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Psychotherapy.co.za : Articles : Articles : Academically Oriented Papers : Show Entry

 Metaphors in Psychotherapy
Submitted By DavidvdW | Added on: 2010 January 21 | Total Visits: 18760 | Printable version

Metaphors for selected psychological concepts

Some perspectives and impressionistic vignettes

Dr Coert Mommsen
Dr Coert Mommsen explores the use of metaphors in psychology

PART 1: Perspectives on metaphors

The individual human experience is never simplistic. The content of the individual’s subjective experience is normally conveyed as an interwoven entity of especially, affective and cognitive elements against a temporal background. The exchange of information between individuals is seldom formally structured or prearranged. This is not natural as communication between two or more individuals normally rather assumes the form of a dynamic interaction. In turn, such interaction may stimulate subjective affective, cognitive and conative material.

This is especially so in the psychologist patient relationship. The sharing of cognitions and affective elements between psychologist and patient is of great importance. Accurate interpretation of a patient’s cognitions and affective experiences is fundamental to the building of the psychologist-patient relationship and the facilitation of problem solving and personal growth.

Accuracy of interpretation can be achieved in various ways and can be focused on either singular or holistic entities. Interpretations can be tested by reflection, example or metaphor. Reflections, examples or metaphors may on the one hand, serve to highlight cognitive and affective material.

The psychologist’s aim is very often to obtain a holistic picture of the patient’s situation. The psychologist may analyze, categorize or synthesize the content of conversation as a whole or in part. This may help to form an image or images of a more mutually comprehensible nature which may be easily understood by both parties. Once congruent images have been established between psychologist and patient, these (images) become therapeutically significant.

The use of the metaphor is one of the ways in establishing images which can be accepted and understood by both the psychologist and the patient. The therapeutic value of the metaphor in the psychologist-patient relationship reaches across a wide horizon as it creates a more or less permanent, uncomplicated cognitive “picture” of the patient’s individual situation. Because the image is uncomplicated, it can easily be remembered and used as a vantage point or frame of reference whenever necessary.

The use of metaphors in interpersonal communication is of value as it contributes to congruence regarding a point of discussion between two or more individuals. The use of metaphors is of special importance in the psychological interview.

The psychologist’s aim is very often to obtain a holistic picture of the patient’s situation. The psychologist may analyze categorize, or synthesize the content of the conversation as a whole or in part. This may help to form an image or images of a more mutually comprehensible nature which ideally, may be easily understood by even a stranger to the situation. Once such an image or images is reflected to an accepted by the patient, it becomes therapeutically significant.

The therapeutic value of metaphors in the psychological interview reaches across a wide horizon and may be of particular value to the patient as:

Metaphors create a more or less permanent, uncomplicated cognitive picture of the individual’s situation. Because the image is cognitive and uncomplicated, it can be easily remembered and used as a vantage point or frame of reference whenever necessary. The less complicated a metaphor, the more readily it can contribute to an understanding of the essentiality of a given situation. The use of metaphors in turn may assist with the following:

  • Analyze the functioning of a similar, more complicated system or situation which the patient may experience at a later stage.
  • Contribute to objectivity. They often help to move confusing mythological or emotional material from the conscious and bring about a cognitive conception by way of which a situation or system may be more realistically and accurately evaluated.
  • Counteract affective or cognitive isolation. The individual’s dilemma can be and easily understood and shared by a second person. This may help lighten the person’s psychological burden and enable the individual to adapt with less subjective stress or anxiety.
  • Serve as universally understandable “proof” of an individual’s experience of suffering. Metaphors can be understood an appreciated by most people. This increases their value as a therapeutic device. The actual recording of an individual’s situational metaphor may for instance, further add to it’s therapeutic value. In turn, the conveyance of a patient’s situational metaphor to a significant other may also enhance it’s therapeutic value.
  • Metaphors may aid in problem solving.
  • Metaphors can aid in the creation and maintenance of certain values and moral principles which are strong motivators of human behavior.

The less complicated a metaphor, the more readily it can contribute to an understanding of the essentiality of a given situation or system. The understanding of the essentiality of a given situation or system makes it much easier to analyze the functioning of a similar, and maybe even more complicated system or situation which may be experienced by the patient at any given stage.

