anxious all the time about being a friendless loser or maybe procrastinating to avoid the unpleasantness of work until eventually you have to go through a lot of unpleasantness very quickly if you want to meet your deadline.

Nevertheless, emotional avoidance seems to be the default mode of operation for most people. The very phrase 'overcoming social anxiety' seems to imply that the way to do it is to figure out how to make anxiety go away and then proceed to have a stress-free social life. It's really tricky to stop trying to do this and maybe even impossible to verbally argue yourself out of it. If someone with the habit of experiential avoidance decides to give acceptance a try, they might end up thinking 'well, trying to destroy emotions directly doesn't seem to work but I can destroy them by pretending that I don't want to' which completely misses the point. And if they decide to try really, really hard, they might end up trying to suppress their dislike of particular emotions or their desire to make them go away which sounds reasonable at first glance (how else to accept stuff than to get rid of the things that interfere with acceptance?) but really it just adds another recursive layer to the problem.

So we need to make a non-verbal shift into a mental state that will allow us to accept all of our experiences, even those that seem to go against the spirit of acceptance. This state might be that which is referred to as 'mindfulness' in western psychology. For example, one definition of mindfulness states that it is:

a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.

There are two concepts that we can use to turn that very nice sounding but also very vague definition into something actionable. The first of them is indirect realism — the idea that we don't experience reality directly but we only ever experience our mental representations that might describe reality to a greater or lesser extent. Everyone probably already knows and agrees with it, however there's a difference between acknowledging something verbally and actually living it. Our experiences tend to fill our awareness, we get caught up in them and it's easy to forget that what we're experiencing is just a mental representation. Who had never obsessed about a future situation, going through various scenarios only to later realize that actual events didn't even come close to matching any of them?

The second concept is the observing self or self-as-context. The idea is to stop identifying with the contents of your experience. Think of your mind as a background against which mental events occur. They are observed by you but they aren't you. So instead of thinking 'I'm anxious' you would think 'I'm having the experience of anxiety.' When you think like that, the idea of accepting all of your experience starts to seem less like giving up and possibly allowing to be overwhelmed by your emotions and more like simply acknowledging what's already there and outside of your control. 

And finally the promised exercise, quoted directly from the book (I'll tell you what book later):

For this exercise, begin by getting comfortable in a quiet space and closing your eyes. With practice, you will probably be able to do this exercise during your daily activities.

Once you are comfortable, visualize a parade of tiny soldiers marching in front of you. Each soldier is carrying a sign, and each sign has one of your thoughts written on it. Each new thought goes on a sign in this never-ending parade of tiny soldiers. The signs can carry words, images, even sounds and voices. Whatever your mind produces can go on a sign.

If you prefer, your thoughts can float by on leaves flowing in a stream, as clouds in the sky, as credits on a movie screen, or as widgets on a conveyer belt. What matters is that you imagine watching your mind’s activities from a distance as the thought parade goes by.

When you notice that you’ve forgotten what you’re doing and you become attached to a particular thought, simply climb back into the bleachers and let the parade resume (adapted from Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 1999).

That’s the easy part. The hard part is in simply observing your thoughts without trying to change them or make them go away. It may help to remind yourself that none of the thoughts are facts, even if they seem compelling or if it seems that you must do something with them (like make the parade go faster so a particular thought will disappear).

You may also notice that you’re experiencing judgments about the thoughts. I shouldn’t be thinking that or Only a crazy person would have that thought. Take those thoughts, put them on a sign, and add them to the parade. They are not facts, and you need not respond to them.

What I would add to that is to use a timer. It helps with staying focused. I used one set to a five minute interval so that every five minutes I'd decide whether to continue practicing or finish but I setting aside a larger chunk of time up front should work too.

I would also add that the picture doesn't have to be as vivid as the description suggests. I didn't try to put any writing or even a vague impression of writing on the objects I was visualizing. I just thought 'well, this one corresponds to that thought'. I also couldn't keep track of them for very long and they tended to fade out long before reaching the 'edge' of the picture. And while I was a bit obsessive in trying to picture a stable, vivid backdrop, it would probably work as well if I settled for a uniformly colored background and uniformly colored shapeless blobs as thought-representing tokens.

The first time I tried this, it took somewhere around 10 minutes to notice a distinct shift in my mental state which I can't really describe better than the above vague definition of mindfulness does. It felt quite awesome. After I tried it a couple more times, the exercise turned out to be reliably effective in bringing about that mental state. My hope in writing all of this is that it will prove similarly effective for you, so if you can spare several minutes right now, I ask you to give it a try (and then tell me whether it worked in the comments).

In a way, this exercise resembles the typical instructions for mindfulness meditation. There's an object of focus and whenever you stray from it, you're supposed to notice the thought you're having, acknowledge it and get back to the focus of attention. However, the fact that the object of focus has internal structure that gets constantly updated to represent the contents of the mind seems to make a big difference compared to the typically recommended practice of focusing on the breath. Focusing on the movement of objects already in the picture reminds you to expect incoming thoughts and once you have a thought, your attention is drawn back to the picture in order to update it with a new token.

All of this seems to provide a much more intensive practice in the mysterious skill of 'letting things go' than focusing on your breath. In fact, it's so effective that after a couple of weeks I could do it without the visualization, at which point I dropped it completely, because while it helps it also takes a significant chunk of attention and makes you notice less stuff. The ability to simply will myself into paying nonjudgmental attention to everything that's happening is something that I haven't ever been able to acquire from meditation, even when I practiced it for months at a time (in fact I wasn't even able to reliably reach it while meditating — maybe I just suck at this).

