A Powerful Metaphor for Defusing from Negative Thoughts

“They’ve got demons!”

“She’s haunted by her past.”

“He can’t get out of his head.”

You’ve probably heard one or more of these clichés at some point. They are all meant to indicate a person who is disturbed in some way. I see all of the phrases as illustrating the same problem: negative thoughts.

We have all suffered from them at some point. In this post, we’ll go through ways in which you can prevent your negative thoughts from changing your choices and happiness.

What Are Negative Thoughts, and Why Do I Have Them?

That little voice in your head that you just can’t seem to mute–we’ve all been there. It could be reminding you of painful memories from your past, predicting worst-case hypotheticals about the future, or savagely assessing your worth or value as a person. There is no shortage of possibilities.

Having negative thoughts is a unique problem because it is an internal fight. We have evolved to address the greatest threats to our survival, which have historically been external. Unfortunately, we can’t slay negative thoughts with a spear or find a warm cave in which to hide. The threats our ancestors faced had to be faced immediately and ferociously. 

Therefore, our brains evolved to see every issue as a problem that must fixed. As a hammer was built to strike nails, our mind grew to solve problems. You may experience this from friends and family if you ever vent to them. 

You will almost assuredly get an immediate response telling you exactly what you should do to make things better. In many cases I am sure this advice is welcome, and in others I am positive it is not. However, when trying to fight negative thoughts, you are effectively battling yourself. If you have tried to reason or argue with that voice in your head, you have probably learned that it is a largely futile endeavor. 

But… what if there was a different way? Try to not to think of a pink elephant for sixty seconds.

How many times did you just think of that elephant? In order to stay vigilant against an invader (unwanted thoughts), you must keep that invader front and center in your mind, and by doing so you have already lost.

How Acceptance Can Help With Negative Thoughts

A mental health model known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) was developed by Steven Hayes in order to address the paradoxical nature of the battle against unwanted negative thoughts. His idea is simple yet sometimes difficult to implement.

Hayes advocates stopping the fight. Instead of perpetually tugging on that rope held by your thoughts, try to drop the rope. You cannot lose a fight you refuse to engage in.

Sounds simple right? Unfortunately, because of how our brains are wired, this theory can require lots of practice to master. The unwanted thoughts are not actually what causes us the most distress, but instead it is the refusal to accept that the thoughts are occurring that causes the real suffering.

Because these ideas can be a little tricky to grasp, Hayes developed a number of metaphors to aid us in understanding. Some of the metaphors are also activities that can help to lessen the distress we feel about our negative thoughts.

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How Can ‘The Bus Driver’ Help Us With Our Negative Thoughts?

One of my favorite analogies offered in ACT is The Bus Driver Metaphor.

The Bus

Dr. Bridgett Ross describes the metaphor as, “…the ways internal experiences (i.e., thoughts, emotions, urges, memories, etc.) seem to drive our lives. The metaphor asks us to consider a life in which such experiences do not determine our decisions, but instead sit in our minds as would passengers on a bus.

Accordingly, the bus represents the mind and the passengers symbolize different internal experiences. You are the driver, who can exist separately from the content spewed out by the passengers. For instance, the driver can notice a passenger telling him he is ugly, but the driver does not necessarily have to believe the comment to be true.

The Driver

As the driver, we make important decisions about the speed and direction of the bus; we generally have a sense of where we might like to go and the pace at which we might like to move. Simultaneously, passengers may express opinions loudly and aggressively, while others may sit back quietly. Some passengers may even behave frighteningly by running to the front of the bus and yelling directions at you. 

Impatience may insist that you “HURRY UP!”

Fear may scream, “Turn here! Don’t go there!”

Self-Sabotage may yell, “Turn around! The bus will fail to get through those bumpy, unpaved roads.” 

Depression may convince you to “pull over and stop driving for a while.”

Over time, you start mindlessly adhering to the passengers’ demands. For instance, upon meeting an individual with whom you might develop an intimate partnership, Worthlessness may remind you that “if you turn toward a new relationship, you’ll be rejected, so turn away.” Consequently, low self-worth may lead to mindless choices that end the relationship.

man driving car during golden hour

The Passengers

What often escapes our awareness is that these passengers (i.e., thoughts, feelings, memories, urges, bodily sensations, etc.) cannot actually touch you or the mechanics that move the bus. You are always the driver and they can only be passengers.

They can say that “you’re stupid” or “you will fail,” but they cannot actually stop or redirect the bus. Their words may even bring you to tears or increase your heart rate. You may stop the bus and order the passengers to leave or you may turn around to argue with them. In the end, though, these efforts most often result in you moving nowhere so that you can engage with these troublemakers.”

The Metaphor Overview

The two primary skills this activity illustrates are separation and acceptance. It is important to recognize that you are not your thoughts. They just happen to occur in your mind, and the more you can achieve some distance from them, the easier it will be to disengage and just observe.

Thinking of the unwanted thoughts as bus passengers can help you view them as separate from yourself. Accepting thoughts is simply acknowledging that they are happening. “Right now, I am having a thought that I am not good enough.”

Do not judge or fight the thought, just give it a wave and keep driving toward your goals. Follette and Pistorello (2007) aptly describe just how well the bus driver metaphor can illustrate acceptance, “Acceptance is about driving the bus yourself, turning right or left as you personally choose according to your values, with all your scary passengers along for the ride.”

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Learning How to Listen to Negative Thoughts

Everyone has their own set of bus riders they must deal with. The trick is learning how to listen to what they have to say without arguing or automatically believing them. If you are constantly bickering with your passengers, you can’t focus on driving.

So, how can you start to use the bus driver metaphor to address unwanted thoughts and beliefs? Dr. Ross advises, “A good first step involves identifying the passengers on your bus. Are they emotions, thoughts, memories, images, sayings, bodily reactions, etc.? To what extent do you believe their content and/or behave according to their demands. You could even reread this blog entry and notice if any passengers arise. The next step involves finding ways to recognize these passengers and create enough distance between you and their comments so that you can make decisions without only considering the loud, imposing messages.”

Where to Drive From Here

Unwanted negative thoughts and beliefs can be extremely distressing, and they don’t discriminate. If you find yourself constantly fighting with your own thoughts and finding little relief, the bus driver metaphor and ACT in general may offer some hope.

If you’re looking for further support, our mental health providers and certified health coaches are here for you. Please feel free to reach out if you’d like to learn more about our services, or you can schedule an appointment online today.

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