Workability: Beyond True or False

One of the cornerstones of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the concept of workability. The aim of ACT is for our clients to create a rich, meaningful, and vibrant life. Workability is how we determine whether a client’s behaviors are serving that end. Usually, people know when their behaviors are not working for them, but because they are often fused with their thoughts, they may have a hard time acting any other way. Instead of bringing them closer to the life they want, their behaviors are more or less a means of struggling with or avoiding painful thoughts and feelings. To demonstrate how this might appear in a therapy session I’d like to present the case of Samantha (Of course names and details have been altered to protect confidentiality):

Samantha is in her late twenties, single, no children, has her own apartment in a suburban neighborhood, a cat, a steady job for the last year and a half, an unused gym membership, and hasn’t been on a date in four years. She complains about her female co-workers being “fake” and “slutty” yet she secretly wants to be like them and to be liked by them. Any time an opportunity arises where she is invited to attend a happy hour with work people, she has an excuse not to attend. She then goes home and cries before opening a pint of ice cream and watching pre-recorded episodes of “fill-in-the-blank-reality-television.”

Therapist: “So what were you thinking when your co-worker asked you to join them for drinks after work?”
Samantha: “I was trying to think of a polite way to get out of it.”
Therapist: “What prompted you to want to get out of it?”
Samantha: “I get so nervous around those girls. They’re always so happy and confident and I guess I’m afraid they’re secretly making fun of me behind my back.”
Therapist: “What makes you think they are making fun of you?”
Samantha: “Well, look at me! These girls are all thin and have perfect skin and hair, and wear cute outfits to work. I think they’re just trying to get laid personally. It’s gross.”
Therapist: “It sounds like you don’t much approve of them. (a pause to let that sink in) But you never answered my question. How do you know they are making fun of you?”
Samantha: “Because I’m fat! Can’t you see?”
Therapist: “So when your mind tells you that you’re fat and that people are probably making fun of you, you get nervous and you want to flee.”
Samantha: “Yeah. But it’s true. I am fat.”

And honestly, it was true. She was a portly woman, no doubt about it. Now here’s where the concept of workability comes in to play.

Therapist: “One thing I’m not going to debate with you is whether or not your thoughts are true or false, right or wrong. We think all kinds of thoughts all day long and some of them are true and some of them aren’t. What I am concerned about is whether or not a thought inspires you to do what works. Does it bring you closer to your ideal self? So tell me, when your mind tells you you’re fat, what happens?”
Samantha: (Tearing up) “I feel disgusting. I just want to hide. I want to disappear.”
Therapist: “And what do you do?”
Samantha: “I guess I just withdraw from people . . . and I eat.”

Her sobs revealed that when she said she eats, she wasn’t talking about a light afternoon snack. Unconsciously, because of her impulse to disappear, she eats to create more fat on her body to hide behind. It’s a vicious cycle. Prior to this session, Samantha had done some values clarification and what she really wants is to be a social, fun-loving person. She also wants to be healthy and energetic.

Therapist: “So when you get caught up I your thoughts about being fat, does this bring you closer or farther away from your ideal self?”
Samantha: “Farther. Much farther.”
Therapist: “And what about your thoughts that your co-workers are ‘slutty?’”
Samantha: “I guess it gives me more of a reason not to hang out with them. It’s probably not      true though.”
Therapist: “Again, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. But the function of this thought is that it supports your choice to withdraw. This doesn’t seem at all like what you described you wanted your life to look like.”
Samantha: “No, I get it. I’m doing the opposite of what I know will make me happy, but how do I just get over my fears? How do I just stop thinking that I’m fat?”
Therapist: “You don’t have to. You couldn’t even if you tried because our minds are always creating problems for us and vying for our attention. This is normal. Our minds are problem-solving machines and usually, in life, when there is a problem, something unwanted, our minds are very good at coming up with solutions. And usually, in the physical world, the solution of choice is to either avoid the problem or get rid of it. But this doesn’t work with thoughts and feelings. When we apply the same kind of solutions to private experiences, we tend to make things worse. Instead, maybe you could have a different relationship with that thought. Instead of holding onto it tightly, can you allow it to be there without trying to struggle with it or make it go away?”