Once noting mental events without getting caught up in them became easy, the whole 'accept your experience, ask yourself what you want to do and then go do it' thing started to make much more sense. If I were doing something which caused particularly intense emotions, I could take a break to do the exercise for a couple of minutes. This would allow me to practice accepting the specific thoughts and emotions associated with that activity and also put me in a more accepting state of mind that tended to persist for some time after ending the exercise. And as I practiced, over time my baseline mental state kept shifting so that distancing myself from thoughts and emotions was becoming more automatic. All of this led to a big decrease in social anxiety, increased confidence and self-esteem, less pointless worrying, less anger, more empathy and all around improvement in my life. Self-helpy discussions on LessWrong mostly focus on akrasia and recently I had success with that too. I procrastinate less and manage to walk through my ugh fields without flinching much more often.

The last point might look unimpressive — that it took me several months to succeed against akrasia. But I think this could happen much earlier if I hadn't stumbled into a failure mode that seems to be worth warning against. When you stop your attempts at experiential avoidance and accept your thoughts and emotions, they often do go away after a while. I noticed this as I became better at using mindfulness and then I started treating it as a clever trick for controlling the contents of experience, completely forgot about acceptance and reverted back to the old habit of trying to completely get rid of negative experience before moving on with my life. Needless to say, this wasn't good and my progress mostly stopped until I got sufficiently frustrated to read another book about ACT in search of missing insights and got quickly reminded that the 'acceptance' in the name isn't just for decoration.

This probably means that if any of the above works for you, and you want it to keep working, it will be worth it to read a more comprehensive description of ACT. And even if it didn't work for you but the ideas seemed interesting, reading about ACT might still be worth it because the presentation here is very much based on my personal experience. For example, the described exercise is in no way presented as central in the book I got it from or in ACT in general. It just happened to work really, really well for me.

Some recommendations. The book that I've first stumbled upon was 'The User's Guide to the Human Mind' by Shawn T. Smith which, as you can probably infer from the title, is a self-help book. It's based rather loosely on ACT and doesn't actually mention it by name but it does get the ideas across. It is the source of the big blockquote with the exercise. The citation in that quote references 'Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change' by Hayes, Strosahl and Wilson which seems to be the seminal textbook on the subject and while it sure seems insightful from my limited reading of it, it's probably not a good introduction. The book that helped me to get out of the failure mode is 'Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life' by Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith. Another self-help book that's far more directly based on ACT (what with being written by one of the key people behind it). It's also a workbook which means that the ideas are interspersed with exercises that you're actually expected to complete before moving on. I suspect it might be a better introduction to ACT than the first one but I can't really tell.

Comments (62)

Comment author: [deleted] 20 September 2012 07:22:46PM *  8 points [-]

Each soldier is carrying a sign, and each sign has one of your thoughts written on it.

I think that for some people this would work better if each soldier would tell you one of your thoughts aloud.

(Cue Feynman being surprised that Bethe could mentally count while speaking but not while reading, Bethe being surprised that Feynman could mentally count while reading but not while speaking, and the two of them realizing that Feynman was imagining spoken numbers and Bethe was imagining written numbers.)

Comment author: beoShaffer 12 September 2014 01:35:01AM 0 points [-]

I've been doing an auditory variant of this drill for several weeks where my thoughts are being played on a radio.

Comment author: juliawise 19 September 2012 07:38:02PM 6 points [-]

I tried this for about 5 minutes. I ended up kind of naming a bunch of things I had been thinking and/or worrying about lately. I didn't notice strong emotions of any sort - a little unpleasantness when naming the unpleasant things. Afterwards, I feel pretty much like I did before starting.

Sometimes I wonder if psychological techniques are like vitamins - if you're deficient in something, you notice a strong positive effect when starting it. But if you've pretty much been getting what you need all along, starting something new doesn't produce much effect.

Comment author: MixedNuts 19 September 2012 10:40:59AM 3 points [-]

Bug report: Meditation (all types) is terrifying. I try to accept the slight anxiety... fear... mind-devouring terror, but twitching, jumping up and running away all interfere with practice. I do not become aware of them before they happen. Accepting them after the fact, or going back to my sitting position and starting again, have the same effect.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 September 2012 05:46:39PM 5 points [-]

Whoa. I should preface this by acknowledging that I know nothing about your situation except what you have revealed in your post and am making no assumptions about your mental health. I am not a certified professional, and my advice should not be taken over that of such a person. Everything I say from this point onwards is purely generic opinion, which may or may not be relevant to you.

