An Insight Into Metaphor in Therapy

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Feel like you’re talking to a brick wall? Are you the black sheep in the family? Feeling blue? Or is hope on the horizon?

We use metaphors and idioms like these all the time in the English language and, for the most part, we understand each other. When someone says to you they are burying their head in the sand about an issue, it’s likely you instinctively know what they mean. Using metaphors and idioms like this becomes a short cut to understanding.

Churchill famously described his depression as The Black Dog. This metaphor immediately conjures up all sort of imagery which goes some way to understanding what he might have been experiencing.

So it follows then that in the counselling room, when my clients are trying to bring me into their world, metaphors get used a lot.

Telling a story of an event is one thing, full of facts and truths. One side of the story perhaps but nonetheless true for that person. But emotions are complex, and messy.

If you take sadness for example, one person’s sadness might be anguish, pain and grief. Where another’s experience of sadness may be being melancholy and wistful. Even our use of language can be ambiguous, with a word not quite explaining things for us properly. Emotions are very subjective, and changeable, so adding in a metaphor can really help to communicate the nuances of how we’re feeling.

If I tell you I’m depressed it might not adequately describe for you just how it feels. Whereas if I say it feels like I’m sinking in quicksand you will likely conjure up an image that helps you to understand more of what’s going on for me.

In counselling when a client brings their own metaphor to something, I might explore that some more with them. So if procrastination or low motivation feels like a brick wall has suddenly gone up in front of them I might ask them to describe the wall. What it looks like, feels like, how high is it etc.

To get really in deep with that metaphor is to know much more about what’s really going on. It provides a connection between me and my and client and it’s a way of communicating through pictures. It can also bring enlightenment, as someone realises something about the image they hadn’t noticed before.

If we imagine that brick wall now, what if it was dark, slippery and 30 feet high? It might feel like a completely impenetrable barrier. However, maybe when we explore it some more there is a weak spot, right at eye level, a chink of light shining through. Perhaps there’s a way in (or out) after all – we just have to get more creative about how we find it.

We might then think about the ways we could get over, through or around the wall. Is there a ladder nearby? A rope? Someone to give us a leg up? Who might that be? What would that be like? Or maybe the weak spot can be prodded just a little, and a gap look enough to get through opens up.

Creative problem solving like this can help someone to see possibilities that they couldn’t before.

Back to that depression and the quicksand I mentioned earlier. The idea that the more you struggle, the further you sink sounds really scary. But what if you didn’t struggle, but moved slower. Perhaps acknowledged and accepted the feelings – what would that be like? Who is at the edge of the quicksand? What could they use to get to you? Thinking creatively in this way can not only help others understand, but can also help you to see that there may be a way out of what seems at first like an impossible situation. Importantly, it can start to provide a bit of hope.

Try it Yourself

Working with metaphors with a therapist can be really powerful. But if you wanted to have a go yourself, have a think what metaphors you might use for your emotions or problems? How might you be able to think about them in a different way?

You could try writing about your metaphors, journaling can be so useful to get things out of your head and onto paper. Or you could draw or paint them. There are many other creative ways of looking at the imagery – perhaps you can mould it out of clay, create some beach art, or build a world in a computer game like Minecraft which features what your metaphor looks like.

Look at it from different angles, try to get a different perspective and see what insights you can gain. Talk about to to someone else and see what insights they can offer.

And as a counsellor, I use metaphor all the time too. I often liken counselling to starting with a big messy cupboard where the contents spill out no matter how tight you shut the door. Then in therapy we work through it all, looking at the items, exploring where they’ve come from and what importance they have in your life. Then I help you neatly stack them back in a more organised and deliberate way. For me the power of this metaphor is that it helps me to explain how counselling can support someone through their life.

Amy is a counsellor specialising in neurodivergence and the founder of Newglade Counselling. She has created a team of neurodivergent counsellors who work online and face to face around Canterbury, Kent. Amy also provides parent support sessions, clinical supervision and delivers training in therapy and neurodivergence. For more information about our services contact us below.

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