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  • Andrew Duirs

The chessboard

A metaphor for managing unpleasant thoughts and feelings

If you find some of your thoughts and feelings uncomfortable, unpleasant and even distressing the chessboard metaphor is for you. If you invest a lot of time, energy and resources trying to close certain thoughts and feelings down, or trying to get away from them or change them to something more pleasant Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) utilises the Chessboard metaphor to help teach us how to be accepting, open and curious about ALL of our thoughts and feelings even the ones that we encounter as difficult. The chessboard metaphor helps us see our thoughts and feelings from a different perspective and frees us from pitching our pleasant wanted ones against our unpleasant and unwanted ones a battle that comes a huge cost to our wellbeing and vitality.


Difficult thoughts

Our amazing brains (minds) produce all sorts of thoughts, judgments, visualisations, memories and analysis. Depending on the circumstance these thinking processes are extremely useful and important. Our ability to think, judge, remember and analyse sets us aside from all other creatures. Our thinking selves helps us problem solve, communicate effectively, invent amazing things, be creative and develop.


However we don’t always just experience thoughts that at the time are helpful. Sometimes thoughts can be concerning and difficult. Our minds produce all sorts of thoughts including some that we experience as distracting, unkind, critical, worrying, fearful, negative and even hateful. Most of us find these thoughts unpleasant and at times distressing. Having such thoughts is completely normal but how we respond to them determines our ability to remain present and attentive of the things that we have planned and are important to us.

If when we encounter unwanted, unfamiliar or unpleasant thoughts we instinctively react with moves to get away from them, close them down or change them we actually begin a battle with them that is never ending. This battle results in us being fused to those thoughts when our goals was to get away from them.


Our battle with unwanted thoughts commonly involves all sorts of complicated avoidance behaviours that are ineffective in selectively stopping thoughts. Avoidance strategies don't work because the mind is just doing its job producing thoughts. Any attempt to stop the minds work becomes a lifelong struggle of ducking, weaving, and avoiding when certain thoughts occur. The cost of battling with our thoughts can be very high. Constant overthinking, hours of wasted time, avoiding doing things we want to do where such thoughts are more likely to show up and the devastating effects of substance abuse in an attempt to not think at all.


The Chessboard metaphor helps us respectfully accept ALL our thoughts in a way that enables us to appreciate them, learn from them and continue doing the things that are important to us in in the long term.


Uncomfortable feelings

Like our amazing mind we also have a brilliant body designed to interact with each other and the world around us. Our ability to feel, hear, taste, touch and sense provides us with a rich stimulating connection with our environments and with each other. We enjoy feeling the sun on our bodies, the smell of our favourite food or a flower in the garden. We soften at the touch of another person’s hand or the silky fur of a pet. We experience energy and warmth when we hear music and laughter and praise. Our feelings, emotions and bodily sensations are how we feel alive and vital.

However like thoughts we don’t only experience familiar, comfortable and pleasant feelings and emotions. We also experience unpleasant, unfamiliar and difficult feelings, emotions and bodily sensations. Tightness in our chests, uncomfortable sensations in our abdomen, tension in our heads and shoulders. Sadness, loneliness, terror and pain. We all experience a full range of human feelings and emotions including some that at times feel extremely difficult to encounter. This is completely normal. However if our responses to unfamiliar, unpleasant or unwanted feelings is to direct our energies to getting away from them or getting rid of them then we can find ourselves experiencing more distress, less enjoyment of life and reduced capacity to do the things that are important to us.


The Chessboard metaphor helps us respectfully accept ALL our emotions, feelings and bodily sensations in a way that enables us to appreciate them, learn from them and continue doing the things that are important to us in in the long term.


The Chessboard Metaphor


The chess pieces

Think of your thoughts and feelings as chess pieces on a chessboard. Imagine the white chess pieces are your unpleasant, negative, self-critical, anxiety provoking thoughts, feelings and memories. Fear, doubt, self-criticism, loathing, hopelessness. Notice how they group together and line up on one side of the board ready to battle against the opposing black pieces. Imagine the black pieces are your more desirable pleasant and positive thoughts, feelings and memories. Confidence, happiness, satisfaction, success and sense of belonging. Notice also how these pleasant feelings, thoughts and memories also group together. Notice how they are lined up facing each other in battle stance on each side of the board.


Just like in a game of chess where opposing black and white pieces battle against each other we often pit our ‘pleasant, familiar and comfortable’ thoughts, feelings and memories against our ‘unpleasant, unfamiliar and uncomfortable’ ones. Because we don’t want the unpleasant thoughts and feelings we choose sides and hope on the back of the ‘pleasant’ thoughts and feelings and ride into battle against anxiety, fear, loneliness, stress, depression, grief, sadness, and everything that feels uncomfortable or unfamiliar.

