Limiting Metaphors?

I was sent the following question:

“Are metaphors just beliefs that a person has regarding a context they came to seek guidance about to a therapist or not? Do metaphors equal a limiting story a person has about themselves, the world or their life?”

It’s not an easy one to answer, primarily because of that word “Metaphor”. It is a word I have come to love and to loathe in equal measure. Love, because it has opened up a whole new world of exploration and possibilities for me, and loathe because it is a crap word semantically loaded with so many different meanings to different people.

For example, in the context of therapy “metaphor” might simply be a story that the therapist tells the client which has a message attached to it. You know, like that terrible story of the ugly duckling. Only the dimmest of children don’t realise that this is allegorical and has a message for children about being the odd one out. It says, “hang in there kids, because one day you will grow up, and be beautiful and better than all those that laughed at you.” It’s a worrying message for sure, and I’m not entirely sure that it instils the right values for children in these modern times.

Many therapists, especially hypnotherapists love this kind of “metaphor.” I wish they didn’t, of course, because too much of the time they simply come across to their clients as patronising halfwits.

But of course, we can add “technology” to this metaphor. We can make it isomorphic or polymorphic. Basically, this means that we substitute elements of the persons life for characters in the story (there’s a one to one relationship, i.e. the bullied child becomes the ugly duckling, the other kids become those bastard ducks) and the story is parallel to the events as told by the client. Of course, the therapists tries to change the ending or something, you know, just to make it more fun or something. They can begin to add in embedded commands and suggestion, utilise characters in the story to introduce suggestion though “quotes” and so on.

Or, they can get clever and make the story less obvious. Here’s an example, tell the story of Jesus to the horribly depressed man. The story of Jesus is built around honesty, faith, horror, suffering, brutality, unfairness, horror, torture and so on, yet over all this story seems to inspire hope in people. (Truly, I don’t really understand why or how, it’s just horrible, but well, that’s religion for you).

Often utilising NLP’s “nested loops” and “state chaining” these homomorphic metaphors can match, pace and lead the differing states of experience of the client, and there may be many different elements in the story to each of the elements in the person’s real life in order to convey this. This pattern of “therapy” has been happening for tens of thousands of years, and the stories told in narrative, in song and/or in ritual (i.e. the grand ritual of Christmas) and passed from generation to generation. These stories evolve and change according to customs of the time, political pressures and commercial pressures. To stick with the Christmas example, a long time ago political pressure added the Jesus narrative to an already established winter ritual. In more recent times, commercial pressures and influences have introduced multiple characters into the ritual drama, such as a Norwegian Santa Claus, a facially deformed reindeer and, if you are American, The Grinch. This story is always evolving much to the horror of Christians who want it to be about an uncircumcised baby.

Human experience is rather complex; our emotional range is varied and our social politics are so seriously complex it can be very hard to communicate our experience verbally in a linear fashion. One key problem is that in order to convey our experience, we need to have someone prepared to listen, and people make quite terrible listeners. They interrupt, change the subject, make it about themselves, have emotional reactions to us and so on. also, the message we attempt to deliver is filtered through the availability of words, and of course through distortion, deletion and generalisation.

Thus the “metaphor” that MoM concerns itself with are those homomorphic metaphors of the client’s own experience. Inside this metaphor there will be multiple characters, narratives and events all happening simultaneously. It is a highly information dense, complex experience that simply cannot be conveyed adequately in language, and so reveals itself in linguistic fragments as “idioms”. The idioms act as little hints to the complex metaphor that is being alluded to, and the MoM training is designed to enable the practitioner to be able to know what they are hearing and to have a methodology for working with the underlying experience of the client.

So, back to the first part of the question: “Are metaphors just beliefs that a person has regarding a context they came to seek guidance about to a therapist or not?”

I simply don’t know the answer to this. I often wonder if metaphor is contextual to time and location. For example, if we were to interview the client on a different day about the same problem, would they give a different metaphor? I suspect not, but I really don’t know.

