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Metaphors make meaning

I love metaphors. I think in metaphors. They help me connect something unknown to me to something familiar. I appreciate the Part of me that translates everything into a metaphor. My anything-to-metaphor interpreter wishes I could live in metaphors and barely touch the real content. It feels like this Part goes scuba diving and only wants to come up once in a while to get a new oxygen tank, some new content, grist for the mill.

As an IFS therapist I’ve found metaphors to be a valuable resource for understanding session flow, speaking for Parts, and accessing new possibilities.

Early in my journey with IFS I was introduced to this way of picturing the flow of a session: the client is floating down a river, and my job is to stay behind them and just support them. Not to be in front, leading—because that would indicate I was coming in with my own agenda—but to be behind. In session I’m checking: Am I behind the client on the river? Does it feel like I’m leading them? If so, I have a Part that needs my attention.

I was also gifted this metaphor for session flow by Chris Burris: the client is a train going down a track, where the track is our target part. Then another Part pops in, a little branch off the main line. Do we need to address this Part? Is the siding our new main line? As long as I stay behind the client, their system will lead where it needs to go. The metaphor has helped me not get caught up in every Part that emerges in a session.

If I’m with someone who has Part after Part popping up—no main line, just branches—a Part of me starts to feel overwhelmed and frantic, like it’s doggy-paddling in the ocean and can’t find the horizon. When I start to feel that lost-at-sea feeling, I know it’s time to start a conversation about intention-setting for the session.

“What needs your attention the most right now?” or, “What would be the best use of our time today?” or, “How can I be most helpful to you with this?”

I see the client take a step back, come up for air, realize that they need a horizon too, and relax—often visibly—as they unblend and find Self. They notice what’s been keeping them doggy-paddling and then they give me a direction, a target Part. That’s our horizon.

Besides giving direction to the session, the metaphor reassures a Part of me that feels ashamed for needing that direction. This Part says, “I should be able to let my client talk and handle all the Parts they bring.” It wonders, “Why can’t I just tolerate floating in the ocean with them?” It’s a vulnerable Part that sometimes feels inherently bad or flawed.

The metaphor normalizes and gives permission to that Part to not feel shame about needing a direction. Finding the horizon is a survival strategy. Without the horizon a person really could doggy-paddle endlessly and drown—and if I drown I’m of no use to the client that day.

Metaphors help me gain access to new possibilities. A former therapist of mine asked me, “If your life is a house, what rooms are you going to let different people into?” When I’m working with a client who has a protector that is wary of people, I might offer, “If your life is a house, this is a Part of you that guards the front door; it really doesn’t want anyone coming in.” And they might say, “The house wouldn’t be safe if people came in.” Or they might say, “And there’s another Part that lets anyone and everyone into the house, any room they want.”

Those polarized parts might be pulling on opposite sides of the same rope so fiercely that their system might not be able to conceive of other ways of relating. But a house is something they can imagine.

We might then consider possibilities within the metaphor, a sort of hope merchant exercise.

People could come in, but only into the living room. One particular person could be allowed into any room. Maybe someone is in every room right now but they could be shepherded back downstairs. One time a client’s protective Part said, “I want the house to have an alarm system.” The client worked with that protector and helped it change its role and become her house’s alarm system.

A few months ago I had a professional interaction that was activating for Parts of me. When I got a bit of distance and unblended, I found a protector who was afraid I was going to be found out as an imposter in my career—only pretending to be smart enough, skilled enough, experienced enough—and an exiled Part of me that felt worthless. When I brought Self-energy to the exile I saw it take the beliefs burdening it and place them in a china cabinet, like antiquities. Then my imposter protector wanted to try out a new role within my system.

We see this kind of unfolding process occurring in ourselves and our clients: a loosening here, a change in roles there. My brain, being a metaphors brain, was imagining that the interaction had flicked a slinky sitting at the top of a staircase, and now it was somersaulting down the stairs.

I was wondering within myself, “Is this slinky at the bottom step?,” “Are there more steps?,” “Maybe I’m at a landing and there’s another set of stairs right there, and I just need something to give the slinky another nudge…”

The metaphor offered me possibilities that I could understand as well as containment and familiarity in the face of not knowing what was going to happen next in my own unfolding process.

When metaphors mix with imagery or the body, we are offered even more opportunities for deepening. A woman in my office had a Part come up one day that made her space out and lose focus. She began to sense into it and described it as a warm blanket. We leaned into it somatically. She sunk into the warmth of the blanket, the coziness and comfort of it, and let her body relax and enjoy that. Then she was able to unblend and observe, “That spacing out Part felt really good when I let it do its thing. It was trying to comfort and relax me.” Being in the metaphor and letting her body experience it helped her see the protector’s positive intentions and gain some compassion and appreciation for it.

In session I may frame a person’s internal system as centered around a castle. Standing outside the castle are guards—our protectors—who do their best to ensure that what’s inside—our exiles—don’t get out. I keep a collection of small stuffed animals and figurines on my bookshelf and my client and I might set up an imaginary castle with their unique Parts.

Folks will adjust their scenes to reflect important dynamics: some of their guards don’t like each other, one guard’s action might trigger a different guard’s reaction, guards might exist in coalitions, and some have weapons that aren’t effective. Polarized protectors seem to soften when they see that they’re all protecting the same castle. Digging into the visual of it adds to the scope of possibilities, the opportunity to imagine things that weren’t accessible before.

Metaphors are just one of many tools available to therapists. But they’ve stuck with me because they help me shift from intellectual to emotional and from alone to connected. In other words, they invite Self.

When I feel the need for a metaphor it’s often because I’m stuck, and when I’m stuck it’s often because my intellect is driving the bus but only has a basic map of the area. I’m grateful to my intellect but it just doesn’t have access to all the information. I could use my intellect to make the decision about which of a client’s Parts needs to be attended to in a chaotic session. But I would be making assumptions about what’s important to them, what’s most potent in their body.

When I think about the train track or horizon metaphors I notice a feeling of relief and a sense of energy moving down from my head towards my core. My intellect is stepping back and making room for Self. I sink into the freedom of not needing to guess, and I ask the client what they need.

Self begets Self. I unblend and I get curious. My client feels it. They unblend and they get curious. Possibilities are unlocked.

Metaphors bring a common language to the therapeutic relationship, inviting connection.

Sometimes I’m simply not getting what it is that a client is trying to convey and a good metaphor puts us on the same page. When a client described one of his protectors as a little kid that wanted to pour his own milk—trying to help but making a mess—we had a good laugh. As the mother of two little kids, boy, did I get that! We don’t share all of the same experiences, but we do share some.

Metaphors invite Self and connection within the therapeutic relationship, and likewise, outside of the therapeutic relationship. The metaphor is an interpreter that helps people who don’t speak the same language to understand each other. When my partner—an engineer—tells me about his work on acoustic devices, metaphors help me contextualize and connect more with him. When my kids and I read folktales together, a metaphor is usually delivering a life lesson in a toddler-friendly way. Metaphors take two people who are staring in confusion at a detail and they cause a zooming out, to capture a context that makes sense to both. They take two people coming from different contexts and a zooming in occurs, to capture a shared experience.

Metaphors are, for me, both the binoculars that bring into focus what feels far away and the hand that moves the binoculars aside to reveal the greater landscape.

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