This sounds like the sort of symptom that should be treated by a professional psychologist. I have experienced mental health problems first-, second- and third-hand, AND I study them, and I can testify that personal treatments like meditation, whilst useful, are no substitute for outside help. If your axe-handle breaks, you can't use your axe to cut a sapling to make a new axe handle. Not that it sounds like your axe-handle is anything close to broken, but there's no point complicating the metaphor by trying to fit it more precisely to a situation about which I have no precise knowledge. Point is, it is my unprofessional opinion that you should mention this to your GP if you haven't already, and ask them explicitly if they think you should speak to a mental health professional about it. Please excuse me for poking my nose into your private business, obviously you've done way more thinking about this than me, but your post made it sound like there was a possibility you were attempting to self-medicate with meditation and I would prefer to come across as a nosy dick than risk someone's health. :) /Meddle

Comment author: MixedNuts 21 September 2012 07:47:33AM 3 points [-]

No offense taken, even if you hadn't inserted all the apologies for nosiness. I am, in fact, completely bananas, hence my handle. I have been through some bad times but am now on meds, functioning just fine, and taking a variety of silly tests because "bonkers-NOS" is apparently not in the DSM. Go forth with thy worries assuaged, o good Samaritan.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 20 September 2012 12:49:34PM 2 points [-]

What happens when you're not "meditating", as such, but just sitting quietly not doing anything in particular? (Which is what some varieties of meditation amount to.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 19 September 2012 06:02:09PM 2 points [-]

So, I don't know if this will help, but I went through something like this some years ago as a consequence of some post-traumatic stuff, and found that walking meditation was easier than sitting meditation, though finding a safe-feeling spot to do it was challenging. (I ended up taking five or ten minutes in the room I was taking a yoga class in, which was empty afterwards.) In retrospect, I suspect that a still more physical approach... e.g., doing mindful situps, or something like that... might have been even more useful.

I also found that the anxiety itself grew less crippling over time spent attending to it and focusing past it.

Comment author: Zaine 19 September 2012 06:53:25PM 1 point [-]

Try Bikram yoga. For first-timers I think they offer a week of unlimited access for twenty dollars US - a fairly low-cost test. It's quite physically taxing - in the 90 minutes of the session, for perhaps only ten interspersed minutes, if that, does the sympathetic nervous system even have a chance to give way to the parasympathetic. I assume that those times would be the most risky for you, and of course cannot speak to your experience, but I find it difficult to imagine your imagined stress will be sufficient enough to convince your sympathetic nervous system to activate during those times; it will be quite exhausted already.

Comment author: MixedNuts 19 September 2012 07:45:57PM 1 point [-]

I found a place that offers 90-minutes classes for $30, which sounds worth a try.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 20 September 2012 11:52:03AM 0 points [-]

The sort of sounds like the kind of thing Rosen-method bodywork is really good at addressing.

Comment author: MixedNuts 20 September 2012 12:14:32PM 0 points [-]

Not gonna blow $80 on that. Do you have a watered-down version I can do myself or with an untrained volunteer? Alternately, anyone near Stockholm who is learning it and would charge less in exchange for the practice?

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 20 September 2012 04:37:46PM 0 points [-]

Needs a trained bodyworker.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 September 2012 05:49:40PM -1 points [-]

Wow, $80 sure is a lot. Personally it's too rich for my blood.

Why do you think it's worth that much to be trained in Rosen-method bodywork? (As opposed to trying to learn it on your own or with a volunteer.)

Comment author: MixedNuts 22 September 2012 05:55:45PM 0 points [-]

$80 is for a massage by a Rosen-certified therapist. A two-day intro course to the Rosen method is $370 or so. The prices are so high because it's a recent method, so they can copyright everything and lock down on people who try to learn or teach it outside Rosen method schools.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 19 September 2012 11:29:56AM 0 points [-]

Have you tried tai chi and/or yoga?

Comment author: MixedNuts 19 September 2012 11:57:38AM 0 points [-]

I have tried relaxing/focusing on breath/mindfulness while in yoga positions; is there more to yoga? I haven't tried tai chi. Any tips? What I found boiled down to "focus on your breath while doing these moves".

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 19 September 2012 01:03:09PM 0 points [-]

You get the same sort of anxiety from yoga that you get from sitting(?) meditation?

I don't have tips, just suggestions of things to try. The reason I don't have tips is that I don't share your problem and I haven't taught meditation, so I'm guessing.

A tai chi class might be useful. The movements are sufficiently complex that that just learning them might be a distraction, perhaps enough that you can meditate a little without going into so much anxiety, and gradually decouple anxiety and meditation.

Have you tried research? I've taken a fast google at "anxiety while meditating" and a good bit came up, though lower levels of anxiety than yours seem to be more common. Still, there might be something useful for you if you poke around.

Is massage something you might like? I believe that a lot of emotional habits like anxiety are entangled with muscle tension.

Feldenkrais Method is a way of learning to move more easily and might be useful for you-- it's got a lot of attention to movement rather than breathing.

Comment author: MixedNuts 19 September 2012 04:08:59PM 0 points [-]

Research just turns up "keep at it, it'll go away" and "avoid specific triggers", which isn't super useful since AFAICT the trigger is my mind clearing.

Oooh, I did Feldenkrais once, though I didn't know it then. When I started panicking I just dropped the relaxation bits and did the movements.

I don't really want to spend time and money enrolling in a tai chi class since it's such a shot in the dark.

I'm not sure what you want me to do with a massage - get one and then try to meditate, or try to meditate during one?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 19 September 2012 04:34:49PM 0 points [-]

I'm hoping that more research would turn up what to do with as severe a reaction as you get-- the advice that's easy to find is about more average levels of anxiety.

My hypothesis is that if you got enough massage to be more relaxed in general, you'd find that you'd be less anxious when you started to meditate. However, this is merely a guess, and would involve a substantial investment of time and money unless you got into self-massage, in which case it would be time but not money. Probably not worth it unless you like massage anyway and/or more evidence that it's useful turns up.

