Therapeutic Metaphor

Wizard of Oz
(Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

A therapeutic metaphor is a metaphor (or figurative comparison) used by a therapist to assist a client in the process of personal transformation, healing, and growth.

Joseph Campbell attributed the broad appeal of metaphor to its inherent ability to establish or recognize connections, especially those connections that exist between emotions and past events (​The Power of Myth, 1988).

In the book Imagery and Verbal Process (1979), Allan Paivio metaphorically characterized a therapeutic metaphor as a "solar eclipse that hides the object of study and at the same time reveals some of its most salient and interesting characteristics when viewed through the right telescope."

Examples and Observations

Joyce C. Mills and R. J. Crowley: Where description is the main function of a literary metaphor, altering, reinterpreting, and reframing are the main goals of the therapeutic metaphor. In order to achieve these, the therapeutic metaphor must evoke both the imagistic familiarity of the literary metaphor and a relational familiarity based on a sense of personal experience. The story itself--the characters, events, and settings--must speak to the common life experience of those listening, and it must do so in language that is familiar. An example from a modern fairy tale might be The Wizard of Oz (Baum, 1900), which functions as a metaphor for the common theme of searching for magical solutions somewhere outside the self. The image of a wicked witch, a good witch, a tinman, scarecrow, lion, and wizard all depict aspects of the listener's experience as mirrored in Dorothy.

Kathleen Ferrara: [T]herapists can corroborate the aptness of a metaphor [by helping to] construct a chain, to assist in weaving an elaborate web of correspondences that tease out additional ramifications and add new dimensions. Rather than presenting metaphors of their choosing, therapists can try to emphasize the raw material presented by clients, and, if possible, use the lead established by them to spin out further connections. In this fourth manner, they can exploit a natural aspect of language, lexico-semantic cohesion, as a strategy to densely layer semantic associations in jointly constructed extended metaphor.

Hugh Crago: [T]he concept of therapeutic story-telling . . . [emphasizes] the power of metaphor to 'slip past' the defences of the conscious mind.
"Such practitioners have little acquaintance with literary history--otherwise they would surely have recognized that their 'therapeutic metaphor' amounts to little more than a relabelling of the time-honoured genres of allegory and fable. What is new is their highly individualised focus. Therapeutic stories, they maintain, must be constructed specifically to suit the emotional dynamics of individuals.