The Power of Metaphors to Help Us Learn, Change, and Grow

The Power of Metaphors to Help Us Learn, Change, and Grow

The power of metaphor... as seen in a silly movie

I recall a scene from the (decidedly silly) movie Road Trip, when the main character learns he will have to unexpectedly take a final exam early in his college Ancient Philosophy course, even though he has not studied at all. His friend offers to help him cram stating, "I can teach you Ancient Philosophy in 46 hours...you just have to find a way to relate to the material."

The main character happens to enjoy pro wrestling, so his friend begins his lesson with a metaphor about Socrates being like the influential wrestling legend "Vince McMahon" of the philosophy movement. Needless to say, the main character passes his test because of his new way of understanding the otherwise boring material.

Although the movie is mostly a silly one, I find great wisdom in this brief scene.

Taking complex concepts or ideas and finding a way to translate them into simple, relatable terms can be quite challenging, but also very powerful.

The power of a good metaphor

Using a metaphor in therapy can have a profound impact in allowing an individual to form a deep and internalized understanding of themselves, other people, or the world. The beauty of using metaphors is that they can be creatively customized to help someone understand complex therapeutic concepts in a way that will be memorable, relatable, and personalized. 

Personalization is key

There are some well known metaphors such as "give a person a fish and you feed them a day, teach them to fish and you feed them for life." Many of us can instantly relate to the deeper idea beneath the metaphor and we now have a way of understanding and applying this knowledge to our unique circumstances. Whereas familiar metaphors can be impactful, they can also seem cliche.

I have found it much more useful to work toward creating new metaphors that speak to some existing interest or familiarity a person might have. 

"Untying the bad knot" as a metaphor for healing from Anxiety

I might liken the process of overcoming anxiety to untying a bad knot on a fishing pole. Certainly if you have ever fished before you know the frustration and tedium of working out such knots. You are prevented from continuing to fish until the knot is untied, but the knot can seem complex, overwhelming, and have no clear starting point to correct the problem.

Someone struggling with anxiety might instantly connect to this metaphor and find it reflects their feelings about their own life.

Moreover, you can extend the metaphor to communicate how to overcome Anxiety as you would untie a bad knot. You would carefully examine parts of the knot to loosen, utilize trial and error to find the right places to start, find another part of the knot to work on when you've hit a dead end, etc.

The goal of the metaphor is to not only validate the experience a person is having, but also to shift their conceptualization of the problem to allow for a different view of the problem itself as well as possible solutions.      

Helping an adolescent to see himself in a different light with metaphor

Another reason metaphor is so useful is that it can also increase one's engagement in the therapeutic process. One example of this can be reflected in an adolescent who had very little interest or motivation for therapy. Because the adolescent was especially interested in video games, I found a way to incorporate metaphors that use video game content or concepts. 

Finding the right metaphor can increase their interest in the therapeutic material being discussed while also creating an opportunity to internalize something meaningful due to the improved relatability.

For instance, when an adolescent said they feel they are "weird," "different," or "flawed," they might respond well to a metaphor about the character creation process in a role-play video game.

When you create your video game character, you choose various abilities and attributes that match your style of play. Every created character is unique, having both strengths and weaknesses, which must be accounted for and adapted to during the gameplay. Using the metaphor of video game characters, I highlighted the various ways a person might adjust how they play a game to match their unique character profile.

This metaphor works to show how "different" might not always be the weakness the adolescent assumes it is, and that perhaps we can help them find a way to "play the game" of life that matches their own unique abilities.

Using metaphors in therapy

I always strive to incorporate good metaphors into therapy because I have seen people respond very well to this intervention. I also find that individuals are able to recall metaphors far more readily than trying to remember technical or complex information and skills.

Metaphor can make the abstract more concrete and familiar, and can ultimately help provide pathways toward recovery that were not apparent otherwise.

Although using metaphor frequently is a stylistic preference I have as a therapist, I also feel it significantly improves progress, retention, and personalization of therapeutic discussions. It teaches a person a method to view their life or problems in a different way, and uncover solutions that were not previously thought of. 

Creating a metaphor that speaks to your unique life and challenges is a powerful tool that can be used for a lifetime, and can be an important step in the process of achieving your own therapeutic and personal goals.

Dr. Joey Tadie is a psychologist at The Catalyst Center. He works with people who are ready to create meaningful change in their lives, and offers support, guidance, and the tools you need to transform your life for the better.

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