Fear of Change in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Dazed and Awake

One of the interesting things about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is that you can’t think about it too much. You have to do it. Hence the acronym ACT, to be spoken as the word. If you try to understand it with your mind alone, you’ll get stuck because the mind has too many blinders.

I recall my encounter with a pit bull a few years ago because the incident seems like a good metaphor for my long struggles with depression. After the surprise attack when my wife and I were out walking our dogs, I managed to pin the intruding pit bull to the ground. The danger was under control, and my wife could take our dogs to safety.

But then I was stuck. With arms and knees pinning down the beast, I had to stay right there. I couldn’t move or relax my grip. It’s a good ACT analogy.

Controlled by the Dog

If you think of the dog as depression (no, it was not black but a rather pleasant yellow-brown), I had succeeded in controlling it completely. But you could also say that the dog was controlling me. I couldn’t move from that position without releasing him and setting the danger free. My life at that moment was dominated by the struggle to control and suppress.

In ACT you try to change your life not by controlling symptoms but by increasing psychological well-being and flexibility. And what does that mean? This is the tricky part. You focus on what’s most important in your life, what you value most, and take steps to live those values. Do things. The more you dwell on definitions and explanations, the more firmly your depressive mind has you.

The mind wraps me in verbal and intellectual ropes that help me pin down the beast I am trying to control. Instead of focusing on what I want out of life, I’m learning new methods to get rid of symptoms. The problem is those methods don’t work when I’m measuring wellness in terms of avoiding what I don’t want my life to be.

So it’s better to go to analogies and metaphors instead of labels and explanations. The point is that I don’t want to spend my life sitting on the dog. I want to have the freedom to lead the sort of life I want.

Mind in Command

My problem is like the trouble I always had when I tried to ski. I don’t like sliding at high speed down icy trails because I’m afraid I will lose control and fall, or just slam into a tree. I like one step at a time, pick the direction, set my feet on steady ground, and off I go, one foot in front of the other.

That gives me a certain kind of control. My mind relaxes because it has plenty of time to identify each thing it encounters. It has time to inventory, react and tell my body when to go around obstacles. It enjoys the top-down command.

Skiing needs a different kind of control. It’s less in your mind and more in your body. Your body needs to crouch, bend, shift its weight a little this way, a little that. It finds a different rhythm and trusts itself to adapt even before your mind has time to catch up.

But I always tried to control skiing the way I controlled walking. One step at a time. Can’t be done. You can’t break down the flow of skiing into separate steps. That’s why I’d fall and generally limp downhill far behind everyone else. Not much fun.

Moving Like Music

I had the same problem trying to learn to play the clarinet or the saxophone. I thought of it as learning a series of notes, each with its special fingering, and then playing them in rapid succession to get music. But one note at a time won’t do it.

The music is a single sound flowing out of the horn that you modulate with vibrating reed and variations of air flow responding to your fingertips.

Smooth, flowing movements at a good speed, not one note or one step at a time. The mind has to give up its control over reviewing and packaging each moment. It has to stop evaluating, and I have to stop believing that I must do things one way and avoid the risks of trying something different.

Using up my energy and mental focus controlling depression isn’t what I want. Doing things that have meaning in my life is what I’m really after.

My mind restrains with single steps and isolated words. My life wants the flowing sound and the sliding motion.

Fear of Change

I’ve been working fairly well with ACT and other approaches that emphasize mindful acceptance, but this week I’ve gotten stuck again. Every now and then I get to a point where I seem to have done all the homework, mastered a lot of new ideas and started putting them into practice, only to find my mind pushing back and going on strike.

I have to stop holding on to crutches, close the books, shut down the computer and let myself relax my need to control what I do. It’s time to take action, to do something different, start sliding down an unfamiliar hillside instead of marching along well-mapped streets.

My mind wants to hold on and explain, define, categorize and finally declare that the path is safe for travel. The rest of me that includes this busy mind is saying we can do this differently if you’d stop holding back. Sometimes, the need for control wins out, sometimes I can move into a freer zone. But there are times when I’m caught right between the two, and I shut down.


It reminds me of the Hitchcock film, Vertigo. It’s about a man who falls into dizzying vertigo when he tries to possess the dream woman of his life. He persuades a woman to change every detail of her appearance until she fits the image of his obsession, but ultimately he loses her as his mind briefly spins away and the stable structure of reality seems to collapse beneath him.

I get to these moments where my mind literally starts shutting down. Consciousness dims, and sleep starts to take over. There’s a dizzying step my mind won’t take, and everything goes gray. I lose my bearings and blank out.

