Metaphor A ‘Change’

What if by telling a story, someone’s life would change? What if stories were more than just things to amuse people? What if ‘Once upon a time…’ really did have a happy ending? What if you already have this ability?

In this article we explore what metaphors are and how to construct them for therapeutic change, how stories and allegory are more than amusing past times and how to make simple one-line metaphor responses.

Once upon a time…

What are Metaphors?

The dictionary meaning of metaphor derived from Merrium Websters’ Dictionary classifies it as:

“A figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity”

The more common meaning of metaphor is a figure of speech that is used to paint one concept with the attributes normally associated with another.

Originally, metaphor was a Greek word meaning “transfer”. The Greek etymology is from meta, implying “a change” and herein meaning “to bear, or carry”. Thus, the word metaphor itself has a metaphorical meaning in English “a transfer of meaning from one thing to another”

To use a metaphor; we can think of metaphors as seeing the world through the bottom of a glass, in essence it has the same qualities and meaning yet is different. We can abstract from this, that what we see and hear from a metaphor is what we wish to pay attention to, in the same way as looking through the glass, what we see is fundamentally the same without looking through the glass but different enough for us to perceive something else. Metaphors in the same way are different enough from the idea, situation or concept with which we initially refer to but allow a different quality and angle with which to interpret them. Metaphors allow you to derive new and deeper or extended meaning from the same thing.

For example: My car is like a racing horse or the cloud is like cotton candy. The subjects (car and cloud) that are being referenced in the metaphor (as – racing horse and cotton candy) are not really the same as what they are being referenced as i.e. a car is not a racing horse nor is a cloud cotton candy; yet we are able to derive new meaning from them and attach it to the initial subject. We are able to mentally make associations between one thing and another. We are able to make connections of similarities, even if the similarities are tenuous in link.

This makes the use of metaphor a very special category because we can use something else to describe one thing (like a racing horse is like a car) that has no apparent similarity, we are then able to unconsciously find similarities between the two things and make a comparative analysis between them and say ‘hey this is like that’ even though they are not, you could say it’s like two different peas in the same pod.

We use metaphors consistently in our daily language. The world of metaphor is a world only constrained by a person’s imagination.

Therapeutic Metaphors are metaphors which provide a powerful and ecological process of change that utilise people’s unconscious resources. Therapeutic Metaphors allow a client to select the appropriate meaning and resources for the desired change without conscious intervention.

Providing a bridge between our conscious and unconscious understanding of the world, metaphor, symbolism, analogy and simile constitute the language of our unconscious. We dream in picture, metaphor and symbolism voiding the gap between the day’s events and our conscious interpretation and meaning. We put voice to imagery and poetry to experience. Our unconscious talks to us about the world in symbols, in poetry, in story and allegory, we re-construct the world according to metaphor.


The world is a complex place, we are complex beings and communication is a complex process; the description of events to meaning is reduced by the intervention of metaphor and symbolism. A picture paints a thousand words, as does a metaphor. We use metaphor and symbolism to paint the picture of our communication; to drive meaning from experience to our listeners so that they can interpret the meaning of our experience without us having to explain in literal detail. Metaphor bridges the gap from the complex process of communication into a simplified universal experience that people can interpret and understand through the use of symbolic representations. Metaphor turns a complex world with complex beings and complex communication into a simple interpretive experience shared by all.

“In all aspects of life, we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor”
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By

The expansiveness and interpretive-ness of metaphors enables a therapist to deliver an intervention whereby the client will not make literal meaning of the metaphor. The ability to consciously interpret the meaning and decide whether to take the metaphor as an agent of change or not is not left up to the clients conscious mind.

Therapeutic metaphors allow the client to derive their own meaning and make parallel connections from the metaphor to their own circumstances at an unconscious level. This allows the therapist to deliver an intervention whereby the clients’ unconscious is used for processing the meaning and change. The reason why metaphors are powerful as a change agent is because the behaviour that the client wishes to change was first created at an unconscious level. Attempting to change the behaviour consciously is like driving everywhere in first gear, it has limited value outside of 15 miles an hour and will take you an age to get anywhere, if at all.

The client usually does not have direct access to their unconscious processes, so the act of the metaphor is to mobilise these resources and create triggers for further change, expansion and development.

The client will most likely have consciously tried to make the change themselves. By offering the client an intervention that utilises their conscious processes to change, therapists limit the ability of the client to mobilise their most powerful change agent- their unconscious mind.

Metaphors are a powerful and non-invasive way of providing change to our clients while preserving the ecology of change.

Defining the Therapeutic Metaphor

What defines a therapeutic metaphor is that the characters and events that occur in the story are equivalent with those individuals and events which make up the clients situation or problem. It is important to note that the situations, events and processes within the therapeutic metaphor are not equal to or do not directly represent the clients’ situation but act as an equivalent to, that they preserve the same relationships between the metaphor and the situation. This allows the client to identify which aspects in the metaphor most closely represent themselves and their situation without conscious intervention. This relies on an unconscious matching process, thus stopping the natural filtering process that happens when we try to consciously interpret a story thus making the change less effective due to ‘internal resistance’.

