Using Metaphor to Re-Frame a Difficult Childhood

By Simon Maryan Ph.D

As with most things, being an Empath, Clair-Sentient, a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has its pros and cons, particularly as a child. As you go about your life, it can be hard enough growing up and dealing with your own emotions, never mind absorbing everyone else’s too. This absorption often creates confusion, frustration, anger, sadness etc., as all these external emotions flood into the mix and we can develop our own coping strategies, which we feel are the right thing to do at the time but ultimately trip us up at some point later in our lives. And, let's face it, no one teaches us how to cope with it. There is no Empaths' training course for kids, although there should be!



The ideal childhood is supposed to be filled with fun, laughter, excitement and love, unfortunately this is not always the case, because bad things do happen to good people and I believe that children are good people until we condition them not to be.


Some kids have a really hard time when growing up, and don’t really get much of a childhood; it is taken away from them by adults - and sometimes their peers - through physical, verbal, psychological, emotional factors such as neglect, violence, bullying and abuse.

When a child is subjected to repeated verbal and physical abuse from their parents, they can internalize this voice, which constantly criticizes them, no matter what they did. This can feel like being under constant threat of some form of attack 24/7. This constant anxiety leads to being habitually hyper-vigilant, sleeping poorly, and reacting instantly to any surprise by becoming fully alert and ready to respond with either running away, aggression and / or violence.

As kids in this kind of environment grow into adults, they tend to develop behaviours and emotional responses such as regret, grief, guilt, shame, physical and psychological disability, loneliness, insomnia, rages, drug use, self-criticism, depression, generalised anxiety, hyper-vigilance, violence, disillusion - all of these (and more) may be part of what is often now called PTSD or Complex (CPTSD). Each of these tends to make the other aspects worse; a perfect storm that often seems to the sufferer to be part of one confusing and tangled ball of chaos and emotional instability. And so, to work successfully with this, it is vitally important to be able to separate the past from the present and detach the emotional connection and conditioned responses from the past, and replace them with positive, resourceful responses that enable the person to live in a calm, relaxed and happy state using different processes that are appropriate.



Re-framing is one method of dealing with these psychological and emotional issues that made when relating to a very difficult past. There are a number of ways of re-framing; one of my favourites is with metaphor.


The word metaphor is from the Greek metapherein, which means to transfer or to change. In my therapy / coaching, I use the term metaphor as a symbol that captures or represents qualities of my client and of the journey they are making. Myths, archetypes, natural phenomena, animals, and common objects may all serve as metaphors. By way of distinction, metaphors are not adjectives, literal descriptions, judgements or assessments.


Metaphor is the language of archetypes, symbols and essence. Because it is a language that is representative in nature, it simplifies and focuses our perception. Our culture uses metaphors abundantly to capture an idea or essence. For example, we say things like: “She has stars in her eyes”, “We are drowning in data”, “Here’s some food for thought.”


As a therapist / coach, I have found that using metaphors can capture the essence of the client and the coaching issue in a way that descriptions cannot, because metaphors hold within them worlds of association and information. The pictures that metaphors paint are, indeed, worth a thousand words, because the images stay with us long after descriptions or data have faded from memory. Although there are countless ways to use metaphors, I share my experiences with clients using metaphors in two primary application areas: assessment and practice design.

First, an important distinction: I use metaphor to capture and explore the client’s issue with them, not the client as a person. A metaphor is purely a lens to view through; just as it focuses perception, it also limits it (Morgan, 1996). If I confuse the metaphor for the person, I obscure the person’s multidimensionality, the full mystery of who they are. When used as a lens on the issue at hand, the metaphor provides useful focus and depth.



Metaphors have proven invaluable to me in gaining clarity about my clients and their issues. For example, one of my clients had been told that she was seen as aggressive, arrogant and prone to loss of control over her anger both at home and in her workplace. The reasons for her behavioural responses were deeply rooted in her difficult and abusive childhood, and very early on she felt that she needed to be strong and aggressive in order for her to cope with her environment. Underneath this behaviour appeared to be an inability or unwillingness to yield, a perception that she knew best and that her perspective was the right one. The metaphor we discovered for the shift the client needed to make was to bring her from a dormant or dead oak tree to a weeping willow.


