Metaphors in Mind: A case study

Clean Language in action
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First published in Anchor Point Vol. 15, No. 5.

What do you do as a therapist, teacher, doctor or manager when your client, student, patient or colleague says “It’s like I’m hitting my head against a brick wall” or “I’m so wound up I can’t see straight” or “Things keep getting on top of me”?

Do you ignore the metaphorical nature of their communication?

Do you unwittingly introduce your own metaphors?: “Why do you continue punishing yourself?” or “I can tell you’re stressed .” or “How does that make you feel ?”.

Or do you take their metaphors as an accurate description of their way of being in the world and ask questions within the logic of the information?: “And is there anything else about that brick wall?” or “And what kind of wound up is that?” or “And whereabouts on top of you?”.

This article describes a way for individuals to discover how their metaphors are organized and, if they wish, what needs to happen for them to change so that they have a different perception of the world.

Neuro-linguistic programing (NLP) has been defined as ‘the study of the structure of subjective experience’. There is, however, one domain of subjective experience, autogenic or client-generated metaphor and symbol, that has received little attention. (Noteworthy exceptions are in the work of Robert Dilts, Charles Faulkner, Michael Hall, Arun Hejmadi and Patricia Lyall.)

Working with client-generated metaphors is the subject of our newly published book, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. Symbolic Modelling emerged from a four-year modelling project of David Grove and his therapeutic use of ‘Clean Language’.

David J. Grove, M.S.

David Grove is a New Zealander whose unique psychotherapeutic approach, experience and style make him one of today’s most skillful and innovative therapists.

In the 1980s he developed clinical methods for assisting clients to resolve their traumatic memories, especially those related to child abuse, rape and incest. He realized that many clients naturally described their symptoms in metaphor. When he enquired about these metaphors using the client’s exact words, they could consider their symptoms in a new way and their perception of the trauma often began to change. This led him to create Clean Language, a way of asking questions of his clients’ metaphors which neither contaminated nor distorted them.

Modelling David Grove

To figure out what David Grove was doing we spent many days observing him working with clients (including ourselves) and spent many more days pouring over recordings and transcripts. We looked for patterns in what he was doing and in the way clients responded. We analyzed how these patterns related to the changes that clients experienced. And we combined the patterns into a generalised model which we tested and fine-tuned – cycling through observation, pattern detection, model construction, testing and amendment — many times. We call the result Symbolic Modelling.

Symbolic Modelling in a Nutshell

Symbolic Modelling is a method of facilitating individuals to become familiar with the organization of their metaphors so that they discover new ways of perceiving themselves and their world. It uses Clean Language to facilitate individuals to attend to their verbal and nonverbal metaphoric expressions so that they create a model of their own symbolic mindbody perceptions.

This model of self, or Metaphor Landscape, exists as a living, breathing, dynamic, four-dimensional world within and around them. As they explore this world and its inherent logic, their way of being is honored. During this process their metaphors begin to evolve. And as this happens their everyday thinking, feeling and behavior correspondingly change as well.

Because Symbolic Modelling works with metaphor and uses Clean Language it is particularly valuable for working with the more intangible ‘higher logical levels’ (core beliefs, identity, sense of purpose, the spiritual), as well as complex and seemingly intractable issues that are not amenable to traditional techniques.

Three Components

The components of Symbolic Modelling – autogenic metaphor, modelling and Clean Language – can be used in three ways: to model successful strategies and states of excellence; to facilitate change; and to facilitate individuals and groups to create new metaphors (see diagram).




Three ways of using the components of Symbolic Modelling


The components of Symbolic Modelling can be used together as a stand-alone process. Or any one of them can be used in conjunction with other methodologies. In this article we focus on the use of Clean Language to facilitate a client to change a pattern of symbolic perceptions which had resulted in decades of insecurity, anxiety and unhappiness.

Clean Language

Clean Language is an extraordinary language because everything you, as facilitator, say and do is intimately related to what the client says and does. Since each Clean Language question takes as its point of departure the client’s last verbal or nonverbal expression, there is minimal need for them to translate and interpret your words and behavior. And because the client’s response always informs your next question, the organization of the client’s information leads the interaction. Thus the entire focus of the process becomes an exploration of the client’s model of the world from their perspective, within their perceptual time and space, and using their words.