The above can be illustrated by the functioning of a simple electric circuit. “Should one connect the positive terminal of a battery to a wire, run this to a switch (a mechanism which breaks or completes a stream of electricity)from the switch, run a wire to one contact of a light bulb, and run a wire from the other contact of the light bulb to the negative terminal of the battery, one has a simple electric circuit. Should you switch on the switch it allows electricity to flow (as water does) from the positive terminal of the battery through the switch to the light bulb’s contact, through the bulb element (which is actually a thin wire which will start to glow because of high resistance) to the other terminal (end) of the bulb and back to the battery.” Once the principle of an electric circuit current is likened to the “flow of water”, this can be more easily understood and applied.

An understanding of a simple circuit such as this, could help one understand and analyze even more complicated similar electrical circuits as well as form theories about possible problems. This would be due to the fact that one has a fundamental idea of how electricity flows and how it can be controlled.

An individual can recall and apply an image (metaphor) whenever he or she may be flooded by the cognitive or affective material of a specific situation. It enables the individual to focus on the core principle of such a situation. This in turn, could provide a simple frame of reference through which the greater situation could be viewed, analyzed or manipulated at will. Different facets of the situation could also be scrutinized which may lead to quicker and easier problem solving as well as more effective goal directed behavior.
Metaphors may thus provide the individual with a certain amount of control which may lead to a decrease of anxiety and may increase or strengthen one’s self confidence.

Metaphors may also be utilized as a form of reality testing. The individual who is overwhelmed by or engulfed in a sudden flow of problems could be reminded of the importance of having a main “goal in life” which could be illustrated by the following:

“A person traveling in a strange city identifies a very high radio transmission tower a beacon. Although the person may take the wrong turnoffs at times or be forced by traffic into the opposite direction of the planned destination, the tower could constantly be kept in view (also with the aid of the rear view mirror) and so serve to maintain the right direction and enable the traveler to reach the destination.”

Metaphors can facilitate the development of different perspectives on a specific issue. This is partially brought about by the holistic picture which emanates from most metaphors. The subjective distance they provide makes it possible to identify aspects in a give situation which otherwise may not have been clearly distinguishable. This makes it possible for the individual to gain a better understanding of a problem or situation an cope with it.

“This function or characteristic can be compared to that of a weather satellite transmission”

“People in a certain geographic area may see only an overcast sky on looking up an not be at all aware of an approaching cyclone. Should they be able to see a more holistic image such as present on television weather reports, it would enable them to take shelter and prepare for it’s effects.”

Metaphors and theories on some situations, problems or concepts which the practicing psychologist may encounter in the course of his work, are discussed in part two. These are however, not presented as theories or substitutes for theories – they are simply rough sketches which may render the specific concepts more universally understandable.

 

PART 2 : Vignettes

A metaphor for the psychologist's role in the psychotherapeutic relationship:

Metaphors and theories on some situations, problems or concepts which the practicing psychologist may encounter in the course of his work, are discussed in part two. These are however, not presented as theories or substitutes for theories – they are simply rough sketches which may render the specific concepts more universally understandable.

Different forms of psychotherapeutic methods, techniques and strategies often require different approaches. There are many different types of psychotherapeutic techniques in existence. This makes it difficult to explain the essential function or role of the psychologist to consumers and even other professionals.

However contradictory it may sound, psychotherapy could not be described as an exact science but rather a ‘philosophical art’ based on scientific principles, logic and empathy.

It is important to note that most psychotherapeutic relationships share the same fundamental commonalities, namely:

  • The psychologist cannot be present to assist a patient in every possible situation, especially problematic ones;
  • The patient must be guided to use all means at his/her disposal optimally in adapting to life’s demands:
  • The patient must be guided to function independently as far as possible.
To illustrate the above, the following metaphor is presented.

“The psychologist can be seen as a marine engineer and the patient a solo yachtsman. On experiencing difficulties at sea, the yachtsman can return to the harbour and consult the engineer. On arrival, the engineer could inspect either the sailor’s whole boat or only that part of the boat with which the sailor might be experiencing difficulties. This could for instance be the rudder mechanism, a winch or any other part which may be giving problems. The engineer would analyze the problem in terms of for instance, cause and effect and explain this to the sailor. The engineer always keep s in mind that at some point, the sailor may be alone at sea when problems arise. He also keeps in mind that the sailor may only be able to keep a certain number of tools at hand – those with which boats are normally equipped and therefore teaches the sailor how to use them with the best possible effect. The sailor is now equipped with more knowledge and confidence and can assume his/her next voyage…”