One observation about metaphors is that they are remarkably stable and resistant to suggestion and influence, unlike memory and other forms of mental representation. The other observation is that metaphors tend to be timeless and lacking time predication. So my best guess is that the client’s metaphor is likely to exist across context, but….

…whilst the structure of metaphor is stable, the imagery can change and morph over time. For example, being stuck is the same thing whether you are stuck in treacle/molasses or mud, stuck in a rut, or in a trap. The effect upon the person is fairly similar in that they cannot move forwards (or where-ever). But the qualities of the stuckness may differ according to context. So, the person is always stuck, but in place A it is like they have fallen into a trap, and in place B it is like they are glued to the spot, and so on. The effect may be the same, but the taxonomy and symbolism of the metaphor is different.

Now regarding the issues of metaphors being beliefs. Again, I don’t know. My difficulty here is with the definition of “metaphor” and the definition of “beliefs”, in fact, I’m not entirely sure I even know what constitutes a belief any more. I’ll need to come back to this one later when I have more time to explain.

Next part of the question is: “Do metaphors equal a limiting story a person has about themselves, the world or their life?”

The answer to this is simply yes, this is exactly what it is. But the problems arise with issues such as, (i) is there better alternative to this story? (ii) not all limitations are bad or negative.

Metaphors as experienced by people are interesting in that they extend infinitely in all directions. They are the persons world and their life, so how could they be any different?

Anyway, more on this in later blog entries. I’d be delighted to read any comments or observations people might on this in the comments section below.

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5 Responses to Limiting Metaphors?

  1. Danny says:

    I think ‘beliefs’ and ‘metaphors’ refer to the same thing in this context. I could equally use the word ‘conceptualisations’. Each word describes the personal psychogeography through which a person moves.
    ‘Belief’ also has the connotation of something that is consciously stated. E.g. “I believe in God”.
    So when a person is asked to state their belief about a problem they might use conventional words: “I don’t think I can do it.”
    When asked what that’s like, it is expressed as an idiom, “I’m not up to it.”

  2. If metaphors can be limiting beliefs, then they should be enabling beliefs too, right? People seldom come looking for help with their successes, but maybe those metaphors are worth exploring too.

  3. Interesting conversation. My BELIEF is that metaphors are a structural representation of how beliefs look and feel to the subject. It’s interesting to note that when I ask a client “what’s that like?” I get a rather detailed description of the internal representation that seems to manifest as their outward experience. Then, when they experience a belief change using any process, not just MOM, the metaphoric representation spontaneously changes to reflect the new internal experience, followed by the real world result.

    This, by the way, includes metaphors for beliefs that aren’t ‘limiting’ as well. When I ask someone who does something really well “what’s the like?” their metaphor has an empowering structure. So, while I don’t know the answer either, it seems to me that language of the unconscious (the structure of beliefs) is represented metaphorically. Even words are just representations for beliefs/meanings.

    By the way, for clarification, my broader definition of beliefs includes all information contained within one’s neurology that influences their experience of reality; thoughts, feelings, decision making, meanings, judgments, epigenetics, etc. That might seem a bit comprehensive, but I’m interested in all the factors that influence how one thinks, feels, behaves and creates their sense of Identity in any given context. It’s all information, and it’s all connected.

  4. Sridhar Bachalli says:

    I wonder if a ‘Metaphor’ can change in a given context, where as a ‘Belief’ does not.

  5. david@engagingminds.biz says:

    The metaphor perhaps is a symbolic meta-representation of the outcome of a belief. A snapshot of the position that results for the person holding the belief. As Andy has said, the value of mapping the metaphorical position is in discovering and “getting” the outcomes of holding certain beliefs and, at the same time, how the belief holds us in a fixed position. We then are able to see clearly “where we are now” and as a result make changes to move forward. So the focus is less on “where to go from here” but on getting crystal clear on our current position. A belief is an attempt to control reality with thinking. It fails, but only 100% of the time. Perhaps growing up is realizing that we don’t need to “control” anything…we just need to trust ourselves to respond resourcefully in the present. As such, we can turn off the autopilot, be present, and respond usefully to present circumstances from a position of being response-able.

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