April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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What If It’s Just a Thought?

I remember the day in graduate school when I learned that metaphors were actually a therapeutic tool. I’m a metaphor gal, always have been; I find them extremely helpful when trying to convey a message or point. When I learned that they are an element of psycho-dynamic therapy, I felt not only excited—but validated in my clinical instincts.

There is a famous ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) metaphor about demons on a boat; the mashal, if you will, is that you are the captain of a boat trying to get to your destination—an island oasis. But once you begin to steer the helm, demons emerge from below deck. So you pause. And each time you try again, they reemerge, coming close to you but never touching you, the fear preventing you from reaching your goal. You come to realize that despite their gruesome appearance, these demons cannot actually harm you, and then you are able to continue onward, finally getting to that idyllic island. The nimshal, then, or meaning of the metaphor, is that while you are trying to reach a goal, thoughts may emerge and fill you with fear, doubt or pain. But these thoughts cannot truly hurt you—they are just thoughts.

When explaining this metaphor to clients they tend to do what my mother warns against, and “pick apart the mashal.” “Demons? Really?” And so I turned on my psycho-dynamic therapy brain and came up with my own version, in line with the ACT message: You are driving down a highway and you know that the only way to reach your destination is by continuing straight on the path. But as you’re driving you notice blaring signs encouraging you to turn right or left, tempting you with road stops and alternative routes. But you know, in your core, that you need to continue onward. These signs on the road are not actual signs for your life—they may pop up, but need not change your direction.

Making changes or healing is typically extremely painful. It is easier to want to change direction from the path toward progress or give in to a plan that would keep you stuck. If we can view thoughts as being just thoughts, there is space to challenge them. Most thoughts come up for a reason—perhaps as a means of avoidance, denial, escape, fantasy or comfort. But having thoughts does not mean that one needs to change direction. For example, if someone has a thought of reaching out to someone from a previous relationship, this does not mean that the individual belongs with that former partner or should even make the call. It can just be a thought that pops up. It can be analyzed, sure, or the person can acknowledge the thought and then move on, knowing that it is acting like that sign on the highway but need not change the direction.

I regularly check in with clients when they express a statement that perhaps is risky or strays from their usual thinking. We discuss whether there is intent or if this is just something that popped up.

I wonder, regularly, how our community might be if we treated thoughts about our bodies as just thoughts. If we were to have a thought or judgment about our bodies as determinants of worth and then recognize, “This is a thought that comes from the influence of society and diet culture! I don’t want to waste my time trying to change myself when I can accept who I am!” and then just move on. People often ask me what being recovered feels like, in reference to body image. And that’s how I would describe it: Any thoughts that come up surrounding my body, shape, size and appearance are just thoughts, and I acknowledge that I wasn’t born thinking them and I’ve been influenced by social media, culture, the billion-dollar diet industry and so much more. And it takes up no further space in my mind or life.

Imagine if instead of pursuing the exit ramp, promising a life where you will feel more fulfilled if you were thinner, you stayed on the course of tolerating, accepting and eventually loving yourself as you are because of who you are, and not related to your size. I understand this sounds impossible and meaningless to many. It is not. I say this as a human, eating disorder therapist and yes, recovered person: You can get there. I’ve worked with and met countless individuals of all shapes and sizes who live rich, meaningful lives unattached to appearance or counting or measuring or cutting out or bingeing or compensating for food. There is so much possibility for all of us if we begin to consider this as a real option.

So notice those demons or road signs, whichever metaphor speaks to you. You can be curious about them. You can assess which thoughts are actually coming from your healthy self or values— and which thoughts are intrusive or non-compassionate. Notice them. And dismiss those judgmental or harmful thoughts, recognizing them simply as thoughts and see how you feel when you do. I believe you can ultimately reach that island, but it must start with this being a destination.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Zucker is an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a metro New York consultant at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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