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How Metaphors Set Traps, and How To Get Out

Steven Topper, LCPC

My depression is too bad to leave the house.
This anxiety is crippling me.
Every time you do that I get overcome with anger and lash out.
I can’t handle this.

Each of these statements have a few things in common. One is that they’ve likely been said by many people, especially those of us suffering with immense pain in our lives. Each statement may look or feel slightly different, but they share this quality of how we talk about our experiences: Metaphor. This is a linguistic trick us humans came up with in order to increase understanding, and it’s an incredibly useful tool. There is a dark side to metaphors though, and that’s that they can lead us into traps.

We are always using metaphors, from how we describe our past (“I was the golden child!”), to past relationships (“It was a trainwreck!”), to our work (“I’m drowning!”). It helps us convey messages to each other, and can often lead to understanding, empathy, and even directions on how to respond to situations. The problem isn’t the metaphors themselves, it can be that we may adhere quite strictly to them, and allow them to cloud our understanding of our lives and options. When used rigidly, this type of language can serve as a blinder to what’s possible.

If we look more closely at each of the above sentences, they all could work to trap us out of living the life we want to live. In that first sentence, I’m talking about an experience (we’ve agreed that depression is a series of emotional, cognitive, and physiological components) being too severe to leave the house. Maybe most of us have felt this way: that we are so sad and empty that there is no motivation to leave the house. However, this also doesn’t afford me the ability to recognize that I can, in fact, physically open the front door and leave. This metaphor may limit my understanding of my own strength and ability. With all four statements above, I’m using metaphor to block myself from acting. This is the trap! I may have the feeling of sadness and emptiness. Anxious thoughts may be repeating themselves in my brain. Anger may suddenly increase in intensity, telling me to act a certain way. And that last one can be really tricky. “I can’t handle this,” is using a metaphor (handle) to shield me from my own strength. No thought is fatal, no emotion destroys me. In fact, all emotions and thoughts are transient, they change and shift like clouds in the sky. It’s these traps that sometimes words set for us that end up limiting us.

One helpful tool for this kind of thinking is called defusion. I can recognize that those four sentences are thoughts. “I’m having the thought that my depression is too bad to leave the house,” carries a significantly different connotation than its original form. I always have the opportunity to defuse from certain thoughts, especially when using metaphors has only trapped me. Using defusion allows me to loosen the grip on my strict adherence to the rules these metaphors ask me to follow. I can then make steps toward responding to these words in a flexible, values-driven way. As I do this more often, the metaphors no longer get in the way.
If you’ve found yourself feeling stuck on certain thoughts that seem to guide your actions, it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!

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