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Embedded Metaphor Therapy Technique

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Multiple embedded metaphors is a metaphor therapy technique that forces the listener to concentrate on several metaphor stories at the same time. Metaphor therapy can be used to treat most psychological problems because embedded metaphors and stories are able to act directly on the subconscious mind.
The multiple embedded metaphor technique wraps one metaphoric story inside another, usually to three levels deep. The hypnotherapist starts a story, gets distracted into another story, then starts another story and doesn't finish that one and leaves the listener hanging on before finishing all the metaphor stories in reverse order. The idea is to force the listener to keep the unfinished metaphoric stories in their mind for longer than normal. The longer the embedded metaphor stays active in the mind the more likely it is to have a therapeutic effect.


Multiple Embedded Metaphor: Stop Smoking metaphor

The multiple embedded metaphor technique is often used in hypnosis, but the client does not have to be hypnotized. Multiple metaphors are often used one after the other but nesting each metaphor inside the other is more effective when using multiple metaphors.

To illustrate how multiple embedded metaphors work, consider an example where a person cannot stop smoking. The person feels helpless in being unable to change, realizes that smoking is socially unacceptable and is causing isolation, and the smoking is affecting their health. The problem is that the person cannot access the resources needed to change. Using the Lankton metaphor therapy technique an analysis of the problem situation might show that there are four areas needing to be addressed.

Becoming ill
Can't change


Each issue would have a therapeutic metaphor created for it, and be embedded into a multiple metaphor story:


First Metaphor - Helplessness

Second Metaphor - Social isolation

Third Metaphor - Becoming Ill

Direct Suggestion - Confidence to change

Third Metaphor - solution

Second Metaphor - solution

First Metaphor - solution


The metaphor therapy starts with the first metaphoric story, gets to a crisis, and then leaves that crisis unresolved. Then the second metaphor story is started, gets to a crisis and is also left hanging. The third metaphor story is started, taken to a crisis point, but this time the crisis is resolved, by suggesting some resource that removes the crisis. The resource is usually a lesson in how to solve that type of problem. This allows the third metaphor to be wrapped up and tidied away.

Then the second metaphor is taken up again, and it is also resolved. Finally, the first metaphor is taken up again, and it too is resolved. Metaphor therapy is based on identifying situations metaphorically similar to the client's situation, and then showing that they can be fixed.

Embedding metaphors like this gives more power to the metaphors than just telling them as three separate metaphor stories. Leaving each metaphor unresolved means that the unconscious mind is busy seeking closure, trying to make sense of the unfinished metaphors and therefore constantly re-examining all its assumptions about the problem and how to solve those problems. By the time the crisis point in the third metaphor is reached, the mind has three unresolved crises to deal with. When the resource is found for the third crisis, the mind automatically tests that resource against the first two crises. Resolving embedded metaphors two and one reinforces the mind's belief that the first two can be solved. After the metaphor therapy the client's subconscious mind will make the metaphoric connection between the events in the story and the problems in their own life, and the fact that they can be fixed.


Embedded metaphors for smoking


First Metaphor - Helplessness

There once was a doll who was sat high up on a shelf. The doll didn't know how she got there, and the shelf was so high that she was afraid of falling, and so she sat very very still.

Second Metaphor - Social isolation

All day long the doll sat on the shelf and looked down at all the other toys on the floor and wished that she could join them. But week after week the doll would sit there, afraid to move and feeling very very lonely.

Third Metaphor - Increasing ill health

The doll had also realized something else. With all that sitting there and not moving she was beginning to get ill. Instead of running around with all her friends she was getting no exercise at all and her arms and legs were getting very very weak.

Direct Suggestion - Connection to resources - ask for help

Well one day the doll was looking down at the toys and feeling very far away and there was another doll lying there in the middle of the floor. This was the Dancing Doll. He had lost one of his legs. He was lying there crying and trying to move but it wasn't working and all the other toys, the teddy bears and the soldiers and the big stuffed tiger with the one eye missing were not looking at him and pretending to be doing something else. When suddenly the Big Purple Elephant appeared. The Big Purple Elephant was the oldest toy in the house and all the other toys were afraid of the Big Purple Elephant. The elephant went over to the Dancing Doll and asked what had happened. The dancing doll explained that he had been trying to do a new dance when it all went wrong and he came crashing down and broke his leg off. And now he was stuck and nobody would help him. And he felt so unhappy, so useless and helpless. Well roared the Big Purple Elephant, 'we'll see about that'. And the elephant called the teddy bears over, and the soldiers and the big stuffed tiger with the one eye missing. 'Why are you not helping the dancing doll?' demanded the elephant. 'Because we didn't know what to do', they said. 'And we were embarrassed to ask' said the stuffed tiger, 'in case it was wrong'. 'How can helping someone be wrong?' said the elephant. And he ordered them to look for the missing leg. The soldiers marched over to the window and the teddy bears looked in the corners and the tiger hid under the toy box because he was ashamed of his behaviour. And guess what? The tiger found the leg right there! And soon the dancing doll had his leg back on and was dancing as good as ever.

Third Metaphor - solution

And as the Dancing Doll was trying out his repaired leg he leaned back and noticed the doll on the shelf. 'Why are you sitting there?' he asked. 'Come down and join us'. 'I can't', said the doll on the shelf 'My arms and legs are weak and I don't feel well. 'Well, when you down off the shelf your arms and legs will get strong again, won't they?'

Second Metaphor - solution

'Well, yes, but what if nobody wants to play with me now?' 'Don't be silly' said the Dancing Doll,' everybody wants you to come into the middle with them. They have all missed you. And you remember how much fun we all used to have together'.

First Metaphor - solution

'Well, yes', said the doll, 'but I am weak and it's so high and I don't think I can'. And the Big Purple Elephant looked up and said 'I wonder if you can move just a little' "Oh, yes' said the doll, 'I think I could move to the side just a little'. 'OK' said the elephant, 'See if you can move to the side a little'. And when the little doll did, he asked her to move to the side just a little again. And then a little more. And a little more. and suddenly her weight caused the whole shelf to tilt up, because she had over balanced it, and she slid down the slope to the shelf below, and she over balanced that one too, and the next one, and suddenly she was sitting on the floor surrounded by all the toys.

'There', said the elephant, with a smile, 'you do know how to get down, don't you?' And all the toys cheered.



Metaphor Stories in therapy

Lankton and Lankton state that they do not expect their multiple metaphor therapy stories to cause dramatic changes immediately, but do expect the embedded metaphors to create continuous improvement over the following weeks or months without further intervention.