Psychological Traps Are Everywhere: Here’s How To Avoid Them

3 powerful metaphors to help you see the world more clearly


Brian Pennie

3 years ago | 5 min read

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.

Metaphors, however, can have many purposes. They can be used to enhance writing, make persuasive arguments, motivate people, serve as symbols, and explain abstract concepts such as love, life, and success.

Here are 3 of my favourites:

“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 extremely useful for explaining abstract psychological concepts such as suffering, anxiety, acceptance.

When used correctly, the psychological properties of one reference point transfer over to the other, thus providing people with a more concrete understanding of their problems.

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

1. 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 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.

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.

2. Fighting your anxiety monster

A person struggling with anxiety will often try to fight back. But this only creates more anxiety. A great metaphor for this is a tug-of-war with an anxiety monster.

You have one end of the rope, and the monster has the other. In between both of you, there’s a bottomless pit. You pull as hard as you can, but the monster is stronger and pulls you closer to the pit. You’re stuck. What should you do?

‘Drop the rope.’

Yes, the monster’s still there, but you’re no longer in a struggle with it. It’s the same for anxiety. When you stop struggling, you rob it of its power.

I heard another great monster metaphor from my psychologist friend Nick Wignall. Imagine you’re driving down the road of life, and the anxiety monster jumps into the car demanding control of the wheel.

You have a few choices. You could let the anxiety monster drive, which means letting anxiety control your actions. Or you could throw the monster out of the car. Nick refers to the latter in terms of drinking alcohol or distracting yourself with social media.

It’s fairly obvious that neither of these options help — you’ll likely crash the car in both scenarios. Thankfully, there’s a third option: Just like dropping the rope — when the anxiety monster is still on the other side of the pit — you can let the monster come along for the ride, but insist that it stays in the back seat.

In other words, instead of fighting anxiety or allowing it to take control of your actions, you can acknowledge that it’s there, set healthy boundaries, and try to get on with your day as best you can.

3. Digging yourself out of 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.

It might be a people-pleaser who keeps saying yes, a workaholic who continues to work 70 hours per week, or a person with social anxiety who refuses to leave the house.

For people stuck in such situations, this metaphor can help them to better understand their problems. It can point them towards the futile nature of their actions, and hopefully, help them to change their ways.

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 avoid psychological traps that are difficult to see.

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

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

Next time you find yourself digging your way out of a hole, stop digging.


Created by

Brian Pennie







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