Expanding Metaphors in Therapy

iCAP Services logoMetaphors are part of every day language and are typically used as a figure of speech to illustrate a connection between two seemingly unrelated things. They usually offer a parallel description to bring clearer meaning to a situation.

Clients often use metaphors during therapy to describe a problem they are trying to work through. Therapists may miss the deeper meaning of these metaphors for a number of reasons, so rather than exploring those metaphors to gain insider knowledge of their client’s experience, a therapist may instead impose their own silent interpretations on what these metaphors actually represent.

The following is an example of expanding a metaphor during therapy so that the therapist and the client can gain more knowledge and understanding of the client’s own experiences.

I was sitting with a client who through years of therapy and personal growth had begun to allow herself to experience and express her emotions rather than suppress them. Already a cancer survivor from many years ago, she had, in recent weeks, discovered the disease had returned and was again facing the prospect of surgery and lengthy treatment.

In this session, she talked openly about affects of her cancer. During her previous bout, her impetus was to get on with having treatment and everything would be fine. Back then, there was no time to address her anxiety, fear, anger or grief. She had a list of things to do and curing her cancer was placed on that list along with looking after her young family, the household and tending to her career. So she methodically ticked off the items on her list whilst her emotions remained safely packed away.

What she was facing at today was a different story. Her present fear revolved around her strength to fight the disease. She felt weaker and less capable and she attributed this lack of strength to the idea that she now allowed herself to feel her emotions. She was anxious that her emotions would swamp her and zap all the strength she needed to channel into conquering her illness.

It was at this point she talked about the ‘double edged sword’ of experiencing emotions. She felt elation at being able to finally experience them but was also fearful of being swamped by them during this critical time.

The metaphor bought to me my own picture of what the ‘double edged sword of experiencing emotions’ might look like but I became curious to discover what it meant for my client.

I began by asking my client to describe her sword. How big might this double edged sword be and what did it look like. Her description unfolded a large, jewelled, medieval style sword which she likened to King Arthur’s Excalibur.

This struck me as a powerful image. I was intrigued to know more as my own initial image of a double edged sword had been quite different.

Therapist: Can you lift it or is it too heavy?

Client: No, I am holding it, it’s not too heavy

T: What are you doing with it?

C: I have it by my side, in readiness

T: Readiness?

C: Yes, I am ready to use it

T: Can you wield it above your head?

C: No, I don’t need to at the moment, I am just holding it

T: So there isn’t a sense of attacking or defending with it

C: No, I just have it

We spent a little more time expanding on what her double edged sword could do for her and what it stopped her from doing. Expanding her metaphor had a remarkable affect on my client. Her demeanour towards her ‘double edged sword’ changed dramatically. What was initially considered a negative force was now taking on the persona of a useful ally. My client became more and more accepting of her ‘sword’.

She realised that her double edged sword (i.e. her emotions) could be a tool to help her through her challenges. She had it by her side in readiness. She could use her sword to slice through barriers and call upon it to voice her needs rather than suppress them. Even though at times, it felt awkward and large, she became more confident she could put it to good use.

Towards the end of the session, we once again returned to her sword metaphor. We finished the expanding exercise by asking her to imagine what it would be like to use her sword to slice through the overwhelming anxiety and fear she experienced about allowing herself to feel sadness, grief and anger. This gave her a completely new angle. She realised that her emotions were not the problem, nor was the double edged sword. Instead it was her anxiety of what might be; the unknown. The image of slicing through the anxiety and of freeing herself from it was empowering for my client. She realised she already possessed the tools in readiness to do it.

To conclude, whilst the therapist may at times be considered to possess expert knowledge for a particular presenting problem, the use of metaphors to describe a client’s own experience of their problem is inspired by the individual. One in which the only expert is the client.

This article was first published online at Ezine Articles in 2009.

Tina Pitsiavas is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist in private practice in Wollongong and Sydney.

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