Acceptance and Avoidance of Thoughts in ACT

Acceptance isn’t about liking or agreeing with an internal or external experience. Rather, acceptance is the opposite of avoidance. Often, we try to control or suppress certain thoughts and feelings that we perceive as negative or unpleasant, but that doesn’t actually work very well, and can end up just making things worse. 

Controlling Thoughts 

Intuitively, it probably seems that the ability to control your thoughts is a good thing. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) focuses on challenging problematic thoughts to create new patterns of thinking. The angle that ACT focuses on, though, is that trying to suppress your thoughts is likely to increase your level of distress. 

How about you take a minute to think about a white bear; chances are you’re not regularly coming across either a polar bear or a while spirit bear wherever it is that you happen to live, so they’re probably not on your mind much. Great, so you’ve got your white bear. Now, for the next minute, I want you to not think about a white bear at all. All of a sudden those rare white bears are doing the hokey pokey in your head, right? 

The questions below are adapted from the Thought Control Questionnaire. When answering them, consider a disturbing thought that you’ve been having on a recurring basis. The more of these strategies that you often use in response to unpleasant/unwanted thoughts, the more control you’re trying to exercise over your thoughts. 

1. Do you focus on the thought? 

2. Do you avoid talking to anyone about the thought? 

3. Do you get angry or punish yourself for having the thought? 

4. Do you try to distract yourself from the thought? 

5. Do you challenge the thought’s validity? 

6. Do you try to rationally analyze the thought? 

7. Do you try to reinterpret the thought? 

8. Do you try to find a different way of thinking about the thought? 

9. Do you question why you’re having the thought? 

10. Do you tell yourself that something bad will happen if you think the thought? 


We naturally want to avoid the things we experience that are unpleasant. Obviously, it makes to avoid situations that will put us in immediate physical danger; that’s a highly adaptive response. Avoidant patterns do nothing to actually keep us safe; instead, they serve as a means of running away from difficulties. That running away just goes in circles and ends up bringing us right back to the problem we started with. 

When something painful happens, it will naturally create a painful reaction. From an ACT perspective, if you allow yourself to let that pain be, it will start to dissipate in due course. By avoiding it, though, the pain grows rather than lessens. As counterintuitive as it may seem, acceptance results in less pain overall than avoidance does. 

Common Avoidance Techniques - Follow the DOTS 

• Distraction 

• Opt out (of places, actions) 

• Thinking (trying to think your way out of a problem by rehashing it, blaming, self-criticism, etc.) 

• Substances, Self-harm, and other harmful strategies 

The (S) is obviously a harmful thing, but the DOT sound like they could actually be good things. However, if you’re using them in an attempt to avoid dealing with a situation and finding a resolution, then that’s not helping you. 

Distraction can be useful when there’s an issue that’s ongoing and comes in bursts. In that case, you know the difficult feeling will resolve if given a bit of time, and distraction helps that time go by faster. It’s not a way of avoiding dealing with a problem, so it’s not a DOTS situation. 

Opting out can be a healthy, proactive way of sticking to boundaries. Often, though, opting out is a reactive avoidance response that actually ends up feeding into mental illness symptoms.

Thinking can be useful if it’s solution-focused and forward-oriented. The problematic thinking styles that are part of DOTS are repetitive, circular, and problem-oriented. They may not feel avoidant, because the problem is shouting loud and clear in your mind, but where the avoidance aspect comes in is avoidance of dealing with the problem and coming to a resolution. It’s time to step off the hamster wheel. 

DOTS: Questions for Reflection 

Are any of the DOTS go-to’s for you? 

Do you feel like thoughts/feelings can harm you? 

How would that happen? 

Do you feel like you need to have control over your thoughts and feelings? 

What strategies do you use to push away your feelings? 

When you use those strategies, how does it feel? 

Costs of Avoidance 

The problem with avoiding activities in an attempt to avoid pain is that we end up missing out on some of the things that actually make life worthwhile. Given that pain is inevitable anyway, is that avoidance costing you more than you’re getting out of it? 

  • How might avoidance be holding you back from things that are consistent with your values?
  • What are the costs of avoidance? 

What are you giving up or missing out on? 

• Interpersonal 

• Career 

• Health 

• Mental/emotional costs 

• Energy • Loss of freedom 

• Financial costs 

• Other areas 


Acceptance requires willingness. Both acceptance and willingness also make an appearance as skills in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). Acceptance doesn’t mean liking something, and it doesn’t mean thinking that something is a good thing. It doesn’t mean that you don’t look for ways to make things better. Acceptance is also not passive, so it’s not the same as resignation. It’s a choice and an active stance. 

The next time that something comes up that is mildly distressing, see what it feels like to just sit with the thoughts and feelings, and mindfully consider how those thoughts and feelings are affecting your mind and body in that moment. 

ACT is big on the use of metaphors to promote understanding of concepts. Here are a few that relate to acceptance. 

Quicksand is one useful metaphor for acceptance. If you try to struggle, it will suck you in and you might drown. However, if you relax and stop fighting, you will float to the surface and you’ll be okay. 

Similarly, consider a riptide. If you try to fight against it and swim to shore, you’ll exhaust yourself and possibly drown. However, if you swim with the current, eventually it will release you and you’ll be free to head to shore. 

If you’re in a tug of war, while you are pulling the other side will pull back in resistance. The harder you pull, the harder they pull in return, and it can seem like neither side will win. However, if you stop pulling and instead just let go of the rope, the other side will fall down, and you’ll be the one left standing. 

If you’re fighting on a battleground, trying to win the war might be a lost cause, but what if you were to just leave the battlefield altogether? 


Expansion is a way of practicing acceptance that involves figuratively opening up and making space for thoughts, feelings, and the accompanying bodily sensations so they can flow through you without getting stuck. It may be useful to tie this into breathing exercises. As you inhale, imagine your chest opening to let your internal stream flow through. 

You may not want to make room for things that are unpleasant, but keeping them compressed in the back of your head somewhere is not going to let those things be released, and they will keep knocking on your mental door trying to get your attention. 

Control vs Acceptance Balance Sheet 

This type of log helps you to monitor how often you’re using control strategies and keep track of your practice using acceptance, as well as how well these different strategies are working.


Pritam Chakraborty

As I was moving through life, I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty.

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