Therapy metaphors use
a story or illustration to see alternative ways of looking at something. Every
culture and religion uses these types of stories, analogies, parables to improve
understanding, make a point more memorable, and help us make positive changes.
The example metaphors
here are to help us see thoughts – their nature and role - in a different
light. Just that alone, seeing thoughts differently, helps to create a space, a
distance, between us and our thoughts, which helps us to stand back a little,
see things a bit more objectively, and make wiser and more helpful decisions
about how to react effectively.
Passengers on the Bus
You can be in the driving seat,
whilst all the passengers (thoughts) are being critical, abusive, intrusive,
distracting, and shouting directions, or sometimes just plain nonsense. You can
allow those passengers to shout and chatter noisily, whilst keeping your
attention focused on the road ahead, heading towards your goal or value.
are like school playgrounds that are surrounded by secure high fences – they
keep children in, and others out. Any bullies in that playground mean that the
other children can’t escape for long. This particular bully uses verbal abuse,
shouting, teasing, and threats (rather than physical violence). The
children are all fenced in together, and ideally, they have just
got to learn to accept and learn to be with each other. So neither can we
escape our thoughts, we cannot stop them, but perhaps
we can learn to live with them by seeing them differently. Along comes bully,
and takes on 3 potential ‘victims’ who all react differently.
Sometimes it feels like we’re
being carried away downstream,
struggling to stay afloat amongst all the mud, filth and debris. That muck
and debris are thoughts, sensations, events, feelings, and that river is our
distress as we drift helplessly downstream. But we can stand on the riverbank,
watching as those thoughts,
events, sensations, feelings go by. You might watch individual items as they
pass – perhaps a thought floating on a leaf, a sensation as a log, event as on
old bicycle. We can stand and watch.
The Beach Ball
to stop thoughts, but that’s impossible. It’s like trying to constantly hold an
enormous inflatable beach ball under the water, but it keeps popping up in front
of our faces. We can allow the ball to float around us, just letting it be. So
rather than stop the thoughts, we can stop fighting them, and let them be,
without reacting to them.
We can sit on the train, watching
the scenery (thoughts, images, sensations) go by, or stand on the platform
watching the thought train pass by – we don’t have to jump on it.
When we get anxious driving
through a tunnel, the best option is to keep going rather than try to escape.
This feeling will pass – there is an end to this tunnel.
Whatever the weather, or whatever
happens on the surface of the mountain – the mountain stands firm, strong,
grounded, permanent. We can be like that mountain, observing thoughts,
feelings, sensations, knowing inner stillness.
The Mind Monsters (Bad Wolf, Good Wolf)
can think of unhelpful or distressing thoughts as the Mind Monsters.
(The Native American
Cherokees use a similar example of a "Bad Wolf, Good Wolf"). Being a
monster, we can’t do much
to stop or fight them –
that just seems futile sometimes. When we do fight, it can help for a
while, but those monsters
may well just keep coming back. Like all monsters though, these Mind
Monsters need food. If we can deprive them of food, then they’ll
eventually go off seeking sustenance elsewhere. These monsters (or 'Bad
Wolf') feed off our reactions – our believing those monsters, reacting to them,
being upset by them,and
acting accordingly and
often automatically and unthinkingly. We can maintain and make worse our
situations just by those reactions. Those vicious cycles of our reactions
mean that the monsters just
keep coming. If we can
stop ‘feeding’ the monsters – they’ll get weaker
and weaker and eventually move away. Others will come, but again we can
choose not to feed them – by changing the way we think and react, and by paying
more attention to the 'Good Wolf' in us.
Bad Wolf, Good
Sometimes it’s useful
to see the bigger picture. When
something is distressing us, we’re so close to it, involved with it, part of it
– it’s really hard to stand back from what’s happening. It’s a bit like Google
Earth – we see the close up view but everything else is hidden from us.
"We can't see the wood for the trees". We can
zoom out our perspective, and see the bigger
picture. Some might describe it as like having a
helicopter view – as the
helicopter takes off, getting higher and higher, it sees a bigger picture, and
is less involved with the detail at ground level.
