Describing Psychotherapy Through Metaphors

By Jeff Levy

The process of therapy can be daunting, especially when we don’t really understand what it’s “supposed” to look like or why sitting in a room with another person somehow helps us make lasting changes. Using metaphors as part of the psychotherapy process is not uncommon. Articles and books have been written on the topic with most folks recognizing the utility of metaphors.

Merriam Webster defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.” Therapists and clients alike may use metaphors to foster increased understanding of an experience or a series of experiences. Shared understanding of experiences allows us to speak the same language, feel heard, experience greater connection, and ultimately, to better explore the changes we seek to make.

My own practice of psychotherapy is greatly informed by the study of human development and by advances made in the study of the brain, the mind/body/brain connection, and interpersonal neurobiology. While I might not use all of these terms in my conversations with clients, I try to find ways to share what all of this means through the use of metaphors. In particular, I’ve found four metaphors that have been especially powerful.

Driving a Stick Shift Car

I may be dating myself by using this metaphor since I don’t know nearly as many people who currently drive stick shifts, but I do find when I ask whether or not someone knows how to drive a manual transmission car, many people still say they’ve had some experience with a stick shift, or they learned on a stick shift, or that they have been in cars where others drive a stick shift. classic car interior

Learning to drive a stick shift feels pretty awkward—especially if we first learned to drive using an automatic transmission. Driving with a stick requires the coordinated use of both feet; gradually increasing pressure on the gas pedal, gradually reducing pressure on the clutch, and then moving forward. To change gears, we have to put pressure on the clutch again, reduce pressure on the gas, use our hand to “shift” the gears, and then we “rinse and repeat” (another metaphor!) the process all over again.

Driving a stick shift initially requires a high level of concentration and thought. Many of us need to talk ourselves through the process each time we drive, over and over, until we’ve done it enough times that it comes to us automatically. We don’t have to consciously think about it because our body goes through the motions easily.

This process is similar to many processes of change inside and outside of therapy. In therapy, particularly, we are invited to explore new ways of being in the world. If we are trying to engage in a new way of interacting when we experience stress, we have to consciously think about what we want to do differently. Sometimes, we even have to internally talk ourselves through this new way of being until we practice it again and again and until it occurs automatically.

When driving a stick shift car, even when we are able to do so with ease, when we hit a steep hill, the challenge of managing the clutch and gas pedals returns. We once again have to talk ourselves through the process of using the pedals ands shifting gears as we ease ourselves up the hill, with occasional slight backsliding.  And so it is when we hit psychological “hills” in our lives. Newly learned and integrated patterns are more challenging and we’re required to more consciously think about how to navigate this new psychological terrain.

What I particularly love about this metaphor is the space it creates for learning and that it allows for change to be a process. Even when we feel we have mastered new coping strategies and made significant changes in our lives, when we experience stressors (or hills), it becomes more challenging to maintain those changes. And even for the most experienced driver of manual transmissions, navigating twists, turns, and hills is also demanding.

Put the Needle on the Record

With the return of an interest in vinyl records, I find myself able to use this metaphor more regularly as we talk about the process of change in psychotherapy. My memories of vinyl records date back to my childhood when I remember my parents and older brothers putting records on our old turntable and watching the needle move from it’s resting place to the first song.

Invariably, especially with older records, the needle would skip when it hit a scratch, and what I found particularly interesting is when the needle would get stuck in the groove of a record and continue to play the same music over and over and over again. The only solution to this problem was to walk over to the turntable and physically lift the needle and place it in another groove of the record or onto the beginning of another song.

The ways we’ve learned to navigate the world are like the grooves in a vinyl record. If we put more and more pressure on the needle of a record as the music is playing, we deepen the groove the needle creates.  This makes it harder for the music to continue and the song to end.  In fact, sometimes if we press hard enough, the needle remains in that same groove on the record, doomed to repeat the same music as long as the turntable is plugged in.

We know from our study of the brain, that it is a use-dependent organ. This means that the more we use certain areas or circuits of the brain, the more developed they become. Infants and developing brains are more sensitive to this dynamic, but even as adults, the more we engage in patterns of being (physical patterns, emotional patterns, thought patterns, etc.), the more developed these patterns become.

