The Power of Metaphors

Posted on January 14th, 2013

Therapy is about changing your life from the inside outward.* Changing your life in therapy means changing your view, not the everyday view out your living room window, but the deeper view of your psyche. From this change, new thoughts, feelings and actions will flow.

Metaphors are stones tossed into the pond of your consciousness, realigning your view as their waves reverberate. They also lighten the emotional challenge of whatever concern they address.

You’re living in a high-rise on pillars, and over the years it has become uncomfortable. The floors slant, the walls are askew, and the view from the windows is off. All of this is because one of the supporting pillars is not straight. To fix this support—while you live in the building—the building has to first be shored up with a temporary support column. When this is in place, the unsteady pillar can be taken down and re-erected so that it does its job properly. Then the temporary column can be removed and the building stands on its own again, now secure.

This is a metaphor for therapy itself. Told to someone in the midst of a therapeutic journey, it can crystallize a clear understanding of the process in a way no other language can. This is the power of metaphors in therapy. They focus what is happening at a particular moment in a way which can dynamically move the process along.

Most metaphors are not this complex.  More compact metaphors can come up often in therapy:

For a client who is considering moving ahead with therapy but who fears that move: This is not about jumping out of a plane and hoping your parachute works. We’re talking about walking forward, one step at a time. And I’ll be walking next to you.

For a client who is opening up to a larger experience of difficult emotions: It’s like a dam bursting, explosive and very messy. But after the dam bursts and everything blocked behind it rushes out, the water flows more easily and you’ll find your level with it.

How do metaphors actually work? Metaphors are not stories. Their impact is not dependent on the listener thinking through the story and then considering how to apply its message to him/herself. Metaphors work almost instantaneously, slipping easily past the thinking mind and registering more deeply, by organizing disordered, unclear elements in relation to already known images. Metaphors are change agents, clear lights cutting through fogs of mental and emotional confusion. The most effective ones rely on imagery personally relevant to the person hearing them.

Metaphors also have to be used sparingly. Too many of them and you’ll begin to feel like you’re in The Hobbit. But where there is something important to be understood, and it cannot be made clear directly and easily, a metaphor can make the case in a way which moves therapy forward.

*In distinction to activities meant to change your life from the outside inward, such as Army training or joining a cycling club.

Posted in Change

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.