Hypnotherapy – Metaphor and Story-Telling

Illustration showing various metaphors

I expect most of us know what a metaphor is, but it would probably help to begin this article with a definition. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which the words we use are applied to something which is not literally applicable. It can also be representative or symbolic of something else.

A simple example of a metaphor would be comparing your career to a cake. I might say that your qualifications are ‘the icing on the cake’ and am therefore implying that you are the cake, the whole person, enough and edible just as you are. The icing (qualifications) makes the cake (you) more appealing and irresistible.

Sometimes we find it easier to understand and overcome our difficulties if we transpose them into another situation. My approach to hypnotherapy is to explain the activity that occurs in our brains using simple language. I frequently use metaphor because it can be extremely powerful.

I once had a client who was very adept at stopping herself from moving forward, with whatever she set out to do. To help her overcome such self-sabotage, I talked with her about her kitchen cupboard – a good and easy to understand metaphor. “Do you keep absolutely everything in your cupboard, even those items which are out of date?” I said to her, followed by “Do you keep groceries on the shelves which you do not need?” The conversation continued into a journey of discovery. “Well, I hadn’t thought about it like that before” she replied. I told her to regularly check to make sure she keeps only the ingredients she is going to use for success.

Another client once came to see me for anxiety and all I talked about was the weather. How could talking about the weather possibly help him with his anxiety issues? Well, I won’t go into detail but I was able to get the message across without actually mentioning the message. I did not just talk about the weather for the sake of it!

Indirect metaphors are usually used in story form. The most famous are fairy stories where each fable tells a story that has a ‘hidden meaning’ or metaphor that we ‘get’ from the story and apply it to our lives. Even as adults we are very receptive to being told stories and want to engage in the process. They allow us to make an association with our own life and this is why metaphors work so well in therapy.

Milton H. Erickson, a hypnotherapy great, liked to use metaphor. He was very permissive in his manner and a master of the double bind, wherein the only thing a client could find was success, or at least a positive outcome from their efforts. If a client did not achieve what they had set out to achieve, MHE, as he was sometimes known, would simply ask what they had achieved instead, then go on to ask them to recognise how that was a stepping stone along the way. His use of metaphor was sometimes so obscure that the conscious mind could make no sense of it, yet the subconscious would understand perfectly.

There was one occasion when he was treating somebody for tinnitus – just in case you’re not sure what that is, it is sounds in the ears, usually ringing, and it can be quite distressing – and he told them a story of having visited a steelworks and found the noise so deafening that conversation was just about impossible. He said that he had asked the works owner if he could sleep there that night, and when he awoke in the morning, he found he was easily able to have a totally normal conversation. Erickson often worked like this and his story telling skills were legendary.

We use carefully worded metaphors on many of our hypnotherapy recordings. A combination of advanced therapeutic techniques allows us to reach the deepest parts of your imagination and help your subconscious mind take on board useful information. Sometimes we may even use two stories simultaneously spoken into each ear. Why? Well, it can be very effective to keep the conscious mind occupied whilst we help the deeper part (your subconscious) to make real and profound changes.

If we can see a pattern in one area of our lives and notice how that pattern is unhelpful, it can be useful to consider whether that same pattern is causing a problem in another area. You can try it for yourself just by asking yourself “How is my life like a ………” and pick some random object. This seemingly trivial exercise can sometimes reveal something you had not thought of before.

Another exercise you can try is to take the problem you have at the moment, for example “Talking to my husband is like…..” and describe it in terms of something else such as “digging into frozen ground.” Think about the frozen ground and really project yourself into the situation of digging into the frozen ground. What is it like, how do you feel, what tools do you use, what skills do you use? Now think about what could happen to make the task easier. Could you rake it perhaps, use a different tool? Could you leave it until later in the day when the ground has been warmed by the sun? Maybe, you could get a machine in to help? Do you see how by using stories and metaphors, you can look at a situation in another way?

Using metaphor is a very creative way of problem solving. It is a tool that can be used in everyday life. When metaphor is used by an ethical, professional and skilled hypnotherapist you can imagine just how powerful it can be.