Of course Clean Language influences and directs attention – all language does that. Clean Language does it ‘cleanly’ because it is sourced in the client’s vocabulary, is consistent with the logic of their metaphors, and only introduces the universal metaphors of time, space and form. At its core, Clean Language consists of nine basic questions which are used 80% of the time:

DEVELOPING QUESTIONS (which hold time still)

Identifying Attributes

And is there anything else about [client’s words]?
And what kind of [client’s words] is that [client’s words]?

Converting to Metaphor

And that’s [client’s words] like what?

Locating in Space

And where is [client’s words]?
And whereabouts [client’s words]?



And then what happens?
And what happens next?


And what happens just before [client’s words]?
And where could [client’s words] come from?

More information on Clean Language can be found in a recent Anchor Point article by Judith Yero, Watch Your Language!

As you will see from the transcript that follows, Clean Language has an unusual repetitive syntax which sometimes appears strange to an observer. To the client, however, the way the questions are asked is wonderfully acknowledging, and encourages them to pay exquisite attention to their symbolic map of their experience.

While Symbolic Modelling is based on David Grove’s work and incorporates many of his ideas, he has a different way of describing his approach. Our model draws upon cognitive linguistics, self-organizing systems theory and NLP. It is also shaped by our desire for others to learn the process easily and for it to apply to a range of contexts in addition to psychotherapy.

Symbolic Modelling in Action

Rather than describe the theoretical basis of Symbolic Modelling, we give you a practical example – a partial transcript from Metaphors in Mind which demonstrates the process in action. At intervals we interrupt the transcript to meta-comment on the process. (Our comments were not part of the session.)

All therapist-generated words are highlighted to distinguish them from words generated by the client. For simplicity we do not identify which one of us asks the question. The client is a male in his 50’s.

C1: I started a relationship recently but there’s insecurity about the relationship. It’s “too good to be true.” I find it difficult to enjoy the relationship as I get very anxious when I am not with her. I overwhelm her. I have to hold back. I’m waiting for her to say “I can’t take it any more.” I was last in a relationship three years ago which I managed to sustain for 2 weeks. When I fall in love I get the feeling of anxiety. I feel almost ill. So maybe I engineer the collapse of the relationship so I can manage the anxiety. It gets worse because I’m aware of the effect. I’ve had to pull back from the brink a couple of times.

T1: And what would you like to have happen?

C2: I’ve got to give her room to love me back.

T2: And you’ve got to give her room to love you back. And when you’ve got to give her room to love you back, is there anything else?

C3: A feeling that I’ve got to love her as much as I can because she’s not going to be around for that long. It’s like I’ve got to eat all the sweets today even though there will be plenty more tomorrow. “It’s too good to be true.” I don’t believe it will be there tomorrow. I’m not meant to be happy, it’s not for me. Love brings me happiness but I can’t handle happiness and joy. It’s as if I have to live my life in the darkness.

As often happens, the client pours out a mass of information about his situation, describing one painful interlocking conflict, dilemma, impasse and paradox after another. He uses many metaphors to describe his highly complex relationship with women whom he loves: “insecurity”, “overwhelm”, “managed to sustain”, “fall in”, “engineer the collapse”, “pull back from the brink”, “give her room”, “eat all the sweets”, “love brings”, “can’t handle”; to name a few of the more obvious. Finally he settles on a metaphor which corresponds to the larger context for his relationships — his life – which he has to live “in the darkness.” We invite him to start exploring this metaphor.

T3: And when you’ve got to eat all the sweets today, and you’re not meant to be happy and you have to live your life in the darkness,is there anything else about that darkness?

C4: I don’t ever remember having been happy. I don’t feel I’ve ever had
permanent happiness–sustained happiness. I felt very alone as a child.
I don’t feel I was ever happy. It’s just a feeling within me now.

T4: And you don’t feel you were ever happy. And when it’s just a feeling within you now, what kind of feeling could that feeling be?

C5: A sad feeling.

T5: And a sad feeling. And when a sad feeling, where is that sad feeling?

C6: In my stomach.

T6: And in your stomach. And when sad feeling is in your stomach, whereabouts in your stomach?

C7: Here [touches stomach].

T7: And sad feeling is here. And when sad feeling is here, is there anything else about that sad feeling?

