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Get to Know your Passengers

I want you to imagine a bus. Your bus can look however your creative little self wants it to. Perhaps it’s a big yellow school bus. Maybe it’s a 21 window VW. Or, it could be a bright red Durango trolley. It might help you to do a little sketch of your bus on a piece of paper. 

Throughout your life, different passengers have boarded your bus.1 These passengers show up as a result of genetics, life experiences, key attachment relationships, and trauma. Each passenger comes with its own narrative; its own set of thoughts and feelings, needs and desires, and core wounds. All passengers are protective in some way, and boarded your bus when they did in an effort to keep you safe.

Imagine that as the bus driver, you’ve been trying to ignore certain passengers. You don’t like them and want them to go away. Have you ever tried ignoring a child trying to get your attention? If you have, you know they get louder and more insistent, demanding your recognition. It’s usually the same with passengers—the more we try to push them away, ignore them, or resist them, the louder they get. 

Have you tried getting rid of certain passengers? As I talked about in my Three Secrets of Self-Confidence blog, a lot of the folks I work with have a pretty loud low self-confidence passenger. They’ve tried and tried to make that passenger go away—through taking on more and more tasks at work, through substances, through online distractions, through exercise or dieting.

Maybe your loud passenger quiets down for a short time, numbed by alcohol or temporarily satiated by praise from your boss. But while the low self-confidence passenger might begrudgingly retreat to the back of the bus for a while, it won’t be long before it is once again demanding your attention. 

(You don’t have to take my word for it…check this out for yourself. What ways have you tried getting rid of one of your passengers? Have you tried distracting yourself, avoiding or withdrawing, overthinking in an attempt to “problem solve” your inner world, using substances, self-harm, or other strategies?)2

Returning to your bus visualization, you can start to sketch a few passengers on board the bus. (It’s totally fine if they’re stick figures.) Once you have your passengers drawn out, you can begin to identify different characteristics of each one. In order to pinpoint a specific passenger, you might look out for:

  • Persistent thinking patterns: These might be constant “not good enough” thoughts, anxious thoughts about the future, or rumination and worry about your work performance or whether or not people like you. 

  • Big emotions: Passengers often have an emotional charge, or an overriding emotional state. So, if you often feel anxious, you can bet that you have a passenger connected to the emotion of anxiety.

  • Body sensations: You can sometimes identify passengers by their corresponding body sensation. Maybe you have persistent tightness in your jaw, or your heart races, or you tense your shoulders up by your ears.

Passengers usually have more than one characteristic, and most are a mix of thought patterns, emotions, and body sensations. For example, an anxious passenger—let’s call her Anxious Annie—has persistent “something bad is going to happen” thoughts. When the Anxious Annie passenger shows up, she comes along with a racing heart and tense shoulders. 

So why is it important to identify and get to know our passengers? While you have to decide for yourself if getting to know your passengers is worth it, here are a couple of reasons I believe this particular undertaking is beneficial:

The first reason is that you’ve tried other strategies to get rid of, suppress, and ignore your passengers, and those strategies haven’t worked very well. The passengers are still around, and still trying to get your attention. 

The second reason is about healing, and the way healing happens relationally. As the driver of the bus, by getting to know your passengers, you’re starting to build a relationship based on curiosity and exploration instead of on rejection and denial. Think about it: if you have a relationship with your shame passenger, your anxiety passenger, your low energy passenger…what might change when those passengers show up?

Because you have an ongoing relationship, when a passenger starts to get loud and act out, you’re able to say “Hey, I see you. I hear you. I get that you’re upset. Let’s talk about it.” This is the foundation for healthy attachment, which starts with being seen, and then being validated for what is seen.3 In the same way you can work towards healthy attachment in your relationships with other people, you can also work towards internal healthy attachment with your passengers. (Ooh, I think I found the topic for my next blog post!)

A bonus reason for getting to know your passengers: Once you do, you can use the energy you've been spending pushing away, silencing, and trying to ignore your passengers, and instead put that energy towards the business of living. With your energy redirected, you’re able to more easily navigate your bus in a valued life direction, and work towards being the type of person you want to be and having the type of life you want to live. 

If you’re willing to spend more time getting to know your passengers, you can ask yourself a few additional questions:

  • Who are your loudest passengers? 

  • Who are your most persistent passengers? 

  • How old is a particular passenger (How long has it been around? What was happening in your life around the time it started showing up?)

  • What would you name your different passengers? You might have an Anxious Annie like I mentioned above, or an Insecure Isaac, or "the big gray blob that hangs out in my right shoulder."

  • What might that passenger need from your most grounded, compassionate self?

Here’s an example of how this could sound: 

One of my passengers says “you don’t have any friends.” When this passenger shows up, I feel tightness around my eyes, like I want to cry, and a heavy feeling in my chest. I imagine this passenger started showing up when I was around 7 and being bullied at school. For now I'm going to call her "Lonely Lisa." I think this passenger probably needs a responsible adult to ask her what’s going on, listen to her, comfort her, and protect her. So the next time I have the “I don’t have friends” thought, I’m going to try talking kindly to myself and doing something comforting.

In Internal Family Systems, the bus driver is akin to the Self (with a capital s). The Self has eight qualities—compassion, curiosity, courage, clarity, creativity, connected, confidence, and calm.In ACT, we call this the “observing self.” It’s the most grounded part of us, the part of us that can take a step back and view our internal world with compassion, curiosity, and flexibility. Getting in touch with our Self can help us to have a more generous, kind, and healthy relationship with our internal world and our passengers, ultimately leading to increased psychological flexibility (another ACT term). When we’re more psychologically flexible, we’re more able to approach life intentionally, and life becomes more rich and meaningful. 

Need help identifying your passengers and driving your life bus in a valued life direction? Schedule your complimentary 15 minute phone consultation with me today to learn more. 


1. “The Passengers on the Bus” metaphor was originally published by Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson in 1999. Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. Guilford Press.

2. This idea comes from Russ Harris’ Join the DOTS worksheet. DOTS is an acronym for distraction, opting out, thinking strategies, and self-harm/substances/other strategies. Copyright Russ Harris 2008. 

3. While I don’t remember the exact source, I have heard attachment framed in this way by Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist and meditation teacher. Her work can be found at, or in her books Radical Acceptance and Radical Compassion

4. Schwartz, R.C. (2019). Introduction to Internal Family Systems. Center for Self Leadership.