Tentatively again-- if you have problems with anxiety under other circumstances, it could make sense to try anti-anxiety meds. If it's just meditation, then drugs might not be worth it.

Comment author: MixedNuts 19 September 2012 05:31:19PM 0 points [-]

I did find some sources about severe anxiety, but only from traumatic flashbacks or the like.

Turns out I already have data on that: I dropped from having several panic attacks a day to slight nervosity in specific situations. This changed nothing about meditation.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 September 2012 11:52:08AM 0 points [-]

How did your panic attacks go away?

Comment author: MixedNuts 20 September 2012 12:03:38PM 0 points [-]

They faded away on their own accord over five years. Moving/changing schools helped more often than it hurt. Why do you ask?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 September 2012 12:14:31PM 0 points [-]

I thought it might give a clue about how to lower meditation-related anxiety, but apparently not.

Comment author: philh 19 September 2012 01:19:31AM 5 points [-]

I will try this at some point, but

visualize a parade of tiny soldiers marching in front of you.

Any advice for those of us with little-to-no mental imagery?

Once when I was sad I used a thing which I think I saw on LW, of typing out my thoughts as they occured. It sounds kind of similar to this; any relation? (It helped me to feel better, but I haven't had occasion to use it since; and it hadn't occured to me to do it when not-sad, but maybe I will now that it has occured to me.)

Comment author: [deleted] 19 September 2012 03:57:37AM 2 points [-]

Cue everyone being surprised that non-imagers exist.

(If it's any consolation, whatever I gain by being a strong imager is compensated by weaknesses in facial recognition and word recall...)

Comment author: Kevin 19 September 2012 05:33:10AM 8 points [-]

And then cue the obligatory link to the most popular inflation-adjusted LW post ever. http://lesswrong.com/lw/dr/generalizing_from_one_example/

Comment author: [deleted] 19 September 2012 12:16:09PM 1 point [-]

The soldiers thing is probably too complicated (apart from sounding silly) as every soldier would have to be individually animated. The alternatives (leaves, clouds etc.) are simpler.

The picture doesn't have to be very vivid. I couldn't really keep track of the objects (leaves in my case) for very long as they moved through my visual field. I saw them clearly entering the right side of my visual field but they quickly became fuzzy and were often forgotten before reaching the other side. I also didn't even try to put words on them. I think that a single-colored background with different-colored fuzzy blobs as tokens would work as well.

If that's still too hard then externalizing the visualisation could work too. An ideal would be a program that would display objects moving across the screen and you could add new ones by clicking or pressing a key.

Typing seems too slow (even if you are a fast typist).

Comment author: Manfred 19 September 2012 02:31:01AM 1 point [-]

Can you imagine sound better than sight/spatial stuff? How about smell?

Comment author: philh 19 September 2012 02:51:55AM 0 points [-]

I'd say not significantly? If I try to recall music, it just comes out as me mentally onomatopoeia-ing the melody or lyrics. If I try to recall someone speaking, it takes on a poor imitation of their accent, but never their voice - it's just me mentally reciting what they said.

For smell... like with images, I get a weak impression of something, but I can't smell or "smell" anything.

Comment author: Bobertron 19 September 2012 12:56:16PM *  0 points [-]

I haven't made that exercise.

Although I do have mental imagery, the instructions aren't helpful to me, either. But I did come up with another idea (totally just an idea).

There are games for learning to touch type. Letters (or maybe even words) fall down the screen and you have to type them, before they reach the bottom of the screen. That seems like a good analogy to me. Your thoughts are just abstract game items (you don't have to visualize them falling, or something). You note them as they come up,without engaging with their contents, just as you type the letters or words in the game without really caring if they spell anything.

One important difference would be that, in a real computer game, you would get positive points for typing the correct letter and negative points when they reach the bottom. If you mess up in that exercise (you end up daydreaming or thinking about your thoughts, instead of just noting them) it doesn't matter, just get back to the exercise.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 19 September 2012 01:26:28AM 0 points [-]

can you imagine just a marque of words scrolling by?

Comment author: philh 19 September 2012 02:43:02AM 0 points [-]

I can't. I can maybe-sortof-vaguely imagine a marquee, but I can't put words on it. I don't know how to imagine words except by thinking them.

(The extent to which I can imagine a marquee is: I can't see anything, or even "see" anything, but I sort of get an impression of a banner held between two poles. Similarly if I try to imagine a field, I sort of get an impression of something green and spiky. The impressions are very weak. I don't even know if I'm actually imagining these things, or just imagining that I'm imagining them, or if there's a difference.)

Comment author: David_Gerard 19 September 2012 07:53:01AM *  -1 points [-]

Typing with no backspace works quite well IME, yes. Helps if you're a fast typist.

Comment author: pjeby 19 September 2012 09:06:37PM *  2 points [-]

The alternative to acceptance is emotional avoidance — trying to make bad thoughts and emotions go away — and it doesn't work. Trying to suppress thoughts or emotions backfires as everyone can see by failing to not think about a pink elephant for the next five minutes. Less direct attempts at experiential avoidance fail too.

Note that the above-mentioned strategies are not the only way to make bad thoughts and emotions go away - you can alter the conditioning, beliefs, or assumptions that are leading to the undesired results. This isn't the same thing as suppressing them or avoiding the triggers.