In a game of chess at times it can appear that one colour is winning against the other and then the game can change. Chess battles can go on for hours with players locked in all sorts of strategies and eventually event stalemates. The same is true when we commit to battling against unwanted thoughts and feelings. The more we push and fight and argue the longer and more tortuous the battle becomes.


The costs of war

The cost of a battle between our ‘wanted, pleasant and comfortable thoughts and feelings’ and ‘unwanted, unpleasant and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings’ is high. The time, energy and resources invested in trying to eradicate or get away from unwanted thoughts and feelings depletes our vitality, creativity and enjoyment of each present moment. The more we fight against ‘troubling’ thoughts and feelings the stronger they become and further investment in controlling or conquering them is required.

Battling with our thoughts and feelings results in war like behaviours. We live constantly on alert, constantly feeling some sense of defeat and experiencing regular hopeless. We feel unable to stop or rest, but also feel no real sense that we are making any headway. Even the comfortable thoughts and feelings we desire begin to fade and allude us. As we pour our efforts into being on guard and strategising to avoid unpleasantness and pain we are overly focused on our internal experience and unhealthily disconnected from ourselves, each other and the world in which we live. Battling with our unwanted thoughts and feelings depletes us of the skills of awareness, mindfulness and acceptance necessary for vitality and thriving.


The Chessboard

We previously imagined that the chess pieces in a game of chess are our thoughts and feelings pitted against each other in battle.


Imagine now that you are the chessboard on which these pieces are moving about. A chessboard that goes on in every direction and on which the black and white pieces (your thoughts and feelings both pleasant and unpleasant, wanted and unwanted, helpful and distracting) continuously present themselves, linger, appear to disappear and then reappear often with other thoughts and feelings in tow.


As the chessboard you can look up and notice all of the chess pieces and watch them moving about. Notice that you the chessboard are not changed in anyway by the chess pieces or their movements. No matter which chess pieces or how difficult, how long or how complicated the chess battle is the chess board is not changed or damaged in any way. The chessboard is like a battle ground on which the continual activity of the chess pieces takes place but the board itself remains solid and intact ready for the next game.


This can also be true for us. We can learn to look and notice our thoughts and feelings occurring, intersecting and coming and going. We can also learn to notice that we remain who we are. We have thoughts and we experience emotions and feelings but they are not us, they don’t change us. We remain ourselves like the chessboard remains a chessboard. We are the context for our thoughts and feelings but they do not change who we are.

As the chessboard notice the distinction between yourself and the pieces. Now as yourself notice the distinction between you who is observing them and your thoughts and feelings. Take a moment to observe your thoughts and feelings right now with openness, curiosity and acceptance allowing yourself to be fully present in the moment. Notice also any instinctive reaction to any thoughts and feelings. Reactions away from or in defense against thoughts and feelings you are uncomfortable with.


Like the chess board that carries both black and white pieces but is not equal to them we as human beings experience both pleasant and unpleasant, comfortable and uncomfortable, helpful and unhelpful thoughts and feelings but we are not equivalent to the thoughts and feelings we experience. Being aware of the distinction between us and our thoughts and feelings enables us to accept even unpleasant and troubling thoughts and feelings and avoid the severe cost of trying to avoid them.


Psychological flexibility

The chessboard metaphor helps us understand ‘self as context’ (the distinction between us and our thoughts and feelings) and provides an opportunity to practice flexibly noticing our thoughts and feelings in a more present and accepting way. This flexibility allows us to continue doing the things we value while encountering a full range of human emotions and the full functionality of our thinking mind.


The chessboard metaphor offers us an opportunity to practice being more accepting of all our thoughts and feelings and continuing to do what is important to us in the moment whatever thoughts and feelings show up. This flexibility gives us hope because it frees us from the tyranny of battling with significant parts of our own experience, a battle that is draining and has no identifiable ending.


How to use the Chessboard metaphor

I personally love the chessboard metaphor. It has helped me become more aware of my thoughts and feelings, to approach them with respect, openness and curiosity. I often describe my current stance towards my thoughts and feelings as my ‘David Attenborough’ stance. I slow down, zoom in, pan out, zoom back in, describe in detail what I see, and then sit back and watch.


I have a chess set in my lounge room at home and my office at work. It reminds me that I am the context of my thoughts and feelings and that I have this amazing capacity to slow down and explore them with openness and acceptance. When I look at my chess sets I am reminded to look for any internal battles I might have become caught up in and when I do notice I’m struggling the awareness helps me easily or willingly step back and pay more attention to those thoughts and feelings with curiosity and interest rather than getting pulled into a fight with them or becoming overly fused with them. This awareness is like space in which I can then reconnect with the things that I had planned to do or had committed to do or choose some action towards things that are important to me or will help me achieve my goals right now.

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