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Why metaphors are helpful in therapy

Seeing thoughts as leaves floating on a stream

Metaphors are an excellent way to get a different perspective on our suffering. Us humans tend to live in a world excessively structured by literal language

Verbal constructions of life can even become a veritable substitute for life itself. We often can't distinguish a verbally-based and evaluated world from the world as directly experienced through the senses. Metaphors can help untangle our experience from our thinking about our experience. If you want a nerdish angle on the theory of why this is so, have a google of "relational frame theory".

Try it for yourself. Pick one of the metaphors from below. Reading aloud is recommended. Does it help you to shift perspective?

All are sourced from the classic ACT text:  Hayes, S., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.


The bus each of us is driving is different than the average bus.  It has a steering wheel, but no gas pedal or brakes, and only moves at one speed – the speed of life.  Passengers get on and off the bus all the time, except that once they get on, they may not get off, and may even invite their friends or family on for the ride.  The dilemma for each of us then, is being the driver.  We are always driving the bus, no matter what.  That being the case, we can either stay focused on where we're driving and keep our eyes on the road, or spend our energies trying to make our passengers settle down.  Sometimes passengers can be very unruly, restless, noisy, and disrespectful, which makes it easy to sometimes find ourselves caught up in the struggle to try to get them to behave.  What we come to find though, is that as we struggle with them, we are now no longer paying much attention to where we're headed, and may even get kind of lost for a while before we find our way again.


Imagine that you selected a spot to plant a garden. You worked the soil, planted the seeds, and waited for them to sprout. Meanwhile, you started noticing a spot across the road, which also looked like a good spot – maybe even a better spot. So you pulled up your vegetables and went across the street and planted another garden there. Then you noticed another spot that looked even better. Values are like a spot where you plant a garden. You can grow some things very quickly, but others require time and dedication. The question is, “Do you want to live on lettuce, or do you want to live on something more substantial – potatoes, beets, and the like?” You cant find out how things work in gardens when you have to pull up stakes and start again. Of course, if you stay in the same sport, you’ll start to notice its imperfections. Maybe the ground isn’t quite as level as it looked when you started, or perhaps the water has to be carried for quite a distance. Some things you plant may seem to take forever to come up. It is at times like this that you mind will tell you, “You should have planted elsewhere,” “This will probably never work,” “It was stupid of you to think you could grow anything here,” and so on. The choice to garden here allows you to water and weed and hoe, even when these thoughts and feelings show up.


Suppose you are beginning a journey to a beautiful mountain you can see clearly in the distance. No sooner do you start the hike than you walk right into a swamp that extends as far as you can see in all directions. You say to yourself, “Gee, I didn’t realise that I was going to have to go through a swamp. It’s all smelly, and the mud is all mushy in my shoes. It’s hard to lift my feet out of the muck and put them forward. I’m wet and tired. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this swamp?” When that happens, you have a choice: abandon the journey or enter the swamp. Therapy is like that. Life is like that. We go into the swamp, not because we want to get muddy, but because it stands between us and where we are going.


"Imagine you are going on a journey. Somewhere really special, where you really want to go, somewhere you've wanted to go your whole life. When you get to the train station you see two trains, one is a bit odd looking and strange, some of the seats look a bit hard and overall it looks a bit dirty and uncomfortable. On the next platform, there is a different train; it's a super train. It looks familiar, safe, reliable, the sort of train an accountant or an insurance sales man might prefer. The sign says it has air conditioning, a cinema, and a fancy all you can eat French restaurant that is free. You think, wow! I just have to take this train, I couldn’t possibly make my journey on that other one, no way! So you wait for this 'great' train to get ready to board and the odd looking train goes on its way. And you wait for the safe train some more and another odd train leaves the station, and another. All the while you are waiting for a chance to board this great reliable train so you can take your journey, as yet another odd looking one leaves. But here is the thing. What if the safe train can't ever board, what if it won't ever leave the station. What if you are waiting for the wrong train?"

Alternate close: What about asking a client (or ourselves) to make a choice between two trains ready to leave the here and now station? One is an uncomfortable train and is moving in a valued direction; the other is your luxury, ultra-comfortable train and is moving exactly in the opposite direction. Which one are you going to choose?


You know that horrible feedback screech that a public address system sometimes makes? It happens when a microphone is positioned too close to a speaker. Then when a person on stage makes the least little noise, it goes into the microphone; the sound comes out of the speakers amplified and then back into the mike, a little bit louder than it was the first time it went in, and at the speed of sound and electricity it gets louder and louder until in split seconds it's unbearably loud. Your struggles with your thoughts and emotions are like being caught in the middle of a feedback screech. So what do you do? You do what anyone would. You try to live your life (whisper¬ing) very quietly, always whispering, always tiptoeing around the stage, hoping that if you are very, very quiet there won't be any feedback. (Nor¬mal voice) You keep the noise down in a hundred ways: drugs, alcohol, avoidance, withdrawal, and so on. [Use items that fit the client's situation.] The problem is that this is a terrible way to live, tiptoeing around. You can't really live without making noise. But notice that in this metaphor, it isn't how much noise you make that is the problem. It's the amplifier that's the problem. Our job here is not to help you live your life quietly, free of all emotional discomfort and disturbing thoughts. Our job is to find the amplifier and to take it out of the loop.


