Metaphor and storytelling in therapy, Part 1

Partly because I was an undergraduate English major before I got a psychology graduate degree, I was very language-oriented as a therapist. Carefully listening to my clients’ metaphors and linguistic formulations  (as well as noticing non-verbal cues) was my best key to understanding their unique experiences of being-in-the-world. I tried to use their own language and metaphors in my tailored communications with each client, and often crafted strategic metaphors that I hoped would reach them where they lived. Sometimes I presented the metaphor concisely: “It’s like you always wear a suit of armor around people, and you’ve been wearing it for so long you don’t know when it’s okay to take it off, or even how to do it if you wanted to.” When a strategic metaphor hits the nail on the head, it’s immediately validated by the client, and helps to establish trust in the relationship. (“She understands me!”) If it doesn’t, the client will often use the metaphor as a starting point for clarification: “It’s more like a wall I build around me than a suit of armor.” This provides the therapist with a better understanding of the client’s worldview, and a better metaphor to use with him.

Sometimes I extended my metaphor into a story: Once upon a time there was a knight named Val who survived every battle he fought in, and was a renowned warrior. He was known for his bravery and for his impressive suit of armor, crafted by the best armorer in the kingdom. Sir Val took great care to maintain the steel armor and oil the leather straps, and never went into battle without a careful inspection, to make sure everything was in place. In time, he became known as the most formidable knight in the kingdom. But then there came a time of peace. With no battles to be fought, the king declared an outdoor feast on Midsummer’s Day. It was hot, and the knights and ladies wore their light summer finery. But Sir Val showed up wearing his full suit of armor. He was sweating bullets, it was almost impossible to eat or drink wearing gauntlets and a helmet with a visor, and romancing the ladies with a lute and a song was out of the question; so he left shortly after he arrived. It didn’t hurt his reputation as a brave and formidable knight, but nobody could understand why he thought he needed to wear his armor to a picnic.

Sometimes a story is more effective than an explanation or an interpretation or a speech. I still remember what I learned as a boy from the “Story of the Boy Who Called Wolf” : if you develop a reputation as a liar, people won’t believe you even when you tell the truth. It gave me a practical reason to lie, not a lecture on truthfulness. Teaching stories abound in Buddhism, Sufism, and other religious traditions. Jesus used parables to illustrate religious truths.

One of my favorite Buddhist teaching stories, which I told many times in therapy, is about a Western scholar, an expert on Oriental religions, who was visiting Japan. He had the good fortune to be invited to a Buddhist monastery for a formal tea ceremony with the abbot, or roshi. He was escorted to a serene rock garden, where the roshi awaited him, sitting on a mat. The scholar knew something about tea ceremonies, and sat opposite the roshi, who bowed to him and set about preparing the tea in silence. Impatient, uncomfortable with the silence, the scholar began babbling about Confucianism and Taoism and Buddhism, wishing to impress his host with his broad knowledge. The roshi kept silence until the tea was ready, and nodded to indicate that his guest should hold out his teacup to be filled. The scholar did so, still talking. When the cup was filled, the roshi kept on pouring. The tea overflowed the cup, at which point the scholar shut up, watching the tea drip onto the mat. “Your mind is like that teacup,” the roshi observed. “It’s already so full that it can’t hold anything new. If you want to learn new things, first you have to empty your cup.”

Another Buddhist story I told many times in therapy was about a senior monk and a novice who are journeying on foot through the countryside. They belong to an order that generally observes silence and forbids physical contact with women. One rainy morning they come to a rain-swollen stream. An old woman is weeping, unable to cross and return to her family on the other side. The older monk lifts her up and carries her across the torrent. Then the two monks continue on their journey, in silence. When they set up camp that night, the novice asks for permission to speak. “Our order clearly prohibits physical contact with women, and yet you took this woman in your arms this morning.” “Yes,” the older monk replied. “But I put her down on the far bank of the stream. You’ve been carrying her all day.”

Do you know anyone who might benefit from hearing any of these stories? I’ve collected teaching stories for years, and will share more of my favorites in future posts. An extended metaphor is an analogy, and a story is a kind of extended analogy. A good story can lodge itself in your long-term memory, and affect your behavior.

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