These images were useful because they crystallised and simplified our understanding of my clients’ issues. Perhaps even more important about metaphors however, is how much information they give back to us about ourselves when we really listen and look into what they can mean. The oak to willow image was a useful beginning. But what I found most amazing is how delving into the image itself could actually significantly deepen both our understanding. For example, if we work with the image of oak, what else is true about an oak tree that might be true of this person? The oak holds onto many of its leaves in winter and even in death. What might this person need to let go of? The oak tree is associated with tremendous strength. Might this person be too strong or too forceful for her own effectiveness? Then look at the weeping willow image; it sways in the wind. What might she need to let move her? The willow weeps. Might grief be a component of her journey?


Another client came to see me and he seemed very together but had received feedback that he didn’t play the game according to the rules of the culture, and didn’t connect well with peers and superiors. His superiors however, thought he had the makings of a good leader. It was difficult at first to get any other impression besides how smooth and together this guy seemed. To begin with, I used this feeling 'data' to uncover a metaphor that initially guided the session: a tarpaulin was the metaphor that surfaced. The shift that he needed to make was to move from tarpaulin: protective, tightly woven, and invulnerable, to tapestry: permeable, colourful, warm, yet solid.



What was this image telling us about? What were we seeing in this person’s dilemma? Tarpaulin was certainly not working for him at the moment; this client was smooth, he did his job well, but he sensed that his superiors and colleagues were envious of him. How does that fit with tarpaulin? That somehow they couldn’t relate? Couldn’t get through? Couldn’t see vulnerability? What else about tarpaulin? A tarpaulin is great when it’s raining, but not that interesting to look at. Its texture isn’t particularly inviting. What do tarpaulins do that might relate to this guy? It covers up, protects. Was this image pointing to this guy’s need to raise the cover, go through life with less protection? Was he efficient at the expense of being engaged in relationships? What is the opposite of tarpaulin? Tapestry. What does a tapestry have that a tarpaulin, doesn’t? Rich texture, colour, a story, relief, warmth, weight. Can it still protect and cover? Yes, but in a different way. How?


As you can see, these simple images led to many questions that might never have been explored otherwise, for metaphor is the language of our intuition. At once, it both captures reality and reveals mystery. It mirrors back to us what we already know about our issues and yet also shines a light on what else might be waiting to be discovered, and all without needing to delve into the content, the minutiae of the potentially traumatic past. Very often the last thing a person wants to do is relive the trauma yet again; they may well be doing that enough on their own. Metaphor can help someone look at their past through a different lens, a different perspective that is free from -or at the very least holds significantly reduced - emotional connection, because they’ve never looked at it this way before.


Metaphors have led me to ideas about practices that my left‑brain might not have revealed. For the first client, the oak‑willow metaphor itself was a very physical one, and surfaced my intuition that she might be very physically oriented. Therefore, with her permission, I gave her the practice of learning aikido to give her a physical way to learn that meeting force with immovability was ineffective. In this case, I shared the metaphor with her and explored the word arrogance in the context the metaphor provided, since that was a major piece of the criticism she had received about herself at work. Arrogance comes from Latin, meaning absence of questioning. I asked her to look at the oak tree as more absolute in its stance and asked her to explore through the willow image where she might need to be more open to questioning her own assumptions or conclusions.

For the second client, the tarpaulin metaphor led me to help my client shed some of the protection that had been so vital to staying invulnerable. His first practice was a simple one of looking at the world through the eyes of the people he had significant contact with each day. He was to imagine what they were feeling, and to notice how he gathered clues about their reactions to him. He was also to become aware of when he had a feeling connection to someone, and to be as specific as possible in writing about how he thought that happened. As time went on, the metaphors proved invaluable, as we both learned how much he actually feared being in relationships with others, and had found strategic ways to manage within them without giving himself away. The outcome metaphor, tapestry, helped discover a way to move forward for this client to help him create and embrace his own tapestry with its own rich colours, warmth, permeability, and stability.



The Metaphor-Making Process


Metaphor making is fundamentally an intuitive process, and for more intuitive people metaphors may come naturally and easily. However, I would love to make metaphors available to anyone who would like greater access to their intuitive wisdom. The following five‑step process for accessing and working with metaphors is a great place to start.


