Useful Metaphors in Trauma Healing
Whether our subject is the slow process of therapy, the nature of dissociation or the relationship between parts and the Self, metaphors can be particularly helpful when communicating with trauma survivors. Schema therapist and founder of Heal Your Trauma, Dan Roberts, shares some of his favourite metaphors that serve to both psychoeducate and relationally engage clients with trauma histories.
Over the course of my 11 years in private practice, many of my clients have dropped out of therapy, and there have been therapeutic ruptures too numerous to count. Most of those ruptures have been healed but, sadly, some have not. One reason for these challenges is that it can be so hard for trauma survivors to trust.
It is also hard for trauma survivors to be patient, because there are often desperate young parts inside, hoping that you will finally be the one that heals them. So there can be both a sense of mistrust and an urgency with this client group, which can trigger our caretaking parts, and we then find ourselves working harder and harder until we’re exhausted.
Metaphors for communicating the process of therapy
Helping clients understand that trauma therapy is a long, slow process is one of the many ways in which metaphors can be incredibly useful. Starting with simple metaphors, such as therapy being a marathon, not a sprint, can be helpful. And as part of my initial psychoeducation, I also help clients understand that there are natural healing processes in their mind, brain and body.
Therapist: I know how badly parts of you want to change and totally understand that. I also know that these young parts can be desperate for change because they have been in pain for so long. But it’s helpful for them and you to understand that healing trauma is a long, slow, incremental process.
Client: I guess so, but isn’t there anything we can do to speed things up? I’m trying to be patient but I am so anxious all the time, it’s making me crazy.
T: I know, that totally makes sense. But remember that trauma therapy is all about healing those young parts of you that were so hurt when you were a child. And we have natural healing processes in the brain and body, which can’t be forced or rushed. Think of it this way – imagine you had a bad cut on your hand. What would you do?
C: Go to the hospital.
T: Right. And you would see a doctor, who would clean the cut, stitch it up and then bandage the wound. But would the doctor actually heal your wound?
C: No, I guess my body would do that.
T: Exactly! The doctor just creates the optimal conditions for your body to heal itself. And when we’re healing traumatised young parts, we do the same thing – I just create the optimal conditions for your mind, brain and body to heal themselves. And that can’t be rushed, it takes time.
C: OK, I get what you mean now.
This is a good example of using a metaphor to do multiple things at once:
- Make sense of something that might be hazy or overly theoretical, especially for someone whose prefrontal cortex is not fully active
- Validate and soothe the hurt, young, desperate parts who want a quick fix
- Get the client’s internal system to start buying in to the therapy
- Create a sense of trust, because you are not making grand promises you can’t keep
Metaphors for explaining dissociation
For trauma survivors, having protective parts that help them detach or dissociate has been essential to survive their unbearable experiences. One way of normalising and explaining dissociation is using the metaphor of circuit breakers in the brain.
Tell your clients that, when we experience anything traumatic, it’s too much to handle – your brain feels overwhelmed. So, like trip switches being thrown when there is a surge of power, dissociation involves your brain shutting down some of its systems to protect you from the overwhelming surge of physical, emotional and mental energy.
And because parts of the brain are shut down, weird stuff happens – like feeling your body is either tiny or huge, seeing everything recede into the distance, or even feeling like you are floating above the scene and looking down from the ceiling.
I find that this metaphor makes even the most bizarre and bewildering dissociative experiences understandable – and so much less anxiety-provoking.
Metaphors for making sense of parts and the Self
Most trauma-informed models are parts-based, with some way of formulating the personality based on the concept of ‘multiplicity of self’. Schema Therapy, Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS) and the Structural Dissociation Model all describe an internal system of parts. Many of us in the trauma field now integrate the IFS model into our practice, so if you’re using this parts model, you need to explain to – often resistant or sceptical – clients why they are not just Bill or Betty, but have multiple subpersonalities inside.
In my experience, it can be straightforward to explain the idea of protective parts (either managers or firefighters) guarding hurt, young parts (exiles) to clients. But the Self can be tricky for us to explain and clients to grasp – especially trauma survivors who, when they first come to see us, may have no sense of a Self at all.
Here are two metaphors I have found helpful for that:
- Explain to clients that when they are triggered and their parts are highly activated, it’s like a stormy sea, with winds howling and waves surging on the surface. But venture beneath the waves and, the deeper you get, the calmer it is. I then explain that the waves are like highly energised, activated parts, while the Self is like the deep sea – always there, always calm and steady, however stormy things might get for us.
- You can also use a metaphor of the Self as a warm, energy-giving sun above the clouds. When someone is triggered, and highly blended with their parts, they might lose sight of the sun (Self) completely. Ask your client to imagine flying in a plane. When they take off it’s a cloudy day, with a thick bank of dark, stormy clouds overhead (activated parts/painful thoughts and feelings). But as the plane gains altitude, it breaks through the clouds to reveal an infinite blue sky, with a blazing golden sun above them. Just as the sun is always there, above the clouds, so your client’s Self is always present, with its calm, warm, healing energy. And the work of therapy is to help them access this energy more easily and often, which you can help with.
The most important thing is that metaphors feel authentic for you and helpful for your clients, so feel free to adapt them or use your own. Good luck in your work with this challenging, but hugely rewarding group of people.
What is Trauma and Can it Be Healed?, the first of a series of webinars from Dan Roberts for individuals with a trauma history or those who support them, will take place on Saturday 26th February 2022. See www.danroberts.com for more information.