I was at my own therapy appointment recently, talking about the difficulty I was experiencing feeling good in my body. I talked about feeling disconnected from the body I am currently living in, because it has been changing since grad school and the pandemic, I came out as nonbinary and I turned 41 recently. Loving and accepting my body has been a challenge for many reasons, as it is for lots of folks, especially those of us who live in marginalized bodies. She asked me to name a feeling that I wanted more of and I immediately blurted out “Delight. You know that feeling when you’re wearing a sweet new dress and someone compliments you and you say, Thanks! It has pockets!! I want more of that.” My therapist burst out laughing because she knew exactly what I meant. When she asked me to “feel into that feeling” I could immediately embody it by picturing myself sharing the joy of the new dress.
Metaphor and imagery are like emotional shorthand. Like nonverbal communication, humans use stories to communicate meaning and insight. A good story is an invitation to walk in the world of the speaker for just a moment; it connects to our shared experience and is a path to understanding. Stories and metaphors convey messages about beliefs, cultural practices, family history, strengths, and wisdom.
Of course, the opposite is true too – metaphors, when misunderstood or misapplied, can cause a rupture in connection or communication. Cultural and language differences, and lack of shared history can also make some metaphors or stories miss the mark. A good therapist can right the boat after a miscommunication and use it as an opportunity to invite more clarity – explaining why something is not quite accurate helps us explore the feeling or concept as well. Metaphors created by clients themselves are the truly powerful ones (hence why I was so excited that my therapist understood what I was trying to say about delight!).
In Internal Family Systems therapy, we use a lot of metaphors and imagery to help navigate and describe the inner world experience. Parts, protectors, exiles, and burdens are key words used to describe the interplay between emotions, experiences, beliefs and patterns of behavior. In my office I keep a bowl of about 40 tiny, beautifully crafted plastic animals for clients to use in their storytelling. In IFS we might invite reflection by saying “How would you describe the part of you that’s feeling this way?” “It’s like a Tazmanian devil energy of confusion and anger.” “What’s it like, being with the Tazmanian devil?” and then we will most certainly invite you to talk to it.
Healing is creative, and therapy should be too. Creating new stories using imagery and metaphor, externalizing feelings with tiny animals, using picture cards, drawing – are all ways to create new meaning and build shared understanding with yourself and your therapist.