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How to Deal with Self-Critical Thoughts to Promote Self-Acceptance (Part 3)

By Joe Oliver, PhD, and Richard Bennett, ClinPsyD

Parts One and Two of this Quick Tips series outlined ways to create some distance between clients and their self-critical thoughts by employing a hierarchical distinction between the self and the thoughts that the self experiences. We positioned the client as the thinker of the thoughts, able to notice them and choose how to respond to them. In this way, the therapist can help the client radically change their relationship to their thoughts. Clients can develop the sense that thoughts are separate or distinct from them, and while they cannot choose their thoughts, they can choose how to respond to them. This provides a platform for a client to develop the ability to see their thoughts, negative or otherwise, as just one part of their experience contained and held within them. No one thought defines them. 

This opens up the possibility to contact another aspect of the self, which can be referred to as the observing self. This aspect can be equated with the ‘sky’ in the previous Sky and the Weather metaphor. The observing self has the capacity to notice all aspects of experience, and also choose where to rest attention. This suggests the client can choose not to allow self-critical thoughts to prevent them from engaging in things that matter to them, even if the thoughts tell them they can’t. 

Another metaphor we like to use is that of the client as the captain of a ship. A captain can listen to all the different perspectives that various passengers and crew might have about which way to go. However, at the end of the day, the captain decides the course of the ship. They have the broad vision about the direction, and they get to decide where the ship heads, bringing all the passengers and crew along with them. The passengers or crew might have different ideas—but it is the captain who decides. 

Self-acceptance can be promoted as the client learns to accept painful parts of themselves. These parts don’t need to be eliminated before meaningful action can take place. Paradoxically, accepting self-critical thoughts and feelings becomes a vehicle for purposeful change toward personal values and sources of meaning.  

Catching up on the series? Read parts one and two now.

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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