We naturally represent complex experiences as metaphors
As humans, when we have a complex experience that is difficult to explain, we naturally describe it as if it were something more tangible. We might say we have a “splitting headache” when our head is not literally splitting open, but it feels like that. We might hear “her smile lights up the room” and, despite the room being literally that same brightness, we recognise the inner experience of that kind of smile. Someone with a “heart of gold” does not literally have precious metal in their chest, but we recognise the purity, value and softness of gold in that person. This ability to use metaphor is so natural to us that researchers have estimated we use around six metaphors every minute in everyday speech.
When people have suffered emotional or sexual abuse, they have complex, painful experiences that can be hard to talk about. Sometimes my clients tell me their stories, and having that experience listened to and validated with gentle compassion can be deeply healing. Other clients prefer to not re-visit these experiences, and so we don’t: re-visiting experiences can re-traumatise a person. I believe in the client’s wisdom to choose the right path for them. Fortunately, metaphors provide a way to work with complex, painful experiences without re-experiencing them.
“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate and learn, discover and invent.” – James Geary
We can deepen our relationship with our experience using Clean Language questions
The psychotherapist David Grove worked with PTSD and sexual abuse survivors. He realised if he enquired into his client’s metaphors, then he could work with their problems, without re-traumatising them. He developed a small set of questions, known as Clean Language, designed to help the client find out more about their own metaphors. The beauty of Clean questions is they introduce as little as possible, allowing the client to be fully with their own experience, with no outside interference. This can be a uniquely validating experience for abuse survivors. And when clients discover their own metaphors, they often find their own solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
I fell in love with Clean Language almost a decade ago. I qualified as a Clean facilitator, then as a trainer and, finally, as one of the few Clean Language assessors in the world. I find Clean an elegantly gentle way to help clients find their own wisdom and make the changes they want. And my clients’ wisdom is invariably wiser than any clever techniques I might have…
As symbols change so does our experience
One of my clients had suffered multiple rapes and her “no” had been ignored. I was helping her to explore her desire to “stand in her ‘no’”. Of course, you can’t literally stand in your “no”… Or can you?
I invited my client to choose a place in the room to represent her “no”. She found somewhere right for her and I invited her to stand there. She literally stood in her “no”. And, as she did, I noticed a visible shift in her body and she noticed how her feet were planted on the earth.
Using Clean Language, we developed this experience of her “no” and, in particular, the metaphor that tiny roots were growing from her feet. This was a first experience of standing in her “no”. She felt “not rooted yet” but her “no” had been validated: it was OK to say “no”.
By the next session, this client’s metaphorical roots had grown, and she was reporting standing up for herself more with friends and family. She described it “Like a plant starting to establish itself – the roots feel shallow but they have a grip”.
Metaphors can represent traumatic experiences without re-traumatizing
In another session, my client was exploring how she felt she “didn’t deserve pleasure”. We tapped into her anger and realised she was angry at people who had hurt her in the past. Metaphorically, these people were behind her (she looked over her shoulder at them) and holding her back with a metaphorical rope. She wanted to cut the rope, but felt she was standing at the edge of a cliff and, without the rope’s pull, she would fall into nothingness.
This simple metaphor coded her impossible experience: held by painful experiences of people who had hurt her, with a rope that was also her protection from falling. How can you cut the rope that frees you when that freedom immediately plunges you into oblivion? But how can you not cut the rope when it keeps you trapped, small, and in pain?
Our own inner resources can resolve traumatic experiences
It was time to call in an expert far greater than me… the client’s own inner wisdom. As she stood in the room, looking back at her tormentors and standing at an imaginary cliff edge, the client realised she was feeling steadier on her feet. She was steadier because of the new roots growing from her feet. Roots that were now holding her steady on her own. And she knew, as those roots grew more and more, she would no longer need the rope to keep her safe.
Over time, this client has grown in confidence and stands in her “no” for real far more. I’m constantly amazed by the powerful, beautiful metaphors she summons from inside to solve her own problems. In a recent session, she described her “taproot” and how strong it was now compared to “external roots” that she’d been relying on “that are weaker and can easily break”. She was reporting being strong with her boundaries, having good conversations about what was right for her, and I could personally see the confidence she was demonstrating in the session.
I’ve been in workshops and seen other approaches that use metaphors and symbols. But they always come from outside – suggested by the therapist or facilitator. Metaphors from outside can help awaken you to the power of symbol and metaphors and to try on other experiences for yourself. And yet, when the metaphors are truly yours, when they come from your own inner world, they always contain the keys to the changes you want in your life.
References (External Links & Books)
- Clean Language (Wikipedia)
- Six Metaphors a Minute
- List of Clean Language Assessors
- Greary, James (2011). I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World. Harper Collins. ISBN: 978-0062041777
- Sullivan, Wendy & Rees, Judy (2008). Clean Language:Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. Crown House Publishing. ISBN: 978-1845901257