Tangled spaghetti in my head

Making use of metaphor in psychotherapy
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Published in Therapy Today, Journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, October 2005

I was chatting with seven other therapists and counsellors during lunch at a conference when someone suggested we give a brief description of the therapeutic approach we each use. As we went round I discovered we were all from different modalities: Rogerian, Cognitive Behavioural, Psychodynamic, Gestalt, Transpersonal, Hypnotherapy and Biodynamic.

When it came to my turn I explained I specialise in Symbolic Modelling, an approach working with client-generated metaphors and symbols, using a set of questions called Clean Language. I said when a client uses a metaphor, it contains the structural essence of their experience, and rather than working with the client’s problem directly, I ask clean questions of their metaphor. Then, as the metaphor changes and evolves, the client’s perception of the issue changes. In effect, the client learns to create new experience through the evolution of their metaphors and symbols.

To describe what I meant, I told them about a school counsellor who worked with a child who was becoming emotionally disturbed from an inability to learn maths because “I can’t do numbers in my head.” When the counsellor asked the boy what that was like, the child said, “It’s like tangled up spaghetti in my head.” After answering some Clean Language questions of the metaphor – What kind of tangled up? Where in your head is that tangled up spaghetti? Is there anything else about that spaghetti? – the child had a well-developed, embodied sense of the symbols. 

The counsellor then asked, “And what would that spaghetti like to have happen?”. After a moment’s thought he replied “It wants to have water poured over it so it can slip free and then dry in the sun.” The counsellor continued asking Clean Language questions of the symbols and suddenly the boy cried “Oh look, the spaghetti has squashed together into one piece. It looks like a piece of paper and I can put my numbers on it!” Over the following months the child became able to learn maths because he now had a place to see the numbers in his mind’s eye.

Some of my colleagues said they had worked intuitively with their clients’ metaphors, but did not know there was a language model and a process for doing so, and asked for details about this approach …


Metaphor is as ultimate as speech itself, and speech as ultimate as thought …
Metaphor appears as the instinctive and necessary act of the mind exploring reality and ordering experience.”
John Murry, Countries of the Mind, 1931

In the last 25 years the research of many neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and linguists has converged to form a new understanding about the way the human mind works.1 Four key findings have been:

  1. Metaphor is far more common in everyday language than had ever been realised. It is nearly impossible to describe internal states, abstract ideas and complex notions without using metaphor.

  2. Usually neither speaker nor listener is aware of the metaphors being used.

  3. Metaphor is more than a linguistic device; it is central to the way people think, make sense of the world and take decisions.
  4. Metaphors are not used arbitrarily. They are mostly drawn from how people experience their body and how it interacts with the environment.

Through our clinical experience, described in Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling,2 we would add:

  1. While people make use of common metaphors and clichés, the moment these are explored they become idiosyncratic and unique to the individual.

  2. An individual’s use of metaphor has a coherent logic that is consistent over time.

  3. Once a person settles on a particular metaphorical perspective there are logical consequences that follow. (If a client says “I want to take the next step,” then will that be a right-footed or a left-footed step? And in what direction will they step?)

We like the definition for metaphor used by linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” because it allows for both verbal and non-verbal metaphors. 3 Metaphors are comprised of a number of interrelated components which we call symbols. A metaphor is a whole and symbols are the parts of that whole. For instance, “My back is pinned against a wall” refers to three symbols: my back, a wall and a pin (or whatever is doing the pinning).

The healing professions have had a long history of making use of metaphor and symbol in a variety of ways. Our particular interest is in client-generated metaphor. The frequency with which clients use metaphor covers a wide range. For some it is their mother tongue, while highly conceptual clients will only resort to metaphor when they need to describe something out of the ordinary. Clients will often switch to metaphor whenever they need to:

  • Describe emotionally charged events.
  • Express something abstract in more concrete terms.
  • Capture the whole, or the essence of an experience.
  • Condense a lot of information or a large number of examples.
  • Talk about something obliquely.
  • Highlight the vividness or richness of an experience.
  • Employ imagery to describe their feelings and other internal states.

Just helping your client to develop a metaphorical description of their issue can be therapeutic in itself. Some experiences are just too painful, complex, abstract, dangerous, overwhelming, insoluble, unfathomable or unspeakable to be discussed in any other type of language. Being able to describe the experience in metaphor can be affirming, cathartic and enable the client to spontaneously reassess or reorganise their way of thinking about their problem or the situation.

For example a client came to address the after-effects of six years of incest by her father. She sat on the edge of her chair and said “I’ve tried to deal with this many times, but every time I start to get close to it I get up and run, so be prepared.” Her answer to what she wanted from the session was “Peace from the pain”. When asked “And that’s peace from the pain like what?” she replied “It’s like I’m in a room looking out of a lead glass window to a forest dark with trees.”