The situation you are in seems a bit like this. Imagine that you’re placed in a field, wearing a blindfold, and you’re given a little tool bag to carry. You’re told your job is to run around the field, blindfolded. That is how you’re supposed to live life. And so you do what you are told. Now, unbeknownst to you, in this field there are a number of widely spaced, fairly deep holes. You don’t know that at first – you’re naïve. So you start running around and sooner or later you fall into a large hold. You feel around, and sure enough, you can’t climb out and there are no escape routes you can find. Probably what you would do in such a predicament is take the tool bag you were given and see what is in there; maybe there is something you can use to get out of the hole. Now suppose that the only tool in the bag is a shovel. So you dutifully start digging, but pretty soon you notice that you're not out of the hole. So you try digging faster and faster. But you're still in the hole. So you try big shovelfuls, or little ones, or throwing the dirt far away or not. But still you are in the hole. All this effort and all this work, and oddly enough the hole has just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. Isn't that your experience? So you come to see me thinking, "Maybe he has a really huge shovel-a gold-plated steam shovel." Well, I don't. And even if I did I wouldn't use it, because digging is not a way out of the hole-digging is what makes holes. So maybe the whole agenda is hopeless-you can't dig your way out, that just digs you in.  


Suppose you are beginning a journey to a beautiful mountain you can clearly see in the distance. No sooner do you start the hike than you walk right into a swamp that extends as far as you can see in all directions. You say to yourself, "Gee, I didn't realize that I was going to have go through a swamp. It's all smelly, and the mud is all mushy in my shoes. It's hard to lift my feet out of the muck and put them forward. I'm wet and tired. Why didn't anybody tell me about this swamp?" When that happens, you have a choice: abandon the journey or enter the swamp. Therapy is like that. Life is like that. We go into the swamp, not because we want to get muddy, but because it stands between us and where we are going. 


Imagine that you got a new house and you invited all the neighbours over to a housewarming party. Everyone in the whole neighbourhood is invited-you even put up a sign at the supermarket. So all the neighbours show up, the party's going great, and here comes Joe-the-Bum, who lives behind the supermarket in the trash dumpster. He's stinky and smelly, and you think, "Oh no, why did he show up?" But you did say on the sign, "Everyone's welcome." Can you see that it's possible for you to welcome him, and really, fully, do that without liking that he's here? You can welcome him even though you don't think well of him. You don't have to like him. You don't have to like the way he smells, or his life-style, or his clothing. You may be embarrassed about the way he's dipping into the punch or the fin¬ger sandwiches. Your opinion of him, your evaluation of him, is absolutely distinct from your willingness to have him as a guest in your home. 

You could also decide that even though you said everyone was wel¬come, in reality Joe is not welcome. But as soon as you do that, the party changes. Now you have to be at the front of the house, guarding the door so he can't come back in. Or if you say, "OK, you're welcome," but you don't really mean it, you only mean that he's welcome as long as he stays in the kitchen and doesn't mingle with the other guests, then you're going to have to be constantly making him do that and your whole party will be about that. Meanwhile, life's going on, the party's going on, and you're off guarding the bum. It's just not life enhancing. It's not much like a party. It's a lot of work. What the metaphor is about, of course, is all the feelings and memories and thoughts that show up that you don't like; they're just more bums at the door. The issue is the posture you take in regard to your own stuff. Are the bums welcome? Can you choose to welcome them in, even though you don't like the fact that they came? If not, what's the party going to be like? 


Suppose you go skiing. You take a lift to the top of a hill, and you are just about to ski down the hill when a man comes along and asks where you are going. "I'm going to the lodge at the bottom," you reply. He says, "I can help you with that," and promptly grabs you, throws you into a helicopter, flies you to the lodge, and then disappears. So you look around kind of dazed, take a lift to the top of the hill, and you are just about to ski down it when that same man grabs you, throws you into a helicopter, and flies you to the lodge. You’d be upset, no? Skiing is not just the goal of getting to the lodge, because any number of I activities can accomplish that for us. Skiing is how we are going to get there. Yet notice that getting to the lodge is important because it allows us to do the process of skiing in a direction. If I tried to ski uphill instead of down, it wouldn’t work. Valuing down over up is necessary in downhill skiing. There is a way to say this: Outcome is the process through which process can become the outcome. We need goals, but we need to hold them lightly so that the real point of living and having goals can emerge. 


