Therapeutic Metaphor: Sunflower Seeds

After a lengthy period without adding any new entries to this site (has it really been almost a year!?) I am ready to return to writing blog posts. I took some time out to write a professional article for publication, but that's done now. 

Today I'm going to add to my occasional series of posts regarding various "therapeutic metaphors" that I use from time to time in my Atlanta counseling and psychotherapy practice.  I find metaphors to be excellent at highlighting concepts that people can find useful in their lives, often in subtle and unexpected ways. 

Today's topic: sunflower seeds!

Have you ever eaten sunflower seeds out of the shell? You pop a few into your mouth, split the shells with your teeth and extract the seeds with your tongue. The final step is to spit out the shells and eat the seeds. You sure don’t want to either spit out or swallow the whole thing.

This can be a good metaphor for being selective about what to try to digest when you are having a dispute with a loved one. Consider a situation in which two people who love each other  are having a heated argument. Sometimes people get so frustrated that their feelings get really hurt by the slightest thoughtless thing their partner says to them. That’s like swallowing the shells of the disagreement. Other times a person may be so upset that they are unable to accept any constructive comment their partner may offer. This is the equivalent of spitting out the seeds.

The trick is to take what another person says in such a way as to extract some benefit from it, while discarding all the inevitable thoughtless and ill-spoken comments they may say. Since people who are upset can say a lot of mean-spirited things it helps to remember the old saying that "hurt people hurt people"

This is not an easy task when you're emotionally engaged, but with practice you'll get more skilled in learning how to separate what serves your growth, which you should take into yourself, from what has no value and should therefore be discarded as quickly as possible.


Bill Herring LCSW, CSAT is a counselor and psychotherapist in Atlanta who has been in full-time private practice since 1991.  Bill helps people put their lives back together from problematic sexual behavior patterns.