Have you ever felt like your negative thoughts and emotions control your life? When self-defeating feelings take over, it can feel like monsters are lurking in the shadows, ready to attack you at any moment. But what if I told you that you can use this image of monsters to help you navigate those difficult moments? The monsters on a boat metaphor from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a powerful tool to help you understand and accept your thoughts, feelings and emotions and stay focused on what really matters.
Photo: Cottonbro Studio, Pexels
ACT Metaphor: Monsters on a Boat
Imagine you are on a boat sailing through the ocean. But you’re not alone because, below deck, there is a horde of monsters hiding. These monsters represent your negative thoughts, memories and emotions and appear in many shapes and forms, such as guilt, anger, fear, hopelessness, memories of past failures or worries about the future.
Now as long as your boat stays adrift, the monsters stay hidden below deck, but as soon as you start steering your boat towards land, the creatures appear and threaten to tear you apart. No matter how hard you try to shake them off, the monsters stay with you and control your every move. Any attempts to fight them (i.e. your negative emotions) only make them stronger. And so, to avoid facing the monsters, you strike a deal with them and continue to float aimlessly in the ocean, too scared to sail towards land. The shore in this metaphor represents the life you want to live, your ambitions, goals and dreams.
For a while, this solution seems to be working for you, but as time goes by, you get lonely, restless and bored with your life at sea. As you watch other ships heading towards the shore from a distance, you begin to question your choices and realise that where you truly want to be is on land. The monsters, however, don’t care about your wishes and desires. They want to stay out at sea and will stop at nothing to keep you away from the shore.
Accepting the Monsters
So, what can you do about the monsters on your boat? ACT as a therapy focuses on acceptance and mindfulness to help us live a life that’s in line with our values, so the intention of this exercise is not to get rid of the monsters but instead to learn to live with them. Because no matter how much you may want them to, your monsters won’t disappear. They are a part of you and will stay by your side no matter what direction you choose to take your life.
The solution is as simple as it is powerful: the monsters cannot physically harm you, just as your negative thoughts and emotions cannot hurt you. Although the monsters may seem terrifying and overwhelming, as they’re growling and howling at you, trying their best to scare you, they’re ultimately powerless. They can only control your life as long as you believe in their threats.
Once you recognise that the monsters are merely passengers on your boat, you can shift your relationship with them, learn to coexist, and take back control. Accepting them means acknowledging that negative thoughts and emotions are a normal part of life. It means not trying to fight them or push them away but instead learning to live with them. By recognising the monsters’ presence but refusing to engage with them or letting them control the boat, you’re free to take your ship wherever you like. You can begin to move towards a more fulfilling life, focus on what is truly important to you and make choices that align with your values. And you will notice that the closer you get to land, the less scary your monsters will appear. Some may even stop threatening you entirely as they realise they no longer have a hold on you.
So next time you notice there’s a blind passenger on your boat, note its presence but don’t let it take you off your route. Because thoughts and emotions can only take over our lives if we let them and your demons will lose their power over you once you accept their presence and focus on heading towards your desired destination. Whatever that means to you.
Living with your negative thoughts and feelings
The experience of feeling haunted by negative thoughts and emotions is very common. As an online therapist, I regularly help my counselling clients deal with feelings such as fear, sadness, pain, regret or shame. The monsters on a boat are a useful technique to help individuals understand the nature of their thoughts and recognise that these types of emotions are a natural and inevitable part of the human experience. The exercise encourages people to accept the presence of their negative thoughts and emotions and to focus on navigating their lives despite them. A similar ACT tool I frequently apply in my online counselling sessions, which I introduced in this blog post, is the “Radio Doom & Gloom” metaphor. It can help individuals to reduce the impact of their negative thinking patterns and live a more meaningful life.
If you, too, are struggling with negative thoughts and emotions, consider reaching out to an ACT therapist to learn more about how this type of therapy can help you. With the right tools and strategies, it is possible to live a life that is aligned with your values and goals, even in the face of challenging thoughts and emotions.
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at my blog, where I’m sharing many other tools and exercises from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) and make sure to subscribe to my monthly newsletter, where I regularly introduce more!
Photo: Lance Asper, Unsplash