The ‘Learning to Ride a Bicycle’ Metaphor

Mar 07, 2017

“To do great work, a man must be very idle as well as industrious.”

Samuel Butler, 1835-1902

The ‘Learning to Ride a Bicycle’ Metaphor

TISA Description of the Problem: Healing can be a frustrating matter. The path to health – from recovering from substance abuse to breaking a gambling addiction – can often have its ups and downs. As clinicians we are always looking for ways to help clients to better tolerate these frustrations. In the following useful tip, Edward Rubin, Psy.D. sheds some refreshing light on how to approach this important task through the clever use of metaphor.

Tip: When working with clients who have become demoralized about changing a problematic behavior, such as drinking, drug use, and gambling, I like to use a metaphor related to learning to ride a bicycle. I ask clients if they know how to ride a bike. Most often the answer is “yes.” I ask them to recall how they learned – that it took awhile, and, they often had to fall off before learning how to master all of the many complex tasks involved; maintaining balance, learning to shift gears, braking effectively.

I point out that the behavior they now want to change is like learning to ride a bike. Besides learning to stop doing something – such as drinking – there are a lot of things to learn. They need to learn how to develop a new sense of “balance,” to anticipate bumps and turns, to learn how to apply the brakes to urges and to shift gears in motivations and who they hang out with. Bottom line – occasionally they may fall off the bike, but at such times they need to get back on and keep practicing just as they did when they learned to ride a bike.

With practice, they will start to figure things out. Even if they fall off again, they have learned a lot and if they just get back on, just as they did when learning to ride their bikes, gradually they will get the hang of it. Falling off does not mean that one has to quit riding the bike, it means one has the opportunity to learn the next lesson. I find that this often helps to positively mobilize clients. They leave the office with an invigorated sense of purpose and a revitalized sense of determination.

TISA Follow-up: This tip rings true on a basic human level. It is an intriguing and potent metaphor. It also demonstrates an almost universal application because most clients have learned how to ride a bike. It also works from the perspective that it builds off of past mastery, subconsciously reminding a client “that you learned a tough task before – riding a bike – and you can learn a tough task now – getting clean and sober.”

I would also add that the metaphor can be generalized well beyond substance abuse work to almost any mental illness. All mental illnesses require the patient to learn new skills and to tolerate the ups and downs of the sometimes arduous recovery process. Thanks to Edward Rubin for an outstanding tip.

Tip provided by:

Edward M. Rubin, Psy.D.
Aurora Sinai Medical Center
Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic
Milwaukee, Wisconsin