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Therapeutic use of metaphor


Techniques > Use of languageMetaphor > Therapeutic use of metaphor

Another world | Providing the vehicle | Eliciting the vehicle | Driving in the vehicle | See also


Another world

One of the great benefits of metaphor in therapeutic situations is that it is difficult to talk directly about uncomfortable feelings, and is easier to displace that discomfort into a different realm. The metaphor thus provides a whole world within which problems can be explored and solutions discovered.

Thus, for example, the entire problem could be shifted into the metaphor of Star Trek, talking about the aggressive Klingons and shifty Ferengi and how they interact, fall into conflict and resolve their differences.

Providing the vehicle

In one form of therapy, the therapist provides the vehicle, the metaphor through which the client communicates. This is a delicate art, first listening to the client and then offering some intervention back using the same metaphor. For this to work well, the therapist has to understand fully how the client is experiencing the situation, including their internal sensory representations, self-talk, biases, exaggerations, etc.

Sometimes this is done without the client even realizing what is happening, for example where the therapist tells a personal story. If the story is told with a sympathetic lead character, the client will associate with this person and learn what the character learns. Another method is to use vague language and incomplete situations, whereby the client will write their own detail and conclusions.

For example, where a person has a problem with a rebellious teenager, the therapist may look out the window and note how a sycamore tree sends out its seeds in rotating helicopter such that they can grow in their own clear sunlight.

Eliciting the vehicle

In another form of therapy, rather than providing the vehicle, the therapist draws it out of the client, getting them to provide a metaphor. This is based on the assumption that even with the greatest skill, the therapist can never truly understand how the client is experiencing their situation. If the therapist provides the vehicle, then the client is riding forever in the therapists vehicle and does not feel sufficient sense of ownership. The role of the therapist is thus to get the client to provide the metaphor.

A common question that the therapist asks in this situation is 'What is it like?' Explicit asking for an associated alternative provokes the client to think of a metaphor and consequently gives them the liberating experience of being able to unload their troubles into a comfortable alternative world.

Driving in the vehicle

The vehicle in some therapies is there as a way of enabling the client to talk about their situation. However, the vehicle provided by the client may also be used the therapist, to communicate back along the same channel. Thus it is as if the client

In this way, the therapist meets the client within their model of the world, using the client's language and images and hence enables a close rapport in subsequent conversation. This takes a middle path between other methods, both using the client's metaphor and also allowing the therapist to take a proactive role in the therapist.

See also

Modifying meaning


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