Making Clichés Work in Therapy By Phil Stark, AMFT on 6/28/22 - 3:54 PM

My work with Nathaniel was focused on the growing intensity of his depression. Things were going badly at work, his intimate relationship was not providing him joy, and he felt increasingly lethargic and unmotivated. His affect was flat and his voice emotionless as he assessed his life through the lens of this depression. I reflected these feelings back to him, showing him the picture he had just painted. Nathaniel seemed to take it in and as we sat with it for a bit and expressed hope that one day he’d get over the sadness. I assured him he would but acknowledged the frustration that comes with not knowing when a bout of depression will end or what can be done to make it end. Nathaniel sighed and said, “I guess the sun'll come out tomorrow.” He groaned and slumped down further down in his seat, as if that phrase had just added rather than reduced the weight of his sadness.

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Phillipa had goals. Our main topic of discussion was dissatisfaction with her career. She was, however, in the process of taking steps to change this. She was exploring other areas of professional interest and talking to people in those fields, preparing both logistically and emotionally to engage in the kind of change she had expressed a desire to experience. After a few sessions in which she felt hopeful and inspired based on positive feedback from friends and family, Phillipa was riding high, until our most recent session, that is, when she learned that the career she most wanted to pursue required an advanced degree that she felt she was not in a position to pursue. Phillipa shook her head forlornly as she verbalized her frustrations, saying, “It just feels like it’s always two steps forward, one step back.”

Ravena craved a committed romantic relationship. We had identified her pattern regarding the development of these types of relationships, and her frustration that they did not end up in the place that she wanted. There was a cycle of intense attraction at first, with both emotional and physical connection, but these enjoyable beginnings always devolved into conflict, with Ravena experiencing difficulty understanding her instincts regarding boundaries and intimacy, and frustration that her instincts seemed to run counter to what she wanted. Ravena became more open to exploring her family of origin and the type of relationship modeling her parents provided, and our work became more about identifying how the best way to work towards positive relationships in the present was to examine the lessons imprinted on her from the past. “I guess I just have to learn to love myself before I can love someone else,” said Ravena, as she rubbed her temples and laughed bitterly in a physical manifestation of the frustration she was feeling inside.


These examples of work with clients are both specific to my experience as a therapist and universal to what it means to be human. The vignettes all demonstrate how, when assessing their progress and desires in therapy, clients often come to a point where they express their feelings and insights through cliché, and how the use of that cliché usually has a negative connotation. Why is this? Why does something as simple and universal as a cliché seem to leave such a bad taste in the mouths of these clients?

A cliché is an overused phrase or opinion that can often mimic an original thought or even epiphany. We call something a cliché when we’ve heard it a million times, so often that any meaning it once had has been eclipsed by our collective shrug when we hear it again. We sometimes experience negative thoughts about ourselves when we use these clichés because it implies we are lacking in original thought. And for some reason, to be lacking in original thought is a bad thing. We should suffer in original ways!

In addition, the fact that we are in therapy can color our response to clichés. When our clients are out in the world interacting with friends and family, they might find themselves using a phrase like “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or the classic “It is what it is” and feel okay about it. Or, more specifically, they don’t feel bad about it. The use of a cliché in these situations seems to pass by without much consideration, with no bad emotional taste being left in the cliché user’s mouth. However, in session our clients are at their most vulnerable, and often come in already feeling depressed or anxious or unsettled, and this baseline combined with the triteness of a cliché can make them feel worse. It’s a common reaction, and a wonderful opportunity to explore what these particular clichés mean and why our clients react the way they do, both in terms of what the clichés mean in general and what they mean to them.

Nathaniel seemed more depressed when he said that the sun will come out tomorrow. It seemed that in trying to make himself feel better, he had actually created more material to be depressed about. I mentioned Nathaniel’s mood and his reaction to the cliché, which he immediately responded to, almost eager to talk about how using this particular cliché made him somehow feel worse, even though the intended outcome was the opposite. I spoke a little about the meaning of clichés, how they come into existence, trying to work backwards from their origin to their original intent. We imagined the first person to use this phrase long ago, perhaps to cheer up a sad friend, and how that friend might have reacted. Nathaniel admitted that yes, this long-ago friend must certainly have been cheered up by this realization that the sun will come out the next day. We took turns interpreting what “the sun will come out tomorrow” actually means, both in terms of life in general and Nathaniel’s specific situation. By the end of the conversation, Nathaniel was sitting up in his chair, was more engaged, and spoke with more passion in his voice. I noted this, and Nathaniel admitted that he felt better. Talking more about clichés and how we react to them helped in this case. Our cliché journey had come full circle, from inspirational to trite and back to inspirational again.

Phillipa became frustrated at the first sign of resistance. After weeks of positive feedback and relative success, she would shut down at the first sign of trouble. She took plenty of steps forward, but those one-step-backs were devastating. We examined more closely the cliché about taking two steps forward and one step back, how this fit into a pattern for her like a dance step. When do we usually talk about things in terms of two steps forward, one step back? It’s usually when we have a goal and that goal feels like it’s far off in the distance, and we are slowly getting closer to it but we’re not moving fast enough to get over the frustration of not being there yet. I assured Phillipa that experiencing this cycle could just as easily be construed as a good thing. Two steps forward minus one step back equals a net gain of one step! For Phillipa, the frustration of not reaching the goal was eclipsing the very real process she was making. Our work together became about reframing the cliché as actually taking one step back from a kind of failure into a healthy break on the path of overall progress, as a necessary step in the dance of personal growth. Examining this cliché helped us realize together that the one step back is just as important as the two steps forward, and in the process we normalized that one backward step.

Ravena was so concerned with finding a partner that she had never pictured herself being alone. Just the idea of talking about what it would be like to live life by herself without a partner made her uncomfortable. The cliché about loving oneself became an opportunity to explore the fear that came up when we discussed the idea of being alone. This led to some significant insight into the nature of Ravena’s intimacy issues when relationships started to become serious, and after some time working on these issues, she noted that it was nice to focus only on her and the things under her control rather than on a relationship. In later sessions when Ravena had reflected on some understanding about why she reacted to some issue in “the old way” and recognized how she could change it, I noted that it seemed like she was really learning to love herself. This time the cliché was met with a smile and a knowing laugh.


Something about talk therapy I particularly enjoy is when the client and I identify a simple thought, perhaps one that is a part of the very foundation of how we see ourselves, and we turn this thought on its head. We examine it from a different perspective. We ask if this thought is still valid. When this occurs, things clients assumed they already knew transformed into opportunities for self-exploration and growth. I also react similarly when a client uses a cliché in a sad, pessimistic way. We take that seeming truth, turn it on its head, and ask, “Why does this cliché that purports to make us happier make us feel just the opposite? Let’s discuss.” This often results in clients begrudgingly admitting that yes, these clichés do have value, and sure, “maybe I should feel better than I do about using this cliché, and perhaps maybe even feel better about my life in general.” These cliché-dependent clients often benefit from the realization that they don’t have to feel bad about engaging in a cliché or have to necessarily feel better just because they happened upon on in a moment of seeming clarity. Sure, it’s trite, but let’s own that. It’s okay to feel trite. Better trite than depressed! Let’s give ourselves permission to not be original. I like to tell my clients that if they find themselves using clichés more often, it’s not something to sulk about, it’s a good thing. It means they can and often do actually see the light at the end of the tunnel and smell the greener grass on the other side of the street. Using and then mining the clichés can be and often are a sign that they are on the right path!

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections