“So how to deal differently with the unruly passengers on your bus? You notice them, thank them for their input, and drive the bus towards your values anyway.” Katie Read
by Katie Read, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
If you’re—well, human—chances are you’ve got a few places in your life where you’re perpetually stuck. These are those habits you just can’t seem to change, or those dreams you haven’t made a start on after all these years.
There is a fantastic metaphor to help unstick, and it’s probably one of the most-used tools to emerge from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT.
This metaphor is called Passengers on the Bus. Let me talk you through it using a totally imaginary client, Katie Smead. Katie obviously has no connection whatsoever to yours truly. None. At all. No, really.
So Katie has always enjoyed creative writing, but she hasn’t done much of it for several years. Why? Her mind happily spits out all the usual reasons. Not enough time, not enough energy, what’s the point anyway, she’ll never be a full-time author, there aren’t enough hours in the day, the closets haven’t been cleaned in ages, she’s not that great of a writer anyway, etc., etc.
So, all of these are thoughts. And in our metaphor, these thoughts are the passengers on the bus of life that Katie is currently driving. All of our buses fill up with passengers over a lifetime. Some are great! Some are happy thoughts, happy memories, the positive parts of our psyches that give us strength through the tough times.
And some, as you might have guessed, are unruly, nasty passengers. These are the passengers who berate us as we drive. They tell us all the things we’re doing wrong, and all the reasons we’ll never succeed when trying something new. Their goal is to keep us driving the same route, never taking a chance or altering the status quo.
So how do we handle these passengers? Well, most of us make a little deal with them. Katie Smead did! She said, “Fine, I will not change. I will not make time for creative writing, if you’ll just sit down and be quiet. Don’t yell in my ear anymore, and I won’t attempt this change.” And so in effect the passengers are driving the bus of Katie’s life, and this makes them happy, so they sit back down.
And most of us let them do this for years. We have a secret contract with all those negative thoughts. I’ll do what you say if you’ll just stay quiet. You can choose which direction my life goes, because that’s easier than listening to you. And so we stop taking chances, stop moving towards our values, and get away from the lives we truly want to live.
So how to deal differently with the unruly passengers on your bus?
You notice them, thank them for their input, and drive the bus towards your values anyway. We will probably never find a switch that makes our brain shut off these unhelpful thoughts for good. The trick is to accept that we have them, but not let them drive our bus. We are in charge of our values. We are in charge of which direction we move. The most successful people do not have an absence of negative thoughts—they have simply learned to notice them gently and move on anyway. They show up at the page, or the painting, or the new job, and don’t let these thoughts determine their ultimate happiness or direction in life.
So, for you, where do the negative thoughts get loudest? Keep in mind, when you’ve lived with them for many years, you often don’t even recognize them as thoughts—they simply sound to you like the truth. “But I’m not a good writer. But I won’t find a better job. But taking that class is a waste of money.” The passenger’s job is to convince you, in louder and louder tones, that they are right and true and you’d better listen to them. Watch the short video at the top of this article and decide—what valued choices are your thoughts keeping you from making?
Katie Read, MFT provides mental health therapy and counseling in Roseville and Granite Bay, CA. She loves working with individuals and couples. Please visit her at www.katiereadtherapy.com.