The entire session was conducted within this metaphor, only asking Clean Language questions of the room, the window, the trees, the forest and the subtle shifts that occurred in these symbols. When she returned for her second session she said “I’ve never told anyone the things that I told you last time.” The client was able to describe in metaphor what she could not recount in everyday language and to find some relief from her past – even though we did not know the detail of the incidents that had taken place.

It is important to note that while metaphors create insight, they also create ways of not seeing. Metaphors can liberate and empower, and they also can limit and disempower. They can be a tool for creativity, or a self-imposed prison. Later in this article we will give you a straightforward four-stage process that will enable you to facilitate your clients to unlock their creativity and open those prison doors.

Explicit and implicit metaphors

We are all familiar with explicit metaphors. If a client says:

I’m carrying the world on my shoulders.

I think I’m cracking up.

I see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Obviously they are speaking metaphorically. We know the client has not turned into Atlas or an egg, and that they are not in an actual tunnel; but rather that everyday things and behaviours (shoulders, the world, cracking, light and tunnels) are being used to symbolise or represent other experiences: excessive responsibility, an unwanted state of mind, and finding hope.

Surprisingly, explicit metaphors are not the most common kind of metaphor. Most everyday language contains expressions that are so familiar to us that unless we stop and think, we are unaware they are metaphors. For instance did you notice that each of the bullet points above contains a different metaphor (charged, concrete, capture, condense, obliquely, highlight, employ)?

Why do most metaphors go unnoticed? Because we tend to pay attention to the client’s words that describe why and what they are experiencing rather than listen to the implicit metaphors that describe how they are perceiving that why and what. If a client says “I feel I need to find a purpose to my life,” which words catch your attention? Feel? Need? Purpose? Life? If you are thinking metaphor, “find” would have jumped out at you. To illustrate how important implicit metaphors are, suppose the client had said:

I feel I need to uncover a purpose to my life.

I feel I need to figure out a purpose to my life.

I feel I need to connect with a purpose to my life.

I feel I need to attract a purpose to my life.

I feel I need to explore a purpose to my life.

Depending on the metaphor, our sense of the client’s experience changes. And that’s because how they need a purpose to their life differs in each example

Literal listening

Since most metaphors in everyday language are implicit or hidden, how can you learn to notice them?

One way is to take your clients’ words literally and ask yourself, is the client actually doing what they are describing? If not, they are speaking in metaphor. For example, if a client says “I want to put my past behind me,” are they physically going to move their past from wherever it is to somewhere behind them? Obviously not — therefore it is a metaphor. We call this literal listening.

Another way to spot implicit metaphors is to listen for words suggesting space or force. As Stephen Pinker says,

“Space is one of the two fundamental metaphors in language. The other is force. Many cognitive scientists (including me) have concluded from their research on language that a handful of concepts about places, paths, motions, agency, and causation underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words and constructions, not only in English but in every other language that has been studied.” 4

To illustrate Pinker’s point, almost every example of a metaphor given in this article makes use of metaphorical space or force. In the “I want to put my past behind me” example, “put” requires a force and “behind” involves space.

In Symbolic Modelling we act as if clients’ metaphors are real — because subjectively they are — and ask questions which acknowledge their metaphorical experience. So we might have replied:

And when you want to put your past behind you, whereabouts behind you?


And when you want to put your past behind you, what kind of ‘put behind’ is that?

These questions are examples of David Grove’s Clean Language. You will notice the questions use the client’s exact words. To highlight the form of the clean question, we have put the therapist’s words in bold. To you as an observer these questions may seem strange, but to the client they will make sense because they are consistent with the logic of their metaphor.

If you want to cultivate an ear for metaphor we recommend you go through client transcripts, newspaper articles and TV interviews highlighting all the explicit and implicit metaphors. This will ‘heighten’ your awareness of metaphor so that you can easily ‘pick them out’ of your clients’ narratives.

Clean Language

In the 1980s David Grove developed clinical methods for resolving traumatic memories, especially those related to child abuse, rape and incest. He realised many clients naturally described their symptoms in metaphor, but if he asked ordinary questions about their metaphors they quickly returned to an everyday narrative, losing the benefit of the symbolic perspective. However when he enquired about the metaphors using very simple questions and the client’s exact words, their perception of the trauma began to change. This inspired him to create Clean Language, a way of asking questions which preserves the logic of clients’ metaphors.

