Symbolism and Metaphor in Therapy


‘In nature’s temple, living pillars rise,

Speaking sometimes in words of abstruse sense;

Man walks through woods of symbols dark and dense,

Which gaze at him with fond familiar eyes.’

Charles Baudelaire

Research indicates that the unconscious mind is in control at least 90% of the time. That can be why we often feel as if we act in ways outside of our conscious control. When we’re overtaken by strong emotions or in the grip of an unwanted habit, it’s our unconscious mind that’s pulling the strings. So if we want to change these behaviours and reactions we need to communicate with our unconscious mind.

We can do this through the use of metaphor and symbolism.

Imagine you want to talk about an emotional experience. You might say something like,  I’ve got a dark cloud hanging over me.’  and other people will instinctively know what you mean because their unconscious mind is aware that a cloud can be used as a symbol for feeling upset or unhappy

During therapy you can be helped to identify and change some of the unhelpful metaphors you’ve been unaware of up until now and by doing so change the way you perceive and feel about your situation.

For example, you might say  ‘I’m up against a brick wall’.  This is very helpful because it informs us that this is the way your unconscious mind is perceiving the problem. Of course on a conscious level you know there’s no literal wall in front of you but we now have a starting point from which to identify possible solutions.

You might imagine a way of going around or climbing over the wall. Or you may visualise a door in the wall through which you can get to the other side. Once you’ve has identified your own solution, I can then help you to communicate this to your unconscious mind. This can be done in several ways including via the use of hypnotic language.

What metaphors are you living?

Sometimes without realising what’s happening, we live our whole lives according to our metaphors. Someone who has an unconscious belief that life is a battle will have a different approach to a person for whom life is a roller coaster.

Of course this is simplifying matters and we all have lots of different metaphors that influence us at different times depending on the context and situation. But research has demonstrated that our unconscious metaphors have far more influence on the way we live and the way we view the world than we can ever be consciously aware of.

Stories are metaphorical too

A really obvious example of this is the story about the race between the tortoise and the hare. Because the hare is so much faster than the tortoise he thinks he has all the time in the world and stops for a nap. However he doesn’t wake up for a very long time and the steady tortoise is able to beat him to the finishing line. Tell the story to a child  and they might enjoy it on face value, but on some level the deeper message about complacency and steady progress will also be taken on board.

We create stories about ourselves too and yet we don’t realise we’re doing it. As we grow up we begin to form an unconscious story or myth based on things we’ve experienced and things we’ve heard other people say about us. Over time all these influences begin to create an unconscious belief about who we are and what pattern our lives should follow. If the experiences we’ve been exposed to have been largely negative, we go on to develop a self image and patterns of behaviour that are detrimental to our well-being and happiness.

Even though we might wish to change, our unconscious mind (which is in control for more than 90% of the time remember), will keep forcing us back to the way we’ve been programmed to think and react. It’s almost as if we contain a blueprint for the person we are and a predetermined script for the way our lives will develop.

If you’d like to find out more about this, please read my blog,  What’s Your Story?

If you decide to take things beyond traditional therapy and into transformational work tone of the first things we’ll do is begin to identify your personal myth/life story (using a selection of methods) and any part of this that might not have been helpful to you. I then support you to re-write these aspects (or your whole life story if you prefer) and create a new version of your personal myth – one that’s more in line with the person you want to be.  I then record this for you whilst at the same time weaving hypnotic language throughout, making it even easier for your unconscious mind to absorb. You can find out more about this here.