The Waves on the Shore Metaphor

· February 6, 2019
The waves on the shore metaphor comes from acceptance and commitment therapy. This tool is helpful for dealing with negative emotions and thoughts.

The waves on the shore metaphor is a tool therapists use in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which belongs to the group of third wave therapies. In a clinical context, this tool is helpful for taking power away from negative emotions and thoughts.

In this article, we’ll discuss the waves on the shore metaphor and how you can apply it in your everyday life. However, to do that you first have to understand exactly what ACT is.

What is ACT?

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a relatively recent therapeutic strategy. It comes from the cognitive-behavioral branch of psychology. As such, it’s based on the idea that our thoughts have enormous power over how we feel. 

Nevertheless, contrary to cognitive-behavioral therapy, ACT doesn’t try to change what goes through your mind. The big idea of this particular strategy is that your thoughts only have as much power as you want to give them.

A woman holding a cloud.

One of the principles of acceptance and commitment therapy is that negative emotions can’t hurt you. ACTs creators believe that they’re simply there. So, if we learn to accept them, we’ll suffer less.

To help patients accept negative thoughts, therapists use techniques that require imagination. One of them is the waves on the shore metaphor.

The waves on the shore metaphor

The purpose of using this metaphor in therapy is to help the patient understand that their thoughts and feelings can’t hurt them. Consequently, it’s very good for people who are suffering from anxiety.

This is the way it works: Imagine a long, white, sandy beach. Waves are constantly crashing onto the shore. Some are small. Others, however, are large and threatening. Whatever their size, though, they all harmlessly disappear when they reach the beach.

A wave on the beach.

Now, imagine someone trying to fight against the waves. It doesn’t make much sense, right? At the end of the day, the water isn’t hurting the beach. The person will just end up frustrated and tired.

As you can probably tell, the beach is you. Just like the shore, you can resist nearly anything that comes your way. The waves represent the thoughts and emotions that can’t harm you.

Yes, some of the waves are scarier than others. They might make you feel momentarily bad. It might even seem like they’re never going to go away. But in the end, all the waves dissolve into the sand, no matter how scary they are.

The goal of the metaphor is to help you consider acceptance as an alternative to needing control.

How to use this tool

According to acceptance and commitment therapy, your mind has two parts. One of them is in charge of thinking and feeling. Your thoughts can seem threatening. However, the other part of your mind, the “observer”, is never harmed.

Your observant mind is like the beach in the metaphor. Thoughts and emotions come and go, but the sand remains. So what’s the point of worrying about them? Why fight against these uncontrolled thoughts and feelings?

The waves on the shore metaphor can help you distance yourself from your mental “creations”. Often, our suffering doesn’t come from what’s actually happening. Instead, it comes from what you’re telling yourself. When you give too much importance to the stories and worries in your head, you’ll just end up unhappy.

You have the power to tell yourself what’s happening. Be an observer, not an interpreter. Your thoughts and emotions only have as much power over you as you give them. In the end, the waves will disappear and the sea will be calm again.

Powers, M. B., Zum Vörde Sive Vörding, M. B., & Emmelkamp, P. M. G. (2009). Acceptance and commitment therapy: A meta-analytic review. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. https://doi.org/10.1159/000190790 Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006