The power of metaphors in ACT: illuminating perspectives and facilitating change

Metaphors have a long-standing tradition in therapeutic interventions, particularly within acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). They provide a powerful tool to harness the strength of language in order to comprehend and address stuckness, as well as facilitate behavioural change. This article explores the utility of metaphors, drawing insights from the perspective of relational frame theory (RFT) as elucidated by Törneke (2018).

The role of metaphors

Metaphors enable us to draw comparisons between two objects, actions, or experiences that may not typically be associated. Through this process, information from a familiar and understood relational network can be transferred to another network, illuminating new perspectives that were previously unknown or obscured. Metaphors serve as a vehicle through which new information and functions are conveyed. The client’s existing relational network, which may present as an obstacle, becomes the target that receives this fresh information.

Example: The Chinese finger trap metaphor

One compelling metaphor commonly employed in ACT is the Chinese finger traps metaphor. This metaphor utilises a simple child’s toy to physically demonstrate how automatically responding (pulling fingers out of the trap) unintentionally tightens the trap. The physical experience of the finger trap enhances the client’s understanding without solely relying on verbal descriptions. Additionally, physical metaphors tend to be highly memorable. The practitioner then offers a verbal comparison, highlighting the resemblance between automatically responding to the trap tightening and responding to anxiety. This comparison allows the functions of the metaphor to be transferred to the relational network associated with anxiety, including the feelings, thoughts, and behavioural responses. By utilising the metaphor in this manner, the client gains a clearer understanding of the functional relationships between these elements, making them more salient. It also opens the door for exploring new behaviours, as the practitioner models how moving fingers further into the trap releases the tightness and discomfort, encouraging the client to consider a broader range of behavioural responses in the face of anxiety.

Key considerations in developing metaphors

When creating or selecting metaphors to use with clients, several key factors should be taken into account. First, there should be a good correspondence between the functions of the metaphor and the functions of the client’s specific problem. For instance, the finger trap metaphor may be less relevant for describing the relationship between a client’s defensive comments and criticism. Additionally, the metaphor should be relatable and within the client’s sphere of experience. If they have never been on a bus, the “passengers on the bus” metaphor may be less useful. Finally, it is crucial that the purpose of the metaphor is clear and directly related to the client’s important functions. This requires a solid understanding of the client’s key functional relationships, which can be gained through thorough assessment.

So, in summary…

Metaphors serve as powerful tools in ACT, enabling practitioners to effectively convey complex concepts and facilitate behavioural change. By drawing comparisons between unrelated experiences, metaphors provide new perspectives and insights that aid clients in navigating their challenges. Careful consideration should be given to selecting or creating metaphors that align with the client’s specific needs, ensuring relevance and understanding. With skilful use of metaphors, ACT practitioners can enhance their therapeutic interventions and empower clients to move towards valued living.

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