C8: A feeling sick and nauseous. I can feel it now. I feel very anxious. I hate this feeling.

T8: And you hate this feeling of sick and nauseous and very anxious. And when you feel sick and nauseous and very anxious, does sick and nauseous and very anxious have a size or a shape?

C9: A hand’s-span width [makes gesture with right hand].

T9: And a hand’s-span width. And when [replicates gesture], that’s like what?

C10: Like a lozenge.

T10: And like a lozenge. And what kind of lozenge could that lozenge be?

C11: Dark, purple with black and it’s oozing negative emotions. I feel if I could get rid of the lozenge I’d be ok.

T11: And if you could get rid of the lozenge you’d be ok. And when lozenge is dark, and purple with black and it’s oozing negative emotions, is there anything else about that dark, purple, black, oozing lozenge?

C12: It’s like a black or purple sponge, with liquid seeping out, acid burning me up.

T12: And a black or purple sponge, with liquid seeping out, and acid burning you up. And when liquid seeping out, where does that liquid come from?

C13: A permanent store, a secret store replenishing itself and it never runs out. When nothing seeps out I feel ok. I’m glad you two are not
psychiatrists or you’d be writing out the Section Order right now!

T13: [Laughs.] And when nothing seeps out and you feel ok, what happens to lozenge?

C14: It’s always in there, even when I was a baby. It started off like that [holds up thumb and forefinger of right hand, fingers not quite touching]. Now it’s taking up more and more space.

These clean questions have invited the client to establish the form of his metaphors and their location within his perceptual space. In doing so he develops an embodied sense of this anxious-making, negative-emotion oozing, acid-burning lozenge; probably with greater awareness than ever before. Not only has lozenge “always been there”, the problem is getting worse: “it’s taking up more and more space”.

In C15-C28 (not shown) the client goes on to identify the convoluted logic of the temporal, spatial and cause-effect relationships of his Metaphor Landscape — the context within which change will take place. He discovers that his Landscape includes a “dark distant past”, that “a huge, massive boulder of unhappiness” is shackled to the ankles of his father as a baby, and that the lozenge “is going to kill me”.

We continue the transcript where the client reveals that before lozenge was in his grandfather, it had:

C29: Been floating around in time for thousands of years.

T29: And it’s been floating around in time for thousands of years. And it’s been floating around for thousands of years like what?

C30: Like a parasite looking for a host.

T30: And like a parasite looking for a host. And when a parasite’s looking for a host, what kind of parasite is that parasite that’s been floating around for thousands of years?

C31: Lonely, looking for a home and love and warmth and comfort, saying “I’m
really friendly” but when it goes into someone it seeps out the acid.
It has to get rid of it and it doesn’t mean to hurt.

T31: And it doesn’t mean to hurt. And it’s lonely, looking for a home and love and warmth and comfort. And it’s friendly but it has to get rid of the acid. And where could that acid have come from?

C32: The beginning of time.

T32: And the beginning of time. And when the beginning of time, what kind of time is the beginning of time?

C33: A huge black sphere. Huge black spherical sponge that one day exploded
and it created billions of lonely lozenges. It became the lozenge.

T33: And a huge black spherical sponge exploded and created billions of lonely lozenges. And what happened just before that huge black spherical sponge exploded?

C34: Behind it was a sun shining from behind and it got so hot it exploded
and that let all the light through and suddenly there was light.

T34: And when all the light is let through and suddenly there’s light, what kind of light is that light?

C35: The sun is bringing light and love and warmth and happiness and
calmness and I want to just sit and bask in the warmth of the sun, so
the more sun I get the smaller the lozenge gets. [Eyes closed, face
upturned, smiling.]

The client discovers that the lozenge first came into being when a “huge black spherical sponge exploded” (C33). Now that his attention is on “that one day,” he is in a position to become aware of what happened just before the explosion: a sun (son?) was shining light (C34). At this point, time seems to collapse as the client experiences the sun “bringing light and love and warmth and happiness and calmness” (C35) in the here and now. As he does a change occurs spontaneously: the lozenge gets smaller. Whereas before he “can’t handle happiness,” now he is basking in it.

