Have you ever had anyone take a parking space you were waiting for and later tell a colleague that you were “boiling mad”, or perhaps heard someone refer to a weepy friend as them having “cried a river”? Regardless of the weather, it is unlikely that you were actually boiling, nor that the tears cried formed an observable river. These are examples of metaphors. They are a type of language (‘figurative’) that offers a comparison between two things without actually using any comparison words (e.g. ‘like’, ‘than’, or ‘in contrast’) where those things are unrelated, whilst sharing some common characteristics. Thus, when you talk of something (object), somewhere (location) or someone (person) as being something else, whilst not actually being ‘something else’ you are speaking metaphorically. For example, “Rory is a rock”. This is a metaphor because whilst he isn’t actually a lump of solid mineral, he may have similar qualities, such as being solid, sturdy, or strong.
Metaphors can be more descriptive than the literal equivalent, such as “I was very angry” or “she cried a lot”. Some phrases you may already use include:
“My last client was a breeze” (they were not difficult to work with)
“The hypnotist’s voice was music to his client’s ears” (the sound was pleasing, or melodic)
“Laughter is the best medicine” (it can make the client, or therapist, feel better)
“He cut her down with his words” (the words were not actually a weapon, but felt sharp)
“My partner gives me pearls of wisdom” (perhaps they say smart stuff!)
Indeed, metaphors are widely embedded in our everyday language, whether relating to sport, such as “Sport is war minus the shooting” (George Orwell), in art, “Every time I paint, I throw myself into the water in order to learn how to swim” (Édouard Manet) and in the bible, “I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in the darkness” (John 8:12).
Metaphors from famous people can be highly descriptive, such as “Conscience is a man’s compass” (Vincent Van Gogh) and “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree” (Albert Einstein). However, some may take a little more deciphering, like “You’re a falling star, you’re the getaway car. You’re the line in the sand when I go too far” (Everything, by Michael Bublé).
We might be most familiar with metaphors in literature, such as the extended metaphor in William Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”, or in philosophical literature, such as the Poem by Thomas Dylan ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, an extended metaphor encouraging a fight against death and the importance of living.
In writing, metaphors will convey deeper meaning and complexity, whilst, at times, increasing the interest factor or attractiveness of what is being said. Curiously they can also enable the writer to be more concise. If you say “the snow covered the field like a blanket” the meaning is succinctly conveyed, without a whole paragraph of literal words to give the same understanding of the widespread nature of the snowfall.
As hypnotherapists, as with many other talking therapists, we are likely to hear our client’s talking in metaphors throughout our session with them. Perhaps they are procrastinating by “sitting on the fence”, or want to learn to manage stress when their boss is “looking daggers at them” or be able to “have their cake and eat it”. On the topic of food, interestingly, the metaphor “you are what you eat” is associated with Anthelme-Brillat-Savarin (‘tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are’) back as far as 1826, conveying that the food we eat influences our mental physical states.
You can work with the client’s metaphors as part of your change process. For example, if they feel as though they are being thrown about on a stormy sea, the sea can become calm. Alternatively, if someone is struggling to stay afloat you could give them a log to sit on that gently takes them to the side of the river.
A lovely example of a therapeutic metaphor is that of thinking of problems like an inflatable ball. If you keep attempting to push the ball under the surface of the water to hide it, it takes a lot of energy to hold the ball there and when you stop pushing it down, the ball bounces back up immediately. It takes a lot less energy to simply let the ball float (instead of stopping the problematic thoughts, let them be there without paying attention or reacting to them). This can be a more comforting metaphor than the use of the quicksand metaphor (the more you struggle, the more you sink).
Another delightful metaphor that adults and children can relate to is that of a train. You use it for exploring, travelling through life’s journey, notice time passing, there are many different applications for this. You might also use a mountain, perhaps for perspective, such as if you are on the mountain you only see what is around you, yet if you step back away from it, you get to see the whole thing. Alternatively, the effort of climbing to the top, to be rewarded by the view or achievement.
The metaphor of the rucksack can be great for limiting beliefs, unhelpful thoughts, unwanted behaviours and many other applications. Perhaps you might invite a client to unpack their rucksack, or even, from a resource-building perspective, pack their rucksack with useful tools. They might like to change part of their rucksack, or even discard it completely (e.g. parts therapy) and find a new rucksack, bag or storage accessory.
Some metaphors for hypnotherapy can require a little more thought. Perhaps the story of the rambler who always throws rose petals as he walks along. When asked by another person in his walking club “why do you throw petals on the path” he replies “it is to keep monsters off the path”. When he is told “but there are no monsters on the path”, his reply is “precisely!” If you use behavioural therapy, this may be an excellent metaphor to work through with your client.
A far simpler metaphor is that of the ‘RESET’ control button/switch. Sometimes, we can get so immersed in one way of responding that it becomes a habit, even when it’s no longer effective. By resetting our behaviour, we can develop a new, more resourceful way of responding. Many different resources can be supported for the client with the addition of metaphors relating to books, poems, quotes, meaningful objects or images, music and even smells and scents.
There are so many different ways that you can incorporate client’s metaphors within your therapy approaches, work to change unhelpful metaphors that the client already has and offer them new, positive and beneficial metaphors. By being descriptive, metaphors for hypnotherapy can help engage the client’s imagination, can build rapport and, as these are figurative, there is little for your analytical or literal client to resist. Overall, they have widespread appeal and application in therapy and are a wonderfully useful tool to consider in your hypnotherapy process.
We hope that this blog on metaphors for hypnotherapy has been helpful to you. 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