• Fiona Holiday

Magical Metaphors: Transforming Emotional Understanding


It seems so simple, doesn’t it, telling someone how you feel?

And yet we often have to hunt for the words which can explain. Sad doesn’t quite communicate what is going on. Frustrated is nearly there but there’s something else, something we can’t quite find the words for.


Luckily, we have metaphors which can help fill in the gaps. Emotional expression isn’t just about labelling emotions, it is about being able to communicate how we feel so that another person GETS it. We often have a felt sense of relief when we feel that someone can understand our feelings. Often our vocabulary of feeling words is inadequate or imprecise so using metaphors is a great way to support connection.


‘Metaphor’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to transfer’ so when we use a metaphor we transfer meaning. We represent the original object or concept with something else which means we have a chance to re-present it; to present it again in a different way so that meaning is clearer or more precise.


Being able to use metaphors is so powerful in sharing our experiences in the world. Words mean different things to different people, so using metaphors helps bridge the gap of understanding.


We often talk about being broken-hearted instead of sad, fuming instead of angry and even petrified (being turned into stone) is a metaphor for scared so we naturally use metaphorical language to express hard-to-capture emotions. But one of the most powerful ways of expressing ourselves is when we create our own metaphors.


Think about the connection we feel to an emotion which is described as being lost in a big, empty desert with no end in sight. We get the relentless, dry, sense of loneliness.

How about feeling like we are surrounded by soft, fluffy clouds in the warm sunshine? Pure contentment.


It is helpful when we are feeling big emotions to think about what is it like? Is there anything that fits? This helps for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it engages our thinking when we are in our feeling states. Seeking ways of describing also means that we can externalise or communicate and connect with someone else. Connection and understanding meet some of our safety needs.


Creating pictures of and finding other ways of describing emotional states expands our emotional vocabulary. What is the angry feeling like for you? Hot or cold? Fast or slow? What colour or shape? Does it remind you of anything? Where does it come from? What sound does it make? Is anger like a tornado, an erupting vocano, a snarling tiger, a fire-breathing dragon, a buzzing bee, a stormy sea, or something else?


When we explore emotions like this, we then get a chance to talk about them as if they are separate from us – we are not anger or sadness; these are states that come and go. We can think what helps to calm the tiger, what does the tornado leave behind? What do we need to do to attend to the burning? What happens before the volcano erupts: what are the signs it is about to happen? What can we do now?


When we use stories, pictures and metaphors to talk about emotions, we are giving children a wider vocabulary to express themselves and how they feel. Children communicate through sound, colour, shape, movement and the stories they tell with puppets and symbols in the sand. When we look for meaning and are open to metaphor, we can understand and connect in deeper ways. To be deeply understood is a gift we should all receive.


To find out more about story, creativity, metaphor and play therapy, get in touch.

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