We continue by inviting the client to notice what happens when the effects of the change are developed, evolved and spread to other parts of his Metaphor Landscape:

T35: And the more sun you get the smaller the lozenge gets. So take all the time you need to just sit, and bask in the warmth of that sun, that‘s bringing light, and love, and warmth, and happiness, and calmness. [Long pause until a noticeable movement of the client’s body.] And as you bask in the warmth of that sun, would that sun that brings light, and love, and happiness, and calmness be interested in going to shackles on a baby’s ankles?

C36: Certainly.

T36: And can that sun go to those shackles?

C37: Certainly

T37: And as that sun goes to those shackles then what happens?

C38: They melt and disappear.

T38: And as they melt and disappear, then what happens?

C39: The baby can crawl and stand and play.

T39: And the baby can crawl and stand and play. And as baby can crawl and stand and play, then what happens?

C40: All the lozenges disappear.

T40: And all the lozenges disappear. And when all the lozenges disappear, they disappear to where?

C41: The sun. They are absorbed by the sun, gently, without pain, into the light.

T41: And when lozenges are absorbed by the sun, gently, without pain, into the light, are lozenges lonely?

C42: No.

As the client’s Metaphor Landscape changes, a new Landscape with a different organization begins to emerge. This Landscape has a sun, light, an unshackled baby that “can crawl and stand and play,” and lozenges that “are absorbed by the sun.” The transcript continues (T42-C46, not shown) with the client discovering more about the effects of changes on other symbols in the Metaphor Landscape. We continue by asking what has happened to the original symptoms now that lozenge has transformed and he is basking in happiness and sunlight:

T46: And when just happiness and sunlight, and just happiness, what happens to sad feeling in your stomach?

C47: My lozenge has gone! All I can say is “just happiness”.

T47: And your lozenge has gone. And does just happiness have a size or a shape?

C48: A big warm glow, happiness, peace and calm.

T48: And when there is a big warm glow, happiness, peace and calm, what happens to insecurity about the relationship and overwhelming her?

C49: It just goes. Like sunshine on both of them.

T49: And then what happens?

C50: They go forward together, relaxed, confident, no anxiety, no worries, enjoying being, peace, tranquillity, comfort.

T50: And as they go forward together, relaxed and confident with no anxiety and no worries, what needs to happen for you to handle all the enjoying being, and peace and tranquillity and comfort and happiness?

C51: I need to get out into the sun.

Instead of a lozenge that is “dark, purple with black and it’s oozing negative emotions” (C11), the client has “A big warm glow, happiness, peace and calm” (C48). Rather than feeling insecure about the relationship with the woman he loves, they can “go forward together” (C50). He realizes that in order to handle happiness he needs “to get out into the sun.”

It is not clear whether his last statement is literal or metaphoric. In fact it is both, because the client goes on to describe (in C52-C58, not shown) how he has been “living in a dungeon where no light comes in” for the last 20 years and that he is going home to empty it and “let out all the lozenges.” (He had accumulated so much stuff in his home that he could not open some of the doors.)

After a very long contemplative silence, he looks around the room and says:

C59: There’s space here [touches stomach]. Things seem different.

T60: And now there’s space and things seem different, can you give her room to love you back and enjoy the relationship?

C60: [Nods. Tears in eyes.]

T61: And is there anything else you need now there is space and things seem different?

C61: [Long pause.] No. I’m feeling very weird. It’s amazing what I came out with.

Twelve months after this session the client called to say he had moved out of his previous home and was getting married — not, as it happens, to the woman referred to in the transcript, but to another woman with whom he had “fallen in love in a different way.”

In conclusion

The primary purpose of Symbolic Modelling is to facilitate an individual to learn about themselves through exploring their metaphors. In the process of becoming aware of the way their system works, conditions emerge in which change is a natural consequence. However this change does not occur in a vacuum — it requires a context, a metaphor landscape. Once this exists, simply using Clean Language within the logic of the metaphors and faithfully following the process as it unfolds means the self-system learns from itself. This is just another way of saying: the system changes.

© 2001, Penny Tompkins & James Lawley


Grove, David J. and Basil Panzer. Resolving Traumatic Memories: Metaphors and Symbols in Psychotherapy, Irvington, New York, 1989.

Lawley, James and Penny Tompkins. Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, The Developing Company Press, London, 2000.

Yero, Judith Lloyd. Watch Your Language!, Anchor Point, Vol. 15, No. 3, March 2001.

Thanks to Philip Harland for his valuable comments.

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