Book Review—Metaphor in Practice: A Professional’s Guide to Using the Science of Language in Psychotherapy

Niklas Törneke, in his book, Metaphor in Practice, provides a very helpful guide to understanding and using metaphors in mental health counseling. The book is divided into two primary sections. The first section reviews research on metaphors and establishes support for metaphors being appropriate for counseling. The second section describes how metaphors are structured and can be used to support the counseling goals of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). For those only interested in the practical use of metaphors, it is possible to skip section one. However, both sections contain valuable information.

In part one of the book, Törneke delves into linguistic and psychological research into metaphors, connecting those findings to the theory underlying ACT, namely, relational frame theory (RFT). RFT puts forward the view that the process of developing language and the ability to function in the world involves perceiving and internalizing relationships. ACT was developed from RFT and contains a foundational belief that the internalized, maladaptive relating of thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and events is the basis for most mental illness. The therapeutic approach in ACT is to change those internalized and maladaptive relationships. Metaphors are highlighted as a particularly helpful way of shifting those relationships because the function of metaphors is to expand understanding by relating something that needs to be better understood, the target, to something else more easily understood, the source. Metaphors are presented as a tool to guide the transformation of maladaptive relationships into adaptive ones. This first section, in addition to expanding understanding of metaphors, provides an informative introduction to RFT and the therapeutic approach that grew out of it, ACT.

In part two of Metaphor in Practice, the book shifts from theoretical to practical. It highlights three stages in the behavioral change process of ACT: establishing the relationship between behaviors (with thoughts and emotions understood as behaviors) and their problematic consequences; developing an internal ability to observe one’s own internal processes (e.g., thoughts, emotions, physical sensations); and helping the client clarify what is important in life and making steps toward what is important. For each of those stages, examples are given of how metaphors can support the goals of the stage. In each of the examples, the structure of the metaphor is dissected to reinforce an understanding of its constituent parts along with its purpose. In addition to verbal metaphors, experiential metaphors, metaphors in which the source is demonstrated through physical exercises, are described with examples, further expanding the reader’s understanding of what may be possible with metaphoric interventions. The organization of metaphor structure and the connection of metaphors to ACT stages and creative interventions provide a clear guide to using metaphors in practice, especially as presented through many well-written and detailed examples.

Metaphor in Practice is a book that is approachable and user-friendly. It provides excellent examples of metaphor usage that may be easily incorporated into readers’ professional practice. It also provides a foundational understanding of metaphors that will allow readers to adaptively use metaphors for specific therapeutic purposes. From a critical lens, the review of literature support for metaphors in section one is helpful, though simplistic. It creates an awareness of research support but does not deeply explore the breadth of literature or address some research findings, such as those of Bohrn, Altmann, and Jacobs (2012), Citron and Goldberg (2014), Citron, Güsten, Michaelis, and Goldberg (2016), and Fetterman, Bair, Werth, Landkammer, and Robinson (2016), that connect metaphor usage to increased emotional processing and emotional experiencing. The connection to emotion has a direct relevance to metaphors in counseling practice and may have strengthened and expanded the foundation for using metaphors in counseling. Though the research review could be strengthened, it does accomplish its goal of being informative and extracting core information that is beneficial for counselors to know. There is also a strong agenda within the book to connect metaphor findings to RFT and ACT, which may not be of interest to those with different theoretical orientations. The practice portion of the book is well-developed and explained, but it must be noted again that the descriptions of metaphor use are all related to stages in ACT. For those not interested in ACT, this may be a barrier. However, even for those not interested in ACT, the clear descriptions of metaphors make their use adaptable to other theoretical purposes. Therefore, and in summation, I recommend this book for counselors and believe the information contained will be interesting and clinically valuable.




Bohrn, I. C., Altmann, U., & Jacobs, A. M. (2012). Looking at the brains behind figurative language—A quantitative meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies on metaphor, idiom, and irony processing. Neuropsychologia, 50, 2669–2683. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.07.021

Citron, F. M. M., Güsten, J., Michaelis, N., & Goldberg, A. E. (2016). Conventional metaphors in longer passages evoke affective brain response. NeuroImage, 139, 218–230. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.06.020

Citron, F. M. M., & Goldberg, A. E. (2014). Metaphorical sentences are more emotionally engaging than their literal counterparts. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 26, 2585–2595. doi:10.1162/jocn

Fetterman, A. K., Bair, J. L., Werth, M., Landkammer, F., & Robinson, M. D. (2016). The scope and consequences of metaphoric thinking: Using individual differences in metaphor usage to understand how metaphor functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 458–476. doi:10.1037/pspp0000067




Törneke, N. (2017). Metaphor in practice: A professional’s guide to using the science of language in psychotherapy. Oakland, CA: Context Press.


Reviewed by: Alwin Wagener, NCC, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro


The Professional Counselor