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Stories were one of the important ways our distant ancestors had of explaining the unexplainable.....


Since earliest history, people have been able to imagine innovative solutions for their problems and have been enthralled listeners to stories spoken to the third ear of the subconscious, in the language of dream and metaphor. Stories were one of the important ways our distant ancestors had of explaining the unexplainable, of giving form to the formless and dealing with stress in their lives, different from modern day stress but stress nevertheless. The spoken story thus became a bridge in making that which was difficult to understand, understandable. From this developed our heritage of fairy tales, parables, anecdotes and metaphors. The intention with this special way of telling a story is a communication between story teller and listener, at all levels of consciousness, with the message most effectively absorbed by the listener’s subconscious mind. If the storyteller has empathy for the listener, fear of rejection or losing the plot can be overcome. A magic is created by which the teller and listener allow themselves to be emotionally honest and fully present. There is an exchanged energy that reading something alone can never create. In the stillness, a shared experience begins to grow in which the speaking and the listening are different activities of a single awareness. In that shared consciousness, a profound understanding and therefore healing can occur, in which the exchange of energy can be just as important as the metaphor content.

People have long been aware of the healing power of metaphors. By drawing us away from the every day jumble of stress and the mad confusion of conscious mind thinking, metaphors enable contact with a deeper part of ourselves, that unique being that is us, which is with us when we are concerned and stressed, trying to protect us as best it can. That intuitive part of human consciousness can supersede all the imperfections of conscious judgement and logicality. These hidden depths contain infinite resources and are the keys to individual happiness. This realm of consciousness is the only place true lasting happiness can be found. The metaphor is able to tap into hidden wisdom and share its gifts in story form. A well-constructed metaphor can place both storyteller and listener in the presence of an intelligence far greater than any conscious thought, into the subconscious mind of a mighty and irresistible force of creativity.

Arguably the most accomplished hypnotherapist of the 20th century, Milton Erickson, used, very effectively, anecdotes as metaphors, to achieve what often seemed like magical cures. Such metaphorical tales evoke, but do not literally reproduce, the circumstances of the client’s life. However, during an altered state of consciousness, clients frequently seem to accept what these stories imply about their stress problems. They can then consider new solutions within the framework of their own lives and one of the remarkable things about this is that clients frequently do not know how they solved their problem, they just know they have.

As interpreters of Erickson have pointed out, and as Erickson himself stated, the central elements in his therapy were – “First you model the client’s world: then you role model the client’s world”. Both the modelling and the role modelling can be done unobtrusively in the form of stories. The first part of the story analogues the client’s symptoms, problems or life situation, thereby modelling the client’s world, or part of it. The second part of the story analogues or role models solutions or optional ways of looking at, or dealing with, the client’s situation. That is, it gives the client alternative choices that often the conscious mind will not understand or accept. What a conundrum that became for the exponents of traditional talking therapies, many of whom believed there could be no client gain without pain, as many still do.

Milton Erickson defined hypnotherapy as “The evocation and utilisation of subconscious learning”. He said, “We are in closest touch with our own inner knowledge and in best rapport with our clients when we are both in a shared trance”. He believed that we are most open to learning in the trance state. I myself have produced many metaphor stories for my clients, ‘on the hoof’, as it were, without any notion of what the metaphor would be, or that I would even create one before the session started.

Simply entering into a trance state seems to enable creative therapists to tap into poetic elements of their own psyche and it may be that this poetic element is directly connected with the emergence of subconscious mentation, hopefully of a wise nature. Of course, it is not implied that the mere telling of a tale will necessarily cure anyone.

One cannot help but be impressed by the power of a teaching tale, when it is utilised appropriately and at the right time in any therapeutic process. There are many instances in which a client’s behaviour has changed positively after a teaching tale has been utilised, either one that was borrowed from Erickson, from the bible, from folk tales, or best of all a unique one created by the therapist.

Metaphor tales need not be in the form of fairy stories, but how often the subconscious mind reacts willingly when a metaphor starts with “once upon a time”. I have used this opening line very successfully with children and adults who will go back to the child self. These tales can just as easily evolve from science fiction, poetry, or other literary forms. They might involve the use of music or movement metaphors, as expressed in dance. Therapists who explore these approaches will be moving towards the discovery of more effective methods of helping their clients to ‘learn to think’ and to develop their emotional intelligence in amazing ways.

*Nietzsche, in ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ used the phrase “the third ear”, meaning that it is with the ‘third ear’ we hear the metaphorical language of our intuition. We dream in metaphor, and through metaphor we can achieve fundamental understanding.

*Nietzsche Fredrich ‘Beyond Good and Evil’. Chapter V111, section 246.pp.180-1 New York Carlton House.

