My favourite therapy technique: The use of Metaphor.


This is blog is about a subject close to my heart. My favourite therapy technique, which is using metaphor in therapy.

Now straight away, we may hit a problem here, because you could be asking: ‘Hmm, sounds a bit dull, anyway what is metaphor?’ So let’s start there.

What is metaphor?

For therapy and coaching purposes, metaphor is telling a story in order to help a client understand a concept, or to challenge a belief, or to show what can be possible, or…well, you get the picture.

I use metaphor a lot. I find that it works to my strengths and my therapy style. It’s certainly not the only therapy tool I use, but it’s one that I have found to be very successful. It works, because it is  a story with a purpose, and is therefore SYMBOLIC.


Our minds love symbolism. Arguably, we wouldn’t have evolved into being humans without being able to understand symbolism. Symbolism is like a shortcut, it’s a way of saying many things very quickly, quite often using actual symbols, but sometimes using language.

I can give you one example of an ancient, instinctive symbolism that is hard-wired inside of us is the ability to recognise faces from just a vague pattern of colours. Way back in our evolutionary past we weren’t top of the food chain. We were just frightened, wary mammals, obsessed with finding food, defending our territory, having sex, and not being eaten.

This is where our fight/flight/freeze defence mechanism originated, that damn annoying instinctive reaction that is responsible for anxiety and panic attacks. We needed it then though, in order to survive.

What we also needed then was the ability to look at a shadow under a tree, or in a bush, and be able to identify the barely visible patterns of colour that told us that there was a face in there. The face of a predator watching us. Those mammals who were bad at this didn’t survive for long.

So that’s why we see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. Or we find a crisp that looks like Elvis. Or a carrot that looks like a curvy lady posing for a painting.

We are surrounded by modern symbols- road signs, health and safety signs, icons, traffic lights…the list really is endless. Imagine what it would be like if we couldn’t understand those symbols and everything had to be written down. We simply wouldn’t be able to function.

Language too is symbolic- ‘His face was thunderous and dark, I could see he was boiling with rage, the skin on his arms had gone white and he was breathing heavily, like a bull about to charge.’ See what I mean?

Another example is stories, fairytales, and fables. The tortoise and hare teaches us that if we keep going no matter what we can still be successful. It shows us that if we just assume success will come, it won’t.

By now, I’m sure that you get the picture. This leads us on to looking at types of metaphor that can be used in a coaching or therapy scenario.

Types of metaphor: the true story

One type of metaphor is the true story. Because a factual story of success can be really inspirational.

Here’s a typical one:

In 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes, it was the first time anyone had ever done that. In fact, at the time some people considered it to be impossible, that a human being simply couldn’t run that fast. Athletes had been attempting to break the 4-minute barrier for years, but it wasn’t achieved until 1954. But that’s not the interesting part. What is really interesting is that within 6 months, 7 other athletes had broken the 4-minute barrier. Why? Because now they BELIEVED it was possible.’

You can see how useful that story is when working with clients on the self-belief.

Types of metaphor: make up a story

Another type is a story that sounds true but isn’t. You’ve made it up, because you are illustrating a point, you are encouraging and motivating a client, it’s not a history lesson. After all, the race between the hare and the tortoise didn’t actually happen.

Here’s an example:

‘An athlete went to a sports psychologist because they just couldn’t improve their time for the 100 metres sprint. The best they could do was 15 seconds. So the psychologist measured out a triangle on the ground, each side measuring 33.3 metres. Then they relentlessly made the sprinter run one side, stop for a breather, then run the next side and so on. Bit by bit, the rest time between each side was reduced until they were sprinting the whole triangle. Despite the fact the sprinter was running around the corners of the triangle, they managed to run the triangle in 15.6 seconds.

But when they switched to the standard straight 100 metre track, the sprinter shot down it in 12.8 seconds at the first attempt.’

This illustrates the point that breaking up a seemingly impossible task into small steps will build you up slowly to where the original target is within easy reach. And although I just made that up, is based on reality, I have seen sports coach do something similar.

