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.

On not giving away your power

Quite a number of times during my years in community mental health I had public school students (mostly boys) referred to me for counseling by their schools, due to fighting. These students definitely did not want to attend mandatory counseling sessions, so I used that as a lever, saying “Let’s see if you can learn to control your temper in two or three sessions. It’s up to you how long you have to come in for counseling.” I fully understood that when a teenager is being taunted in front of his peers, it feels more powerful in the moment to start swinging than to stand there feeling humiliated. So I framed their problem as one of giving away their personal power when they let themselves be goaded into losing their temper and fighting. Before I got into teaching anger management skills, I had to convince these students that I could help them. I often used set-up “punchlines” and strategic metaphors in therapy.

My first therapeutic hook was to show them a hand-lettered cardboard sign on a loop of string, which I’d hang around my neck. The sign read “If you want to make me mad, call me a _______.” I had a number of smaller signs that  I’d hold over the blank: “retard” “punk” “homo” “Mama’s boy”. With a straight face I’d offer to give the signs to the student, to wear at school. Of course he’d decline my offer, confused as to why I’d think he’d want to wear it in the first place. Then I’d give him my punchline: “You may as well wear it. Your behavior already tells people the same thing the sign says. The guys who give you a hard time just have to find out which of these things to call you, to make you lose control. It only makes you feel strong when you fight, but you’re actually giving away your power. When a bully goads you into throwing the first punch, he’s gotten what he wants. He knows that you’re the one who’s going to be suspended.”

My second hook was a metaphor that actually involves fishing. I’d ask the student if he’d ever gone fishing, and most had. I’d ask if they’d ever tried fishing without bait. Of course they’d say they always used bait. Then I’d say, “Because you know that a fish wouldn’t bite a bare hook, and the bait hides the hook. And that’s what happens when your enemies at school make you lose your cool. Their words are the bait that hides the hook. Once you bite, they’ve got you.” I’d pantomime reeling-in a fish, then suggest that keeping control of your behavior when you’re angry is a strength. (I realize that there are times when a cool-headed decision to fight is an appropriate response to bullying, but I won’t get into that circumstance here.)

There are other ways that people frequently give away their power to other people or to circumstances beyond their control. An event such as a traffic jam doesn’t have the power to make you mad, unless you invest it with that power. It’s one thing to say that you became angry when you got stuck in traffic, and quite another to say – as many people do – that being stuck in the traffic jam “made you” angry. The traffic might have triggered your anger, but it didn’t cause it.

Sometimes people blame their feelings or actions on others: “I wouldn’t have hit him if he hadn’t dissed me!” People who attribute their anger to other peoples’ behavior (i.e. “You make me angry when you contradict me!”) are making an indirect demand: “Don’t contradict me, or you’ll have to deal with my anger.” As with blaming circumstances for one’s anger, there’s a big difference between “I get angry when you _________” and “You make me angry when you _________.” The difference is in locus of control. Does control exist within me, or outside of me? Owning your anger is a strength.

If I blame external triggers for my anger, I’m giving them power over me. If I own my anger, I’m more likely to control its duration and its influence on my behavior. I’m not stating this as an absolute. If someone were to sucker-punch me, I’d certainly attribute my anger to his behavior. I’m just making the point that if I own my anger, I’m less likely to reflexively hit him back. (Which may or may not be the best response.) Thinking that I generate my own anger in response to external triggers is more rational than thinking that others can pull my strings, and that external triggers cause my anger.  Staying in control of your behavior and making good decisions while experiencing a strong emotion is a strength.

Another common habit of people who can’t differentiate between their rational and irrational thoughts is catastrophizing or awfulizing. When something inconvenient, unpleasant, disappointing or hurtful happens, there’s nothing to be gained by mentally labeling it as “terrible” or “awful,” or saying that you “can’t stand it.” Of course real tragedies and major losses can truly be terrible and overwhelming , but exaggerating the negative impact of an unwanted, unpleasant experience just makes it all the more unpleasant. Each of us has the ability to assign meaning and give weight to events, and catastrophizing is another way that people diminish their own power. Sometimes we spend ten dollars of adrenaline on a ten-cent problem, because of the way we think about it.