Prior to retirement in May 2002, I was a professor of counseling at a mid-western university teaching graduate students to be counselors and therapists. In the many years I did that work I discovered the power of therapeutic metaphors and created many of them to share with others. These metaphors are stories and/or scenarios that translate psycho-babble into easily understood, visual messages that show how to understand and help others or oneself rather than just talking about it. My belief then and now is that if you and I can SEE our situation in a related yet different way, and if we can see our own role in the distress we experience, we have a chance of getting out of the upsetting stuck places in our minds where we often find ourselves. Metaphors can help create this “reframe” of our situation, and thus can be a tool for genuine self-help. You can use them to deal with any stress, and to reduce feelings of anger, hurt, depression, worry, anxiety, guilt and fear.

Let me give you just a little more groundwork. For decades now people have talked about “stress management” and there have been books and workshops and programs aimed at this topic. My perspective is a bit different. I believe that the very nature of life is stress, they’re almost synonymous, … from traffic to phone calls about billing errors to TV news to work to waiting in lines to making dinner to dealing with insurance to losing a loved one, etc.). Certainly some of these things are far more stressful than others, but they are all stress whether or not you use a capital letter, and one way or another we all deal with them. It is hard, but we cope. And though it never hurts to learn additional things to help us cope, I don’t think we need a lot of external help with “stress management.”

In contrast, however, when we take any one or more of these stressors and “turn them a quarter turn to the right in our heads,” the result is what I call Dis-stress, and it is at those times that we often could use some external help with insights and techniques in order to “manage” better.  To elaborate briefly, Stress is generally external to us and is usually pretty clear and straightforward. It isn’t necessarily easy, but you can, as they say, “get a handle on it.” On the other hand, Dis-stress, when it occurs, is created internally by our self-talk, i.e., by what we say to ourselves on the inside about various events or people that exaggerates or distorts or twists or simply misperceives them. So dis-stress results from our perceptions (i.e., our interpretations) of reality which, because they are subjective, are often not fully accurate.

It follows, then, that the feelings that arise when we’re distressed also are not fully accurate or appropriate to the situation.  They aren’t wrong because feelings can’t really be wrong.  But feelings can be inaccurate when they are based on perceptions of people and events that are not accurate. To call feelings wrong would imply blaming a person for having them, which is a pretty judgmental and condescending thing to do. But to call feelings inaccurate doesn’t fault the person and instead focuses on correcting inaccurate perceptions and subsequent feelings. The new, more accurate feelings are now more Stresses than Distresses and so the person will automatically be able to cope better.

Quick example: Two people of similar gender, age and background both take a driver’s test and fail. One says to herself, “Damn, I knew I didn’t get all the answers but I was sure I got enough right. This is embarrassing and a hassle, but I’ve got to have the license so I guess I’d better get a booklet and read it over so I can come back in a week or so and re-take and pass the goofy test.” This person is stressed, but she proceeds to get the booklet, study it, follows through with her plan, and most likely passes the test. The second person says to herself. “I’m so stupid! How could I have been so dumb! I’m going to feel totally humiliated when my friends find out! I will never live this down!” And she forgets to pick up a booklet, storms out of the office, roars home to have a stiff drink or to sulk and worry, and then returns in a week or so with a fairly high chance of doing poorly again. Well, certainly the event was stressful to both, but I bet I don’t have to tell you which one was in Dis-stress. We know that the event didn’t cause their feelings because if it had they’d both have felt and acted about the same way. Rather, the Distress was created on the inside of the second person when she ranted and raved about the event and interpreted it as Awful rather than just a pain in the tail.

Well, enough ground work, I didn’t come to blow my horn and certainly not to present a lecture. I am simply here to present you with some gifts from my “tool box” that I think you’ll find interesting and maybe useful.  Enjoy, and when you finish with any of these and have had a chance to ponder and perhaps apply, drop me an email with some feedback or with some examples from your own life of how you have applied the metaphors. I’d love to hear them so I can keep expanding my repertoire of examples. Thanks, and take care.       


An Introduction

to Therapeutic Metaphors