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What is a metaphor?

  • Ocak 17, 2018

The word ‘Metaphor’  means ‘ta carry something across’ or ‘to transfer’ in the Greek language.  

Sometimes it could be very useful to not to tell directly what you want to tell. Humans are complex beings and so their brains. Sometimes seeing a movie, can enlighten a person about a current issue, without any intention to do so. In psychological therapy, the counselors use tremendous ways to help the patient to reach their intended positive state of mind. Since it would be really hard to tell some things directly because in some cases the patient will be resisting the idea with his/her psychological defense mechanism. Thus, use of metaphors in the therapeutic setting would have many benefits to the relationship between the counselor and the client. By the use of metaphors or stories, you don’t directly say what you want to say, but instead, you just mean it with different logical clusters of words. It can be a story, it can be a saying like a joke or widespread anecdote in everyday life.  While the classical approach to metaphor was more in poetic and rhetorical function in the history, the topic had a shift to the cognitive perspective of metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). Two concepts has occurred in the domain; the target and the source or also called literal domains (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).

What is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) ?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),  focuses on the distortions in the thinking patterns on the automatic thought process and how to eliminate this problematic process and reflecting it to the behavioral dimension in order to create a change within a person (Beck, 2011). The therapist uses several cognitive and behavioral strategies during the therapy process to picture the patient’s specific misconceptions and maladaptive assumptions (Beck, 2011).  Variety of strategies that could be used in the therapy follows as; education, self-assessment, teaching that it is the personal meaning of  a thought that makes it unpleasant, learning to let thoughts go and instructing the client to think of two different ways of thinking about what is going on (Challacombe et al., 2011).

One of the most important strategy during the therapy is to teach that the already existing meaning might not a fact at all and also it’s not helping or the ‘right’ way of  thinking about the problem as well. And to be able to let this process actualize, the therapist may use variety of metaphors in order to change the already existing key belief. 

The importance of metaphors within the scope of psychological counseling process and connection between the two concepts

Metaphor has been considered as a very useful tool in therapeutic settings since it helps the individuals express their thoughts and feelings as well as allow them to reveal development and change (Amundson, 1988). Metaphor was used by Freud and Jung in order to interpret the subconscious of the client while Erikson regards it as a mean of communication with the subconscious (Long & Lepper, 2008). According to the modern approaches, on the other hand, metaphor is believed to reflect the meaning in the client’s life (Neimeyer, 1995). Angus and Rennie (1989) states that the metaphor produces its own terminology and according to Babits (2001) it sets a ground for an enriching therapeutic process. 

Metaphors allow clients to express themselves without feeling threatened or disturbed by the pressure of confrontation and helps them to produce new solutions (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). The facilitating nature of the metaphor in the changing process might result in the emotional distress and cognitive unbalance in the individual (Kopp, 1995). Metaphoric interventions serve as an access to the resistant mind of the client (Karaırmak Ö., Guloglu B.,  2012). Carmichael (2000) claims that the clients tend to talk more openly about their problems if the metaphor is used; that is because the clients would not need to apply defense mechanisms and their sense of selves would be more preserved. Metaphor addresses to the personality traits which are open to the change and novel ideas as a result of outfacing the resistance in conscious level (Groth-Marnat, 1992).

Lyddon et al. (2001) mentions about the five dimensions in which the metaphor can be used: familiarizing, symbolizing the experience, revealing and confronting the latent assumptions, working with the resistance and suggesting a new perspective.

The inner and outer reality

“The greatest thing by far is to be the master of metaphor.” —Aristotle, Poetics 

It is sometimes really hard someone to make believe and act upon the particular belief. Everyone told me smoking is a bad habit, but these sayings of people didn’t make me quit it as soon as I heard it’s bad. Most probably the day when I will quit smoking, is the day I have a personal theory and belief about the negative side of smoking and positive sides of quitting. This particular example tries to explain that my inner world will be my outer world when I finally create it in my mind. My inner reality would linearly create my outer reality. Since Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on the interaction between behavior and cognition, that would be nice to touch the mind, the way of thinking of an individual to be able to let a change (Beck JS, 2011).

Metaphors work exactly in the same way. The harmony of metaphors or stories in a therapy was shown in a study, the communication between counselor and the client consists of 3 metaphors in every 100 words in a single hour of therapy (Ferrara, 1994), so why not use them with awareness in our sessions? Use of stories and metaphors is kind of the highway to show intuitive similarities in very different concepts. The words which we already used to hear from everyone all the time could  be an ordinary echo of the things that we already know, but metaphors help us to find a new and genius  way of holding the same things.’ ( Rosenman, 2008, p. 393). 

People go to the therapy for important reasons and seek for help, but, the ‘the words that sound like the right words’  doesn’t seem to work all the time. People do resist in truth, in reality. The resistance happens by the fact of our psychological defense mechanisms due to maximize satisfaction and minimize pain (Freud, S. & Breuer, J., 1959). But, If you don’t push the tender spot with harsh words, anyone can be agreed on a topic by the use of the right perspective. Surely, it depends on the particular person because we all have different perspectives of life and different past experiences. In the cases like this, using metaphors can pass the boundaries of resistance. 

It is even more useful to application of the metaphors that created by the client because, since the metaphor is created by the patient, it would mirror the inner world, in other words, his/her own perception. In order to  make a positive change, we can use the client’s own perception, his own expressions, and words.

Metaphors may have a special way to function in a psychological therapy session. For instance, the patient may express his/her experiences, feelings, thoughts by using some metaphors (I was way too demolished when I saw it) (Lyddon et al., 2001), and psychologists may express abstract concepts in terms of concrete ones (Stott et al., 2010) or, to stress out an importance of the topic which they talk about or just discovered (you know, this is like, very important) (Miller and Weinert, 1995). 

I would like to give my personal experience as an example of using metaphors in a psychological counseling session. I went to see a psychologist in order to quit smoking. I told him that whenever I try to quit it, whenever I think of it and give it a try, I automatically start to smoke even more than before and it never changes. My counselor told me an ancient Cherokee story.  

‘An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”’

Then my counselor said that, ‘If you focus on the thought of not smoking, you basically will feed the black wolf. But, If your goal is to have a better and healthier skin, to run for a longer time and to lose your eye wrinkles, you should focus on the white wolf, these positive thoughts. If you feed the idea of ‘I shouldn’t smoke’ you will be feeding the black one. If you focus on the idea of the healthy life and a better look, you automatically will feed the white one.’ That example was very impressive in my case and taught me well to not to do at least. 

As a conclusion, if a therapist wants to make a nice touch to any individual about a certain idea, it would be wise to use the patient’s own expressions, the way of thinking and metaphors. Stories always help to inject an idea or a philosophy into the other’s mind and it is very useful way to show small details can make a big enlightenment just as it was in the wolf example for me. Using the metaphor technique in CBT can help us to process the information in a deeper and stronger way in the patient’s mind. Here, we should aim to have a long-lasting effect with our words so the story will reinforce the mind. To be able to create differences in behavior, firstly we should make the right change in the mind.


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