The Trash Can Metaphor

The Trash Can Metaphor

Last update: 28 July, 2022

We often use metaphors when trying to clear up aspects of our lives that are hidden or unresolved. Some new types of therapy, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Wilson and Hayes, also use metaphors in a clinical capacity.

In this article we’re going to discuss one metaphor, explain its meaning and how you can apply the metaphor in your day to day activities.

Puzzle piece mind


The power of your thoughts

Imagine you have a trash can, and fill it with all different kinds of trash. Then, ask yourself if you’d be willing to reach down inside it. Chances are, the answer is no.

Now imagine that there’s something really important to you at the bottom of that trash can. It could be money, the possibility of a relationship with the person you love, recovery from any kind of pain, etc. Would you reach inside now?

If what you’re diving for something truly important, surely you’ll reach down and take it. Now, would you feel disgust? The answer is probably yes, but in contrast to the first situation, in this second one at least feeling ‘disgust’ has a purpose to back it.

I’m not suggesting you stick your hand in a trash can thinking it’s something wonderful, or feeling happy about it, or thinking you’ll smell like expensive perfume afterwards. What I’m saying is that sometimes we do things that are unpleasant (physically or psychologically) for a larger purpose. That’s where the importance of morals and values comes in.


tree in rubble

What is this metaphor trying to tell me?

The purpose of this metaphor is to help us see the boundary between our thoughts and our behaviors. 

Let’s put it in context…

You wake up in the morning and, honestly, the thoughts that come to your head about yourself and your day aren’t exactly “positive.” You tend to mentally walk in circles, and your mind starts echoing things like: “I’m a disaster,” “I’m a piece of trash,” “I’ll never get organized for this job,” etc.

In this case, the metaphor we’re explaining is trying to send you a message: what will you do with those thoughts?

Meaning…are you willing to endure fatigue and an unknown fate? To reach deep down in that trash can to reach the thing that matters most to you, laying right there in the bottom? A salary for a house payment, a raise in your job, perhaps? Or on the contrary: will you meld with those thoughts, and since you think you’re a piece of trash, jump in the trash can, too?

Which will you choose?


smiling woman

It’s your decision

If your objective is truly worth the pain, the metaphor is telling you that putting up with stressful days or heavy work loads is necessary to reach that one thing you wish to achieve, totally aside from what you’re feeling at the time. Thoughts and feelings are automatic, but that doesn’t mean you jump ship because of them.

Sometimes, you get to thinking that you can’t go on and become discouraged, and that’s normal. But knowing that it’s part of the process is what’s truly important. There will be good times and bad ones, and the thing to keep in mind is that if you want something, you’re going to have to give something up to get it, and that on occasion your mind will start to play bad tricks.

For example, if your job is valuable to you and you don’t want to lose it, staying strong in tough times is common. But, at the same time, you’ll become more resistant, efficient and constant. Think about the pros and cons of letting go and solely being guided by your thoughts, and measure those consequences for a minute.

Surely if you act without letting them take control, you will in turn have control over them, because you’ll allow them to exist, and yet you’ll still be able to act functionally.

Doing your best, staying on track, persisting and breaking through tough times, all shows their value when you get what you had been hoping for or what you had set your mind to: the satisfaction of having gotten there by our own doing.

So, remember this metaphor before you throw everything away, and throw yourself in there, too.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.