(diagram: Vivyan 2009)
Background – Monitors & Zoom lenses
presentations using a laptop and projector, there’s an option of what to display
on each monitor. The laptop screen is called Monitor 1, and the projector is
Monitor 2. The graphic in Control Panel is shown as 2 large screens with large
white numbers on them. Click
on Monitor 1 and it enlarges and comes into the foreground, whilst Monitor 2 gets
smaller and further away. Click on Monitor 2 and it zooms up towards you,
getting bigger, whilst Monitor 1 goes away. It can be like that with our
attention. Something grabs our attention – a sound, a sight, a feeling, a
thought – and we zoom in, putting it the foreground of our attention, making it
bigger and more intrusive. Everything else moves away into the background. We
can choose what we put in the foreground – more helpful thoughts, our breath,
imagery, a sensation, what we see, what we hear – so that other more unhelpful
thoughts or sensations go more misty into the background. Like a zoom lens as
it focuses in on something particular, the rest of the picture goes out of
focus, loses clarity. We can zoom in and out, shifting our focus of attention.
The Plane Crash
Not so long ago, a
plane landed seemingly miraculously on the River Hudson.
All 155 people came out alive. What did those 155 people feel as they stood on
dry land and realised what they’d been through? Would they all have had the
same reaction? Absolutely not! Many would have felt very distressed and upset
– they nearly died, and they might decide never to fly again as it’s clearly too
dangerous. Others might been overwhelming relief and happiness at having
survived. Some might decide to live life to the full as a result of their
experience, and be determined to fly even more. There could be 155 different
reactions. Same event, different responses. It’s not the event which causes
our emotions, it’s the meaning we give them. Those who interpreted the event as
terrifyingly dangerous may feel very distressed, and be too anxious to fly
again. Others will feel ecstatic as the meaning they gave the event was that
they were incredibly lucky to survive.
The Traffic Accident
there's a traffic accident, police ask for witnesses to come forward and
describe what happened. They like to have as many witness statements as
possible so that they can build up enough evidence to give them a broader, more
realistic version of events. In a traffic accident, there will be
many different perspectives on what happened. The driver of one car will
have one view, another driver or a passenger will have yet another view.
Each onlooker who witnessed the accident will have a slightly different
perspective, depending on where they were, how
they were, how good a view they had, what else was going on, how much danger
they felt they were in, how the accident affected them, what the accident means
It's the same principle with
everything - each situation, event, conversation, means something different to
all those involved, and also to those not involved.
by Stephen Hayes to introduce clients to Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT).
stuck in quicksand, the immediate impulse is to struggle and fight to get out.
But that’s exactly what you mustn’t do in quicksand – because as you put weight
down on one part of your body (your foot), it goes deeper. So the more you
struggle, the deeper you sink – and the more you struggle. Very much a no-win
situation. With quicksand, there’s only one option for survival. Spread the
weight of your body over a large surface area – lay down. It goes against all
our instincts to lay down and really be with the quicksand, but that’s exactly
what we have to do. So it is with distress. We struggle and fight against it,
but we’ve perhaps never considered just letting it be, and being with the
distressing thoughts and feelings, but if we did, we’d find that we get through
it and survive – more effectively than if we’d fought and struggled.
Imagine you're given a parrot. This parrot is just a parrot - it doesn't have
any knowledge, wisdom or insight. It’s bird-brained after all. It recites
things ‘parrot fashion’ – without any understanding or comprehension. It’s a
However, this particular parrot is a poisoned and poisonous parrot. It's
been specifically trained to be unhelpful to you,
continuously commenting on you and your life, in a way that constantly puts you
down, criticising you. For example, the bus gets stuck in a traffic jam, and
you arrive at work 5 minutes late. The parrot sits there saying: "There you go
again. Late. You just can’t manage to get there on time can you. So stupid.
If you’d left the house and got the earlier bus you’d have arrived with loads of
time to spare and the boss would be happy. But you? No way. Just can’t do
it. Useless. Waste of space. Absolutely pathetic!"
long would you put up with this abuse before throwing a towel over the cage, or
getting rid of the parrot? We can often put up with the thoughts from this
internal bully for far too long.
can learn to use the antidote: notice that ‘parrot’ – and cover the cage.
"There's that parrot again - I don't have to listen to it", and go and do
something else. Put your focus of attention elsewhere. Be persistent
in your practice! Eventually this poisoned parrot will tire of the towel,
tire of you not responding. You'll notice it less and less. It might
just give up its poison as your antidote overcomes it, or perhaps fly off to
wherever poisoned parrots go.
(Vivyan 2009 - adapted from 'The Malevolent
Parrot" Kristina Ivings)
Tug of War with a Monster
Imagine you’re in a tug of war with some huge
anxiety (depression etc) monster. You’ve
got one end of the rope, and the monster has the
other end. In between you, there’s a huge bottomless pit. You’re pulling
backward as hard as you can, but the monster keeps on pulling you ever closer to
the pit. What’s the best thing to do in that situation?
Pulling harder comes naturally, but the harder
you pull, the harder the monster pulls. You’re stuck. What do you need to do?
