All stories are metaphors. Metaphor stories can deliver therapy and personal change in their own unique way. Metaphor stories are flexible and powerful. We never forget the fairy stories we heard as children. A healing metaphor story can be completely made up and still work in therapy. Stories can be true, and still be a metaphor for something else. Healing stories do not have to be clever, dramatic or even complicated.
Metaphor stories can be one paragraph or one page. Everyone likes hearing a story, and the fact that it is a healing story will pass right under the radar. Telling someone a story about how somebody else solved a problem is an indirect way to get them to think about how they might solve their own problem. Clients think about the stories and examples, and unconsciously find parallels with parts of their own lives, and use the lesson in the story to change how they think about things.
The following collection of healing stories are examples of metaphors that can be used in any part of a therapy session. Metaphor therapy stories make their point in a simple way. It is not necessary to emphasize the point. Even if the listener does not understand the story, or thinks it is not relevant, their subconscious mind will keep going over the metaphor in it until some connection is made. Healing stories can be inserted at any point in a therapy session , and the listener will just regard them as a nice break in the therapy process, while they start working in the background.
When people come to therapy they are sometimes afraid that through the process of change they will lose some essential part of themselves. In fact who you are changes all time as you grow older. People are made up of a collection of many parts, and those parts are continually re-arranging themselves. I wonder if you have ever looked through a kaleidoscope, the child's toy with little bits of colored glass inside? In the kaleidoscope the same number of parts can be made to create millions of different patterns. The exact detail of the patterns is not under your control, but you can turn the lens as many times as you want to create more and more patterns until you find one that you want to keep. I often think of people who come to therapy as having a pattern that they don't like and not being able to change it by themselves. So really, all therapy does is to reorganize life's kaleidoscope into a more pleasing arrangement.
Henry Ford became the richest man in the world by creating and running the Ford Motor Works. He started life as a farm mechanic but became a success because he had a clear idea of how the world worked. He said something that I think you might want to ponder. 'In every situation', he said, 'it doesn't matter whether a man believes he can, or believes he can't, he's right'.
In 1640 Jan Baptista van Helmont, a Flemish physician and chemist, carried out an experiment. He took a pot of soil, and a willow sapling and weighed both. He planted the little tree in the soil and carefully watered it for five years. At the end of the five years he then again weighed the willow tree and the soil. The tree had increased in weight by 164 pounds, but the soil had decreased in weight by less than two ounces.
Where had the material of the tree come from? Out of thin air. At the time nobody understood that plants take oxygen and carbon from the air to build their leaves and stems and flowers. Just because we don't understand a process doesn't mean it isn't happening. Every time you look at a tree you might like to remember that it's actually made out of thin air, and maybe also wonder about what invisible processes might be going on in you, right now.
It is said that if you put a frog into hot water it will immediately react and jump out. However, if you put the frog into cold water, and slowly heat the water, the frog will not notice the gradual change in temperature and will stay in the water until overcome by the heat.
Sometimes when people need to change, they get frustrated. People expect that once they decide to change, and really mean it, the change should start immediately, and they should see results immediately.
However, a friend of mine says that it is not really like that. The process of change is not orderly and progressive. Change is actually like getting ketchup out of the bottle. You take the ketchup bottle, and you shake and shake and nothing comes out. You put more effort into it, you shake and shake and nothing comes out. Finally you give it one last shake and SPLAT! the ketchup splatters all over the place. Change is like that.
A marketing company were trying to find out what toys kids really liked. So they organised a room, and a caregiver, and put a pile of their new designs into a big box. They then brought in six kids and told them they could play with any of the toys in the box and they could keep the toy afterwards. The marketing people then left the room so as to not influence the kids in any way. The idea was that they could find out what kids really liked from which toys the kids wanted to keep. So they left the kids to play for half an hour and went back. The toys were scattered around the floor forgotten, and all the kids were happily playing in the large cardboard box the toys came in.
Some birds are very territorial, that is, they decide that some part of the garden belongs to them, and nobody else. Of course, gardens are in short supply and the ownership of a vacant part is hotly disputed. Now, birds are fragile creatures, so if they were to physically attack each other both of them would be injured. So what the birds do is to strut around and pretend to be important. They both aggressively tear up bits of grass, and furiously scatter them around, all the while keeping an eye on the other bird, hoping that the other bird will be so impressed by this that they give up and find their own garden. This is called displacement activity. It's not just birds who do it.
