Using Metaphors for Mental Health

Why use metaphors in therapy?

Metaphors are very powerful healing agents of change in working with my clients. Metaphors evoke images which evoke emotions. They can help clients get “unstuck” from old habits of thinking with a refreshing away to look at things. Metaphors help reframe things in a new light, and lower your clients defenses when they uphold some rigidity in the way they view things.

How are metaphors used?

Whenever I lead group presentations, I make sure I bring in plenty of objects to use that represent positive metaphors. Most of these objects are very small, inexpensive items that people can then take home to remind themselves of the metaphorical lessons to stay positive in their everyday life. They serve as tangible, visual reminders of the positive message of the group or presentation. People even months later have reported that they have kept the items in prominent places like on their desk at work, in their car, or on their kitchen counter to serve as reminders to stay more positive.

What are some examples of metaphors that you use?

I have used rather common metaphorical items in my groups for a couple decades now, and use them increasingly over time. People love them and the creative thinking they stimulate! I have found metaphorical items very powerful and worth the relatively small cash outlay at the dollar store or online sites. There is no shortage of variations of how I use them. As a way of introduction to the general concept, I will include a few variations in this section of how to use metaphorical items in groups, and have additional ones in a later section in the book that includes metaphors and analogies. They are great learning tools and fun too!

I commonly have items and small plastic bags (which I buy inexpensively in bulk online) arranged in a few compartmental displays, as shown below and have people assemble their own metaphorical toolkits based on the theme of group session or presentation. Most times I just call it a “Happiness Toolkit.” They are instructed to assemble their bags with items that represent to them ideas for staying positive, being happy, limiting stress, etc. If it is a relatively small group, I have them make up their bag during the session, and if it is a larger wellness presentation, I tell people to make up a kit when they arrive before the program starts to save time, and in the presentation give them about 5 minutes to share with the table their metaphorical objects.

Many times I also have my own toolkit already prepared, and I elicit responses from the group about what these objects represent. Brainstorming can be fun with a whole group. Another whole group variation is to have people take turns holding up one or two items that they chose, and share with the group the metaphorical meaning it suggests to them. For a team building activity, I might have small groups make up a group bag, and have each group share their items with the larger group.

What are some everyday common metaphors?

We all use metaphors frequently in our daily lives and often don’t even realize we are doing it! So often, figures of speech are metaphors and they are so well entrenched that we sometimes forget that they cannot be taken literally! For example, “painting yourself into a corner” is an expression we all know, but it is not really about using paint! Rather, we are boxing ourselves in (using another metaphor!), or better yet, we are “trapping” ourselves or making us a “prisoner” in the corner. You get the idea of how we use a “boatload” of metaphors all the time, and often do not even realize it since they are now well-accepted figures of speech! Can you think of others? Or do you want to just “cross that bridge” when you come to it?

Use metaphors to your advantage. Many times people bring around an item with them that is metaphorical and soothing for them–in a purse, wallet, and even in your back pocket! If you are having a challenging time, what metaphor would help you? What small article in your back pocket will represent something soothing and helpful as you cope with challenges? What small visual prop symbolizes strength, courage and self-acceptance?

What is my personal favorite metaphor?

As the co-author of The Swiss Cheese Theory of Life, the metaphor of the Swiss as representing life itself provided the foundation of this book with tasty bites of self-help!

What does Swiss Cheese have to do with it? How can thinking Swiss help your clients?

Swiss cheese is a metaphor for life itself. I love the analogy of Swiss Cheese, as it perfectly symbolizes life itself. After all life is not smooth and predictable like American or Cream Cheese. Like the Swiss, our lives have inevitable “holes” and “imperfections,”

and these challenges are what enriches our lives and gives us character and depth. Even the image of the Swiss with all its holes reminds us that we need holes in our lives to make our lives distinctive and flavorful. Interestingly enough, it is a fact that the bigger the holes of the Swiss, the sweeter and more distinctive the cheese. What an analogy to our lives! We develop resiliency by overcoming challenges and obstacles. By moving through life’s holes rather than getting stuck in them, we become stronger. By embracing life’s holes, we make peace with the fact that life has its share of stresses, disappointments and setbacks, and it was never meant to be predictable, smooth and fair. Life misfortune and even trauma is not reserved for only the bad eggs in society.

What are other common metaphors?

I love the metaphor of the caterpillar shedding its own discarded, shriveled skin, incubating in a cocoon, to emerge as a beautiful and colorful butterfly. Like so many of our clients, as they grow and change through therapy they can emerge like butterflies and actually their souls can take wing and soar! The sunflower is another personal favorite example of how growing toward the sunny “light” and moving towards optimistic and sunny ways of thinking can make you one stronger and stand taller! Tall and proud, emanating with brightness and beauty!

For various free downloadable therapy handouts and worksheets, click here.