Four Metaphors of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

May 31, 2019
If a patient is struggling to understand a concept or find a solution in therapy, using metaphors is one way to help them. Acceptance and commitment therapy uses metaphors as a teaching and therapeutic tool. In this article, learn all about this fascinating technique.

In psychotherapy, it’s very common to use metaphors to help patients connect with their problem and better understand what the therapist is trying to communicate. Telling simple stories somehow helps with comprehension and empathy. Concretely, acceptance and commitment therapy metaphors are a valuable tool for therapists.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is based on two fundamental principles: acceptance and activation. Thus, its goal isn’t to avoid suffering or pain but to accept it.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the person has to resign themselves to pain and suffering. On the contrary, it means to commit yourself personally to your goals and go after them in spite of the difficulties you might face along the way. That’s why activation or action are especially valuable.

In this sense, metaphors are very helpful because they tell a story that the patient can identify with. Of course, it’s crucial to know what metaphor to use, so that the therapist can offer a solution that aligns with the patient’s values.

An open head with plus signs coming out.

An Effective Metaphor

Acceptance and commitment therapy metaphors can adapt to different kinds of problems. The important thing is for the patient to find them useful and for them to facilitate the necessary therapeutic changes.

The metaphor has to be effective, and not just a story that has nothing to do with the patient. Consequently, the metaphor should meet the following criteria:

  • The metaphor should be consistent with the patient’s level of development. The patient has to understand the metaphor. It should relate to the patient’s direct experience, or to things that are common knowledge for their social group and age (McCurry and Hayes, 1992).
  • There should be a clear correspondence between the person’s problem and the story.
  • The metaphor should be action-oriented. It has to outline in some way the steps that the patient should take in real life to change their behavior.
  • It’s important for the metaphor to offer a solution. That way, the patient will be able to see behavior they didn’t see before and reinterpret or solve their problem.

Some Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Metaphors

The Shark Tank and the Polygraph Test

“Imagine that you’re sitting at the edge of a tank surrounded by sharks and that you’re connected to an extremely sensitive polygraph machine.

Your task is to avoid feeling any anxiety whatsoever. If you feel anxious, your seat will tilt and you’ll go directly into the shark tank. What do you think will happen?

As you can imagine, you’ll very likely experience anxiety.”

This metaphor is perfect for people who suffer panic attacks. You start to feel a little bit anxious, but you want to avoid anxiety. However, you can’t stand it, and you think “This is horrible, I can’t feel anxious!” and that makes you even more anxious. When you realize what’s happening, you’re already inside the shark tank.

Metaphor of the Hungry Tiger

“One morning you wake up and open your front door to an adorable tiger cub. You adopt the tiger and keep it in your house.

Your precious tiger starts to meow and you realize that it’s hungry. You give it some hamburger meat. Every time it meows, you give it more.

As the days pass, your pet starts to grow, and hamburger meat isn’t enough anymore. Now you have to give it racks of 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 value you place on your thoughts, the bigger they become. If you feed your thoughts, they’ll end up controlling a big part of your life.

A baby tiger.

Chinese Finger Trap Metaphor

“If you’ve ever played with a Chinese finger trap, you know that the game is a woven straw tube about the width of your finger. When you put one finger in each end and pull, the staw stretches out and gets narrower.

The harder you pull, the narrower the tube gets and it becomes impossible to get your fingers out. If you simply push your two fingers together, however, your fingers will be free.

Now, think about how life is like a Chinese finger trap. The more you fight against it, the more limits you have. If you stop fighting, you keep your freedom to make your own choices.”

The Metaphor of the Hole and the Shovel

“Imagine you fall into a fairly deep hole and the only thing you have to help you get out is a shovel. Since you don’t know what to do and you feel desperate, you start to shovel away.

Little by little, you get deeper into the hole. As you remove dirt, the hole gets deeper and it’s harder to get out. Wouldn’t it have been better to use the shovel in some other way? Couldn’t you have waited to see if someone came by to help you out?”

This is exactly what happens with experiential avoidance. The anxiety you feel about getting out of the difficult situation makes you bury yourself even more in that difficulty. However, acceptance can help you find new alternatives. Maybe you have to suffer at the beginning, but the long-term solution will be more beneficial.

A hole in the ground.

As you can see, the ACT metaphors can be really useful for understanding certain aspects of your life. At the very least, they can help you reflect 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 any outside input.

  • Steven, C, Hayes. Sal de tu mente, entra en tu vida. La nueva terapia de aceptación y compromiso. Desclée de Brouwer (2013)