You Can’t Stop Thinking, But You Can Turn Down The Volume

Distance yourself from problematic thoughts with these 3 timeless metaphors

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” — Orson Scott Card

In one of John F. Kennedy’s most famous speeches, he announced that “America has tossed its cap over the wall of space.”

JFK used this beautiful turn of phrase as a declaration for taking charge of the space race. It stirred Americans, gained support for the space program, and ultimately led his country to be the first to land on the moon.

Presidential speeches are full of metaphors because they can motivate people, boost morale, and serve as a symbol for years to come.

But metaphors have many purposes. They can be used to enhance writing, make persuasive arguments, memorize information, or explain abstract concepts such as suffering, luck, and trust.

“Sadness is like a storm, but every storm runs out of rain.”

“Luck is like a bus. Another one will come, but you need to be ready.”

“If you act like a vault, people will treat you like one.”

Based on my PhD research and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), here are 3 timeless metaphors to help you to distance yourself from problematic thoughts.

1. Passengers on the bus

Visualize yourself driving a big red bus. There are passengers on the bus, and as you drive around, some get on and some get off.

The passengers represent your thoughts. Now imagine yourself talking to them. This is a great way to become more mindful of your thinking, while at the same time, distancing yourself from your thoughts.

What you need to remember is that you are the driver of this bus, the one who calls the shots. The passengers are only temporary. They will come and go.

By doing so, you can take control of the bus — your mind-bus — by saying things such as, “Thank you for your feedback, but this is my bus,” or “Hey, this is your stop, time to get off.”

You can use this technique for any type of negative thinking, but research shows it is particularly effective for improving self-control and resisting urges.

2. Clouds in the sky

Imagine your thoughts as clouds floating through the sky. Sometimes they’re dark and angry, sometimes they’re light and calm. But you are not the clouds. You are the blue sky who notices the clouds, without engaging. You simply observe them until they pass.

This is the practice of self-observation, which means mindfully observing how you think.

Consider this example. If I asked you what you were thinking, you might notice that you’re kicking yourself over a missed opportunity, worrying about money, or calling yourself stupid. The idea is to take a step back and observe these thoughts until they will pass. The good news is — they will pass. Everything passes, good and bad.

When you practice this regularly, you will create a sense of detachment when challenging thoughts arise. More and more, you’ll realise you are not your thoughts, and instead of feeling overwhelmed, there will be a space, and you will be able to respond in a rational manner.

3. First and second darts

First darts are inescapable pains that life throws at us. It might be a tough breakup, a lost opportunity, or the death of a loved one. These unavoidable pains are the essence of human existence, and if you live and love, some of these will fall on your doorstep.

In reality, however, most of our problems are not caused by first darts. They are caused by how we respond to them.

Second darts are the darts we throw at ourselves. These are our reactions to first darts, and this is the source of much of our suffering.

These second dart reactions are more common than you think.

How often have you argued with your boss, before you’ve even gotten out of the shower?

How many times have you brought the morning traffic into work?

How often have you brought work frustrations home for dinner?

This is the essence of suffering, secondary reactions to painful events, which are often more destructive than the original experience.

Next time you recognise first darts, instead of resisting them, you should accept them completely. If you do get stuck in traffic, or frustrated in work, accept it and move on, because it’s our resistance to pain that causes our suffering.

Take away message

Metaphors have the power to persuade the masses, motivate countries, and help writers to create beautiful prose.

By holding the most truth in the least amount of space, they can also help people to cope with abstract psychological concepts such as problematic thinking.

Next time your mind is busy, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed. You could kick those troublesome passengers off the bus. You could observe those dark angry clouds as they float by — without engaging. Or you could accept those first darts before they turn into suffering.

You can’t stop thinking, no matter how hard you try, but you can distance yourself from problematic thoughts — then they won’t feel so loud.

What would you do if you had a second chance at life? Having escaped from the depths of heroin addiction, I decided to devour every second of it. Then I decided to write a book about it. Bonus Time: A true story of surviving the worst and discovering the magic of every moment. Order a copy here.



  1. Lucy

    Very helpful, respectful and kind tone for an audience “dying of thirst” in a desert of indifference

  2. James

    I couldn’t follow all of this mumbo jumbo to be honest. I can’t see the difference in thinking about a thought and observing it. There is no difference really. Either way you’re paying attention to the thought which only serves to further embed it into your mind and make you think of it even more. Metaphors don’t work on me. They never have. I’ve always seen them as convoluted ways of saying something that could be easier said in plainspeak. Nonsense phrases people say to sound enlightened when they aren’t. It just sugar coats the harsh realities of life with a candy shell. The best course of action is always to distract yourself when you start to think. Less thinking means better chance of being at least blissfully ignorant, if not happy.

    • Rita Harrod

      Dear James, just the sort of thing my husband would have said.
      Thank you for posting a comment as I can honestly answer and say Yes it is wonderful to be an observer of your thoughts, with practice it feels liberating to sit and watch them, my thoughts are definitely not who I am, I choose to be the observer.
      Sounds complicated, isn’t really,
      Priceless being able to sit in the joy of life instead of distracting with outside things, always going for the next thing.
      Somethings have to be experienced to be believed and I thank Brian for his ability to get his message out in such a profound way.
      So grateful also to Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wonderful teachings.
      Blessings to all

    • Becky

      Sounds like if you were willing to give it a chance, you might be better off with sensation-focused mediation James. I found meditations that focused on thoughts very difficult (although I can sometimes get into them now), but focusing on bodily sensation (the tingle in your toes, your breathing, pulse, the warmth of your skin, even an itch) is in some ways a form of distraction, but one that brings you into the present moment, gently letting go of thoughts rather than pushing them away. However, to get on with mindfulness you are going to have to suspend the cynicism temporarily to give it a fair chance, even if only for 5 minutes at a time.

    • Company President

      … got it. Please explain the sugar-coating candy-shell business.

  3. Sherry Gant

    Just remember that a thought is just a thought and it will pass if you don’t dwell on it.

  4. Bagdat

    A very useful article! Most recently I have noticed that we ourselves attract good or bad things in our lives depending on our bad or good thoughts respectively. This fact also suggests that while we can manipulate with different circumstances in our lives by setting initial approaches appropriate for our desires or dreams, we also can manipulate with approaches themselves, that is our initial thoughts. So not only can we distance certain undesirable thoughts but replay them in a way more effective for reaching our goals as well! The only things that are required for the successful implementation are optimism (the belief that you MAY succeed and WANTING TO LEARN that it works instead of complaining about failure) and practice.


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