Step 1: The first step is to be clear and open with yourself. Listen, observe, notice your own internal reactions and what you’re not saying.


Step 2: Describe yourself with regard to your issue. Bring yourself to mind, and visualise yourself in the domain of life in which you are experiencing difficulty. Think about what you look like, sound like, and feel like to you. Think about your gestures, your posture, the sound of your voice, what you evoke in you when you describe your issue or your words. What three or four adjectives or phrases come to mind? If an image comes to mind at this point, you’ve got your metaphor. But if not, just work on getting a short description. Try not to censor what comes out. You’re done when you have three to four adjectives or phrases that feel like they really capture you in your struggle.


Step 3: Free associate images with the adjectives. When you picture yourself and the adjectives you’ve described yourself with, what images come to mind? Free associate. Don’t censor these. Note the first one(s) that come to mind. Try to work as little as possible in your rational mind. If nothing comes up, you can scan a few different areas: something from nature, characters from movies or books, myths from any culture, types of transportation, or household objects. Usually, your first images are good ones to work with. It often helps to come up with a ‘from’ image (one which captures you as you currently relate to the world or your issue) and a ‘to’ image (one which captures you operating as you would like to).


Step 4: Turn your focus away from you and fully explore the metaphor. Now that you have your metaphor(s), forget about you for a minute, and simply delve into the images themselves. List all the attributes you can about them, What are the characteristics of your metaphors (for example, tarpaulin and tapestry)? What characteristics distinguish the first image from the second? What would help something transform from the first state to the second? It is helpful to speak these associations out loud with a partner or write them down without worrying about making sense or expressing yourself eloquently.


Step 5: Bring yourself back into focus. What did following the metaphor tell you about you? In what new ways do you see yourself and how you might work with you? What are the metaphor’s implications for the self‑observations and practices you will design?




In working with metaphors, I have found a rich way to assess situations and design practices to help my clients. I have also experienced some lessons learned that I want to share with you:

First, be aware that the metaphor helps you to create a hypothesis about your situation. It is not an absolute. As a coach I cannot claim to know what is best for my client. My job is to offer possibilities to my client. Sometimes the client rejects the possibilities that I offer them, and there is data to be gained from that experience. More metaphors may surface for you. Follow your metaphors confidently but lightly.


Second, to share or not to share? I don’t suggest that you always share your metaphors with anyone else. I don’t always share mine. In deciding to share, base your criteria on what will be useful for you. In the oak‑to‑willow metaphor, I shared the images and they were useful. In the tarpaulin‑to‑tapestry work, I did not share the images.


I have shared metaphors in a few different ways. Once, I wrote a poem about a client. The metaphors surfaced in the writing. Sharing the poem with my client seemed a natural thing to do, for it opened possibilities for them. Sometimes I ask my client to watch a movie that has the metaphor embodied in a character or situation the movie depicts. I often ask my clients to read books for the same reason. Sometimes we draw the images that show up for us. Sometimes we just talk about them.


Third, if you use and share metaphors that are within your current world, you may run into trouble. Why? Because someone else may take it more literally than is useful. taking the metaphors too literally can lead you to run the risk of swirling in the loop that had you stuck in the first place.


Fourth, the metaphor does not have to work completely to be useful. For example, when I thought of a weeping willow, I thought of grace, flexibility, air, and movement. That was as far as I needed to go with that metaphor as it related to that client. There are other properties of the willow, however, that may not lend themselves to understanding this client’s movement.

Fifth, it helps to talk through your metaphor with another person. I have found that my understanding of my clients and my own approaches deepens with each metaphor conversation I have. I make time to do this and it has proven to be incredibly productive for me as a therapist / coach, and also as a parent to two young kids.


If you haven’t deliberately used metaphors yet, I highly recommend beginning to practise creating and applying them as often as possible and notice what effect they have on you and your conversations. Most of all, have fun with it.




Simon Maryan Ph.D. GHR & GHSC Reg, is a mentalist, psychologist, author and speaker and run his Mind-Body Coaching business based in Aberdeen, UK, offering coaching, psychological change as well as physical and nutritional coaching. He also runs training courses in NLP, Hypnosis, Hypnotherapy and Coaching as well as a variety of other soft skills courses.


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