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Hypnotherapy and Metaphors

Metaphor lies at the heart of all thinking and language. Metaphor determines how we think about ourselves and how we experience the world. Metaphor shapes societies and cultures. The ability to understand one thing in terms of another is a fundamental property of being human. In hypnotherapy, metaphor serves many functions.

A therapist can use metaphor to:


In all societies metaphor plays a central role in passing on cultural values. Stories, myths and parables allow the individual to draw conclusions about how to act and how to understand their world.

In clinical practice the therapist carries on this tradition. The therapist tells a hypnotised client a story incorporating one or more carefully constructed metaphors. The client's unconscious mind then examines the metaphor to find parallels in their own life. Over the next days and weeks the client will unconsciously apply the insights and reframing of the metaphor to cause changes in their own behaviour or beliefs. Metaphor therapy is therefore a form of indirect suggestion.


Metaphor Methods

However, modern approaches to metaphor therapy do not stop at indirect suggestion. Some therapies supply a metaphor and ask the client to modify the metaphor to match their own mental model. Other techniques work directly on the client's own metaphors.


Metaphor Delivery

The simplest way to deliver a metaphor is by Story Telling. A story can be understood at face value or it can be understood metaphorically, as carrying some other meaning. A metaphor always contains at least two parts: the thing stated and the thing compared to, and communicates on at least two levels: the surface meaning, and the deep structure meaning, the symbolic meaning.

Metaphors can be delivered while the client is awake, in the form of anecdotes, stories and waking visualisations, or when the client is trance in the form of fantasy or action metaphors. Metaphor therapy does not always require a formal induction: most clients go into trance spontaneously during the telling.

Metaphors can be either indirect or direct, from the client's point of view.

Indirect: In an indirect metaphor the client simply hears a story unfold and listens as the metaphor develops. At most the client may mentally walk through the situation described in the metaphor or watch or listen as something happens.

Direct: In a direct metaphor the client is the main protagonist and takes an active role in dealing with the metaphor environment. The client may push down walls or climb over mountains or stamp out fires, etc.


Examples of Metaphor Types

Metaphors can be classified into broad categories. Some metaphors are very general, others are much more focused and specific.


Revelation Metaphors

These are metaphors in which the client is taken to some strange place, and there they discover the answer to their problems. The information can be in the form of a written message, or it can be spoken by some person there, or it can be absorbed somehow by just being there. The idea is that the person's subconscious already knows the solution to their problem and just needs permission to allow it to come out. Some revelation metaphors are a form of cognitive modelling, where the client is helped to reveal their problem as an image, and then given the tools to change that image.


Relaxation Metaphors

These are metaphors designed to help the client relax, to relieve stress or escape from chronic anxiety. They are usually almost indistinguishable from guided visualisations. The client is typically taken to an island, or a garden or some other peaceful place with lots of soothing and calming imagery. The client is invited to lie down, or relax or interact with gentle creatures. The object is allow the client to learn to invoke their own relaxation response, to lower heart beat, blood pressure etc.


Control Metaphors

These metaphors are based on the idea that if the client can control a machine of some sort, then that machine can be linked some function that client wants to control. The metaphors typically invite the client to imagine some machine that incorporates a measuring device such as a dial. The dial is linked to the clients problem, pain for example, and the client is encouraged to change the level shown on the dial and thus the level of their problem.


Action Metaphors

In an action metaphor the client is led into a situation and then is encouraged to take action to change the environment in some way. The client may push down gates, or discard burdens or carry out some other task.

Action metaphors are also used in hypnosis in order force the unconscious mind to take a decision or choose one particular behaviour. The client is led to a situation where taking some symbolic action, like crossing a bridge or casting off a boat, has the effect of permanently choosing one thing or abandoning something for ever.


Reframe Metaphors

These metaphors are used to tell a story which parallels the client's experience in some way. The client identifies at a subconscious level with the events in the metaphor but transfers the meaning from the metaphor and applies it to their own experience. In this way the meaning of their own experience is changed. By reframing the meaning the client is able to change to a different behaviour in the original situation.


Fantasy Metaphors

Most metaphors involve some element of imagination and fantasy but some are entirely fantasy. For example, the person becomes an animal or a medieval knight swimming through the blood stream or takes some other impossible form.


Anthropomorphic Metaphors

The therapist tells a story which appears to have nothing to do with the client or the problem. The stories are often based on anthropomorphised animals - spiders, centipedes, talking fish, etc., - and told in a very simplistic almost childish manner. The tales usually have some distress done to the young animal, the animal tries two or three things to overcome the problem and is on the verge of giving up when some wiser animal suggests the solution. The idea is that the client's unconscious mind will draw parallels with the issues in the story and will adopt the suggested solution. These metaphors are designed to teach indirectly and thus sidestep any client resistance.


Introspection Metaphors

Metaphors generally have some point the therapist wants to make, or have some parallel with the client's situation, but there are also metaphors which have no message, no obvious point, or no ending, or perhaps several possible endings. These metaphors engage the subconscious mind by bringing together elements that seem unrelated to each other or which might even be contradictory. The client's mind is left to mull over the elements of the metaphor and to decide for themselves which elements relate to their life, or to construct a story which connects the elements, or to create an ending for themselves.

Equivalence Metaphors

These are simple metaphors which 'act out' the wording of a metaphoric concept. For example a person can be told to imagine that they are standing under a cold clear mountain waterfall and the waterfall is 'washing all their problems away'. Or the person can imagine climbing to the top of a hill from where they can 'see their future' laid out before them.


Multi-level embedded Metaphors

Multi-level metaphors consist of a series of embedded stories. Typically three metaphors are used together. The client is introduced to the first metaphor and is led through it to some dramatic point where the client is left with an unresolved issue. Then the therapist starts a second metaphor story and again the client is led to some dramatic point and the story is left unresolved. The third metaphor is introduced and taken to its conclusion. This third metaphor is the central aspect of the therapy session. It can be pure metaphor or elements of direct suggestion can be incorporated into this core part. The issue of the core metaphor is resolved, then the theme of the second metaphor is picked up again and taken to its conclusion. Finally the third metaphor resumes where it left off and the client is allowed to resolve that too.


In general terms, a metaphor is something that stands for something else. Metaphors can be verbal or non verbal. Verbal metaphors can be open and obvious, for example  "I feel like I'm dragging a great weight around with me" or they can be embedded in language and hidden in sensory expressions such as "I don't know why I keep punishing myself this way". Or they can be expressions of abstract concepts "I feel a pain in my soul". Non verbal metaphors include 'body' expressions such as body language, posture, dress, sounds, gestures, lines of sight, and 'artistic' communication such as painting, writing, music, dance, play, drama, ritual and many others. Every method of communication has its own form of metaphor. Metaphor is used extensively in hypnotherapy.



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