The power of metaphor in bringing about therapeutic change

A young adult female came to see me the other day for counselling and her response to my question ‘what brings you along today?’ was powerful. In very few words, she helped me understand quickly what was going on for her and how I might be able to help. She told me she was ‘drowning in a sea of university deadlines’. Her use of metaphors   conjured up a clear picture in my mind of her being pulled under a wave of assignment work and this gave me clues as to the type of help she might need.

Metaphors provide wonderful anchors for exploration of feelings especially in the initial phase of counselling sessions. Clients often find metaphorical language more comfortable than explicitly expressing their feelings and counsellors find metaphors helpful in framing individual suffering in a way that effectively resonates. Metaphors are a great way of exploring and constructing new meaning for clients, helping them to build insight and ultimately facilitate the positive change they want for themselves.

A relatively new and exciting therapy framework, known as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) uniquely relies on the use of metaphor to bring about therapeutic change.  ACT was founded on the concept that pain and suffering is inevitable and engaging in a struggle against it is unproductive. Instead of engaging individuals in thought challenging and modifying thinking patterns (like in cognitive models), ACT encourages individuals to make peace with the pain and detach from it using metaphorical language. The ACT metaphors have been designed to help individuals create images in their mind of their unhelpful thinking habits and through this process of visualization they can heal and become empowered to take action that is consistent with their life’s purpose and goals.

Below are some of the ACT metaphors which are often incorporated into counselling sessions with clients. Many of these can be found in the self-help book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, which offers practical tips and tools that can be integrated into daily living. The Happiness Trap can be read alone or as an adjunct to individual counselling sessions. If you are finding yourself stuck (after reading the book on your own), perhaps seek out an ACT therapist to explain things in more depth and clarify whether this type of therapy is suitable for your needs. Here are some common ACT metaphors that help clients to visualize their suffering and develop insight into the significance of detaching from overwhelming thoughts and worries:

Leaves Floating on a Stream – Clients are invited to imagine themselves sitting by a stream and pulling their worries and thoughts out of their mind and placing them onto leaves floating down the stream and out of sight. This is the alternative to keeping the distressing thoughts and worries inside their heads. By imagining them floating down the stream, clients are able to detach from and de-fuse these thoughts enabling them to be more objective and stay focused on the bigger picture.

Passengers on the Bus – Clients are invited to imagine they are the driver of a bus, with cranky passengers representing all the irrational and negative commentary which side-tracks the driver from his life purpose and goals. The key with this metaphor is to resist listening and getting side-tracked by the passengers (i.e. negative commentary). Instead of stopping the bus or taking the bus in the wrong direction, the driver continues driving towards the goal of living a more fulfilling life, committing themselves to not get side-tracked and manipulated by the behaviour of others.

The Quicksand metaphor – A client is asked to imagine their pain and suffering as if they were struggling to get out of quicksand. The main idea here is – the more you struggle in the quicksand the deeper you sink in. The less you struggle, the more likely you will get out. When you try to stop and resist your negative thoughts and feelings your experience is made worse. In ACT, clients are encouraged to be more accepting of life’s inevitable struggles and figuratively spread out in the quicksand, not resist it. With compassion and curiosity, you can gently lean into the sand and then slowly roll out.

Thought Train – A client is asked to image a train passing by as they want from a nearby bridge, and each train carriage has a worry or negative thought written on the side of it. The idea here is that the client stays on the bridge and watches the train go past rather than getting onto the train i.e. sucked into the negative thoughts and worries. Staying on the bridge helps the client distance themselves from their thoughts, lessening their burden.

A Beach Ball – In ACT, the beach ball metaphor teaches clients that resisting their realities and ignoring their worries and issues is similar to pushing a beach ball into water, and having it pop up when you let go. We can only suppress our thoughts and feelings for so long before they pop up somewhere else. Leaning into have a look at these thoughts will ultimately lead to feeling less distressed when they pop up.

If you or anyone you know would like some more information about the above, please feel free to reach out to one of our friendly counsellors for a confidential discussion.  You can contact us on info@pureinsights.com.au or 1300 796 640

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