Suppose you are taking a hike in the mountains. You know how mountain trails are constructed, especially if the slopes are steep. They wind back and forth; often they have "switchbacks," which make you literally walk back and forth, and sometimes a trail will even drop back to below a level you had reached earlier. If I asked you at a number of points on such a trail to evaluate how well you are accomplishing your goal of reaching the moun¬taintop, I would hear a different story every time. If you were in switchback mode, you would probably tell me that things weren't going well, that you were never going to reach the top. If you were in a stretch of open territory where you could see the mountaintop and the path leading up to it, you would probably tell me things were going very well. Now imagine that we are across the valley with binoculars, looking at people hiking on this trail. If we were asked how they were doing, we would have a positive progress report every time. We would be able to see that the overall direction of the trail, not what it looks like at a given moment, is the key to progress. We would see that following this crazy, winding trail is exactly what leads to the top.


Ask whether the client carries keys and whether you can borrow them. Put the keys on the table and say, "OK, suppose these represent the things you've been avoiding. See this key here? That is your anxiety. See this key, that is your anger at your mother." (Continue fitting major issues to the cli¬ent's keys.) The keys are then placed in front of the client, and the client is asked, "What are you going to do with the keys?" If the client says "Leave them behind," say, "Except that two things happen .. First, you find that instead of leaving them behind, you keep coming back to make sure they are left behind, so then you can't go. And second, it is hard to live life without your keys. Some doors won't open without them. So what are you going to do with your keys?" The process continues, waiting for the client to do something. Most clients are a bit uncomfortable about actually pick¬ing them up. For one thing, it seems silly (which in itself is another "key"), and for another, the keys are symbols of "bad" things. In that context, actually picking them up is a step forward, and the therapist should keep presenting the keys until they are picked up, without ordering them to be picked up. If the client says, "I would feel silly picking them up," or "What do I need to do?" point to a key and say, "That feeling? That's this one here. So what are you going to do with the keys?" When they are finally picked up, say something like, "OK. Now the question is, where will you go? And notice that there isn't anywhere you can't go with them." Also note that other keys will keep showing up-that is, answering the question affirmatively now does not mean that the same questions won't be asked over and over again by life. The client should also be asked in the natural environment to think about letting go of avoidance of difficult emotions, thoughts, and so on, every time he or she touches, carries, or uses the keys. Suggest that when the keys are used that the client also affirmatively choose to carry his or her experiential "keys."


The situation you’re in is like being in a tug-of-war with a monster. It is big, ugly, and very strong. In between you and the monster is a pit, and so far as you can tell it is bottomless. If you lose this tug-of-war, you will fall into this pit and will be destroyed. So you pull and pull, but the harder you pull, the harder the monster pulls, and you edge closer and closer to the pit. The hardest thing to see is that our job is not to win the tug-of-war…. Our job is to drop the rope.


Acceptance involves moving towards the pain, rather than away from it; towards the emotions, thoughts and feelings we dislike. Suppose you were caught in quicksand. Naturally, you’d try to get out. But if you try to walk, jump, climb or run, you just sink deeper, because you end up trying to push down on the sand. If you struggle, wiggle, push with your hands, or crawl, you sink in deeper. Often as people sink, they get panicky and start flailing about and down they go. In quicksand, the only thing to do is to create as much surface area as possible: to lay out on the quicksand, getting in full contact with what you’ve been struggling with, but without more struggle…..


Suppose I had you hooked up to the best polygraph machine that’s ever been built. This is the perfect machine, the most sensitive ever made. When you are all wired up to it, there is no way you can be aroused or anxious without the machine’s knowing it. So I tell you that you have a very simple task here: All you have to do is stay relaxed. If you get the least bit anxious however, I will know it. I know you want to try hard, but I want to give you an extra incentive, so I also have a .44 Magnum, which I will hold to your head. If you just stay relaxed, I won’t blow your brains out, but if you get nervous (and I’ll know it because you’re wired up to this perfect machine), I’m going to kill you. So, just relax!.... What do you think would happen?.... Guess what you’d get?.... The tiniest bit of anxiety would be terrifying. You’d naturally be saying, “Oh, my gosh! I’m getting anxious! Here it comes!” BAMM! How would it work otherwise?


It’s as if you need a place to sit, and so you began describing a chair. Let’s say you gave a really detailed description of a chair. It’s a grey chair, and it has a metal frame, and it’s covered in fabric, and it’s a very sturdy chair. OK. Now can you sit in that description?

Well, no.

Hmmmm. Maybe the description wasn’t detailed enough. What if I were able to describe the chair all the way down to the atomic level. Then could you sit in the description?


Here’s the thing, and check your own experience: Hasn’t you mind been telling you things like “The world is this way, and that way and your problem is this and that, etc”? Describe, describe. Evaluate, evaluate. And all the while you’re getting tired. You need a place to sit. And your mind keeps handing you ever more elaborate descriptions of chairs. Then it says to you, “Have a seat.” Descriptions are find, but what we are looking for here is an experience, not a description of an experience. Minds cant deliver experience, they can only blab to us about our experience elsewhere. So we’ll let you mind describe away, and in the meantime you and I will look for a place to sit.