We all know the nagging thoughts in our head that keep telling us that we can’t do certain things, that nobody loves us, or that we’re just not good enough. Today, I would like to introduce you to one of my favourite tools from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which is used to understand and manage unwanted thoughts and feelings: The “Doom & Gloom” radio metaphor. I first heard of this metaphor during a professional training by Russ Harris, physician and author of The Happiness Trap. Russ Harris is a leading contributor to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and I frequently share his videos with my clients and my readers as well.
Photo: Jorge Fernandez, Unsplash
Before we get to the metaphor itself, let’s start with some background information on how our minds work. Have you ever tried to pay attention to your automatic thoughts and feelings? Those that come up without you having to do anything about it? Let’s say someone criticises you or you make a mistake at work? What’s your typical automatic thought? And what have you tried doing about it?
If you are anything like myself and most of my clients, you have probably spent a severe amount of time and energy trying to push those thoughts and feelings away, to argue with them or prove them wrong. You might also have tried some positive thinking, maybe even written a few inspirational quotes on your mirror or phone and tried to remind yourself daily of how amazing you are and how you can do this. Let me guess? It didn’t work, did it? No matter how much you try to push those thoughts away, no matter how much you try to tell yourself that you are loved, those nagging thoughts keep coming back.
Our automatic thoughts and emotional responses are outside of our control, yet many of us spend significant mental energy attempting to change them or push them away. We believe the voices in our heads so much that we become hooked to them, believing them to be true simply because they are there.
So, what should we do? Instead of spending all that energy debating our thoughts or trying to avoid them, we can learn to unhook ourselves from unhelpful thoughts through a skill called cognitive defusion.
Defusion is the process of creating distance between us and our feelings and thoughts to minimise the hold they have over us. The ACT “Doom & Gloom” radio metaphor relates to defusion and helps to explain how defusion skills, like the “Hands & Thoughts” exercise I posted about recently, work.
Welcome to “Radio Doom & Gloom”
Imagine for a moment that the negative thoughts you keep having are like a radio station that’s always playing in the background. Unfortunately, it tends to be the “Doom and Gloom Show” – reminding us about things that went wrong in the past, bad things that might happen in the future and all the things that are not as they should be in our life at the moment.
The problem with this radio station is that we can’t just switch it off. Perhaps we manage to mute it temporarily with drugs and alcohol, but the “Doom and Gloom Show” will keep on playing. If you’ve ever actively tried to ignore a radio playing in the background, you’ll understand how difficult it is. The very act of trying to ignore it means we are, in some way, focused on it and thus less able to focus on the things we actually want to be doing.
Equally, trying to apply “positive thinking” strategies can be like turning on a second radio. It will still be tough to focus on what you want to be doing when there are two radio stations simultaneously playing in the background.
I bet that you’ve also experienced times when there’s been a radio playing in the background that you simply didn’t notice because you were so involved with what you were doing. Perhaps you were reading a book that was so interesting that it took your full attention, so the radio just became background noise that you paid no attention to. This is exactly what we’re trying to achieve when practising our defusion skills.
Acknowledging your thoughts and thanking your mind
So, how can you use “Radio Doom & Gloom” to deal with unhelpful thoughts and feelings?
Once a gloomy thought pops into your head, rather than focus on it, simply acknowledge its presence. Recognise the “Doom & Gloom Show” is playing again, notice what you’re hearing/feeling (e.g. self-doubt or judging), thank your mind, and then return your attention to whatever you’re doing. Let the thought fade into background noise. Don’t waste any energy fighting your thoughts or pushing them away. Instead, simply name them (“Oh, here’s Radio Doom & Gloom again!”), let them pass like a cloud in the sky, and move on to doing the things that help you create a full and meaningful life.
I frequently use this metaphor with my clients during online counselling sessions to help them understand and manage unwanted thoughts and feelings. But now I would love to hear from you! Does this metaphor and process of handling negative thoughts and feelings make sense to you? What do you notice when you focus on your own radio station, and have you tried unhooking from it?
Photo by Nacho Carretero Molero, Unsplash