The tradeoff of when to accept vs. when to change depends a lot on your expected lifetime utility. If you intend to live a long time or you have frequent problems caused by the same cluster of beliefs (or even if you just value more accurate beliefs) you win more by eliminating the problematic ones than you do by putting up with them for the rest of your life.

(tl;dr: ACT claims a false dichotomy between "fighting" and "accepting", while completely ignoring "eliminate without fighting" as an option.)

Comment author: malcolmocean 14 July 2013 05:35:16AM *  3 points [-]

(tl;dr: ACT claims a false dichotomy between "fighting" and "accepting", while completely ignoring "eliminate without fighting" as an option.)

I would like to offer a distinction between two different kinds of accepting. One is the opposite of denial (which is being called "fighting" in this case). The other is the opposite of changing. Obviously, as rationalists, we want to move to do as much of the first kind of accepting as possible: this is what the Litany of Gendlin is all about: "what is true is already so" so we might as well accept that it is presently true, regardless of whether or not we'd like to change it long-term. This is true of our thoughts as well. Am I thinking of a pink elephant? Very well, I'm thinking of a pink elephant. Fighting the thought doesn't work, so why do it?

Another analogy. Consider a student who has received a poor mark on their midterm. "I can't believe this!" they exclaim. Well, once they've checked through and realized it wasn't a clerical error, they might as well believe it, which is the first half of acceptance #1. However, they might still think "this grade is unacceptable" and therefore not accept that as a final grade and study really hard for their final. This is acceptance #2. The other part of the first kind of acceptance is lack of judgement. I suppose some people are motivated by this sort of thing, but I've found it to be unhelpful to yell at past-selves for their mistakes. Your past selves can't do anything about it.

"Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference." A rather obvious axiom of mindfulness is that it's too late to change the present. So you might as well accept it.*

I think the false dichotomy is a result of using only the former definition of accepting.

*unless you have a time-turner, in which case subtract six hours.

Comment author: pjeby 14 July 2013 05:28:49PM 1 point [-]

I think the false dichotomy is a result of using only the former definition of accepting.

No, the false dichotomy comes from a definition on the other side of the dichotomy: people assuming that any non-ACT strategy equals "fighting".

For example, does disbelieving a thought equal fighting it?

A few weeks ago I made a change in my belief structure, such that I stopped believing my primary inner critical voice. In fact, I started finding it laughable, as in "Is that all you've got?" The voice quit bugging me after that, except that once or twice a week it opens its (figurative) mouth to comment on something and I cut it off before it can even really start, with something like, "Really? That's what you're going to complain about?" (This was a voice that could previously make me pretty depressed within minutes or seconds of anything it wanted to criticize. Now I find it amusing how utterly irrelevant it is.)

According to many people's interpretation of ACT, what I just described is bad and evil because they would consider it to fall under "fighting". It also does not obviously fall under either of your definitions of "accepting", since I am definitely not accepting my brain's critical thoughts any more.

On a deeper level, one could say that I'm in agreement with ACT that thoughts are not something you can consciously control: neither the critical voice nor my newly-minted amusement and disdain for it are things I am consciously doing, but "just happen". And you could in principle say that I'm simply accepting both sets of thoughts as existing.

However, that's a misleading description in the context of some people's interpretations of ACT, which leads them to conclude that anything that isn't an ACT technique constitutes "fighting" and that one must instead learn to put up with such thoughts or voices rather than seeking to eliminate them.

Presumably, the assumption causing the problem is an assumption that it isn't possible to eliminate a category of thoughts before they even come up. If it weren't possible to change one's beliefs in such a fashion, then certainly the only question would be what to do with a thought once you have it. As I quoted from the original article:

The alternative to acceptance is emotional avoidance — trying to make bad thoughts and emotions go away — and it doesn't work.

The post author makes the assumption that "trying to make bad thoughts and emotions go away ... doesn't work". This assumption is simply wrong, unless you add in the qualifier that the bad thoughts and emotions are ones that have already arisen (vs. similar thoughts arising in the future). Many people reading things written about ACT (such as this article) do not necessarily read in this qualifier, and then go on to form the semi-religious belief that any way of trying to make bad stuff go away "doesn't work" or is a form of suppression that will cause harm.

(Actually, even with the qualifier, it's not a universally true statement. You can get rid of some thoughts and feelings that are already present, it's just that most naive approaches to doing so don't work, and even the better ones don't always work. It's much more efficient to eliminate future thoughts or feelings along a particular line than to try to get rid of one you already have... especially since the process of getting rid of the future ones will generally change your current state as a side-effect.)

Comment author: [deleted] 20 September 2012 12:51:08AM 2 points [-]

(tl;dr: ACT claims a false dichotomy between "fighting" and "accepting", while completely ignoring "eliminate without fighting" as an option.)

A couple words of caution. In the first paragraph I wrote:

[...] but I don't feel competent to write a comprehensive introduction to ACT. So I'll focus on describing my experience and hope for the best.

I really meant it. I used some ACT terminology to describe the prerequisite insights but I didn't describe ACT very well so even if it does in fact claim anything like that, you couldn't have learned about it from this post.

The issue of "eliminating without fighting" seems orthogonal to the issue of "acceptance" vs "fighting". The first one is about doing things that you believe will prevent some subjective states from arising in the future. The second is about what to do with subjective states that are already here.

Comment author: pjeby 20 September 2012 03:01:56AM 2 points [-]

even if it does in fact claim anything like that, you couldn't have learned about it from this post.