The management of intrapsychic stressors

Metaphors may facilitate the objectification of a problem in the sense that it (the problem) can be compartmentalized and be turned into a psychologically more manageable entity.
Very often we become anxious and afraid of something and our thoughts continuously return to such sources or objects. In the worst instance, our conscious experience may be completely flooded by such experiences, largely restricting our optimal functioning. If such fears can be identified as a singular concept, they may be more easily confined and less stressful. This may be illustrated by the following:

An amusement park normally offers many attractions such as rides and games of different types. Should one of the attractions be out of action or under repair, it does not mean that the whole park is out of action or needs to be closed down. It simply means that one of the attractions can temporarily not offer the usual entertainment and will be able to do so, once attended to.”
Accepting and confining a problem as a singular concept may reduce anticipatory anxiety and may help to regain normal functioning.

Metaphors for the functional dynamics of specific phenomena in clinical hypnosis.

The use of clinical hypnosis can be of great value in the psychotherapeutic process. Material in the unconscious is generally accepted to be deeply embedded in the human psyche and to contain memories or experiences which may cause anxiety when brought to the conscious.

It is also generally accepted that the unconscious contains suppressed material which may manifest in dreams. Unconscious material may cause a number of reactions in the individual including anxiety, feelings of depression or simply just some subjective discomfort – any one of which may be found to be related to suppressed content.

The question arises as to what happens to suppressed material while in the unconscious, and why traumatic experiences become less prominent or inhibitory as time passes. One possible answer is that a process or processes may be at work here which changes the nature and potency of such content rendering it less influential.

The material is probably subject to assimilation, much as “food is broken down and taken up into the bloodstream or rejected from the body depending on it’s nutritive value. Some material may have no nutritive value at all and cause extreme discomfort and maybe even subjected to abrupt rejection. Other could cause discomfort in the longer term which could slowly decrease as it is systematically processed. Less intense reactions during such activity may be in the form of heartburn or dyspepsia – assign of gastric pressure having built up and being released. This mechanism may be similar to, and also in a way explain dream activity  as a “byproduct” (a “gas”) of the assimilation process of the unconscious.”

At worst, external intervention such as surgery may be necessary to remove “alien” material from the body. Much in the same way this would be implemented to remove material which the body cannot discard itself, hypnosis could be of use. The therapist may induce a state of extreme relaxation during which he may “explore” or “loosen” some of the contents of the unconscious.

Although hypnosis cannot actually “remove” suppressed material, “explorative uncovering” of such material necessarily amounts to “ventilation” and could lead to some relief. Alternatively, manipulation of such material may cause it to dislodge and thereby facilitate assimilation. In other words, by “breaking down that which may have been causing discomfort into smaller particles (which in themselves may have little or no negative effects) may make it easier for the system to process or discard.”

A metaphor for the functional dtnamics of abreaction

Due to it’s fundamental dynamics, abreaction can be seen to have “ventilatory” properties. On the other hand and due to it’s intense nature, it is often accompanied by some immediate psychological discomfort.

The psychodynamics of an abreaction can be compared to a “physical wound being cleansed and drained. Draining a wound is necessary to rid it of the malignant substance inhibiting it’s healing and closure as well as reducing pain. The process is usually an uncomfortable one, but eventually leads to that part of the body to be utilize again whenever necessary – freely, constructively and without any apprehension or fear.”

A metaphor for the specific psychodynamics of self esteem in depression

There are several elements which have an influence on a person’s self esteem. These are amongst others:

  • The successful solving of a problem
  • The attaining of a goal;
  • Acknowledgement from others for one’s achievements, activities or for a task well performed; or
  • Positive comments on one’s talents, abilities or personal appearance.

These elements can be divided into two groups namely, internal and external. External elements probably occur much less frequently than internal ones. A common factor in all of the above is that if present, it provides a sense of meaning to one’s  existence and endorse that one has in some way, the potential to influence and change one’s environment. Apart from implying some form of control, these elements have a strong reinforcing component in the sense that they may motivate one to continue applying or using one’s abilities. This enables one to keep on functioning and may serve as a “reservoir” from which to draw in times of doubt in one’s abilities or following failure or loss.

