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  • Mary Katherine L

Metaphors For Coping: You Are a Cardboard Box

Two posts ago I discussed why thought-stopping is an ineffective coping strategy. In my last post and this one, I offer two metaphors that can be used as alternative coping strategies.

Clients often ask me, "Will this [insert an unpleasant thought, feeling, etc.] ever go away?" I always answer truthfully: "Maybe, maybe not." I explain how we can reduce the distress associated with whatever it is that they want to go away. Then, I share the metaphor of a cardboard box.

Imagine that you are a cardboard box, and each experience you have adds something to that box. When you interact with something, it's like dropping a ball into that box. It bounces around and hits some of what's been added, triggering certain thoughts, feelings, images, urges, and physical sensations. The ball is most likely to bounce against what's been added recently and what's been added more than once. As more gets added to the box, the ball still has a chance of hitting something that was added only a few times or a long while ago, but that chance shrinks smaller.

For example, if my experiences added a lot of shame to my cardboard box, and someone expresses feeling disappointed in me, the ball that gets dropped from that interaction is probably going to bounce against shame and more shame and more shame, activating thoughts like "I'm a failure," feelings of self-hatred, urges to hide, an image of my parent's disapproving look, and a physical sensation of my chest tightening.

But in this example I'm going to therapy, and I'm adding validation, self-compassion, and boundaries to the box. Someone expresses feeling disappointed in me, and the ball that gets dropped bounces against that recently added self-compassion before hitting an old memory of shame and then slamming into words of validation the therapist has repeated to me. I feel some distress, but I know how to cope with it, and it's not the entirety of what's triggered.

So, the goal isn't to eliminate something from the cardboard box that is you — that's impossible. The goal is to expand that cardboard box, filling it up with experiences that encourage action toward your values and hopes.


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