The Magic of Metaphor

The Magic of Metaphor

Aug 10 , 2021

The Wellness Philosophy

Using the Magic of Metaphor to Help Reflect and Communicate Feelings

When we often ask someone how they are doing on a given day, we will often receive the standard response of “I’m fine, thanks”. The question is often then reflected back to us and similarly, we may mirror this response.

We rarely answer honestly, as often we haven’t stopped to reflect on how we are actually doing at that point in time or if we have, we may not feel safe to share or struggle to articulate our inner world with the brevity required for this informal exchange. Whereas, if we were asked what type of ‘weather’ or ‘colour’ we would be to describe how we are feeling, we might be able to conjure this up more easily and with it offering more accuracy!

metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn't literally true but helps explain an idea or make a comparison. A metaphor could come in the form of a word, phrase or story and are indirect, yet powerful vehicles for reframing experience from unusual or unexpected perspectives or images. Metaphors are a useful tool to understand and be aware of, as they can shape perception and experience by framing something differently, so that it can be understood differently.

By changing the perspective, and thinking about our thinking, we have greater choice in how we perceive and act upon the world. Therefore, going back to our example of if we were asked how we were doing by representing this as a type of ‘weather’ or ‘colour’, after providing the metaphor we resonated with in that moment, we may or may not then choose to explain the reasoning behind the chosen metaphor but either way, we would have conveyed an image to that person of our inner world through a one word response which would provide a lot more honesty and understanding, than the word ‘fine’.

Metaphor provides us with enough distance to feel safe to share our perspective or to take us on a journey towards understanding an alternative perspective. Therefore, using metaphor as a tool to check in/ out with children and adults alike, can be a light-hearted and helpful approach.


The Metaphor of Story

Many children and adults may escape into stories when the real world may feel too overwhelming, which soothes, calms and talks to the imaginative mind. Storytelling is therefore a helpful tool to facilitate mental health and emotional well-being for people of all ages.

If we think about the metaphor of story, this is a universal form of expression which is present in most communication between ourselves and others. We tell anecdotes, relive memories, recite jokes or relate our day to day experiences. Humans are skilled storytellers, with the language of story being one which we all share. Stories are engaging, non-threatening and form an important part of the relationship we create with each other. They appeal because they connect readers in so many varied and profound ways.

Storytelling is seen as a bridge between inner psychological worlds and outer real worlds. Stories have enough distance built in from these worlds, for people to understand that they are not alone and to consider alternative perspectives, leading to alternative solutions to problems. By working at this safe distance, children and adults can stay with feelings which cause them pain and distress and can think about what they are experiencing.

Parents or practitioners will often use ‘helping stories’ with children that are designed to entertain but also provide advice, wisdom, guidance and healing. They may buy a book or write a story themselves for a specific child or issue.

In addition to enhancing creativity and providing entertainment, examples of how ‘helping stories’ may be used include:

  • Reframing a problem as an opportunity
  • Seeing a behaviour or attitude from a difference perspective
  • Changing the mood or energy of an individual or group
  • Challenging unacceptable behaviour
  • Demonstrating that a problem is not new or unique
  • Disturbing a limiting view of the world
  • Teaching a point indirectly

When we cannot find a way of telling our story our story tells us, we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we do not understand. Stories provide safe structures to help with anxieties and burdens, to move people away from attitudes, beliefs, thinking that is unproductive and limiting to a more reflective stance infused with humour, imagination, curiosity and renewal.


Utilising the Magic of Metaphor

Try to find ways to utilise different types of metaphor for yourself and with others around you (regardless of their age!), to help provide that safe distance to adopt an alternative perspective to understand and tackle difficult feelings, as well as to support good mental health and emotional well-being.

Below are some ideas to help grab hold of that metaphorical magic:

Check in/out using metaphor

You could use this activity to reflect for yourself, with one other person or in a group setting. I have also used this in team meetings and training to get a sense of how everyone is doing at the start of the session and then at the end. When using it at the end, ask the person to remind the group what word they said at the start and then to say what metaphor they would choose now (using the same category).

Choose a category (i.e., animal, flower, weather, colour, item of clothing, sound, smell)- (note that some people find some categories easier to relate to than others so start easy and work up to the hard ones)

Questions to ask:

  • “If you were a colour today to describe how you were feeling, what colour would it be?”
  • “Do you want to share why you have chosen that today, but it’s okay if you can’t or don’t want to?”Sharing why someone has chosen a particular metaphor helps us to understand what that metaphor means to that person as it may mean something quite different to what it means to you/ or in more general terms.

 Reflecting on Relationships or Group Dynamics

Sometimes it can be helpful to use metaphor to help understand the feelings evoked in the company of particular individuals or to understand group dynamics. However, do consider very carefully how this exercise is used as it can evoke strong feelings and sensitive content which may be unhelpful to share more widely! I have only ever used this in a professional context to help a child or adult I am supporting or to reflect on their feelings towards an individual or group dynamics at play.

Think of an individual person or list several people and think about each person using metaphorical categories. Sometimes drawing up a table can help frame this activity if you are thinking about multiple people or multiple metaphorical categories:






Type of clothing

























Explore why you those metaphors may have been chosen, what that metaphor means to the individual who chose those metaphors and any themes, patterns, observations that can be noticed between the various metaphors and how that may influence relationships.


Helping Stories

These can be introduced in a variety of ways:

  • Read a story that focuses on the issue or particular feelings- there are an abundance of helping stories out there and are often searchable under the issue/feeling you want to focus on.
  • Adapt an existing story- you could use an existing story that you know by heart and adapt it to cover the issue or provide the strategy/ strategies you want to highlight.
  • Interactive story telling-creating a story together that explores a particular feeling or issue.

If you are creating your own story, here are some of the steps you may want to consider to help you to write it:

Identify the problem

  • What is the emotional problem or issue with which the child/adult is struggling with?

Set a therapeutic objective

  • What would you like to change
  • Have a single objective for each story.

Think of a strategy (series of steps) to achieve change

  • Think practically.

Think of Characters, place, situation and plot:

  • Choose something the child/adult can relate to
  • Maybe borrow ideas from other stories
  • It’s sometimes easier to start at the end and work backwards.

 Fill in the details.

Provide a metaphorical context where main character grapples with the same issues, faces the same difficulties, reaches a crisis point.

Develop a resolution where main character can find different strategies to help with the feeling or issue and then is required to use them which leads to positive change.

Create an ending where the character can deal with future issues or feelings using the strategies identified.


Liane Low's Bio

As a Play Therapist and Consultant for the development of specialist services for children, young people, families and adults, Liane is committed to providing opportunities for people to thrive. Liane understands the benefits of staying playful and is always on the lookout for opportunities for laughter and lightness as she moves through her day. 



Liane’s articles will offer an opportunity to increase your awareness of play and creative mediums and tools, to support reflection and increase self-awareness.