The need to actively nurture or maintain one’s self esteem differs from person to person and can be influenced by psychopathology such as depression. In everyday life, one is continually confronted with problems, crises and obstacles which, when solved or overcome autonomously, serve to bolster one’s self esteem. When overcome by depression, several factors may lead to the loss of self esteem. In depression, the influence of external and/or internal recognition have little or no influence at all on the individual’s self esteem. In such instances, drastic intervention may be required in the from of medication to enable the person to be reactive to these factors.

The psychodynamics here, may be compared to a “car tire”. “Some tires lose air slowly and need to be inflated only a little from time to time. Others have a leaky valve and lose air more rapidly. They need to be inflated often to keep the car on the road. Some times a tire is so badly damaged that it may be impossible to keep it inflated at all without using a more radical method or substance and need to be repaired from the inside by applying a specially developed material.”

A metaphor for the maintenance of a relationship

The success of an interpersonal relationship depends to a large extent on the ability to address every problem that may arise between those involved. Disregarding a problem or problems can in the long run, have serious consequences for those involved since actual incidences which lead to hostility or animosity may in time be repressed in the unconscious. This means that it becomes increasingly difficult for an individual to on a conscious level, pinpoint actual events which may have gradually accumulated and led to feelings of hostility and maybe a subsequent emotional outburst or conflict. Important causative problems remain obscure and can therefore no longer be identified neither addressed nor remedied.

This easily happens when people who lead busy lives have little time to resolve each and every crisis, especially the smaller ones. The eventual effect of such neglect can be especially damaging since the parties at some stage revert to looking at immediate situational factors or personality characteristics as causes for friction and conflict.

The effects of such conclusions can be devastating and result in the disintegration of a relationship that otherwise may have survived. Should problems be resolved whenever they occur, their harmful effect can be avoided and the relationship may become even more resilient. This phenomenon may be illustrated as follows:

“A large steel bridge or structure can sometimes develop rust in parts. These may be areas which do not necessarily carry much weight or bear much stress but can when rusted, lead to a collapse of the whole structure. Once a rusty part is identified, attention should be given to this immediately. Such an area should be cleaned thoroughly (even ground away and replaced if necessary), re-welded and protected bay an anti rust substance.

Persistent maintenance of this type will insure strength and resistance against destructive internal and external forces. If needs be, the structure can from time to time be routinely and carefully inspected for any possible changes or damage.”

Metaphors for some facets of Obsessive Compulsive Phenomena

Much attention has been given to the phenomenon and treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder (sometimes referred to as “OCD”) the past couple of years. Relief from the debilitating effects of this syndrome has been brought about by the use of antidepressive medication.

As the term obsessive-compulsive indicates, two concepts are implied. Obsessions refer to thoughts and compulsions refer to behaviour.  An obsession is a repetitively recurring thought or idea, often followed by a compulsion or need to perform a certain act. Obsessive compulsivity can sometimes take on pathological proportions and impede or hamper an individual’s normal functioning. Obsessional thoughts are more common in people who have perfectionistic personality traits and may be a stronger feature in some than in other.

This implies that obsessionality may be considered on a continuum. In other words, some individuals may experience very little obsessional thoughts in their everyday functioning whereas others may experience many. A well known example of the former is that of a melody or tune that keeps on “turning in one’s head”. This, as the games children sometimes play on their way home from school when for instance counting fence lattices or avoid stepping on cracks in the pavement (lest a loved one be struck by some terrible misfortune) are normal, and not to be considered as a sign of a psychological problem. Even increased recurring thoughts in perfectionistic individuals may serve a function as in studying (memorizing), or in the learning of a new language.

Continuous recurring thoughts or themes may be even functional in the composition of music (the person for instance may have heard a bird call or mechanical repetitive sound which “sticks in the mind” which may and probably has formed the basis for musical compositions).

Although obsessional thoughts can cause subjective discomfort, one cannot always revert to the use of medication in order to control this. In view of the potential functional value of obsessive thinking, obsessional thoughts may in some way be viewed as the manifestation of increased psychological energy which can be used to one’s advantage rather than disadvantage when applied and managed constructively. Obsessive-compulsivity may be of value in business as well as logistics and planning.
The creation and maintenance of order (which is a fundamental characteristic of obsessive compulsivity) may also serve to lessen especially anticipatory anxiety (concern about things that may happen or things that should have been attended to) and have a positive influence on motivation as opposed to the negative influence of chaos. In summary, more structure can sometimes lead to less stress.