There was this lady, and one day she got the idea that her cat was trying to communicate with her. For weeks and months she tries to get what the cat is trying to tell her, but hears nothing. And then one day, she just gives up worrying about it, and to her amazement she can hear the cat clearly. 'When did you learn to talk?', she says. The cat replies 'I've always been able to talk. It's just that you weren't listening properly'. The woman says 'But I am always listening!'. The cat politely pointed out that the radio is on, and there is traffic outside, and birds are singing but while she's so busy worrying about why she can't understand, what can she hear? 'Nothing', she replies. 'Exactly.' said the cat.
Many years ago there was a blind man who stood outside the railway station and sold boxes of matches. And every day a traveller stopped briefly in front of him, dropped the three pennies in his tray, and then walked on without taking the matches. This continued for many years, and the blind man became accustomed to hearing the traveller's footsteps coming towards him, and then the rattle of the coins.
One day the matchseller listened for the familiar footsteps, heard the coins fall, and said, 'Excuse me. Are you the man who always pays for the matches and then doesn’t take them?'
And the traveller said 'Yes'.
'Well' said the blind man, 'They've gone up. They're fourpence now'.
Every one can cook, everyone uses the same ingredients, and most of us can produce eatable food. Yet a top chef can take the same ingredients in the same house and produce an unforgettable meal. The difference is that the chef cares about the quality of the outcome, refuses to accept ordinary. It's not the ingredients, it's about what you decide to make of them. Most people spend more time thinking about dinner than thinking about how they are going to achieve the life they want. It's not what you have in life, but what you choose to do with it.
I have a friend who is a social worker. Her daily work consists of visiting clients who have been abused, people who don't know what to do or where to turn to, who are terminally ill, or who have no way out of their troubles. Every day she deals with things that make you want to give up and cry. I went home with her one night to collect something for work, and as we got inside she took her coat off, did some strange passes with her hands, then looked in the mirror for a while, made a face, and carried on as if nothing had happened. She then went in and scooped up her little daughter and became a happy solo mum.
Curious, I asked her what the mime in the hallway was about. She told me that when her beautiful daughter came along she realized that she just couldn't enjoy being a mother and bring all the stuff she was dealing with into her home. So every time she comes home now, she takes off her professional face, hangs every one of the day's problems on a hook, looks in the mirror and practices the big happy smile she is saving up for her daughter. ' And' she said, 'I don't have to worry about other people’s problems for another twelve hours, they are hanging there by the door, looking after themselves, while I get on with my life. And then in the morning I pick them all up again on the way out.
But you know, by the morning some of them aren't there any more, and the rest have shrunk'. Maybe everyone should grow a worry tree?
A friend of mine went camping for the first time. The site was in the woods among tall trees and a stream nearby. It was perfect.
After a meal cooked over the campfire my friend watched the sun go down and listened as everything grew quiet in the evening air. The birds settled down and there was nothing to hear but the wind in the leaves. Soon the solitude and calm had a magic effect and my friend settled down to sleep. Sometime in the night, my friend was wakened by a noise outside. Not being an experienced camper, all the food had been left outside and a bear had smelled it, was digging through the packages, ripping open the plastic bags and rummaging through the backpack. My friend lay there in the darkness, terrified to make a sound in case the bear heard. The noises outside got nearer and louder. My friend spent the whole night straining to hear every sound and expecting the bear to tear the tent open any moment.
Morning came and my friend crawled out of the tent only to discover that a squirrel had been searching through the wrappings in the night.
One day a great storm hit the coast of a lonely stretch of land. The waves raged and surged but eventually the storm passed and the residents came down to the beach to see what might have been thrown up. All along the beach were thousands of starfish, seastars struggling and dying in the bright sunshine.
And up ahead was one person picking up one starfish after the other and throwing them back into the water. They asked why: after all there were thousands and thousands there and what difference could the actions of one person make? And the person throwing them back held one up and said "Well, I guess it makes a difference to this one, doesn't it?".
When the pioneers moved into the Old West they found a vast land full of swamps and forests. Each family had to try to carve a homestead out of the wilderness. Families were left to their own resources and many had little in the way of tools and equipment. One day the marshall of the county discovered a homesteader hacking away at a huge tree with a little hand axe. 'What are you doing?" he asked, astonished. "I am clearing the forest' came the reply. "But you will never clear the forest with that little axe" said the marshall. "Maybe, maybe not" said the farmer, "but I can make a start with it, can't I?".