Milton Erickson’s innovative use of story telling opened up limitless possibilities for effective therapy. The language of the metaphor and anecdote can be quite childlike, which is often an important component of the therapeutic effectiveness of these particular stories, exemplified by the aforementioned ‘once upon a time’ opening phrase. It is a fact that, with metaphoric stories, if you want the subconscious to hear, then speak as if you are conversing with an eight year old child, because in many cases, in respect of so many emotional problems, that is exactly what you are doing. However, make sure you use this child language to the subconscious mind, otherwise the conscious mind of most adults may reject it or find it condescending.

Erickson structured his anecdotes so that they were analogous to the life situations of his clients. His metaphors included familiar details supplied by the client’s frame of reference. For example, * in the well – known case of Joe, a person intensely interested in plants, who was suffering great pain from terminal cancer, Erickson talked about the cycle of the tomato plant. Naturally this subject engaged Joe’s interest without arousing resistance. Another famous Erickson story was the ‘African Violet Lady, from Milwaukee,’ a client Erickson helped to come out of a deep depression, by first observing her only slight interest in life seemed to be growing African violets and then encouraging her progressively to grow hundreds of African violets and give them as presents to needy people in her local community, starting with patients in her local hospital. He then made up a metaphor from this experience to help numerous other clients to lift depression and anxiety from their lives.

It is exactly in this way that metaphors, anecdotes and healing stories work with clients. They bring the story into the framework of their own experience. They try to make sense of the story, as it would apply to them. The content of the story is a metaphor, that evokes, but does not literally reproduce, the actual circumstances of clients’ lives. They can accept what the story seems to imply about their problems and consider new solutions within the framework of their own lives.

The subconscious is essentially protective. Before we can let go of our stress and dysfunctional behaviour, the subconscious needs to be persuaded that we can safely choose other options that will work better for us and be more gratifying to us. Establishing rapport and lowering a client’s resistance can open the door for the subconscious to translate the metaphor of a story and incorporate new possibilities.

Stories as metaphors cannot only give the client a way of understanding reality, they can also help determine what a client is likely to perceive, or be blind to, and to recognise something is real in the confused world around them.

* Erickson M.H. ‘The collected papers of Milton H. Erickson. Volume 1V. Innovative therapy’. Ernst Rossi (Ed). New York: Irvington. 1980.pp 266-275.

The metaphor can give a client the power of imagination to link the past and the present to the future and can give the possibility not only to know things but also to create whole new realities. Metaphors, much better than reason, can play a vital part in engaging the client wholly, including the full range of their emotions. They can teach clients, if they know something emotionally, they know it completely, with an effective wholeness that abstract reasoning is rarely able to convey. Clients can experience the metaphor and then shape the experience in ways that abstraction cannot. Healing stories can be powerful and practical because they appeal to all of what a person is as a human being, not just part of them. No matter how much our heads know, if our hearts are not persuaded, we are never truly convinced. The metaphor can often provide the missing link in the therapeutic process that truly convinces the client.

Metaphors, anecdotes, similes, tall tales, factual explanations and humour can introduce therapy in a way the client can easily remember. They can pressure the memory into a shape that attracts the mind, not only as a way of knowing but also as a way of remembering. A healing story is a vital technique that therapists can use, particularly when clients remain stubbornly in ‘stuck states’, oscillating from what they do, to what they want to do, then back again, to and fro, backwards and forwards, with nothing changing in a definitive way. ‘Yo –Yo dieting’ is one of the more obvious examples of this; or when they appear to be up against what they perceive as an impassable barrier. When a person is in this stressed state, conscious logic is not of much use. It just feeds the oscillating ‘stuck state’ trance.

One of the most powerful ways of helping a client to get beyond the stress of any perceived impassable barrier is the indirect approach of a metaphor, a healing story. It is a way of conveying an idea or suggestion that is embodied in the story’s events. Events in stories linger after a client has listened to their content, entering the subconscious mind in the most unobtrusive way possible, with far less resistance than explicit suggestions. As an example of lingering in the mind, one of my clients phoned me up one month after sessions in which he achieved considerable gains. He said, “Mike, that story you told me about the ‘Forsythia Bush’ just suddenly flooded into my mind, and everything else fell into place. I just had to call you and let you know”. It is so true that a lot of good therapy happens outside the therapy room. Well doesn’t it? Say that to your clients as they walk out the door, when they think that particular therapy session has finished and they will subliminally accept it. That’s not necessarily true but why not believe it is.

Generally speaking, metaphors and stories can be a far better way to enable a client to cope with stress and get out of stress ‘stuck states’ than analytical or suggestive therapy. As a client loses his or her self in a story, his/her ego becomes much less active in logical discrimination or analysis. When the ego loses its grip on consciousness, the mind can then become receptive to the wisdom that is presented to it. A client must accept a therapist means what he/she says. Only then will a client change, and only if the structure the therapist uses is in a form or language that can be subconsciously assimilated, or is delivered in a way from which the client can draw his/her own conclusion, from many faceted options or choices.