If one has been confronted with a monumental task or problem for instance, the latter may appear insurmountable. Once analyzed and a strategy for solving the problem planned however, this may lead to a decrease in anticipatory anxiety, a common and unpleasant phenomenon experienced by many perfectionists. The dynamics here may be illustrated by the following metaphor:

“Should a housewife unexpectedly receive a very large amount of perishable food from a farmer as a gift, her initial reaction would probably be one of joy mixed with concern as to what to do with so much food that could go bad quickly. To prepare all for consumption at once would be impractical and only lead to waste. A solution would be to prepare the bulk for refrigeration and freeze them in ingredient sized portions. In this way an anticipated “problem” could be solved and actually transformed into a long term practical advantage for her and her family.”

Obsessive thought can however, cause problems especially when in interfering with, or inhibiting sleep. This can create a vicious cycle leading to amongst other, fatigue, irritability, decreased ego strength and less effective coping strategies the following day. One’s resources are drained and crucial cognitive functions may be influenced.

The dynamics here could be compared to “a traveler who stops alongside the road for a rest at night and does not switch of the car radio. Later, after having woken up and wanting to continue his journey, he tries to start the car only to find the battery is flat and has problems turning the engine.”

In the extreme, medication may sometimes be required to sustain sleep, especially if obsessional thoughts are accompanied by depression.

If obsessional thoughts can be considered to be a form of “psychic energy”, this principle may be employed to manage such excessive energy constructively. It is important to employ such energy appropriately by using it when necessary and draining it to for instance, to facilitate sleep. The logical principle which could be applied here is to drain one’s psychic energy by increase mental activity (for instance by reading), much the same way as physical activity drains the body. The controlled application of “cognitive activity may therefore do for the psyche what physical exercise does for the body, leading to optimal use of both forms of energy.”

A metaphor for the restorative effect of sleep on memory

Sleep should be considered to be a restorative process during which optimal psychological functioning is facilitated. It has been generally viewed as a time when problem solving occurs and significant Gestalten completed. The fact that it has an influence on concentration implies that it may assist in the logical arrangement and storage of cognitive and effective material used during the waking hours as well as classifying, assimilating and storing new material. The subconscious therefore has to process new as well as existing material and store it for quick retrieval and use the following day. In other words, sleep enables the individual to maximize his/her psychological potential.

The storage function of sleep can be compared to “the activities of a busy office during the day when many files are drawn form the archives. The contents of each file are processed and new material may be added. The contents of some may be settled and the contents of others discarded.

In order to be retrieved and used the following day, the files should be placed back into the archives in a logical fashion. Should there not be a time set aside for sorting and storing the files used each day, they will remain in the office and it would require more effort and energy to conduct the following day’s business.

Needless to say, this will probably result in much tension, stress and maybe even conflict within the system. Should another day pass without the files having been settled, sorted and stored, problems could only escalate and most likely lead to increase emotionality and eventually panic. If the situation were to continue, even more energy will be spent simply in order to find those files in immediate demand. The concomitant stress and conflict could further drain the system’s resources until it cannot function any further and the system may stop normal functioning.”

A metaphor for the effects of verbal interaction

Human relationships are affected to a great deal by both verbal and non verbal interaction. Communication is by far, the most important dimension of man’s existence. During one’s lifetime, one has much more verbal than for instance, physical contact or interaction. Although sometimes subliminal in it’s effect, verbal interaction may have an enduring influence on the motivational, affective and sometimes cognitive functioning of those around one.

Verbal activity is in some ways however, much more akin to “physical activity” than is often accepted. In both lies the ultimate freedom afforded to man – the freedom of choice.

“Like tools, an individual can choose words to convey any message during social interaction. As a rule, tools are also normally very efficient at doing what they’re supposed to. The same tool can be used for different purposes. It can be used to make or repair something but it can also be used to break something. A knife can for instance be used to prepare food or fix a cable. It can also be used as a threat during a robbery or to end a life. The choice belongs to the individual who owns it.”

The “tools” (words) one uses can cause people to either move away from one or move towards one. Verbal aggression or aggressive verbal communication as manifested in for instance sarcasm, enmity or the use of expletives often reflects a subjective attitude, need or mood. The particular state of any of these facets of one’s personality, cognitive or affective state, could influence one’s verbal style or remarks.

