The ideas behind ACT are complicated and explaining them to clients is challenging. To get around the difficulty of explaining concepts in words, ACT therapists use a lot of metaphors and experiential exercises in order to demonstrate the meaning in more tangible ways.
Harris (2009) uses an experiential exercise to introduce the basis concept of ACT for the purpose of ensuring that the client is giving informed consent to participate in this work. Some text illustrating this exercise can be found in pages 13-18 of his book, and an audiovisual demonstration of the exercise is available at www.actmadesimple.com/free_resources.
The exercise is called “Pushing against the clipboard”. Put simply, this exercise makes use of an everyday object that is readily available to practitioners in the helping professions, and which lends itself as a straightforward symbol of the pain and suffering that clients bring with them to therapeutic encounters – a clip board (a large hard backed book can also serve the purpose). The clipboard is used to represent all the thoughts, feelings, memories and fears that the person has been struggling with. The exercise uses several different bodily responses to illustrate the difference between: (a) struggling as we have been in the past, or (b) responding with mindful acceptance, and how these two different attitudes affect our ability to commit to action consistent with our values.
Creative hopelessness - As well as introducing the basic idea of ACT, the Pushing against the clipboard exercise initiates a therapeutic process called creative hopelessness. The intention is create a sense of hopelessness around the client’s previous agenda of trying to control or avoid his or her thoughts and feelings. When we recognise that these old strategies do not help, the way is opened for the alternative agenda of mindfulness and acceptance, which is the opposite of control. ACT returns to this process over and over again, repeatedly demonstrating or otherwise pointing out the ineffectiveness and costs of experiential avoidance.
Other brief creative hopelessness exercises are available to shatter the myth that humans can control how they feel, what they remember, and what thoughts will occupy their minds. These exercises "the polygraph metaphor" and "falling in love" are a little silly and stretch the point somewhat, but they are fun and engaging.
These notes are drawn from Harris (2009), Chapters 1 and 6.