Most clients change in their own unique way and one of the secrets of being an effective therapist is helping clients find their own unique way to change. I personally found this impossible to do just reading from set scripts. Most of us start like that. However, I soon passed onto the intuitive, innovative pathway as a therapist. It is not always easy for innovative therapists to explain their therapy, so I hope you understand all I am endeavouring to explain in this article.

Metaphor stories can speak of a new way, bringing profound understanding of matters that have long been lost in the maze of conscious mind thinking. The interconnections of all things can be illustrated in a way that possesses uniqueness rarely possible by any other form of communication. They are the perfect way to illustrate the truth of what needs to be understood. They enable us to grapple with seemingly intractable difficulties and overcome what are perceived as insurmountable obstacles. We can then by comparison see how so many of our problems are down to what we perceive and not what actually happened, or was indeed intended by others, that much of the stress we suffer and feelings of isolation are simply the result of our own choices. The great value of this insight is we can make different choices in the present and future. We can change.

Metaphors speak often of patience, persistence of purpose and forgiveness for self and others. Above all is the inevitability of change, which is always possible. When there is a deep desire for change, it can always be achieved. Metaphor stories will always remain as they have throughout the ages, a contemporary therapy form, by which the storyteller can help the listener deal and cope with stress and the needs of the moment.

Perhaps the most important possibility of the metaphor is that something new will frequently surface or be revealed, some sudden thought can arise from the subconscious, some message hidden from conscious awareness can be revived. This can often only come about from the client’s total involvement in the metaphor story. But because it is part of the whole, it does not cause the client traumatic feelings, because it can be seen in context with a beginning and an end. Traumas are caused by a frightening experience being trapped in the amygdala, one of the brain’s most primitive regions. It means the person cannot end the event with logical reasoning; they are constantly caught in the stressed terror of the trauma. An appropriate metaphor can be a fairly painless way of getting the brain to accept the end sequence, that is survival. The trauma can then transfer to the higher cortex, the reasoning part of the brain. There are of course other ways of releasing a client’s trauma but few as eloquent as the metaphor story. The metaphor is powerful because it diffuses resistance, in that a story is ‘once removed,’ so that the new possibilities it offers become intriguing suggestions rather than commands. Effective therapy through story telling depends on the therapist’s willingness to trust his or her own creativity and intuition, a willingness to open one’s own subconscious and allow it to take over. When we can trust our subconscious, then our creativity flowers and proliferates. The books about Milton Erickson’s metaphors and anecdotes and the countless others that have been written should only be a metaphor for our own inventiveness. It is not enough to offer pallid imitations of others’ stories. Rather, we need others to work as a springboard to catapult us into our own creativity.

I know very well that most hypnotherapists are familiar with metaphors. However, I hope this article will encourage those of you who may not have yet opened up the unlimited possibilities of using metaphors, anecdotes and healing stories as therapeutic tools to the greatest advantage, to create your own metaphors spontaneously during a session and find out what a delightful experience it can be. However, studying the subject in detail is a prerequisite to the spontaneous delivery of a metaphor, as we cannot do anything to the greatest advantage, or in the most effective way, until we have studied every part of it thoroughly. Well, that’s true. Well, isn’t it? The greatest thrill and joy for me over my 20 years as a therapist has been the creation of a metaphor, spontaneously, during a client session and then realising that very shortly afterwards, or in the days and weeks ahead, or often immediately, my client has been able to shout out, “That’s it!” or something similar, and the therapy is all but over. I can really then appreciate the notion that ‘conscious knowledge is power’ might apply to Marxist dialectics, but rather falls apart when it comes up against the incontestable power of the subconscious mind.

Can you imagine, (if you can’t, imagine you can) the magic of story telling, enthralling and enlightening your therapy, for the benefit of your client? Well can you? You are already aware, as a therapist, that language is your most powerful persuasion tool. You probably realise, too, that the ability to influence is a valuable skill. So you’re going to be amazed when you discover just how quickly your skills as a therapeutic story teller can increase when you imagine the magic of spontaneous metaphor, as it enthrals and enlightens and benefits your clients in such an effective way towards achieving the changes they desire. What an irresistible influence that could have for you and your clients.

So to conclude, you may have already thought I never would. There is always real hope that our hearts can always be opened and our mind begin to beat its wings of understanding, when we hear the magic of metaphor language in harmony with the truth that lies within our own heart.

Metaphor stories can be used to:
Get people to lower their defences and overturn objections.
Reframe and change the meaning of something.
Suggest to your client how they can think about something in a different way.
Induce trance.
Help clients to install new strategies.
Disassociate clients from hurtful feelings.
Cope with stress and change beliefs.
Grab your client’s attention.
Induce age regression.
Put clients at ease, build rapport and pace their experience.
Speak to the subconscious mind.
Illustrate a point that you feel is important for your client to accept.
Generally act as illusive camouflage.
Help clients to change before they even know they have.
Help clients to recognise they have resources they did not know they had.
Rehearse success in an observing state.
Help clients to believe and activate the saying, ‘Physician heal thyself’.