At this point, I introduced a mindfulness exercise to get her out of her thinking self (the part that problem-solves, worries, ruminates, etc.) and into her observant self (awareness of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations) so that she has first hand experience of what it’s like to just notice her thoughts without attachment to them. By learning mindfulness skills she will apply them to her thoughts about being fat. She will hold these thoughts loosely so that she isn’t pushed around or imprisoned by them, and she can be free to act in ways that are congruent with her chosen values and pursue the life she really wants for herself. When we focus on workability, we are not concerned with whether a thought is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, but with whether it serves the client to live the life they want.

© Copyright 2011 by By Jiovann Carrasco, MA, LPC-S. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Paulette

    June 25th, 2011 at 12:36 PM

    Look, lets face it- we all have issues like this that we have to contend with. But you have to be pretty down and out to let them get to you this way like Samantha! But I like confronting this with this workability, not worrying about whether or not something is true or is false but instead if it is prohibiting you from living the life that you want to live. This could be very freeing for many.

  • jodie j.

    June 25th, 2011 at 2:35 PM

    That was a good read, Jiovann. Thank you for giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective there. I hope Sally also considers that the girls are trying to be friendly and include her by inviting her along. It’s a shame she keeps shunning them. If they wanted to make fun of her I imagine they wouldn’t ask her along at all. Not all thin girls are mean and shallow same as not all fat girls are jolly.

  • L. Powers

    June 25th, 2011 at 5:14 PM

    That made me feel really sad that Sally feels the need to hide behind her weight. I hope she finds some peace of mind.

    Being conscious of your thoughts makes a huge difference, I agree. I started practicing mindfulness last year and have learned to observe thoughts and let them go rather than being smothered by their negativity. I cannot tell you how much that simple sounding tool has improved my life in every way.

    To anyone that’s interested in it I’d advise them that it takes a while to get into the habit, just as it did to get into your current habits, so don’t beat yourself up if you find it challenging initially. It’s a gradual process. One day it will all come together
    perfectly and you’ll practice mindfulness nearly as automatically as you do breathing.

  • Jiovann

    June 26th, 2011 at 8:16 AM

    Thanks for the comments! @Jodie: She did finally realize this, but it was not due to me attempting to “correct” her errant thinking. By releasing the death grip she held on her thoughts, she was able to choose values-driven behaviors that brought her closer to her ideal self, which included not only accepting invitations from others, but also inviting others to join her! At first she still had the thoughts about being fat, but she learned to hold them lightly and continued along in the direction of her values, which ultimately feels better! Whether these thin girls really liked her or not is beyond the scope of what we are attempting to accomplish. If we learn to hold our own thoughts more lightly, it matters even less what other peoples’ thoughts are.

  • karleigh

    June 26th, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    What about the people who can’t tell the difference anymore between what is true and what is false, what will make them happy and what won’t?

    For may of them the lines between this reality and the “reality’that they have created for themselves in their minds are unable to be differentiated.

  • Holly

    June 27th, 2011 at 4:34 AM

    I too have been in those situations where I tell myself something so much that I come to believe it, whether it is about me or about someone else.
    Why do we do these self-defeating things?

  • M.K

    June 27th, 2011 at 8:10 PM

    I don’t know why people do negative things to themselves when they think others are better. Should the focus not be on making yourself better and maybe competing against the others?

  • Jiovann

    June 29th, 2011 at 12:25 PM

    @MK: No, I think it’s better not to compare yourself to or compete with others, but to learn to fully accept yourself just the way you are. @Holly: the reason we choose self-defeating behavior is because we are struggling with thoughts and feelings we don’t want, so we behave in ways that attempt to avoid or push away those experiences, but this problem-solving approach does not work with thoughts and feelings, and it often makes things much worse. @Karleigh: Again, it doesn’t matter whether their perceptions are true or not. What will ultimately make them happy is to act in ways that are congruent with chosen values.

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