The Linen Cupboard Metaphor for Trauma Sufferers

The Linen Cupboard Metaphor for Trauma Sufferers
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 January, 2023

Desperate, lost, broken, and distraught. Psychological traumas leave long-lasting emotional fractures that aren’t visible to the naked eye, but that severely restrict the sufferer’s quality of life. In fact, it’s often said that few of us manage to avoid this type of experience because fate is both unpredictable and cruel.

However, this doesn’t mean that these wounds can’t be healed. Indeed, the trauma sufferer can flourish again after the intense stress, permanent anxiety, insomnia, and relational problems of trauma. As the neurologist and psychiatrist, Boris Cyrulnik pointed out, every injured person is forced into metamorphosis. Moreover, although pain always leaves a scar, we can give it another more bearable and sometimes even beautiful meaning.

This reality can be achieved through psychological therapy. It’s in an environment of protection and human connection that the metamorphosis starts. In order to understand the journey toward healing, there’s a useful metaphor for understanding how this change comes about.

Trauma is an unexpected event that threatens our lives and integrity. It disintegrates us and leaves us in extremely fragile and stressful situations of vulnerability.

Man in psychotherapy working on messy closet metaphor
The metaphor of the linen cupboard defines a task carried out in psychological therapy with patients suffering psychological trauma.

The increasing incidence of trauma

Research conducted by several universities around the world states the worrying fact that more than 70 percent of the people surveyed reported having experienced trauma. In addition, many didn’t seek psychological support and continued to suffer the consequences of post-traumatic stress.

These situations are overwhelming. Furthermore, anyone is susceptible to experiencing threatening circumstances. Indeed, from the moment we’re born, we’re exposed to infinite circumstances that can alter our physical and emotional integrity. For example, childhood abuse, the loss of a loved one, sexual abuse, assaults, painful emotional relationships, and adverse social events.

The traumatic injuries that these experiences leave behind have an impact on all areas of the sufferer’s life. For instance, emotional, cognitive, relational, physical, social, etc. In these situations, it’s important to have two pillars. Firstly, the support of the environment. Secondly, specialized psychological intervention. In fact, recovery requires a series of steps. These perfectly exemplify the metaphor of the linen cupboard. 

Sometimes, traumatic memories are stored in a way that’s not accessible to conscious memory.

The metaphor of the linen cupboard

The linen cupboard metaphor is used to understand how traumatic memories are organized. As a rule, a trauma survivor exhibits really disordered memories of the painful event. These can often be blocked, hidden deep in their mind, or even accompanied by completely irrational and harmful ideas.

The linen cupboard metaphor provides the psychologist and the client with a simple and illustrative image of what the therapeutic work will be like. The client has to recover their memories from those hidden places, analyze them, and then save them in the right place.

The hippocampus ‘clutters’ our mental closet

The hippocampus plays a decisive role in the formation of psychological traumas. Research conducted by Ryerson University (Canada) states that this brain region is affected by adverse experiences. Not only that, but it turns those memories into painful and stressful images.

The hippocampus is responsible for labeling memories as traumatic or non-traumatic. Metaphorically, it’s responsible for placing them in the depths of the brain in a disturbing way, accompanying them with negative valence emotions. These are so intense that, often, what happened in the past can be remembered with the same anguish as if it were happening today.

The amygdala labels memories as dangerous on the psychological shelves.

While the hippocampus classifies memories as disturbing, the amygdala generates the feeling of constant threat. It usually shows high hyperactivity in circumstances associated with trauma. This causes the trauma sufferer to believe that any associated memories and sensations mean the threat is happening again.

The metaphor of the linen cupboard suggests that the trauma sufferer must face these two entities that have moved their clothes (memories) around. They do this by rearranging them and labeling them differently.

Traumatic memories should be thoroughly examined and properly labeled before being carefully folded and placed back in the closet.

Fragmented mind symbolizing the messy closet metaphor
Traumatic memories fragment us. We must work on those experiences from yesterday to find balance in the present.

Organizing the mental linen cupboard to organize your life

The aim of the metaphor of the linen cupboard is to make the patient realize that their mind contains memories that need to be reviewed, labeled correctly, and carefully put away again. After all, the goal of therapy isn’t to erase painful experiences, it’s to offer tools so that these events hurt less. Also, so that the patient can live with integrity and new strengths.

If we don’t order our memories, every time we open the door of memory, the pain will appear again. Therefore, the goal of therapy is to integrate these facts into the narrative of life. It means they’re accessible but in a less psychologically distressing way.

In order for these adverse memories to coexist in the mental linen cupboard along with the innocuous ones, they must be brought to light and analyzed. Trauma victims often feel guilty for what happened. This is something that they must reformulate in order to heal. Psychologists offer strategies for them to vent the emotions anchored to each memory, thus releasing tension and favoring acceptance.

This is a really sensitive and courageous approach that requires hard work. Indeed, it’s a fact that many of us live with extremely harmful experiences hidden on our mental shelves. We have to learn how to organize them to find balance and order in our existence. Making the effort is always well worth it.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.