Should an attitude  be aggressive or hostile, it could cause people to avoid contact or interaction with one. The psychodynamic process here could be compared to the following:

“If someone is fond of a cat but is scratched by the cat every time the person attempt to cuddle it, the individual’s motivation to repeat the activity will decrease, even though the person may very fond of the cat. The person may eventually cease to try and cuddle the cat even though still remaining fond of it.”

The manifestation of verbal aggression from time to time in humans is however, a normal occurrence. This may be especially detrimental to people who are dependent on each other such as in a working, family or marital relationship. The common goal in such relationships could be very rewarding but relationships may sometimes lose some of their tenacity due to destructive verbal interaction. The initial reaction of most people is that such interaction is necessarily “bad” for them and their instinctive reaction is to consider leaving or abandoning the relationship.

Depending on individual circumstances, this would probably serve as a solution but may require much to be sacrificed and even result in a greater loss than gain for those concerned. Should the relationship be ended, the individuals concerned will eventually form new ones. In these, they will almost inevitably be confronted with similar situations and choices.

Even though verbal conflict or friction may appear to have a negative influence on interpersonal relationships, when applied with positive acceptance as motivation, can provide an opportunity for personal growth.

A metaphor for managing day-end stress

The interaction of work or external stressors on the functioning of a household is often underestimated. Even under normal circumstances the maintenance of physical and psychological harmony in a household requires much more effort, discipline and patience that often meets the eye. Apart from internal stressors in a household, external stressors may have serious disruptive influences on this. Family members attending work or school are daily confronted with frustration, pressure, friction, stress, problems and even conflict in their individual interactional spheres. Many of these cannot be addressed whenever they occur, resulting in continuous attempt to resolve them throughout the day and sometimes even after the end of the working day. This may have a negative influence on one’s mood which in turn, has an influence on one’s close family members.

Keeping the influences of the working environment separate from that of home would imply a formidable reduction in stress. This however, is not always possible and on returning home still laden with the work’s problems, one may be confronted with those of the household.

This means that the time of arrival at home has an exceedingly high stress potential for the working or studying family member. It is a period which deserves serious attention and care.

Should one on arriving home, be abruptly and continuously confronted with especially, problems in the household, the consequences of this may eventually be serious and lead to avoidant behavior in the longer term. Should one on arriving home, be given the opportunity to gain psychological equilibrium (to offload one’s “work luggage”) , this would increase one’s ability to cope with the problems which need attention at home in a free and relaxed way.

The situation may be compared to that of a “passenger aircraft’s pilots who have just landed their plane. The fact that the plane has stopped at the end of the runway does not mean that the flight has been completed. The plane has to taxi to it’s designated area. Here checks have to be run, passengers have to disembark and luggage has to be offloaded. The pilots may still have certain procedures to follow and reports to write. Should they not attend to these, thing would become very muddled and leave them with conflict and apprehension which would probably restrain them from going about their normal earth bond functions in the way they should.”

A metaphor for the nature and function of the psychologist's ethical principles

The knowledge of ethical principles is of fundamental importance to the psychologist. It forms the framework within which the psychologist’s work is performed and has it’s goal, the protection of the patient as well as the professional’s interest. Principles differ from rules insofar as they form the background against which rules may be formulated. They are of value in situations for which no set rules exist and effective or immediate action is called for in the interest of those concerned.

The psychologist’s knowledge of ethical principles may be compared to “an aircraft pilot’s knowledge of aerodynamics. Whereas some givens e.g.’ an aircraft’s design, performance and technical characteristics are more of less constant factors during flight, wind and weather conditions are not. These have to be constantly monitored and adapted to. The better the pilot’s knowledge and understanding of aerodynamic principles, the more effectively he can manage the aircraft in unpredictable and even dangerous situations. This allows the pilot to secure the safety of the passengers as well as his own under most conditions.”

A metaphor for anticipatory anxiety leading to panic

Anticipatory anxiety is a term normally used to describe anxiety which is coupled to obsessional thoughts in terms of concern over things which may go wrong of which may run out of one’s control. This can be subjectively very disturbing, especially when coupled to low ego strength or if it manifests during depression in people with perfectionistic personality traits. For these people, order is of prime importance as it implies some form of predictability.

Order may be seen as “a lamp that may provide some light for the darkness of the road ahead and thereby serve to decrease anxiety by supplying some form of existential visibility and by implication, control. One of the main symptoms of depression is a decrease of initiative planning. For the perfectionist, this is a time when the light grows dim and predictability waned due to a lack of structure.”

