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My Favorite “Therapist Metaphors”

by Sean Szeles, LPC

As a therapist, I spend a lot of time talking about inner life. This means discussing concepts such as balance, anxiety, and being overwhelmed by change, concepts that can be difficult to “put a circle around.” So, I find myself using a lot of “therapist metaphors” to explore them, sometimes with a wink and a grin (they may sound like cheesy clichés from an episode of Oprah but hey, they work). Here are a few frequent flyers, along with some questions that they illuminate and bring to life.

1. Life as a Garden.

I use the image of life as a garden to discuss the concept of balance. I might ask a client to imagine their life as a garden and ask: what are the patches in your garden? Often, these include things such as work, family, friends, or self-care. This discussion is similar to the Lifestyle Balance Pie activity used by many therapists; however, the garden metaphor adds all kinds of fun follow-up questions. How much time and energy do you spend attending to each patch? Which patches are well-watered?Which patches need some weeding? Which patches need more boundaries to protect them? These questions allow for a thorough and deep exploration of the person’s “garden”.

2. Anxiety as a Dragon.

This image is all about mindfulness. I start by encouraging clients to imagine anxiety as a dragon. This normalizes the fact that anxiety is uncomfortable and feels like a threat. I might ask, “How do you respond to the dragon now? Do you try to slay it? Folks with anxiety may want to avoid or get rid of that awful feeling of unease; how does that work out? Mindfulness is about noticing and accepting our feelings without judgment. What would it be like to skillfully welcome the dragon in, rather than attempting to get rid of it?” Ultimately, the goal is to show them that, often, when we slow down and get curious about the dragon, we see that it’s not as big and scary as it seems. More commonly, the threat is overestimated and our ability to deal with it is underestimated. Thus, rather than attacking the dragon, I work to change the client’s relationship to the dragon. In turn, it becomes less of an enemy and more of a friend.

3. The Bottom of a Ditch.

I use this image with clients feeling overwhelmed by change, like a teenager who has fallen behind academically or a person about to let go of an unhealthy coping skill that they’ve clung to for years. I start by joining the client at the bottom of the “ditch.” From there we explore what it feels like to be there. Can we normalize those feelings, understand them and be compassionate towards them? Once we understand where we are, we might explore other, more solution-focused questions. Do we need a ladder and, if so, what are the different rungs on that ladder? Breaking the rungs of the ladder into smaller pieces tends to make the way out of the ditch less overwhelming and more manageable. Perhaps, we may need someone else to help us.

With these simple, yet thought-provoking metaphors, I seek to give my clients the opportunity to visualize their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. From there, our therapeutic conversations develop and flourish.


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