We’ve all heard the metaphors “life is like a box of chocolates” or “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Metaphors are a great way to express broad, abstract ideas and make them relatable and easily digestible. But these literary devices should not be reserved solely for the artsy types—a study published by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2016 found that people who used metaphors are more emotionally intelligent and interact with people differently compared to those who think more literally.
In fact, scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson found that metaphors are an everyday part of our language. They help us visualize everything from simple actions to intangible concepts like time. Metaphors are such a big part of language and our everyday experiences that parts of our brain responsible for processing physical sensations also process metaphors—“I feel like I’m walking on sunshine” might have us feeling nice and warm or calling someone a “dirty scoundrel” might leave us feeling like we need to take a bath. When processing metaphors, certain areas of the brain like the somatosensory cortex and motor cortex are active, indicating that metaphors are tied to our physicality.
But how can metaphors be useful in hypnotherapy? Hypnosis allows a person to enter a very relaxed state of consciousness where the conscious mind is by-passed, allowing a hypnotists suggestions to be more easily processed by the subconscious mind. Sometimes just giving a person advice or new suggestions on how to improve their lives can be helpful, but it might not resonate with them. For instance, we all know smoking is bad for our lungs, longevity, and our wallets and a smoker can understand these truths but choose to ignore them. However, let’s compare smoking to a bad break up. Smoking is just like a toxic ex-partner: they trick you into thinking you need them, they age you prematurely, they provide an artificial, temporary high, your friends hate them, everyone outside of the relationship can see it’s toxic, you never needed them before and you certainly won’t need them after, and they drain your bank account. Phew. Both the literal and metaphorical phrasing is true but the metaphor stands out more—it paints a vivid, humorous picture of the truth and allows a smoker to approach their addiction in a new light.
During hypnosis, the subconscious mind is more accessible and metaphors can be a creative tool used to rewire a person’s thought patterns and belief systems. They can be mentioned so casually that we wouldn’t normally pick up on it but, without our noticing, the brain understands the deeper meaning of a simple story or suggestion. Psychologist and hypnotist Milton Erikson is credited for developing metaphorical hypnosis, in which he would tell entertaining stories that had a deeper meaning – he was engaging and his storytelling methods included metaphors that impacted the subconscious mind.
Metaphors can be a great way to induce people into a state of hypnosis and to get them more comfortable with being hypnotized—there is no complicated scientific jargon and no one is going to make you do the chicken dance. Metaphors are relatable and help clients see that hypnosis only suggests the truth. There are two different kinds of metaphors used in hypnotherapy: deep structure and surface structure metaphors. Deep structure is related to the “deepest” parts of our minds, where we have our feelings and our core belief system—this makes up our personality and innate behaviours. Deep structure metaphors are ambiguous stories that leave the ending or meaning up to interpretation by the client. Surface structure, on the other hand, deals with more two dimensional issues. Surface structure metaphors have a more obvious ending, they could even be other clients’ experiences, and can help clients become more comfortable with the idea of hypnosis. Both kinds of metaphors are useful and allow clients to realize their true end goals.
Metaphors can be fun, helpful, and are used more often than we realize—they can also be effective instruments in hypnosis by allowing us to absorb messages directly to our subconscious and adapt to new behaviours and ways of thinking.