Fair enough; it's possible I pattern-matched a bit on what ACT advocates have said to me in the past (which was them pattern-matching me talking about eliminating emotions as being equivalent to fighting or suppressing them), and what was written in the ACT books that I've read.

However...

The issue of "eliminating without fighting" seems orthogonal to the issue of "acceptance" vs "fighting".

This actually isn't how you presented it in the post. You said:

The alternative to acceptance is emotional avoidance

Not, "an alternative", but "the alternative", implying a dichotomy. So even if it was too strong to say that "ACT" claimed a dichotomy (and AFAICT, it does), it certainly appears to me that your post strongly implies such a dichotomy.

The first one is about doing things that you believe will prevent some subjective states from arising in the future. The second is about what to do with subjective states that are already here.

Nope. You can work on identifying the source of a state while it's here, and it's often the best time to do so. Also, in the context of arguing a case for ACT, the strong implication is that the listener should select one or more of ACT's strategies for dealing with states arising in the future, and in fact resign themselves to using only such methods in the future, because everything else "doesn't work".

IOW, ACT advocacy arguments look a lot like slaying a list of straw men. Sure suppression and avoidance don't work, duh. How does ACT compare to things that don't suck?

Without that information, it's like saying "you know, when it comes to open wounds, you can either try to keep them clean, or you can use our band-aids and change the dressings regularly", without ever mentioning that maybe you should go to a hospital and get some stitches.

Don't get me wrong: ACT actually has a cool toolbox of techniques. But AFAICT its advocates always seem to talk about how the horror of open wounds compares with their bandages, and imply that you should get used to a lifetime of bandage-replacing, even if there's a hospital right up the street.

(And some have even gone so far as to imply that the wounds being bandaged are a virtue - i.e., that we should be happy to have them, and that attempts to get rid of them -- like attempts to eliminate death -- are foolish and misguided.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 September 2012 12:11:22PM 2 points [-]

Could you expand on identifying the source of a state?

I've got a bad case of self-hating thoughts, and I would be very glad to get rid of them.

Comment author: pjeby 21 September 2012 03:39:39AM 2 points [-]

Could you expand on identifying the source of a state?

Endlessly. ;-) But rather than try to do that here, Gendlin's book "Focusing" isn't a bad place to start.

I've got a bad case of self-hating thoughts, and I would be very glad to get rid of them.

A lot of times, these are a simple case of inaccurate morals, and the trick to getting rid of them is to use their symmetry. Instead of judging yourself, you judge someone else in the same way for the same behavior, and then decide not to disapprove of people who do that. When you no longer see the behavior as wrong, you stop judging yourself for it as well.

This isn't a universal fix for all self-hating thoughts, but the basic approach works on quite a lot of things.

The Work of Byron Katie (e.g. the book "Loving What Is", or the free excerpts from her website), and Lawrence Crane's "Love Yourself And Let The Other Person Have It Your Way" are good resources for exercises and practical tips to applying this approach. (Both are about letting go of judgments applied to others as a way of removing both self-judgment and improving one's state of mind in general, although they go about the process quite differently.)

Again, this won't take care of everything - if you have second-order moral objections, for example, you might not be able to drop the judgment, or there might be another cause besides a moral judgment.

(Btw, when I say "moral judgment" in all of the above, I don't mean "considered ethical injunction" but "conditioned responses of disgust or moral reproach, often at a semi-conscious or entirely unconscious level".)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 21 September 2012 06:33:35AM 1 point [-]

Btw, when I say "moral judgment" in all of the above, I don't mean "considered ethical injunction" but "conditioned responses of disgust or moral reproach, often at a semi-conscious or entirely unconscious level".)

It's the semi-conscious level that gets me. I have this voice in my head which keeps going "you stupid piece of shit". Sometimes it's "you stupid piece of shit, why don't you just kill yourself?", though that variant has become less common. I can tell it's in my head, but it doesn't feel like I'm doing it.

Doing something useful for myself is likely to trigger it. Since I'm likely to give in and give up, this means that my actual circumstances get worse. It also makes it hard to get to doing something like focusing, which can lead to more self-hatred for not being tough enough to just bull through the problem.

I don't treat other people like that. I know the voice is vicious and stupid.

Comment author: EvelynM 21 September 2012 07:19:08PM 1 point [-]

One of the things that helped me get over this sort of critical self talk is the distinction between being involved in reading a book for pleasure, and reading a book as author trying to get to be a better writer.

In the first case, you are going along with the flow of the experience. It is entrancing, and your emotions change with the fictional scene.

In the second case, you're reading for technique. What person is this written in? What level of difficulty of the language? Why did they choose this word rather than that word? What is the theme?

pjeby's suggestion of Byron Katie's work is a good one. She starts with the idea "Is it true?"

I found it helpful to try to figure out where in my past I heard the phrase that I'm stuck on. Often times, with patient inquiry, I can come to recall a specific experience. And, through understanding the emotional charge of that experience, which is distinct from my circumstance now, I can feel it and let it go.

Another technique that I've found effective is to treat it as an environmental research project. What is different about the last few minutes which brings up this thought? Have I done anything different? What do I see and hear? Who am I with? What is the story around this? Is it true? How can I change my environment to reduce this? I've used this questioning technique to eliminate cravings. Again, it's not a fast technique, but with patient application, it works.