The brain has neural circuitry, just as the record has plastic grooves. The more we use a neural circuit, the more it is like pressing down on the needle of a record. As we move through the world, we are more likely to get stuck “in a groove” of relating, like the needle gets stuck in a groove of music.

As humans, the only way for us to move forward from a neural “groove,” is to first notice that we are repeating a movement, behavior, thought, or an emotional pattern that has been reinforced over time through use, and then consciously make a decision to engage in a different way of being. In a sense, we are picking up the needle and moving it so that we have a chance to experiment with a new “groove” and, if it feels right, continue to engage in these new patterns while they reinforce our neural circuitry.

I use this metaphor very frequently in my work, and I find my clients coming back to it when we talk about “getting stuck” and when we talk about making changes. Sometimes I’ll even see a client pantomiming a turntable in a session, lifting the needle, and placing it in a different place on their imaginary vinyl record; sharing an awareness of the process of change through the shared understanding of this metaphor.

Traversing the Jungle Path

Another metaphor I use in talking about coping strategies and neurobiology is the idea of a jungle path. In the jungle, if we are traveling from one location to another, the first time we make this journey, we find ourselves facing lush vegetation and landscape. We may have to take out our machete to cut back plants and trees in order to create an opening for us to walk through.

The more we travel between these locations, and the more of us who travel this same journey, the more the pathway is worn down. Over time, because of constant travel, vegetation stops growing and a clear path is visible between our two locations. In fact, we can now travel the path without even thinking about where we are going because the path is so well worn that all we have to do is walk.

Like the vinyl record metaphor and being stuck in the groove of a record, the jungle path becomes the only way we know how to get from one place to another because there is no clear “other” way to go. We may find ourselves engaging in certain ways of relating to other people, ways of thinking about problems, or fears/anxieties we experience related to certain situations that feel “automatic;” like there are no alternative ways of being. These become our “jungle paths.”

Sometimes we have created these jungle paths—-or neural pathways—based on our individual experiences and the ways we have learned to cope with these experiences. Other times, these jungle paths have been created by our parents, grandparents, or other ancestors and have been passed down to us across the generations. These intergenerational pathways might not even be conscious to us. Because they are so automatic, they feel like they are just a part of how we navigate the world.

When thinking about this metaphor, I am reminded of my father and his parents. My grandparents immigrated to this country at the turn of the 20th century to escape persecution and death due to the pogroms of Eastern Europe. When they arrived, they had few belongings and little money to support themselves, living in multi-family tenements in New York City.  My father grew up during the Great Depression, working to help support his family from the time he was a child.

I was raised in a middle class home, not having the experiences of my father or grandparents. But growing up, our basement shelves were filled with canned food and supplies. Both directly and indirectly, my family communicated to me “you have to be prepared because at any moment, you could lose everything.” And while these words were never spoken to me, this fear has been a jungle path I have traversed many times in my life.

In therapy, our task is often to create new jungle paths.  While the old pathways are worn and familiar, they no longer lead us to the destination(s) we hope for. As we plot our new destinations, there is no clear jungle path to get us there, so we’re required to take out our metaphorical machetes and we begin the process of clearing the brush and debris in order to move forward.

It can be challenging and exhausting to forge these new paths, especially when we can see the well-worn old path beckoning us. But as we continue to consciously create the new path, slowly and steadily with use it becomes more worn and open, and the old path, without use, slowly becomes covered with vegetation until it is almost no longer visible.

Taking the Developmental Train

In the course I used to teach about trauma, I often used the metaphor of train travel as a way to think of human development, typical developmental challenges, and extra-developmental events. Trains typically have a point of origin as well as a destination, and as humans we too have a point of origin, a developmental trajectory, and a place where our life ends.

As a train leaves the station, it traverses a track toward its destination. Sometimes the train stops at various stations, and sometimes it switches tracks in order to ensure it arrives in a timely and accurate fashion. Usually, there is a conductor whose job it is to monitor a train’s travel and to look for any possible danger ahead. If a conductor sees danger, their job is to make adjustments to the train’s journey to avoid or minimize the impact of this danger. An attentive conductor can ensure that a train leaves the station on time and arrives at its destination as planned.

