Using metaphor in psychotherapy

Professional Development

The Greek term metaphora literally means “transfer,” and Merriam-Webster defines metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”

Throughout history, we tell stories in the form of fairy tales and parables that use metaphors to teach lessons and often to communicate about morality.

According to Freud, metaphors were important and represented unconscious processes, and in the construction of meaning, metaphor plays a critical role (Modell, 2005). Metaphoric language is often a natural part of a person’s narrative and can be utilized in a counseling setting.

Modell (2005) suggests that metaphor acts as a “pattern detector” and plays a role in organizing emotional memory. Moreover, he posits that feelings always relate to something that has meaning to an individual, and that feelings and memory are part of the same system. We tend to find meaning in patterns of similarity — drawing connections between our past and our current reality.

Using Metaphors in Therapy

  • Pay attention to metaphors the client introduces and help to deepen the imagery if doing so would be therapeutically beneficial.
  • Consider the use of symbol and metaphorical language as a natural part of narratives and stories.
  • Metaphor is represented in the context of transference, where the meaning from a relationship is unconsciously transferred into the moment (Modell, 2005). For therapists who seek to use transference deliberately in session, metaphor may be a way to explore this dynamic.
  • In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Abbatiello (2006) recommends the use of metaphor when exploring with clients ways we can become more aware of our thought process

Examples of Therapeutic Metaphors

  • Abbatiello (2006) introduces the idea of using the concept of a kaleidoscope to consider altering perspective. When a person turns the lens of a kaleidoscope, the perspective is altered but the pieces in the kaleidoscope remain the same even as new images emerge. Similarly, a person can be in charge of changing their perspective to reconstruct meaning and develop new insights.
  • Often, clients will share that they are experiencing an intrusive thought, or a feeling that they can’t “control” their thoughts. One helpful metaphor to introduce is the idea of thoughts floating down a river. Sometimes, when we have a thought, just like a leaf on the river, you can decide to pick it up and examine it. We also have the option of letting it continue to float down our “thought river.” We might notice our thought, but that doesn’t mean we need to engage with it.
  • Abbatiello (2006) introduces another metaphor that can be used in conjunction with or instead of the river metaphor. Regarding her application of CBT, she writes, “most people let their minds wander off unmonitored so the thoughts have an effect on feelings and behavior without awareness” (pg. 209). Asking a client to check in with their thoughts to build awareness can be helpful. To demonstrate this, she uses the idea of a radio. Turning the dial brings in different channels. She asks her clients to pay attention to times when there are multiple lines of dialogue going through their thinking patterns. Just like turning the dial on a radio, we can check in with ourselves and consider the “channels” of our thinking.
  • Guided imagery and visualization can be a technique used with the concept of a metaphor. For example, a person may be asked to consider a place where he or she feels relaxed. This image or visual becomes a metaphoric symbol for this person representing the concept of relaxation. In this way, client-driven and client-centered metaphor creation and symbol use in therapy can be quite helpful.

References and Resources

Berardo, C. (2012). The little red car: Metaphor as a tool for working with teenagers. Transactional Analysis Journal, 42(3), 220-227. doi:10.1177/036215371204200308

Abbatiello, G. (2006). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Metaphor. Perspectives In Psychiatric Care, 42(3), 208-210. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6163.2006.00074.x

Modell, A. H. (2005). Emotional memory, metaphor, and meaning. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 25(4), 555-568. doi:10.2513/s07351690pi2504_9