The beach ball metaphor is useful for regulating negative emotions, such as anxiety. There are many different explanations of this analogy but this is one we like to use for our coaching clients as a resource to create autonomy and self-support. This exercise can help anyone understand and internalize the idea that hiding what’s bothering or worrying you is harmful.
It’s a visualization strategy that also involves a bit of creativity. This is because everyone deals with things differently, and this exercise highlights that fact.
Imagine a fully inflated beach ball in a pool. Does it take effort to hold a beach ball under water? Yes. What happens if you let it go? It pops straight out of the water! The bigger the ball, the further you’re holding it under, the bigger the splash when it pops up.
When we are trying to deny or repress our negative thoughts, experiences and emotions, it’s like holding a beach ball under water. It takes effort and energy.
Every time we replay a memory or have a habitual negative thought, we’re adding air to that beach ball. We’re stuck—we have to keep using our energy to hold that beach ball down, because if we let go of the beach ball it will pop up into view where everyone can see it. Worst of all, we’ll have to face it. And we definitely don’t want to do that.
That energy can be better spent enjoying our life, but first we have to let that beach ball come to the surface—and let the air out.
In your mind, visualize the following situation…
You’re on the beach. It’s a perfect sunny day. Every part of this perfect scene is saturated with light. However, you don’t feel well. You’re anxious and your emotions are all over the place. They’re jumbled together, swirling around in an almost painful way. You feel scared, ashamed, anxious, and angry or any other combination of feelings.
The entirety of your emotional universe is contained in a beach ball. This object symbolizes all the emotions you’re feeling and any that you haven’t acknowledged as well. They’re bothering you so much that all you want to do is get rid of them. So what do you do? You walk out on the beach and try to sink the ball.
Visualize this scenario in detail. Imagine yourself trying to sink that beach ball. You don’t want anyone to see or notice it. You just want to make it disappear forever. You’d like the ocean current to sweep it away, never to be seen again. But every time you push it under, it pops up to the surface again. In fact, the more you try to sink it, the harder it pops back up. It might even hit you on its way back out of the water and knock you off balance. You will notice how difficult it is just to hold it under the water.
The most appropriate response is to stop trying to sink the ball. Stop wasting your energy on an impossible and unhealthy task. Hiding your emotions simply doesn’t work. Trying to force them down only enhances the problem.
Instead, take the ball, sit calmly on the beach, and deflate it. Let all the air out. Once you do that, you’ll feel so much better. You’ll feel relieved. However, to do that, you need to know where the valve is.
Here, the beach ball metaphor helps each individual find their unique strategy to get rid of their anxiety, fear, and shame. Note, all emotions and feelings are NORMAL. It is when they begin to overwhelm or you cannot stop fixating on the challenge, concern or problem, that we encourage finding the “mechanism” that can help you understand why you feel the way you feel will make it easier to free yourself from those emotions. Working with a coach is an ideal way to explore this as well, but you cannot just call up your coach and have an impromptu session.
Although this isn’t easy, this metaphor serves to remind you that trying to bottle up your emotions is like trying to keep a beach ball underwater. It simply doesn’t work. The healthy approach, instead, is accepting, understanding, and letting go of your emotions.
I also like to finish this exercise with the Self-Validation Self-Compassion exercise where I have my clients complete this sentence five times, choosing a different answer each time. Then I follow up on a self-check on where they are with their feelings.
“It makes sense I feel this way because………… “