Therapy metaphors for change work

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A metaphor is a figure of speech. It compares two things, saying that one thing is another, e.g. “Time is money”. For the client and the therapist, therapy metaphors are a great way of expressing, more simply, complex ideas, thoughts or concepts. Also like a metaphor is a simile. It compares one thing to another using words such as, “like” or “as”, such as, “He is as cold as ice”. One of the advantages of using metaphors is that they engage the imagination and can more easily (than just literal fact) evoke a thought, memory or mood and help the client to make connections to their own life. Some clients will be very literal in their language, calling a spade a spade! These clients will often respond well to a plain-speaking hypnotherapist. Whereas, other clients will use more figurative language to communicate. These clients will often appreciate a therapist who uses similar figures of speech to communicate with them. The appropriate use of therapy metaphors in these circumstances can build rapport.

We are exposed to numerous metaphors throughout our day, whether listening to the radio, television, looking on the internet, reading a book, or simply chatting with friends or colleagues. There are numerous examples in music, such as, “I’m the sunshine in your hair, I’m the shadow on the ground, I’m the whisper in the wind, I’m your imaginary friend” (I’m already there – Lonestar), with the meaning of comparing themselves to everyday parts of someone’s life. Another example is, “You’re a failing star, you’re the getaway car, you’re the line in the sand when I go too far” (Everything – Michael Buble), conveying examples of the breadth of feeling involved. Metaphors are even commonly used in political speeches, such as, “But there are many mountains yet to climb” (Ronald Reagan Inaugural Address 1985).

hypnotherapy metaphors ronald reagan inaugural address

A client may use metaphors at any point throughout a hypnotherapy session. During the intake (consultation) they may use them to more graphically and quickly convey meaning, such as “he is a pig” or, “she is as sharp as a tack at aged 90”, even, “my boss is as dull as dishwater”. They may also use metaphors when establishing goals for therapy, such as, “I want to be as fit as a fiddle for the 5K fun run next month”. During the hypnotherapy session itself, metaphors may arise from the client to describe their experience, such as, “the pain has changed from a red-hot poker to a warm glow”. The client may even engage with metaphors when discussing self-care and homework activities. For example, a client might say they are, “snowed under with work” and have little time for self-hypnosis.

Some of the metaphors a client may use during the session can be context-related. Love could be compared to so many different things, such as a battlefield, a fine wine, a force of nature, a journey, a fragile flower, a thrill ride, an ocean and a melting pot. The context will more clearly determine the meaning. How things are said within a context are also important. For example, with, “Does she think I am made of money?”, and, “it’s like I am made of money”, these can be interpreted as either not having, or having money. It is important to pay attention to the context, particularly if noting a metaphor during your consultation process. The client may use them to express a viewpoint, an attitude, even a situation or feeling where they find literal words inadequate.

Some metaphors are so commonly used that they can be considered clichés, such as, “and they all lived happily ever after”, “only time will tell” and “every cloud has a silver lining”. On one hand, a client can connect to the wider meaning of a statement such as “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. However, it can also generate resistance if a client feels that your response is superficial, or have already made negative associations with that phrase. Although a literal, plain-speaking client will often appreciate a plain-speaking therapist who makes limited use of metaphors, a non-literal client may find a metaphor a more effective way to give meaning to what is said. A metaphor can also be a highly effective vehicle for persuasion and influence.

hypnotherapy metaphors influence persuasion friends talk sofa chat conversation

Some metaphors become commonly associated with certain actions or attitudes. For example, someone undergoing cancer treatment may talk about their ‘journey’. This can be used to illustrate that the person feels they are on a path towards a destination. Other clients in a similar situation may talk in terms of a ‘battle’ a ‘fight’ or a ‘war’. Because metaphors can be powerful, creating lasting images and ideas, to avoid confusing a client (unless you wish to deliberately), avoid mixing your metaphors. For example, “our training programme will teach your mind’s eye to listen out for client metaphors”. A mind’s eye doesn’t listen!

When structuring your metaphor, there needs to be an explanatory structure that moves from one familiar point of experience to another point of experience. You will communicate factual (tangible, literal) and abstract (intangible conceptual) information to move someone from their perspective of reality to a perspective of what is possible. By giving the client something that their brain can logically relate to, the sensory words within the metaphor can then communicate more effectively.

Therapy metaphors offer the hypnotherapist a wonderful way of communicating with the client’s current cognitions, attitudes and beliefs. They direct a client’s thoughts, feelings and emotions, using sensory imagery which engages the client on a different level to something more behavioural (do), cognitive (think) or analytical (feel). A good metaphor can circumvent a client’s conscious or subconscious resistance by communicating on a more perceptive level to lead them to new understanding.


Types of therapy metaphor

There are numerous different metaphor themes that you can employ within the therapy session. By taking the concept of the metaphor and adapting it to suit the therapy client, you are able to best meet their particular needs. Popular therapy metaphor concepts include:

Battle metaphor: Competition, win or lose or struggle. For example, a courtroom scenario, putting the unhealthy belief in the dock.

Building metaphor: Strong foundations, such as building a bridge from the present to the future.

Classroom: Learning and being open to new knowledge. For example, making a cake, following a new recipe.

Conduit metaphor: A channel for information, a gatekeeper, flowing or blocked flow, capacity or overflowing, breaking, or leaking. For example, an old-fashioned telephone exchange and unplugging the connection that takes the knee pain communication to the brain.

Container metaphor: Putting something into or taking something out of, transporting something of value, holding safe, or keeping locked away from access. For example, a piece of paper holding information is a container.

Control metaphor: Directing action or inaction. For example, the control room of the mind, turning up or down controls relating to the mind and body.

Fairground ride: Roller-coaster (life twists, turns) and house of mirrors (different perspectives of the same person).

Garden metaphor: Relationships, behaviours, habits, weeding or growth. For example, the seasons as relating to phases in life.

Journey metaphor: Getting lost, having a destination, challenges, up/down/obstacles, climbing a mountain, or a race. For example, taking a path of stepping stones through a patch of vicious weeds to soft comfortable grass.

Quest metaphor: Having a mission, going on an adventure, working with others or overcoming self-doubt. For example, following a trail of clues to reach a castle.

Symbolic metaphor: Representing an old or new way of being or responding. For example, a pen to represent the client being able to write their own future.

Transmission metaphor: Codes of information and interpretation. For example, a computer translation programme that gives insight into their partner’s behaviours.

By using the information gained from the client during the consultation and the therapy process, and being guided by the client’s own use of metaphor, you can use metaphors within any part of the hypnotherapy session, whether conversationally or during hypnosis. They can be used as another layer of therapy, beyond your use of direct and indirect suggestion and your behavioural, cognitive, analytical or regression approaches. Alternatively, they can be used to reinforce the work that you have already engaged in with the client. They can even be effectively employed simply by themselves, allowing the client to draw the meaning from the metaphor in their own way. In whichever way you use therapy metaphors, it is a good idea to practice creating your own metaphors, both simple ones and longer stories or tales. Find opportunities to practice and reflect on how well they were received and remember what you could do differently the next time to enhance their effectiveness.

If you’d like to learn more about therapy metaphors and how you can integrate them into your own therapy practice, check out our Hypnotherapy Metaphors 101 online training course:

Hypnotherapy Metaphors 101 therapy metaphors


We hope you’ve enjoyed this blog on therapy metaphors. If you have any more questions about this topic or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!

– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
(Hypnosis-Courses.com Trainer)

Dr Kate Beaven-Marks Hypnosis Courses Online hypnosis training

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