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A New Metaphor for Therapeutic Self-Discovery

"It's time to retire the onion."

Key points

  • Discovering and communicating aspects of the conscious and unconscious self are key to any therapeutic relationship.
  • Clients and therapists use metaphor and symbol to assist in self-expression.
  • Metaphors are essential to the therapeutic process, not simply for illustration, but they can also serve as a framework to direct the work.
Source: Cheralyn Leeby
The leaves we use to guard the heart.
Source: Cheralyn Leeby

Metaphors define reality and can influence the ways we perceive, think, and act (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003). Psychotherapists use metaphorical images to help clients conceptualize abstract concepts. Clients regularly communicate information about relationships, self-image, or life view through similes and symbols (i.e., “We are like oil and water,” “I’m a basket case,” or “All of life is a stage”).

I’ve often heard therapy described as peeling layers of an onion. I used this imagery myself until I realized its limitations. If understanding ourselves is like peeling an onion, what follows all that tearful discarding? In my own experiment with a real onion, I was left with nothing but a hollow leaf, burning eyes, and smelly hands. Perhaps we need a new food, one that culminates with the heart, to describe the self-discovery process.

I’m here to relegate onions back to the natural gifts they bring salsa and fried rings. I propose that helping professionals embrace the artichoke, a medicinal blossom earning superfood status, as the new metaphor for therapy.

The Glorious Artichoke

Artichokes, a favored food of Roman emperors and mythological gods, grow as a flower or thistle. The leaves, called “bracts,” multiply in a Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio. The leaves can be consumed, one at a time, by scraping the inside ends along your teeth. The “choke,” a fuzzy inedible nest, is scooped away to reveal the delicious core: nutty, sweet, savory, chunky, yet soft, smooth, and enriched by any accompaniment you choose.

Shaped like a luminous, multifaceted diamond, the artichoke heart is carved by the impressions left from months of growth. Our essence is the same; it rests beneath our protective layers, graced and glorified by time, space, circumstance, pressure, and pain.

Below are three ways artichoke is a better metaphor for therapeutic self-discovery.

1. Honoring the Armor

The artichoke’s outside presentation might deem this plant inedible. The hardy leaves, complete with warning thorns, safeguard the plant from scavengers. Similarly, we create defense mechanisms to preserve our most tender hub of innocence-our need to feel safe and loved. With the age-old onion, we peel, possibly cry, and discard past layers. Our reactionary shields might be labeled “maladaptive” without recognizing the ways they serve and shape our hearts.

One college-aged client, I’ll call her Sally, came to therapy struggling with years of depression. Her stated goal was to feel less weighted, emotionally and physically. She used the metaphor of carrying around a “50-pound ball and chain” since childhood. She reminded me, “...and I’m not married.

With the artichoke as our guide, Sally was able to name and explore her armor: the overachiever, class clown, control freak, unapproachable loner, and people pleaser. Sally unknowingly clothed herself in these disguises to camouflage her vulnerability. With new awareness, Sally examined how these masks served her psyche. According to Carl Jung, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” We become lighter by acknowledging those things we deny or repress in ourselves.

Like the artichoke leaves, our presumed safety screens can soften and yield with warmth. Sally recognized that her past roles and insulating behaviors do not have to be automatic reactions to stressors. She can choose when to consciously call in a safety protocol. For example, when walking alone on campus at night, she may choose to espouse the “don’t mess with me” persona.

2. Getting to the Heart Takes Time

Properly preparing and consuming an artichoke requires deliberate presence. It’s impossible to mindlessly gobble down this green globe as fast food. Self-exploration and mindful living mirror this. We cannot race to the naked truth of who we are. The therapeutic process takes time.

Carefully, Sally began to examine her triggered thoughts, troublesome behaviors, and unexpressed emotions. In one session, Sally declared, “this is the ‘I hate my body’ leaf…I can’t even look at myself anymore.” When I asked what was at the heart of that feeling, she tearfully disclosed childhood sexual by her uncle, now deceased. Looking deeper, she was able to see how years of self-loathing blocked close relationships. During that session, Sally broke her silence and made a formal report to authorities about her past abuse. It was essential for us to take the time to unpack each entrenched area of her life and support her new empowered voice.

3. Scooping Away the Choke

When all the artichoke leaves are consumed, we come upon rows of young, yellow petals and a finely woven nest of fibers that tops off the heart. We can envision this as our last attempt to hide our heavily guarded secrets.

Each time we call out areas of perceived inadequacy, ugliness, and disgrace, we unload choking shame. For another metaphorical leaf, Sally explored her self-sabotaging cycles of binging and restricting food. When I asked Sally why she continues to punish herself, she shakily voiced, “I hate myself for not stopping him. I’m just as guilty. I let it happen. I’m disgusting.” By trusting the therapeutic relationship and sharing this tightly held web of belief, Sally opened her heart. She sobbed and released years of silent shame.

For homework (I call it Heartwork), I asked Sally to journal about the following prompt, “What makes your heart sing?”

Sally came back the next session with a multicolored sunrise painting. She said, “I have not painted in years. Yesterday, I did this. This makes my heart sing.”


Therapeutic self-discovery is a process of awakening, shedding, and shifting to uncover our shining core. With grace and acceptance, we can savor each thorny piece of this process as a pathway to healing. Using the artichoke as a therapy framework, Sally could free herself from her weighted past and meet her goals.

Yes, it’s time to retire the onion.

Note: Client's name and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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