Clean Language questions are ‘clean’ because they do not unwittingly contaminate the client’s experience with your metaphors and assumptions. They direct clients’ attention to various aspects of their metaphors. The 12 basic Clean Language questions are all that you need to develop a metaphor, work with it, and mature changes as they occur:


And is there anything else about (that) [x]?

And what kind of [x] (is that [x])?


And where/whereabouts is [x]?


And that’s [x] like what?


And is there a relationship between [x] and [y]?

And when [x], what happens to [y]?


And what happens just before [event x]?

And then what happens? / And what happens next?


And where could/does [x] come from ?


And what would [you/x] like to have happen?

And what needs to happen for [x] to [intention of x]?

And can [x] [intention of x]?

Clean Language questions are unusual because they are asked of the metaphor, not of the client, and they do not contain any reference to the therapist. They are simple, and all that needs to be added is a selection of the client’s exact words represented above by [x] and [y]. Asking just a few Clean Language questions can produce surprisingly insightful and effective responses.

One of the most valuable ways of utilising Clean Language is for the client to develop a metaphor for a resource, quality or strength. Spending 10 minutes facilitating your client to an embodied experience of a valued aspect of self can sometimes be worth 10 sessions of going over their problem. Once an all-singing, all-dancing resource metaphor is available to a client it can be called upon at any time in subsequent sessions, or by the client when they are in a problem situation. Sometimes it is not even important what the resource is, or whether it is an obvious solution to their problem. Simply accessing an empowering metaphor and the accompanying resourceful physiological state can result in the client establishing new ways of behaving.

Used over a period of time, Clean Language enables the client to become familiar with, and to learn from, their own symbolic world.

A four-stage therapeutic process

Figure 1 shows a four-stage process for working with client-generated metaphors:

  1. Identify a metaphor
  2. Develop the metaphor
  3. Work with the metaphor
  4. Mature changes

1. Identify a metaphor

Some clients spontaneously use an explicit metaphor to describe a feeling, problem, situation, symptom, desire, etc. When they do your role is simply to notice that they have switched to a symbolic way of describing their experience and to move to Stage 2.

With other clients you may need to take a more active role. You can do this either when the client repeatedly uses an implicit metaphor, or when you want to facilitate them to convert a sensory-based or conceptual description into a metaphor.

The following example is one way to do this.

C=Client, T=Therapist/Counsellor, Bold type highlights the Clean Language Question.

C: I get so angry with my children. I can’t stop myself. I’m so sorry afterwards. I just wish I didn’t get so angry.

T: And when you get so angry with your children, what kind of angry is that angry?

C: An all consuming anger.

T: And when anger is all consuming, where is that all consuming anger?

C: Here, inside (client touches stomach).

T: And whereabouts inside?

C: In my stomach.

T: And whereabouts in your stomach?

C: In the core.

T: And what kind of core is that core?

C: It’s hot.

T: And is there anything else about that hot core in your stomach?

C: It starts by bubbling up.

T: And when hot core in your stomach starts by bubbling up, that’s bubbling up like what?

C: Like a volcano.

2. Develop a metaphor

Sometimes just two or three Clean Language questions are enough for the client to get curious about their own metaphors. At other times it takes a little longer, but sooner or later most clients are surprised that a metaphor they had hardly given a second thought to could be so rich and so revealing. As their metaphor develops, the client will connect to it cognitively, emotionally and physically: they embody the metaphor by enacting it, or gesturing to where symbols are located in their perceptual space; they have unexpectedly high affect accompanying a seemingly minor issue, or a surprisingly low intensity emotional reaction to a major incident; they get involved in explaining what the metaphor means; or the metaphor triggers a memory. In whatever way they respond the metaphor has captured their attention.

T: And what kind of volcano?

C: Old and gnarled.

T: And is there anything else about the bubbling up of an old and gnarled volcano?

C: When the bubbles reach the surface there’s smoke and I’m ready to explode.

T: And what happens just before you’re ready to explode?

C: I try to cap it.

T: And when you try to cap it, then what happens?

C: Pressure builds up.

T: And when pressure builds up, what happens to smoke?

C: [Pause] Strange, I never realised but it can’t go anywhere. It sort of
mixes with the bubbles and makes them acid. No wonder I have so much
trouble down there.

As a general rule we recommend that you continue to develop the attributes of the symbols and the relationships between them for longer than you might think. Even when your client has discovered what Carl Jung calls that “something extra,” there is often something extra to that.5

Once a client has developed a metaphor we ask them either to draw it during the session, or at home, placing it where they will regularly see it.

