37 Powerful Therapy Metaphors

Effective analogies to illustrate growth, self-care, emotions, addiction, grief, counseling, and life concepts

therapy metaphors
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

As a counselor, you probably have a few “go-to” therapy metaphors that you use in sessions. For example, the “airplane oxygen mask” metaphor is a powerful analogy that demonstrates the significance of meeting your own needs before attempting to help others.

Another example of a therapy metaphor is the “rearview mirror” analogy. If you’re driving, and your entire concentration is on what’s behind you, you’ll crash. Good drivers, in contrast, focus ahead, but also regularly check the rearview mirror. The “rearview mirror” metaphor effectively illustrates how recovery from drugs and alcohol requires learning from, but not dwelling on, past mistakes and regrets.

Powerful Therapy Metaphors: Analogies in Counseling

The following is a list of helpful therapy metaphors and analogies for growth, self-care, emotions, addiction, grief, counseling, and life.


For additional therapy metaphors, click here.

For commonly used therapy questions and phrases, see Do You Speak Therapist?


Metaphors for Growth & Self-Care

Forming a new habit is like carving a path in the jungle. You trod through the undergrowth and take the same route over and over again, until a clear path is formed. Meanwhile, older pathways become overgrown and wild, disappearing from sight with unuse.

A habit forms the way water carves a new stream or river.

You can’t see the grass growing, but after a week or so, you can see that the lawn needs mowing.

You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Mind the “check engine” light in your car. It indicates that something is wrong; if you ignore it, the problem will likely become worse. The longer you ignore internal cues, the greater the damage to your “car.”

A plant requires the right amount of water, sunlight, and fertilizer to grow and thrive.

You are a battery that needs to be recharged every so often.

Metaphors for Emotions

Our emotions are like a thermometer in the window. You can see clouds or rain or sun, but without a thermometer, you won’t know if it’s 90 degrees or 17 below. Emotions impact how you experience the outside world.

Life is like a heart monitor; there are ups and downs. If it goes flat, you’re dead.

The more you bottle up your emotions, the more likely you are to explode.

Repressing anger is like stuffing trash in a garbage can. Eventually, it’s going to spill over if you don’t take out the trash.

When you resent someone, it’s like drinking poison and expecting them to die.

Anxiety is a hungry monster that gets bigger when you feed it.

Worrying is like riding a stationary bike; you can peddle as hard as you can, but you’ll never get anywhere.

Therapy Metaphors for Addiction

Addiction is a disease of the soul.

When you’re in active addiction, you’re a shadow of yourself.

Addiction is like being in a toxic relationship. It’s all-consuming, lust-worthy, and even thrilling at times… but at the cost of your health and well-being. You have to break up in order to move on with your life.

Addiction is like a tornado, ravaging everything in its path. After the storm, it’s time to rebuild. It won’t look exactly the way it did before the tornado hit… but there’s potential for things to be even better.

Addiction is like other chronic health conditions in that there’s no cure, but it’s 100% manageable with treatment and lifestyle changes.

The longer you sit and stare at a plate of cookies, the more likely you are to give in to temptation. Set yourself up for success by avoiding triggers when possible.

If you hang out in a barber shop long enough you’ll end up getting a haircut.

Temptation is like a muscle that grows weaker with use until it finally gives out.

Living life without drugs or alcohol is like any skill; you first learn how to do it and then you have to practice. You may slip up, but don’t give up; learn from your mistakes. You can’t excel at anything without practice.

Cravings are like waves; ride them out until the wave recedes.

Attempting to save someone from drowning is dangerous. In their frantic efforts for oxygen, they’ll claw over and push the person trying to help underwater. This is an unconscious survival instinct. When your loved one is in active addiction, they’ll fight anyone and anything that gets in their way of a gulp of air.

Metaphors for Grief

Grief is a deep wound that takes time to heal. The wound is raw and painful, but will eventually scab over, although leaving behind a permanent scar.

Every person you lose takes a little piece of you with them.

Metaphors for Counseling

Going to therapy is akin to filling your toolbox with tools.

In a car, your therapist is a passenger in the front seat, but you’re behind the wheel. A passenger offers assistance with reading the map and providing directions, but it’s up to you to choose the turns you’ll take, and ultimately, the destination.

A counselor doesn’t provide the answers, but offers the tools to find them.

Going to therapy is like going to the gym; you may feel sore and you won’t see immediate effects, but the long-term results are gratifying and well-worth the investment.

Therapy Metaphors for Life

Problems in life are like bad smells; you can attempt to mask them or cover them up, but you have to remove the source before they can truly go away.

You can’t choose the canvas or paint in life, but you decide the picture you’ll paint.

Your life is a book with many chapters and pages. Every day is a new page. You write your own story.

Life is like a “choose your own adventure” book. You make decisions, but you can’t always predict the outcome.

Sometimes you’re dealt a really sh**** hand. How are you going to play your cards?

The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.


Post your “go-to” therapy metaphors in a comment!

therapy metaphors

Author: Cassie Jewell

Cassie Jewell has a Master's degree in Community Counseling and is licensed as a professional counselor (LPC) and substance abuse treatment practitioner (LSATP) in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

2 thoughts on “37 Powerful Therapy Metaphors”

  1. Abstract reasoning and conceptual thinking are often problem areas persons who live with organic brain damage associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE). Individuals living with these effects are overwhelmingly living with coexisting mental health conditions, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, and the associated life issues related to them, including substance abuse, poor interpersonal relationships, etc.

    With an estimated prevalence of persons in the United States and Canada living with the effects of PAE of between 4–5 percent of the population, mental health practitioners in North America will see them, whether or not they have been diagnosed with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) diagnosis. Most of these individuals have average or above-average intellectual functioning, and fewer than 10% have the physical signs associated with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and partial FAS (PFAS).

    A set of skills is required to understand and use metaphors and abstract ideas in therapeutic relationships. Therapists must screen their clients and patients to ensure that they are able to understand relationships and ideas expressed using these language approaches.

    Abstractions and concepts change or vary given the situation. These skills work together to provide guidelines and an understanding of the environment and the world.

    The following characteristics (from https://sites.duke.edu/fasd/chapter-5-the-fasd-student-and-learning-issues/difficulty-with-abstract-and-conceptual-thinking/)
    describe ways individuals with FASD have difficulty with abstract and conceptual thinking:

    * Have difficulty understanding consequences
    * Have difficulty generalizing learning to new situations
    * Have difficulty understanding cause-and-effect
    * Have difficulty understanding similarities and differences between events
    * Have difficulty with concepts, such as money and time
    * Have difficulty interpreting verbal and auditory information

    Here is a very helpful, still valid primer about FASD for mental health practitioners:

    http://europepmc.org/article/MED/19030526

  2. One of my favorites that I used is a Chuck E. Cheese coin in a vending machine. If you keep putting it in, it’s going to keep rejecting it. You have to use a different coin.

    Just like if you try the same thing you’ll get the same results. You’ve got to change something or it will never work.

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