Want to keep in touch?

Monday, 19 June 2017

Therapeutic Metaphors

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is used to describe another to bring attention to the elements they have in common. For example, describing life as a 'roller coaster' makes a parallel between the physical ups and downs of the ride and the emotional ones of life in general.

A therapeutic metaphor may be as simple as a sentence or as complex as a story. And although many hypnotherapists use metaphors within trance, they can be used equally effectively when simply chatting to your client, so they are useful for therapists of many different kinds. 

Using the client's metaphors

We can improve the communication we have with our clients by listening out for the metaphors they use about their own situation. Clients often use metaphors to
  • express complex ideas more easily
  • express abstract ideas or feelings for which they have no specific words
  • talk about experiences which are too difficult to face directly or literally

A client who describes their issue as a 'heavy weight' is using metaphor, as is one who says it’s a 'wall, blocking my way forward'. By stepping into the client's own metaphors we can get closer to their way of thinking, and improve our rapport. An example would be asking these clients ''what would help to make it lighter?' or 'what would help you to move past that?'
If you’re still not sure how powerful this technique is, imagine swapping the responses.

Therapist's metaphors

You can introduce your own metaphors into the session as well, if you think they’re appropriate for the client. These will help you to
  • engage the client's attention
  • offer messages, solutions or reframes without giving specific advice
  • encourage the client's unconscious mind and imagination to work on the problem

Short metaphorical responses, like the ones above, are likely to come into the pre-talk or 'chatting' part of your session, but sometimes these can be expanded to anecdotes or even full length stories. You can deliver longer metaphors in trance if you are a hypnotherapist. If not, use them as guided meditations, or simply ask your client to close their eyes, relax and listen.

Developing metaphors

There are certainly books and websites which will help you by providing metaphors you can use in therapy sessions. The really amazing thing about these is that the client will take their own meaning from them, because the symbols used within each story will have a different meaning to different people. However, the most powerful metaphor is one created with your particular client in mind. To do this you need to
  • work out what the client's current problem is, focussing on their behaviour or emotions
  • decide on a desired outcome for the situation, based on what the client has told you
  • create a story which mirrors the journey from the current situation to the desired one

The best story will reflect something personal about the client to help them identify with it. Your protagonist may have red hair like the client, or an interest in gardening. If your client likes philately you could have a story about looking for - or finding - a rare stamp. If they like jigsaws it could be about someone buying a puzzle with a piece missing and the various attempts they make to complete it. There is no need to spell out the underlying message of the metaphor. In fact, leaving some mystery encourages the client to find their own meanings and conclusions. However, adding a bit of context can help the client to begin the process of identification and see the relevance.

I often introduce metaphors within sessions with something like, ‘As I was listening to you telling me about yourself today, it reminded me of a story I heard/an article I read recently …’ which of course makes them wonder why this particular story jumped into my mind. In all my years as a therapist I have only ever had one client say 'You didn’t just read that story in a magazine, did you?'

Are you a natural story teller?

Not all of us are natural story tellers, and not all of us can instantly see the right metaphor for a client. However, the good news is that it’s a skill that can be learned and you get better with practice. The more metaphors you read, or create, the more you learn to think in this abstract way.


You could start by asking the client to say more about the metaphors they use - if their issue is like a wall that blocks their path, what kind of wall? Old and falling down or strong and new? Brick or stone? Covered with ivy or  clean?

What's on the other side of the wall? Who put the wall there? Why? When?
What do you need to do to get past it? Knock it down? Build a style? Fetch a ladder? Tunnel under it? Walk around? Do they need help to do this? From whom?
As you ask these questions, you and the client will begin to develop a story together, which you can then enlarge upon by adding solutions or reframes within the logic of the metaphor which will help your client move forward.
If you have enjoyed this article, please use the share buttons on the grey bar (below the author details) to share it with others who might enjoy it too. Thank you.


Author: is an experienced hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy trainer. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook, both of which are available from Amazon.
Find out more about Debbie's services on
Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training - multi accredited hypnotherapy practitioner training, taster days and foundation levels.
CPD Expert - accredited CPD and other therapy training (online and workshops options), expert and qualified hypnotherapy supervision


  1. Hi, Really great effort. Everyone must read this article. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you - Tracy Farr has a book coming out soon on this topic much recommended, watch out on amazon.