Therapeutic metaphors

One-line metaphors that people offer to you can be a simple way to learn how to construct responsive metaphors of change back to them. Take for example these one-liners:

Client: My life is like hell
Therapist: What would it take to change it into heaven?
So it hasn’t been hot enough for you to get out yet?
How hot does it need to be to get out?
Perhaps those demons are angels in disguise there to motivate you?

Client: Sometimes I feel like I am imprisoned
Therapist: What would it take to flatten down the walls?
What is it that is keeping you inside?
What freedom do you have inside that would allow you to get out?

Client: My life is like a race and I never win
Therapist: If you never enter the competition you will never get a chance to win, better in that out!
Winning is for losers who need to come first.
If your life was not a race what would you wish it to be?

Anthony Robbins in his Personal Enhancement Seminars uses the Firewalk as a physical metaphor. The physical act of walking on hot coals over a distance of two to three metres for some acts as a metaphor in their life. The metaphor is: If I can walk on burning hot coals; what else am I am capable of.

Physical metaphors can be taken as literal meanings or as metaphors for other things. Consider other physical metaphors that people might use; from rock climbing, parachuting and other outdoor pursuit activities to globe trekking. Physical metaphors don’t have to be physically challenging either, just so long as the task or metaphor is appropriate to achieve the desired change.

Within the class of therapeutic metaphors lies what are called Isomorphic metaphors. Isomorphism means that there is a similarity or identity to the form and structure of elements between two groups. With an isomorphic metaphor we construct a story that has the same key elements, events and subjects that the client has already talked about. Resources in the metaphor are introduced as a way to enable the character in the metaphor to achieve their outcome. These resources are indirect suggestions that we wish our clients unconscious mind to pick up on.

The Isomorphic Metaphor

You can use themes from which to select your metaphor from. Below are some popular themes you may wish to explore.

Animal world
Plant world
Scientific world
Fairy tale world
Science fiction world

To construct the metaphor we must firstly have some information from our client with which to map certain elements onto. A simple method for gaining this information is to use what is called the S.C.O.R.E. model from NLP. The SCORE model is a very useful diagnostic tool in which to understand a client’s current situation, and what they want as an outcome.

S – Symptom. The client’s current symptoms / situation
C – Cause. What the client thinks is the cause of their symptoms / situation
O – Outcome. What they wish as a desirable outcome / goal
R – Resource. What resources are required to move them from their current situation to their desired outcome?
E – Effects or consequence of applying achieving the outcome

Questions to ask in each of the stages are:

S – What is happening to you now? What is your current situation? What do you want to change?
C – How did your current situation arise? What specifically happened for X to happen?
O – What is your outcome? What do you wish to achieve?
E – What would be the consequence to you of having achieved your outcome?

The R resource is supplied as part of the metaphor and not asked as a question, though you can ask it, sometimes the client will give you the answer they need. For instance, they may say… “I just need to LOOK AT IT ALL DIFFERENTLY then I will know what to do and how to go about it” With this you can build it into the metaphor as a resource for the client to act upon; such as:

“When Angela stood on top of the mountain she was able to see things differently from up there. Her perspective had now changed how she viewed her surroundings…”

When you have asked these questions you should be in a position to construct the isomorphic metaphor based on their answers. You may wish to offer the metaphor in another session and just spend the first session gathering as much information you can using the SCORE model. This gives you time if you are not confident in offering a metaphor straight away, as well as letting the client to process what they have found out from the session.

Constructing the metaphor

Take the subjects from the clients own situation and name them. These will of course include the subject (your client) and any other significant person. Also include the places they may have been in, i.e. their environment and any objects or places that are pertinent to their situation.

Once you have these recorded, you wish to look for the actions and events that took place in your client’s situation, both historically and in the present, if appropriate.

When you have completed a list of these it is time to start the construction of your metaphor by mapping the main elements of each part across to your story using either of the themes listed above, or create a theme yourself.

When you are getting to the part that requires the Resource in the story, your fictional character may find the resource from a meeting with a Master or by going on a journey to ‘find themselves’ or learning how to do something new or see something in a different way or find the answer in a dream. The options for the resource are pretty endless and here it is up to you to be as imaginative and creative as you can. The resource is a set of instructions to the clients unconscious for which you wish it to take action upon.

The delivery

When you deliver the metaphor, make sure you are in rapport (match their body posture and breathing with your own) with your client and allow them to access a good state of relaxation and then deliver it in-time with their breathing. The delivery of the metaphor is just as important as the metaphor itself. Delivering it while waiting for a bus to arrive when their mind is on other things will probably not have the same impact!

The End

Metaphors will provide your client with new ways for accessing their unconscious resources with which to mobilise themselves for change. Stories and Metaphor are part of our legacy and will continue to play a part for our future. The ability to use metaphor to enact change in someone is a fundamental part of our heritage and how we create our world within.

If you wish to learn more, book onto our NLP Practitioner Course to find out how to really use metaphors and get change!

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