Finally, there is a type of metaphor that I like to use, which I would describe as a semi-hypnotic visualisation.

This is where the client and I go on a journey into a sensory-rich visualisation that is intended to develop a key theme in our therapy and provide an alternative way of seeing a problem, a way that can create the possibility of a solution.

Creating the semi-hypnotic visualisation

I regard this part of therapy to be an art as well as a skill. It’s not easy, but it can bring great rewards if successful.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with one I used to help a lady get over the grief she felt about the death of her grandmother, some 3 years earlier. Her grief was affecting her daily life and she was desperate to move on.

This isn’t a transcript, I don’t write these things down except for the key points I want to cover, these are just a  few excerpts:

‘So here we are after our long walk in the countryside. The landscape is beautiful and peaceful, we are walking up a long, green valley that slips between two majestic snow-capped mountains. It is a cool day, but no clouds in the sky, the sun is bright and seems to pick out every colour in perfection. We can smell the grass under our feet and the scent of blossom in the air…(and so on).

…now we have reached the top of the valley, and all along the top is a strong metal fence, it has to be strong, because when we reach the fence and look down, we notice we are on the edge of a cliff which is so high, you can’t see the bottom, just what look like thin clouds below us…

The landscape disappears into the mist

…open your backpack and take out the brick. You will see that it has the word ‘GRIEF’ written across it. It is heavy, but you realise that now you have a chance to throw it away for good. But you have also noticed something else, the air seems to sparkle, a warm soft, highly scented breeze gently touches your skin, and you look around in surprise. Because you are not alone. Around you now stand your family, the ones who have passed on, and they are all smiling at you. Your grandmother is standing right next to you, she puts an arm around you, smiles, and says ‘It’s OK to let go. ’..

…so, you stand at the edge and throw the brick out, it vanishes, and the weight of it has gone. You know now that whenever you need to think of lost loved ones, they will come to you. They don’t mind if you live your life, that’s what they want you to do…’

Tips to create a good metaphor

So if you want to use this technique, I would suggest that you use the following guidelines:

  • Keep the visualisation specific to the client. For example, if they like mountain climbing, use that. You can use more general visualisations though if you want to. One I like to use is that we are like a sailing ship, moving slowly because we are towing barges full of negative thinking that slow us down. Cut the rope and we are free!
  • The internal logic of the metaphor must work, otherwise it will lose effectiveness.
  • When you construct it, you cannot leave any opportunity for your client to create an alternative and less useful version. That’s why the brick had to disappear into the depths. If there were visible pieces, then the possibility arises that they can be re-assembled. If it had fallen into the sea, there is the chance that it didn’t break and can still be found. The brick HAD to vanish, so that the burden of her grief would vanish too.
  • Do not ever use negatives. If you said ‘although the brick could have survived the fall, it didn’t, it smashed into pieces’, that won’t work because you have introduced the possibility that it could have survived. Our minds betray us, as soon as we picture the possibility of a negative, we can make it happen. That’s why we should never say ‘Today I won’t have a bad day’, because you’ve now given yourself the option that a bad day is possible. If you say ‘Today will be great’, you have just given yourself only one possibility, that it will be great.
  • You can’t dive straight into this, you have to get to know your client well so you can construct a powerful metaphor and you must gain their trust. You also need to work on getting them into the right mindset to accept the message and instruction in your metaphor. That is a skill in itself, it is like the setup process for hypnotherapy. Take your time with this stage, it may take 3 or 4 sessions before you are both ready.
  • Don’t write a metaphor out word for word, otherwise it will sound like you are reading a script, and you have to put some expression into your voice. Also, our minds are wonderful, and it can happen that as we get into the metaphor, your mind can suddenly pop up with an even better story. If you were reading a script you might miss that, or it might throw you off. The client must immerse into the metaphor for it to work.
  • Make it sensory rich. Describe all the things they can see-hear-feel-touch-taste-smell. Also, describe their emotions and feelings. This creates a 3 dimensional experience which makes it more believable and therefore more successful.

I hope that’s been helpful and interesting. Metaphors can be used in any learning environment, used well they can have a huge impact.

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