There are, of course, times when a conductor may not be as attentive as they need to be. Or in the worst-case scenario, there is no conductor. At these times, if a train experiences some kind of outside impact or engine trouble, the lack of an attentive conductor can cause the train to de-rail—sometimes slightly and sometimes in a more major way. If the derailment is caught by other conductors, it’s possible for the train to be re-railed with minimal impact. If the derailment isn’t caught, however, the derailed train may continue its journey but reach a destination different than originally intended.

If we think about conception as the point where our developmental “track” begins, we know that cells start to divide and differentiate from the point of conception to the moment of birth. During this 40-week developmental period, we develop our nervous system, circulatory system, skeletal system and other systems.

In the best-case scenario, we have an attentive conductor—initially our mother—who is ensuring our nourishment and looking out for possible danger. When danger, or extra-developmental events occur, an attentive conductor first identifies the danger and then makes the correction to ensure development continues as planned.

If our mother and/or other conductors are not available to us, these extra-developmental challenges have potential to de-rail us in small and large ways. We too, can then develop in ways different than originally intended and we are born with pre-existing challenges. Or, if these extra-developmental events occur later in life, without an attentive conductor, we experience additional developmental de-railments that impact the ease with which we reach our intended destination, or alter our destination entirely.

As a train experiences multiple and successive uncorrected de-railments, the greater the likelihood it will reach a different destination and/or not reach it’s destination at all. And like the train, as humans, the more we experience extra-developmental events (abuse, neglect, and other traumas) that go unacknowledged and unaddressed, the greater the likelihood we will experience de-railments that leave us vulnerable in all sorts of ways.

The good news for trains is that there are usually multiple conductors and others watching while it goes from one station to the next.  And the good news for us is that we too usually have multiple possible conductors to watch out for us as we travel through our lives. The absence of one conductor doesn’t mean a train is doomed because others can step in. As therapists, we often serve as a meta-conductor, working with our clients to identify where de-railments occurred and strategies for successful re-railment.

The Power of Metaphors

We don’t only use metaphors in therapy. They are a part of our everyday conversations with family, friends, and colleagues. They help us describe our experiences for ourselves, and often more common metaphors help others understand and empathize with us. Sometimes we use metaphors so unconsciously that we may not even recognize them as metaphors. For example, when we say we are broken-hearted, we’re actually sharing our sense of sadness or grief.

And often we use these same every-day metaphors to describe our experiences to our therapists. Just recently, one of my clients was describing a topic that he and his girlfriend rarely talk about by telling me it is an “elephant in the room.” Here he was conveying to me that both he and his girlfriend know this huge issue is between them, and yet they struggle to bring it into their conversations with one another.

I use the four metaphors I’ve shared here with my clients to talk about the process of therapy. When folks are really uncertain of how changes occur in therapy, talking about “the jungle path” or the “needle getting stuck in the groove of a record,” or “learning how to drive a stick-shift” have helped put language to the sometimes frustrating, arduous, and enigmatic process of therapy.

These three metaphors also speak to the neurobiology of thoughts, feelings, and actions; that patterns develop over time and are supported by repetition. When we’ve learned a certain way of navigating the world, our neural circuitry is strengthened through use. It only makes sense then, that when we explore making a change, we’re creating new circuitry that also can only be strengthened through increased use. For many of us, it is relieving to know that true and lasting change takes time—scientifically!

The conductor and train track metaphor has been particularly helpful in understanding the impact of trauma on our development, whether it be a single trauma, or multiple, cumulative traumas.  Considering the presence or absence of attentive conductors in our lives also helps us understand why certain traumas have more or less impact.  I also invite folks to consider the extent to which they can be their own attentive conductor. By considering our own power to notice the challenges we have experienced means we also have the power to make course corrections, no matter how old we are.

Undoubtedly, it’s always important to listen for metaphors our clients create and share with us since these have potential to be the most informative and helpful. The metaphors I’ve shared here can be used as a way to create a shared language about the broader process of therapy.

“At the point where language falls away from the hot bones, at the point where the rock breaks open and darkness flows out of it like blood, at the melting point of granite when the bones know they are hollow & the word splits & doubles & speaks the truth & the body itself becomes a mouth.

This is a metaphor.”
Margaret Atwood

Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, Co-Founder and Former CEO
Psychotherapist and Senior Advisor, Live Oak, Inc.

Published on January 14, 2018