Two Helpful Therapeutic Metaphors

Sometimes a metaphor can be more powerful than straightforward advice.

Posted Sep 30, 2019

In therapy, the use of metaphors can be very helpful. While providing straightforward advice and factual information is often important, a relevant symbolic narrative that uses imagery can be even more powerful. Here are two of my favorite metaphors that have resonated with a great many people.

The first illustrates why is it helpful to meet with a psychologist or a qualified mental health professional. Hence, what I call “the mirror metaphor” can reflect the benefits (pun intended) of seeking professional input.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

The Mirror Metaphor

Imagine you’re looking at yourself in a mirror from a few feet away. You can see yourself because the light is reflecting off the glass, your eyes are filtering the energy, and your brain is interpreting the signals—thus, you see yourself with great clarity.

Now imagine your nose is pressed right up against the mirror’s surface. Everything is still working in the same way (i.e., the reflected light, the energy entering your eyes, the neural signals and interpretation), but how clearly do you see yourself? Very unfocused and not well defined, right?

The metaphor here relates to how close we are to ourselves. Hence, we have a hard time seeing ourselves with the sharp focus and clarity an outsider might have.

This is why consulting with a professional psychologist or therapist can be helpful. Not because you’re “crazy,” “need help,” or “have something wrong with you.” Rather, it's because even very well-adjusted and high-functioning people are too close to themselves to see clearly and objectively what a qualified and experienced mental health professional can see. We all have a blind spot — and even family and friends can be too close to be unbiased and have the focus and outsider can.

So, the next time you’re looking in a mirror, ask yourself what you might not be seeing with sharp focus and crisp clarity? Then take a step back and ask yourself what a qualified mental health professional might see in you that would be helpful for you to know about. Are you unassertive? Do you come across as defensive or hostile? Do you have irrational or unrealistic expectations? Do you demand too much of yourself or other people? Are you overly sensitive and perceive criticism when none is intended?

Not only can an objective and skillful psychological counselor pinpoint these problematic zones, but they can also help find solutions for them. Often, this too is something we can’t do ourselves.

Another helpful therapeutic metaphor is what I call the “O2 (oxygen) metaphor.” This symbolizes the vital importance of self-care and why we sometimes need to put ourselves first.

The O2 (Oxygen) Metaphor

Imagine you’re flying in a commercial airplane. Sitting on your left is a frail older person. Sitting on your right is a very young child. All of a sudden, the cabin loses pressure and the oxygen masks deploy. Who would you put a mask on first? The frail older person? The helpless child? Wrong and wrong!

As we’re told during the safety briefing, you are supposed to put your own mask on first — because if you don’t, you will lose consciousness in a matter of seconds. Thus, without securing your own mask first, if you try to help either the older or younger person, you will pass out.

If that happens, not only will you have failed to help the other people, but you yourself now become someone who needs help, too. Yet if you take just a few seconds to secure our own mask first, then you can help the senior and the child and all three of you will be fine.

This metaphor speaks to the issue of why it’s important to take care of ourselves and not feel guilty for putting ourselves first some of the time. Unless your own “emotional oxygen” is flowing and satisfying your emotional needs, you will feel “suffocated” and not be able to help the important people in your life as well as you would be able to otherwise.

These are just two of many helpful therapeutic metaphors. If there appears to be an interest in these ideas, I’ll be glad to post some others.

Remember: Think well, Act well, Feel well, Be well! 

Copyright 2019 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified health professional. The advertisements in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me.