In psychotherapy, it is very common to use metaphors to help patients connect with and better understand their problem. Telling simple stories helps with understanding and empathy. In concrete terms, this means that the metaphors of acceptance and commitment therapy are a valuable tool for therapists.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is based on two fundamental principles:
So the goal is not to avoid suffering or pain, but to accept it. That does not mean that the person should resign themselves to pain and suffering. Rather, it means that you are personally committed to your goals and try to achieve them, despite the difficulties you may encounter along the way. That is why activation and action are particularly valuable.
In this sense, metaphors are very useful, as they tell a story that the patient can identify with. Of course, it is crucial to know which metaphor to use so that the therapist can offer a solution that aligns with the patient’s values.
An effective metaphor
Metaphors used in acceptance and commitment therapy can adapt to different types of problems. Most importantly, the patient finds them helpful and can facilitate the necessary therapeutic changes.
The metaphor should be effective, not just tell a story that has nothing to do with the patient. Therefore, the metaphor must meet the following criteria:
- The metaphor should correspond to the patient’s level of development. The patient must understand the metaphor. It must relate to the patient’s direct experience, or to things commonly known to their social group and age (McCurry and Hayes, 1992).
- There should be a clear match between the person’s problem and the story.
- The metaphor should be action-oriented. It should somehow outline the steps the patient should take in real life to change their behavior.
- It is important that the metaphor offers a solution. In this way, the patient will be able to see behavior that he has not seen before and reinterpret or solve his problem.
Some metaphors from acceptance and commitment therapy
The shark and the lie detector test
“Imagine sitting on the edge of an aquarium, surrounded by sharks, and being connected to an extremely sensitive lie detector test. Your job is not to feel any fear. If you feel anxious, tilt your chair and go straight into the shark aquarium. What do you think will happen?”
As you can imagine, you will most likely experience anxiety. This metaphor is perfect for people who suffer from panic attacks. You start to feel a little anxious, but you want to avoid the fear.
You can’t stand it, and you think, “This is terrible, I shouldn’t worry.” That makes you even more anxious. If you realize what’s happening, you’ve already fallen into the shark aquarium.
The Metaphor of the Hungry Tiger
“One morning you open your front door and see a cute tiger cub. You adopt him. Your tiger starts meowing and you realize he’s hungry, so you give him some minced meat. Every time he meows, you give him more. As the days go by, your pet will begin to grow, and ground beef is no longer enough. Now you have to give him whole ribs and large pieces of meat.”
The same thing happens with your thoughts. The more you feed them, the more they grow, just like the tiger. In other words, the more you value your thoughts, the bigger they become. If you feed your thoughts, they will eventually rule much of your life.
The metaphor of the Chinese finger trap
“If you’ve ever played with a Chinese finger trap, you know that the game is a woven tube the width of your finger. If you put one finger in each end and pull on one side, the tube will become longer and narrower. The harder you pull, the narrower the tube. That’s why you can’t get your fingers out. But if you push your two fingers together, your fingers are free again.”
Now think about what life has in common with a Chinese finger trap. The more you fight it, the more you limit yourself. When you stop fighting, you keep your freedom to make your own choices.
The hole and the shovel
“Imagine you fall into a deep hole and all you have to help you out is a shovel. Because you don’t know what to do and you feel desperate, you start to create. Little by little you get deeper into the hole.
As you remove more and more soil, the hole gets deeper and harder to get out. Wouldn’t it have been better to use the shovel in a different way? Couldn’t have waited to see if someone came over to help you?”
This is exactly what happens with avoidance. The fear you feel about getting out of the difficult situation makes you dig yourself even deeper into that difficulty. However, acceptance can help you find new alternatives. You may suffer in the beginning, but the long-term solution will pay you more.
As you can see, the metaphors of acceptance and commitment therapy can be very helpful in understanding certain aspects of your life. At the very least, they can help you think and sometimes help you see the situation from a different perspective. It’s too easy to get stuck where you are if you don’t have outside input.