Meditation helped. Less Wrong helped. Patience helped. Changing my environment helped a lot. Having the intention to be as kind to myself as I would be to a dear friend helped a lot.

I hope that you may find help in this.

Comment author: pjeby 21 September 2012 05:35:02PM 1 point [-]

I can tell it's in my head, but it doesn't feel like I'm doing it.

Who does it feel like, then? That might be a clue.

I don't treat other people like that.

Is there any sort of person about whom you would feel that way, though?

Comment author: [deleted] 20 September 2012 11:29:44PM *  1 point [-]

This actually isn't how you presented it in the post.

Fair enough. I failed at precisely communicating what I think. FWIW, I don't think that 'acceptance' means that you're forbidden from working to feel better in the future.

IOW, ACT advocacy arguments look a lot like slaying a list of straw men. Sure suppression and avoidance don't work, duh. How does ACT compare to things that don't suck?

I didn't see the criticism of suppression and avoidance as a diss against other theories but rather against something that people naively tend to do by default. And even if you know some other things that don't suck, until you become an Ultimate Master of Cognitive Restructuring, acceptance can still be useful.

Also, I kind of feel like I am being strawmanned here a bit, when you fluidly move from denying a point I made to talking about those pesky ACT advocates, right up to

(And some have even gone so far as to imply that the wounds being bandaged are a virtue - i.e., that we should be happy to have them, and that attempts to get rid of them -- like attempts to eliminate death -- are foolish and misguided.)

which is just stupid. Unfortunately, I have an idea where that might be coming from. One of the ideas there was that your mind's primary job isn't to make you happy, but to protect you from danger. So when you have an unpleasant experience, one thing you can do is to thank your mind for looking out for you (shudder). I can see how someone who doesn't know the real, non-dumbed-down story of evolutionary psychology could get silly ideas from that.

Comment author: pjeby 21 September 2012 03:44:14AM 1 point [-]

I kind of feel like I am being strawmanned here a bit,

Not my intention; I was just trying to clarify the context in which I was interpreting your post.

I didn't see the criticism of suppression and avoidance as a diss against other theories

Yeah, I've had ACT advocates email to me to warn me that eliminating bad feelings is harmful and I shouldn't promote such a thing. So that might be why I see it differently. ;-)

Point is, I wanted to reply here so that people know there's more to life than the false dichotomy of suppress or accept. A lot of people seem to not realize that other options are available.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 19 September 2012 04:57:58AM 2 points [-]

Trying to suppress thoughts or emotions backfires as everyone can see by failing to not think about a pink elephant for the next five minutes.

I've found "make it emotionally neutral, then find something else to think about" to be a fairly effective forgetting algorithm.

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 20 September 2012 11:41:22AM *  1 point [-]

I like the basic recommendation (of visualizing thoughts going onto "cards" and then visualizing the cards receding from view) because the habit being practiced seems to carry over into everyday life better than my previous mindfulness practice does. So I think you helped me, OP.

Does anyone else have the following experience? Most of the "thoughts" getting put on imaginary cards are "intentions" rather than "sensory impressions". That is, they are "ambitions not being described in words", plans, "sequences of motor actions" and such rather than sights, sounds, and such. Doesn't the impossibility or nonsensicalness of the idea of putting an intention on a card detract from the exercise? Well, no, because it is kind of similar to what I do when I jot down a to-do item (the difference being that during the exercise I imagine that I do not have to do any mental work to put the intention into words -- nor do I bother to try to visualize words or writing on the card) and because I can subscribe to the fiction that if I were to touch a card, I would instantly "revisit" or be reminded of the intention that had been put there.

Does anyone else find themselves putting intentions on cards?

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 19 September 2012 09:48:12AM 1 point [-]

I don't think there's anything very mysterious about focusing on the breath. It's just difficult, but the action itself isn't elusive or hard to define. Anyone can probably be fully mindful of a single inhalation and exhalation right away, the rest is just working up to longer and longer periods of unbroken mindfulness from there.

Comment author: vi21maobk9vp 19 September 2012 06:14:30AM 1 point [-]

Trying to suppress thoughts and emotions doesn't work? Really? Dunno, worked well enough for me. Now, emotions from recurring situations are harder to deal with in a full-suppression way during the experience, but suppressing thoughts not currently tied to anything you experience at the moment is simple enough for some people.

I do not think it is a black-or-white divide, of course - there are people better at it and worse at it by different amounts.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 September 2012 11:38:06AM *  6 points [-]

Wegner, D. M. 1994. Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review 101:34-52.

The above paper gives a more nuanced explanation that the success of mental control depends on the lack of simultaneous cognitive load, which seems to fit what you're saying.

But there also seem to be quite a lot of papers in which people asked to suppress are compared to controls with the result that suppressors fail and even experience a rebound after they stop trying. For example:

Wegner, D. M., D. J. Schneider, S. R. Carter, and T. L. White. 1987. “Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53: 5–13.

Lavy, E. H., and M. A. Van den Hout. 1990. “Thought Suppression Induces Intrusion.” Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy 18: 251–58.

Marcks, B. A., and D. W. Woods. 2005. "A comparison of thought suppression to an acceptance-based technique in the management of personal intrusive thoughts: A controlled evaluation." Behaviour Research and Therapy 43:433-445.