Anxiety eventually increases and sometimes escalates into panic which becomes emotionally and cognitively constrictive. The person in unable to use those faculties which he/she would have been able to under normal circumstances, which leads to even more despair and extreme discomfort. The “psychic energy” of obsessionality thus runs rampant and becomes destructive.

This may be illustrated by one’s psyche being compared to a large reservoir supplying water to a garden:

“Should a farmer have prepared garden beds below the reservoir and planted seedlings in these, the water would have to be let out in a controlled an systematic fashion for the plants to grow and bear fruit. The water needs to be channeled and led to each bed in turn, providing and optimal amount of moisture and nutrients for every seedling. In the event of the reservoir’s outlet breaking, the garden may be flooded. The nurturance and moisture which inherently are good and provide what the seedlings need, becomes destructive and may damage the garden or simply flow away unused.”

A Metaphor for what brings out the best in us

As said in part one, metaphors can aid in the creation and maintenance of certain values and moral principles which are strong motivators of human behavior.

Wherever humans are in interaction there is always potential friction and conflict. The causes of friction and conflict are numerous and can be ascribed to many different factors both in terms of group or individual dynamics.

Being dependent on each other humans are always dream together to live and function as part of a group. Although groups may be defined in specific terms and be in conflict with one another, the most common and intense interaction over time, may still be experienced between individuals. One of the reasons for this is that in general, daily contact between individuals is much more common than contact between groups.

As discussed earlier, contact between individuals is more often on a verbal rather than a physical level. Verbal communication involves man’s whole conscious, preconscious and subconscious experiential field.

This sphere of man’s functioning may be his most powerful and simultaneously his most delicate, especially since access to these entities may be gained by verbal means. The presence of memory further emphasizes the importance of verbal communication.

Depending on it’s appropriateness and a person’s ego strength, verbal friction or conflict can have positive effects. This may be especially so if these lead to insight during a person’s earlier years and form part of one’s upbringing. The important almost omnipresent factor among humans which facilitates this type of learning positively is love or affinity (as it may be referred to in psychological terms). In the absence of affinity, conflict and friction may easily become destructive in interpersonal interaction.

The part that love plays in human interaction may be illustrated by the following metaphor:

“Unpolished precious- and semi-precious stones’ outward appearance can often be very deceptive. The untrained collector would unknowingly, easily discard stones like Agate on finding this in it’s natural environment. This is because Agates normally have a dull, earthy brown or grayish appearance. Agates with crystals in the centre may appear more pitted on one side. This outward appearance normally gives no indication whatsoever of the stone’s inherent unique colours and patterns.

Once polished, a specimen of Agate may display concentric lines of different shades whish encompass solid clusters of transparent and semi transparent crystals. These sometimes appear as frail floral petals pressed up against a thick sheet of glass and the polished surface give even greater depth to the arrangement of colours and grain.

The beauty of some coloured stones like Amethyst and Rose Quartz, is more readily apparent and the attractiveness of these too, may also be set off by polishing.

Polishing can be done in various different ways and one popular technique by which stones are polished is called “tumbling”. This involves stones being sealed in an oblong round container together with a polishing agent and water. The container is placed on two roller which slowly rotate for a period of time causing the stones to rub against each other. In this process (which is done in about three so called “runs”), rough edges and layers are removed from each stone and a deep gloss is eventually acquired which exposes and enhances the stones actual beauty.

“Water, (like affinity in interpersonal relationships) is absolutely necessary for this process to be effective. Should no water be present inside the tumbling container, the stones’ real appearance could never be exposed. Without water, it could be expected that the stones’ shape would change, that they would remain dull and maybe even eventually pulverize each other. Their true beauty would never be exposed in contrast to those which where tumbled with water as part of the tumbling medium. Water enables them to sparkle as objects of beauty, adornment and pleasure.”

PART 3 : Conclusion

Metaphors can be of equal value to patient as well as psychologist in practice. Metaphors can contribute to the field of psychology and the interactive helping experience. Metaphors should as far as possible, be continually developed, explored and recorded for use in psychological practice.



Dr Coert Mommsen is a Clinical Psychologist in Potchefstroom. He is the Head Clinical Psychologist at the Witrand Hospital, a position he has held since 2004.

In addition to his interest in metaphors in psychology he is interested in short wave antennae design and the design of household tools and implements. He has registered three provisional patents at the department of trade and industry.


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