How To Avoid Psychological Traps

3 powerful metaphors to help you see more clearly

“Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.” — Robert Frost

In John F. Kennedy’s speech about the Space Race, he announced that “America has tossed its cap over the wall of space.”

JFK used this metaphor as a declaration for taking charge of the race. It’s a beautiful turn of phrase that epitomizes the power of metaphors, but metaphors can have many purposes.

They can be used to enhance writing, make persuasive arguments, motivate people, serve as symbols, memorize information, or explain abstract concepts such as love, life, and success.

Examples of such metaphors include:

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” — Pablo Picasso

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” — William Shakespeare

“Predicting rain doesn’t count. Building arks does.” — Warren Buffett

At its core, a metaphor is a figure of speech that is used to make a comparison between two unrelated things. As such, they are particularly useful for explaining abstract psychological concepts such as anxiety, resistance, and suffering.

Based on my PhD research and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), here are 3 powerful metaphors to help you to avoid psychological traps:

1. Fighting with an anxiety monster

If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, I’m guessing you tried to fight back. However, fighting back only creates more anxiety. So what should you do?

A great metaphor to explain this involves a tug of war with an anxiety monster.

You’re holding one end of the rope, and the monster has the other. In between the two of you lies a bottomless pit. Not surprisingly, you pull as hard as you can, but the monster is too strong and pulls you closer to the pit. You have no way of winning. What should you do?

Drop the rope.

Yes, the monster’s still there, but you’re no longer in a struggle with him. It’s the same for anxiety. When you drop the struggle, you steal its power.

2. The person in a hole

Many people resist change. They might genuinely want to change, especially if they’re struggling, but often persist in the very behaviour that caused their problems in the first place.

The “person in a hole” metaphor describes this best:

A person aimlessly wanders into a field full of holes. Disorientated by past experiences, they fall into a big one. The sides are steep and they can’t get out. But they were lucky. They had a toolbox with them. Without thinking, they take out a shovel and try to dig themselves out. This obviously doesn’t work, so they start digging with greater intensity. But this just leaves them deeper in the hole. Feeling dejected, they give up. Suddenly, like a blessing from the skies, a person walks by with a ladder and throws it into the hole. Finally, some luck. But what do they do? They pick up the ladder and try to use it to dig themselves out of the hole.

Maybe it’s a people-pleaser who keeps saying yes, or a workaholic who continues to work 70 hours per week, or a person with social anxiety who refuses to leave the house.

For individuals stuck in such situations, this metaphor can help them to better understand their problems, and hopefully, help them to change their ways.

3. First and second darts

Life is full of challenges, most of which we have no control over. This might sound disheartening, but realizing this is a source of strength.

Why? Because it’s not the challenge itself, but our reaction to it that causes most of our problems, and this we can control.

This concept is best explained by a Buddhist metaphor based on first and second darts:

‘First darts’ are inescapable pains that life throws at us. It might be emotional pain, like a tough breakup, a lost opportunity, or the death of a loved one. Or it might be physical pain, like a sports injury, or putting your hand on a hot stove. These unavoidable pains are the essence of human existence, and if you live and love, some of these will fall on your doorstep.

In reality, however, most of our problems are not caused by first darts. They are caused by how we respond to them. ‘Second darts’ are the darts we throw at ourselves. These are our reactions to first darts, and this is the source of much of our suffering.

Consider this example. You stub your toe on your child’s toy. That’s the first dart. The second dart — anger — follows immediately: “what the hell did you leave that there for”. Second darts frequently trigger more second darts. So now you feel guilty about your anger, and miserable about your guilt. Wrapped up in your misery, you then take it out on your partner.

These second dart reactions are more common than you think.

How many times have you brought the morning traffic into work?

How often have you brought work problems home for dinner?

This is the essence of suffering, secondary reactions to painful events, which are often more destructive than the original experience.

So what should you do?

Instead of resisting first darts, you should accept them completely. If you do have a tough breakup, or lose out on a great opportunity, accept it and move on, because it’s our resistance to pain that causes our suffering.

Take away message

Metaphors have the power to persuade the masses, motivate armies, and help writers to create beautiful prose.

They can also help people to understand abstract concepts; and as a result, avoid psychological traps that are difficult to see.

Next time you find yourself fighting with life, drop the rope.

Next time you find yourself digging to get out of your hole, do something different.

Next time you find yourself resisting first darts, accept them completely.


See this link for a list of metaphors used by therapists and a practitioner’s guide used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Liked this article? Check out brianpennie.com for similar stories, and get the FREE program I developed to make remarkable changes in my recovery from 15 years of chronic heroin addiction.

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Brian Pennie

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Change is possible. I write to show that. Recovered addict | Speaker | Writer | PhD candidate. www.brianpennie.com

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