And there's even a book summarizing the literature:

Rassin, E. 2005. Thought Supression. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Comment author: CronoDAS 20 September 2012 03:43:34AM 0 points [-]

Trying to suppress thoughts and emotions doesn't work? Really? Dunno, worked well enough for me. Now, emotions from recurring situations are harder to deal with in a full-suppression way during the experience, but suppressing thoughts not currently tied to anything you experience at the moment is simple enough for some people.

I can shut off most unwanted thoughts by finding something else to concentrate on, such as a video game.

Comment author: Pastafarianist 15 February 2015 10:11:55AM *  0 points [-]

I tried this. My main problems were: 1) straying away from the exercise, 2) visualizing the parade (for some reason, my reaction to "visualizing a parade of soldiers" produces tiny 8-bit crude square drawings of soldiers on a black background, not marching but walking towards me in South Park style, which does not exactly correspond to the whole idea of "meditation, acceptance and mindfulness") and 3) quickly forgetting which soldier carries what, so I rapidly fall in anxiety mode, add that anxiety to the list of soldiers, which, of course, doesn't solve the problem of forgetting; then I take a short-cut and literally fill the view with hundreds of soldiers, each of whom corresponds to "anxiety, forgetting who carries what".

On the other hand, the two ideas stated at the beginning of the article can probably be summarized in a single one: detach from yourself and observe whatever happens to you as if you were a visitor from the future who relives a recording of yourself.

Gotta work on this more, I guess.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 September 2012 12:09:42PM 0 points [-]

I've read about a meditation method of classifying thoughts, but a fast search hasn't turned up anything about it. The classification system has to be simple enough to not be a distraction, possibly something like "thought, sensation, memory". Anyone seen or tried that sort of thing?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 20 September 2012 02:26:38PM 0 points [-]

I've experimented with thought-labeling; it didn't seem to do anything for me that observing my thoughts without labeling them didn't do. I forget the exact scheme I used... something like "hope, fear, regret, memory, sensation, emotion, thought", which is probably more complex than I'd recommend.

Comment author: niceguyanon 19 September 2012 05:27:54PM 0 points [-]

Think of your mind as a background against which mental events occur. They are observed by you but they aren't you. So instead of thinking 'I'm anxious' you would think 'I'm having the experience of anxiety.'

I have not tried the ACT method but it reminds of a trick that is similar to it, for overcoming negative emotional states. Although I have not yet put this into regular practice, I recently tried to decrease my anxiety and related emotional states by imagining observing my character in a game. My character in his open sand box world reality might be embarrassed or anxious, but the observer is not. When I do this I feel as the observer I am mindful of my character's state of mind which might be in terrible anxiety, yet the observer is calm.

I am very intrigued with ACT as you presented it here and will try it. Thanks for sharing.

Comment author: [deleted] 13 June 2014 06:15:19AM -1 points [-]

""Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences. However, Gotlib and Beatty (1985) found that people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, resulting in a situation that reinforces the problematic thinking. A third example is aging, when some older people may respond to the deaths of friends and family members, the loss of jobs and income, and the development of age-related health problems by neglecting their medical care needs.[36]

Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable; however, when induced in experimental settings learned helplessness resolves with the passage of time.[37] Learned helplessness in response to experiences can be prevented or minimized by “immunization” and, when present, may be reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome.[38] Therapy can instruct people in the fact of contingency[39] and bolster people’s self esteem.[40]"" -Wikipedia

Comment author: pleeppleep 19 September 2012 11:16:55AM *  0 points [-]

Can it work if, instead of visualizing a written parade, you just voice a description of each thought inside your head?

I typically experience thoughts in the form of sounds, so taking the effort to translate these into writing disrupts my thoughts and ruin the point of the exercise.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 September 2012 12:34:15PM 0 points [-]

Can it work if, instead of visualizing a written parade, you just voice a description of each thought inside your head?

Voicing thoughts aloud in my head is exactly what I used to do whenever I got caught up in an obsessive spiral of worrying, so I am skeptical but why not try it anyway?

But you don't need to literally visualise writing. I edited the article to specify that.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 September 2012 01:01:29PM 0 points [-]

All of this led to a big decrease in social anxiety, increased confidence and self-esteem, less pointless worrying, less anger, more empathy and all around improvement in my life.

How did you operationalize and quantify all of these things?

I procrastinate less and manage to walk through my ugh fields without flinching much more often.

How did you quantify this?

For a site that's ostensibly about overcoming bias, pro-self-help reportbacks on less wrong pretty frequently ignore any sort of quantitative analysis in favor of "I did this thing I read in this book, and noticed drastic improvement in all aspects of my life." You are quite capable of lying to yourself to justify the cost and effort of buying and reading several books, and are probably doing so to some extent. Do you have any hard (numerical) evidence that this is not the case?

Consider also that it's easier to change your perception of your (say) productivity than it is to change your actual productivity, and that there's significant market incentive for these sort of materials to produce that (faster and easier) change than a real change.

Comment author: David_Gerard 19 September 2012 07:53:53AM 0 points [-]

Good one. Candidate for main?

Comment author: [deleted] 19 September 2012 12:20:28PM 4 points [-]

I didn't post it to main because it's really hard to predict whether something that helped you will also work for other people and there's a tendency to be wildly overoptimistic. (And another reason is that I have very little experience in writing English, am therefore poorly calibrated and whenever I try to write a longer piece of text I feel that it is total crap.)

I suppose if there's some sort of enthusiastic response then the Moderator Corps can take that into consideration.