The weird, wonderful way in which Nelson Mandela, Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog can protect your mental health

Sometimes it's not easy to disentangle yourself from difficult thoughts. This fun, playful technique can help you step back, gain perspective and let go of harsh self-criticisms.

Right now, you’re probably hoping this isn’t just some horrible piece of click-bait or the random ravings of some lunatic who has hacked the Mindarma account. So let me assure you, while this idea may sound ridiculous, it is based on an actual psychological therapy.

No, you won’t have to magically conjure the wisdom of Nelson Mandela. You won’t have to become like a frog who balances sensitivity with a deep determination that the show must go on. You won’t have to pretend that you’re Batman/Bruce Wayne and that Michael Caine is your caring butler, who is always on hand to serve you crumpets and mend your broken psyche. All you actually have to do is mimic one of their voices (as badly as you like).

Let me explain.

Each day your brain spits out thousands and thousands of thoughts. Not all of these are important. Not all of these are useful. Not all of these are very nice. In fact, there’s a good chance your brain comes up with a lot of thoughts which are downright mean.

How you handle these difficult thoughts can have a large impact on your wellbeing. Let’s imagine that your brain is giving you the message “you’re not smart enough.” Here are a few different ways you could respond.

Option A. Believe the thought
You could easily just accept that thought. You could buy into, believe it and have it become part of the story of who you are.  You could pick it up and put it on top of all those other nasty, unhelpful thoughts which you may have come to believe. Just stack it there alongside “I am not thin enough, I am not rich enough, I am not confident enough and I am a complete imposter.” Needless to say, taking this option isn’t very compassionate and won’t have a very positive effect on your self-worth.

Option B. Ignore the thought
While this option sounds sensible, it has one big, fatal flaw – that reactive part of your brain really hates being ignored. When its message doesn’t get through, it will just become louder, more urgent and more persistent. Trying really, really hard to ignore a thought will not make it go away.

Option C. Fight the thought
While your reactive mind will never back down from a fight, it is basically fighting itself, which is rather ridiculous and a gigantic waste of mental energy. Last time I tried this tactic it went something like this:

“You’re not smart enough.”
“I am actually super-clever.”
“No, you’re not. You’re dumb. Remember that time you attempted to balance a hammer on your nose? That didn’t end well, did it?
“I am smart. I could probably do a sudoku if I could be bothered.”
“Believe me. You’re not that smart…if you were smart you would have bought a house before they cost a bazillion dollars.”
“I am almost as smart as Steven Hawking.”
“Stephen Hawking spells his name with a ‘PH’, not with a ‘V’. If you had any brains you would know that, you stupid imbecile.”
“You are my brain, so you’re the imbecile.”
“No, you are.”
“No, you are.”

The battle inside your head can rage endlessly. Attempting to be super-positive at all times simply won’t protect you from those negative thoughts which inevitably pop up. The more you battle the thought, the more power it will have over you and the more exhausted you’ll feel.

Option D. Play with the thought
While options A, B and C are all clearly terrible, they are what most of us do, most of the time. But this is just a thought! You don’t have to believe it, ignore it or fight it. Why not just have some fun with the thing?
Next time you hear that little voice say “you’re not smart enough” or “you’re not thin enough” try giving that thought a different voice. Maybe it’s the Michael Caine’s distinctive cockney accent or the breathless high-pitched strains of Kermit which work best for you. Personally, I always find it amusing to be fat-shamed by Nelson Mandela. Having the great man return from the dead to tell me I’m pudgy, always seems beautifully ridiculous.

The silliness serves an important purpose. It allows me to acknowledge the thought but also to disentangle myself from it. Scientists will tell me that this is because I’m now activating the perspective taking power of my frontal lobes. Quickly, I realise that this thought isn’t wise or important or who I am. It’s just something silly my brain came up with. Suddenly I am seeing the big picture.

After practising my Nelson Mandela impersonation on a thought, I am usually able to let it go with a smile. While Nelson often visits me a few times in a day, I never tire of his voice, even when he is telling me “You are so weak. You cannot resist the buttery goodness of shortbread and now you are getting man boobs.”

When you start to play with your thoughts in this way, you will probably become aware of just how harsh and persistent your inner critic can be. But remember, each thought is just a thought. With a little playfulness, a little self-compassion and the voice of your favourite celebrity, you can deal with them far more successfully.

Sure, it sounds silly, but give it a try. Choose whatever voice you like to deliver this cruel inner dialogue. Favourite female voices include those of Adele, Barbara Streisand, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Latifah, Kim Kardashian, Dame Judy Dench, Marge Simpson and Miss Piggy. Among the favourite males to imitate are Steve Irwin, Sir David Attenborough, Billy Connolly, Homer Simpson, Darth Vader and Yoda.