3. Work with the metaphor

Once a client engages with a metaphor you have a number of choices depending on your preferred way of working. You can:

  • Address the client’s feelings associated with their metaphor in a here and now process.
  • Use the elements of the metaphor to tell a story which points to a resolution.
  • Ask the client to take the position of a symbol in the metaphor.
  • Resolve conflicts within the metaphor using parts work.
  • Explore the limiting assumptions and beliefs contained within the metaphor.
  • Reframe the meaning of the metaphor.
  • Help clients find where there are choice-points within the metaphor.
  • Explore the metaphor as a description of transference.
  • Make use of regression techniques.


Our preferred way of working, Symbolic Modelling, is to stay entirely within the logic of the metaphor, to keep asking Clean Language questions, and to follow the natural direction of the metaphor as it evolves and unfolds. While the nature of a client’s metaphor may lead you down a few cul de sacs or round a number of circles, in the end the metaphor contains the seeds of its own transformation. The changes that emerge organically are usually more novel and more appropriate than anything we could have dreamt up on the client’s behalf.

T: And bubbling up and smoke and you try to cap it and you’re ready to explode and the pressure builds up and acid. And when bubbling up starts what would you like to have happen?

C: To not let them get to me.

T: And when they don’t get to you then what happens?

C: I keep my cool.

T: And is there anything else when you keep your cool?

C: I can’t describe it, it’s sort of … fluid … flowing …

T: And when you keep your cool and fluid, flowing, that’s fluid, flowing like what?

C: Like a … like a mountain spring.

T: And where could a mountain spring like that come from?

C: My heart [both hands on chest].

T: Whereabouts from your heart?

C: In the core.

T: And is there a relationship between the core of your heart and the core in your stomach?

C: Yes, when my heart is cool I can talk about how I’m feeling.

T: And what needs to happen for heart to keep cool when bubbles start?

C: [Long pause] The bubbles need to make the spring flow more. This
neutralises, it keeps my heart cool and I can express myself clearly.

T: And can bubbles make the spring flow more?

C: They can now!

4. Mature changes

Whatever approach you use, at some point the metaphor will begin to change. Then Clean Language can be used to mature the changes so that they evolve and spread in a chain reaction or ripple-like effect. Ultimately changes in the metaphor consolidate into a new way of perceiving and experiencing, and the client feels different about themselves and their world (even if you, and they, do not understand how or why this is happening).

This process is like growing a small seedling into a robust plant that can withstand the wind and rain. Then when the client goes back into their everyday life the changes they have made are embedded enough to thrive in the face of their habits, others’ expectations, disappointments, etc.

T: And bubbles can make the spring flow more, and then what happens?

C: The spring can cool me down and I won’t have that exploding feeling.

T: And then what happens to volcano?

C: The crater fills with water and becomes a lake.

T: And what happens next?

C: Eventually it’ll become extinct … it’ll become a reservoir.

T: And what kind of reservoir?

C: A beautiful blue expanse of water where people can play.

T: And when a mountain spring can cool you down and you don’t have that exploding feeling, and volcano becomes a reservoir of beautiful blue water and people play, what happens to all-consuming anger?

C: I can contain it [smiles].

T: And is there anything else you need right now?

C: No. Thank you.

This illustrative example is a condensed version of the four-stage process. Examples of entire client sessions can be found at cleanlanguage.co.uk and in the DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation.6

Concluding Remarks

All clients use metaphor. When you listen literally to the metaphors your clients are using and ask them a few Clean Language questions it brings their metaphors to life, and surprising insights, new understandings, and novel solutions can organically emerge. Then you can use the counselling or therapeutic process of your choice to work with that information. Or you can continue using Symbolic Modelling as a process in itself.

Symbolic Modelling can be particularly useful for working with big issues, and those seemingly intractable problems with binding and double binding patterns. Symbolic Modelling is excellent too for working with children, couples and families. It is also being used in special needs education, with health issues and physical symptoms, as well as coaching in sports and business.

On one hand this approach is very simple: only 12 questions to use — what could be easier? On the other hand, there is more to it than meets the eye, and we urge you to find opportunities to ask your clients some Clean Language questions of their metaphors and symbols — and equally important, for you to be asked some as well. Then, whatever your therapeutic or counselling training, you may find that Symbolic Modelling has a significant part to play in your work.

© 2005, Penny Tompkins, Wendy Sullivan and James Lawley


1 George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books, New York, 1999.

2 James Lawley & Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation Through Symbolic Modelling Developing Company Press, London, 2000.

3 George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1980.

4 Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, The Softback Preview, UK, 1998.

5 Carl Jung, Man and his Symbols, Picador, London 1964.

6 Penny Tompkins & James Lawley, A Strange and Strong Sensation (DVD), The Developing Company Press, London, 2003 

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