Quick Tips for Therapists

How to Deal with Self-Critical Thoughts to Promote Self-Acceptance (Part 2)

By Joe Oliver, PhD, and Richard Bennett, ClinPsyD 

When trying to loosen the attachment between a client and their self-critical thoughts, it can help to build a hierarchical distinction in addition to the simple discrimination we outlined in Part One. Simply put, this means helping the client to position their sense of self as containing whatever the difficult thought or emotion is. This helps them move to a perspective of observing whatever is showing up as one part of them, contained within their larger self. For example, “I am noticing that I am having the thought, ‘I’m not good enough,’” and, “this is just one part of my experience.” If your client can notice that the thought is only part of their experience, it allows for other, more flexible responses to arise. As a result, they can they increase their ability to choose how to respond to it. 

Finding a metaphor to illustrate the concept of an unhelpful thought being as one part contained within a larger whole can be useful to convey the principles outlined above. Metaphor allows a therapist to take information or knowledge from a concrete or known concept and transfer it across to something less known or abstract. In this way, complex ideas such as the relationship between the self and thoughts can be more easily conveyed and understood. 

Metaphors such as a fruit bowl containing a variety of pieces of fruit, or a house comprising all the rooms, or a chessboard holding all the pieces can all offer this perspective. A favorite of ours is the Sky and the Weather metaphor, coming from the saying, “You are the sky. Everything else is the weather.” This refers to the transcendent nature of the sky in relation to the weather. All the weather that has ever happened or will happen is contained by the sky, and no matter how big, violent, or dramatic it is, the weather can do no harm to the sky. The metaphor helps to convey the idea that the self is the context for the thoughts about the self, but that the self is bigger than any such thoughts or other experiences

Catching up on the series? Read part one here

Joe Oliver, PhD, is a consultant clinical psychologist and joint director of the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for psychosis postgraduate diploma program at University College London. He also works within a North London National Health Service Trust, developing training and delivering interventions for people with psychosis. He is founder of Contextual Consulting, a London-based consultancy offering acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)-focused training, supervision, and psychological therapy. Joe is an Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) peer-reviewed ACT trainer, and regularly delivers ACT teaching and training in the UK and internationally. He is coeditor of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness for Psychosis, and coauthor of ACTivate Your Life and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Richard Bennett, ClinPsyD, works as a clinical psychologist and cognitive behavioral psychotherapist. He lectures at the Centre for Applied Psychology at the University of Birmingham, where he leads the postgraduate diploma program in CBT. He worked in adult and forensic mental health services in the National Health Service for over twenty years before setting up Think Psychology, an independent psychology practice offering therapy, supervision, and training. Richard is an active member of ACBS and the British Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP). He is recognized as a BABCP-accredited psychotherapist, supervisor, and trainer; and an ACBS peer-reviewed ACT trainer. He coedited Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy in Sport and Exercise, and is coauthor of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

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Quick Tips for Therapists