Therapists are professional listeners, but also active co-authors and story-tellers as clients make meaning from their experiences and internal worlds. Therapy is many things, but at its’ core it is a process of creating a narrative that speaks our truth and acknowledges the pain or suffering in our lives, and at the same time manages to integrate compassion and focuses on the values, relationships, and strengths which define us.
Metaphors are powerful tools in narrative, and therefore in therapy; they provide us with rich, deep layers to understanding our experiences and communicating them to others. Metaphors connect us more fully with our emotions and allow greater interpersonal connection as we share our stories and perspectives. Metaphors add not only language but also real, felt meaning to our experiences when our emotions are difficult to understand or explain with our limited repertoire of feeling words. So it’s no surprise that metaphors play a big part in therapy, and I’ve selected some favorites below:
- Who’s driving the bus? I use this metaphor frequently as a way to get clients to think about having control of a situation, and having their emotions as “passengers” rather than as driving forces in making decisions and navigating challenges. Our nervous system has certain built-in survival mechanisms that will come out as strong reactions, and it can feel like our bus is getting hijacked – anxiety, anger, and avoidance can take the wheel to try to steer us away from danger and/or pain. We feel our bus when we can recognize if an emotion has taken over, and make the choice to take back the wheel. We can be in a place of calm, confident, control of our bus and just notice that there are different emotions present with us.
- The Riptide/Waves of Emotion: I am certainly not the first and won’t be the last to give you a metaphor about emotions relating to waves. We instinctively can connect with this metaphor using the water, we know the feeling of riding waves, and we understand the power of the water to pull us in different directions or to overwhelm us. There is an element of peace and joy in watching the water and riding the waves, and elements of fear, confusion, and loss of control when we are overwhelmed by the water. All of this connects with how we navigate emotions: watching the emotion and learning to surf the waves can be a positive experience, and being engulfed by emotion can be intensely distressing. Mindfulness practice and therapy techniques like cognitive defusion help us to ride the waves rather than get swept up. A riptide is another powerful metaphor using water, for situations with higher distress. When we get caught in a riptide – or a moment of extreme distress – the instinct is to fight against it and resist it and we might panic or feel hopeless when we see that this doesn’t work. Even worse, it can tire us out – which, in an actual riptide, is dangerous, and in an emotional one can learned helplessness. The best thing to do in a riptide is stay calm, identify the direction of the current, and swim diagonally to shore. You free yourself from the danger but not by direct resistance; it requires real awareness because it is not an instinctive reaction to swim diagonally. In emotionally distressing situations, we need to notice where the emotion is coming from, and think about ways to re-ground ourselves rather than just reacting directly to the distress.
- Bicycle Tracks: Dr. Rick Hanson has several books on the neuroscience behind Mindfulness practice, and how to re-wire your brain to be happier and less anxious. He talks about how our patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are like bicycle tracks – when we repeat the same pattern or track repeatedly on a bike, it engraves it a little deeper into the dirt every time. It becomes a defined groove and over time it is much easier to go on the existing track than choose a new one. Our patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors become defined neural pathways in our brains, becoming more and more automatic, and it can feel difficult or clumsy to shift course. Assume that changing patterns or shifting direction will be hard; focus on where you are trying to go in order to motivate the change, and remember that eventually your actions will re-wire a new track in your brain! The track you stop using will eventually fade and those habits or reactions will disappear, and the new way of feeling or interacting will become more and more easy and automatic in time.
- Wearing Blinders: When I work with anxious clients, sometimes I’ll bring up the image of a horse wearing blinders- these little accessories create a narrow field of vision for the horse to focus on and block out other stimuli. While blocking out half our field of vision isn’t a general mode for operating, it is really useful for getting through certain situations. When a horse is going to be somewhere with a lot of stimuli and distractions, the blinders help keep the horse calm and focused on what is directly in front of them: their owner, their food, their path, etc. Since horses can “spook” easily (panic response), keeping them calm this way can be really helpful. Likewise, if I am working with clients who are experiencing anxiety or panic symptoms, or are trying to find grounding as they get through a crisis, it helps to imagine “wearing blinders” and staying focused on the moment right in front of us as a stabilization technique. Focus in on one step at a time, self-care and goal-oriented behavior, until the anxiety is managed enough or the crisis is contained enough to look outward at the bigger picture.
- Same team! I use sports metaphors all the time with clients, there’s a million to pick from ranging from understanding the value of practice before “game time,” to handling failures or increasing competitive edge. But the one that probably comes up the most for me is reminding couples and families that they are on the SAME TEAM!! I have held my arms up and yelled this out in the middle of heated conflicts before and I’m betting that some coaches have had to do the same in a locker room or on a field. The fact is, conflicts and challenges can trigger our survival instincts (our fear, anger, or avoidance) and we can start attacking or defending ourselves from people that are on our team. Keeping the perspective of a team approach and seeing conflicts as a challenging match, or a slump, or an injury for a key player, which you are going through together, not against one another, completely shifts the approach to resolving a conflict.
- The Ball, the Box, and the Button: This metaphor for grief has stuck with me over the years and I share it often with clients. The visual is a ball inside of a box, and the box also contains a button inside that can be pushed by the ball when it bumps into or rolls over it. If the box is a visual container of your experiences, and the ball is your grief, then the ball might take up almost the entire box when you first go through a loss, and the button – your pain – might get triggered very frequently. Over time, the box might get larger as you have more experiences, and the ball might shrink as your grief fades in time. The pain button is still there, but because the ball is no longer filling the box, the button gets hit much less frequently.
Thanks for reading some of my most used metaphors for healing. What are some of your favorites?