It’s a crisis of weakening control of the measured one-step-at-a-time way of living. I go through a lot of backsliding like this, and I have to keep reminding myself that this doesn’t mean I’m failing or not doing recovery right. It’s simply part of the process. Not so much fun, but there it is.

What do you do when progress seems to stop and you start to feel lost again? Do you have a way of reminding yourself that this is just what changing for the better is like? Sometimes the fear of change seems more real than the prospect of living well again.

12 Responses to “Fear of Change in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”

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  1. Donna says:

    I now use what Richard Grannon calls the Five Finger Mnemonic. This is for those who have been and continue to be affected by past trauma.
    1. “I am not my flashbacks.” (for me -whatever urges flight and freeze responses)
    2. “I am my goal state – contented, serene, employing self-agency.” (you can substitute your own goals)
    3. “I fully accept all emotions.” (I tend to shut down as many emotions as possible.)
    4. “As far as legally and morally acceptable, I do what is best for me — what keeps me well
    physically, mentally, spiritually.”
    5. “I am responsible for myself. If I try to take on responsibility for others or allow them to take
    responsibility for me, both of us will suffer.”

    I realize this has its limitations, but it is a kind of ACT that works for me today.

  2. David says:

    ACT sounds interesting.Change your life by increasing psychological well-being and flexibility.I have a fear of change too.I go shopping or vacation.I relax myself and try to the fear and I focus my mind on the good effects that change will bring.

  3. Evan says:

    Hi Donna, an alternative is to start with what you are doing rather than what you are thinking. Instead of observing your mind observe what you do – especially what you are doing. There are likely some things you do without thinking about it and some of these you enjoy.

    My 2cents.

  4. Donna-1 says:

    The trouble is, anything at all can contribute to my inaction. And it’s all played out in the theater of the mind. I’m great at keeping a journal of moods/goals/whatever but I never seem to apply what I have learned in any meaningful fashion. I am quite happy to sit and analyze a problem, including depression, for hours. Often. But that’s where it stays — in my mind. Somehow I fail miserably to match thought to action, to coordinate the two. In a very real way, we are our minds…but the body doesn’t always want to go along quietly.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      The ACT approach is the best one I know for helping move from the awareness to actually doing something. I’m working on a post about that, so, obviously, you’ll have the magic answer soon! 😉


  5. Mark Pacitti says:

    Hi John

    I love the pit bull analogy – how often do we think we are in control of something when it is in fact controlling us – and how often do neither party realise it?!

    I also loved your closing comment: Sometimes the fear of change seems more real than the prospect of living well again. I think at times we believe in our heads that a change will cause such huge upheaval in our lives because we envisage doing the whole change in a split second when in fact change can take place gradually and painlessly over a long period of time

    As for what I do when progress stops – I just run – literally, not metaphorically. Never the latter!


  6. Judy says:

    I can relate to this, for sure. Fear of change – giving up the known “enemy” for some unknown state of being. I was just thinking about this yesterday because I wondered if I felt better, would more then be expected of me? By whom? Family, myself? And I’m so sick of trying to be “good” all the time, even though I want to be, and hope I am, a good person. Don’t know if that makes sense. And another part of this is sometimes these things I think I “should” be doing to help myself bring out the rebellion of some of my more childish selves. While I’m usually obedient and live by the rules, there’s a part of me that’s resentful and rebellious and in no way wants to do what anybody else tells me I should do, even if it might be good for me. But, one good thing – the older I get, the less I berate myself for my rebelliousness! I’ve learned by now there’s usually a good reason for it, I just might not know what it is right away. In time, I will.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      Isn’t it strange how nonsensical the mind rules become, how circular, how urgent but without leading anywhere? Your comment reminds me of the late 60ss mantra – challenge authority – especially when it’s inside your head. Sometimes it helps me to watch the mental games play on. It’s hard to do even that, though, when my inner authority has administered anesthesia, and I start to lose consciousness. And, for the record, yes, you are a good person!


  7. Evan says:

    Sometimes I do something to distract myself, something else absorbing to clear my head, and then go back to the thing I’m working on.

    Sometimes I try to figure out what is going on.

    Other times I try to figure out if I still want what I’m trying to get.

    Sometimes I just take a holiday from it all and do something nice for myself.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      The third point is a very wise one that I need to think about. Do I still want what I’m trying to get? Or have I subtly turned working toward a good life purpose into drudgery somehow? My mind has a way of shifting into reverse when I’m trying to drive straight ahead. Thanks for these ideas.



  1. Storied Mind says:

    Fear of Change in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy…

    Fear of Change in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy One of the interesting things about Acceptance and…

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