Dropping the rope means the monster’s still
there, but you’re no longer tied up in a struggle with it. Now you can do
something more useful.
Sometimes life can
feel like we're struggling to drive or cycle up a long and steep hill, in top
gear. The motor just can't get us there. It works really hard, but
it's impossible to get up that steep hill in top gear. We need to change
down a gear or two. Changing down gives the motor more torq, and is much
better able to drive those wheels up that hill, albeit a bit slower.
It can be like that
with life sometimes. We try to struggle on in top gear, expecting so much
of ourselves, of others, of life itself. Sometimes we need to change down
a gear. Slow it down, reduce the struggle. Carry on, but in a lower
We can imagine our mind can be compared to an
internet browser. Our mind’s default mode is like a search engine’s function
which searches the internet looking for information. New and old. Useful and
not useful. Current and out-of-date. Fact and opinion. Once our mind has found
something to latch onto, it can be difficult to let it go – as if it is showing
and staying in our browser window.
Just as with an internet browser though, we don’t
have to keep focusing on things we don’t want or need to focus on. We can
choose to open a new tab or new window, and create a blank page. Our old tabs
or windows can still be there, to come back to anytime, if we so choose.
Opening a new tab or window means we clear out
the clutter, our thought clutter, and start again. This time, we can choose
what to put in this window. What would be helpful? What would be the best
thing to focus on? Or maybe we can just let it stay almost blank – observing
this present moment. Our breath, our supported body, our environment.
Every time you notice your mind is in the default
mode, browsing around and getting caught up in unhelpful or upsetting thought
your mind is in default mode
about opening a new browser window
your focus, e.g. your breathing, the environment, your activity (current or
choose a new activity)
Metaphors for the Mind (Act
made simple, Harris 2009)
A master storyteller
The world’s greatest storyteller – it never
stops! It’s never short of a story to tell, and it wants is for us to listen,
whatever the story is. Like any great storyteller, it’ll say whatever it has to
say to get our attention. Some stories are true: we can call these facts.
Others are opinions, beliefs, ideas, attitudes, assumptions, judgements,
predictions etc. Stories about how we see the world, what we want to do, what
we think is right or wrong, fair or unfair, good or bad.
Just listen now, to the
story your mind is telling you now.
Radio “doom and gloom”
Broadcasting a lot of gloom about the past, doom
about the future, and dissatisfaction about the present.
A spoiled brat
Making all sorts of demands, and throwing
tantrums if it doesn’t get its own way
A reason-giving machine
Churning out a never-ending list of reasons why
you can’t or shouldn’t change
A word machine
Manufacturing a never-ending stream of words
A fascist dictator
Constantly ordering you about and telling you
what you can and can’t do
A judgement factory
Spending all day long making judgements
When we are walking along the
footpath, we tend to look just ahead of us most of the time, with occasional
glances behind us and far ahead. We look behind as we need to know
of anything approaching from behind or to see where we have come from, and look
far ahead to make sure we are heading in the right direction to get to where we
want to go. Most of the time though, we need to know where we are putting
If we were constantly looking
behind us, then we would be walking into obstacles or tripping over. If we
were constantly focused on the far distance, we would slip and trip over
obstacles beneath us.
(It can be fun to act this out!)
So it is with life.
Sometimes we are so focused on our past, that we neglect the present, and wonder
why we keep falling flat on our faces. Or perhaps we are so attentive to
anticipating dangers up ahead, that again, we trip and stumble our way through
Useful to help explain the
basic concept of CBT to children: Same situation, but different emotional
and behavioural responses.
2 children went to a
fair-ground and Tom ran to queue up for the roller-coaster, jumping around and
smiling. Noah walked much more slowly and reluctantly to queue, looking at
Discuss possible emotions
that Tom and Noah might be feeling. Is the roller-coaster making them feel
this way? Is it possible that there is something else that accounts for
the way they feel?
Life is like a Cake
have described life as being like a cake. Many ingredients can go into a
cake, but the finished cake is down to what we do with those ingredients.
We all have different life situations, but we can choose what we do with those
ingredients. Some people have many fantastic ingredients, but the cake is
a flop. Others have few ingredients, or less desirable ingredients, but
are great cooks and make wonderful cakes.
The Newspaper Headline
Most national (and perhaps
local) newspapers have a particular bias, particularly a political bias.
If we read a different newspaper to our usual one, it helps to know that paper's
bias, as it gives us an idea about whether we should trust and believe
everything this paper says.
Most newspapers create
sensational headlines, to catch our attention. Just as our minds do.
Do we believe everything the newspaper says? Do we believe everything our