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By Gabriel Wong (Clinical Psychologist)

I recently went to a Family Therapy workshop run by a renowned Master Family Therapist, Professor Maurizio Andolfi. During the workshop I noticed Professor Andolfi used metaphors to help family members understand the predicament and hence changes occurred during the session. I am amazed he used metaphors in family therapy and it works so effectively.

What is a metaphor? Metaphors are not just stories. They are used to teach us valuable moral principles and life lessons. These stories are designed to have a specific effect on the listener. The reason why a metaphor works is because it can relate the action in the metaphor and the listeners’ own life. Metaphors or stories can relax people and people tend to pay attention to listen to the story. There is also an entertainment value in it. Metaphors connect the linear, sequential mind, i.e. the conscious mind and the emotional, symbolic mind, i.e. the subconscious mind. It helps to engage people whenever we want to, not just their conscious mind. In addition, a metaphor is a way of talking about something without talking about it.

In the Bible Jesus used many metaphors and parables to help his disciples and his followers to understand or visualise Jesus’ missions, and how the kingdom of God was like. It has been suggested that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps we can regard a metaphor as being worth 1000 pictures.

There was a famous story about Dr Milton Erickson who just used a few metaphors to treat a 12-old boy who had been suffering from bedwetting for several years. His parents had tried many ways to stop the bedwetting including bribing him, punishing him, and talking to him, but none of the ways worked. When the boy came he sent the parents away. Then he started to ask the boy about his life. He has a younger brother but his younger brother was bigger than he was. Erickson asked what things he likes to play. He said baseball and his brother likes football. Erickson said football is a dumb sport. Suddenly the boy was interested in what he said. Erickson said you know football is just a bunch of big groups running into each other. Now baseball you like to play needs coordination. You need to open the glove at the right time and close the glove at the right time. When you throw the ball, have you noticed it takes a lot of skills. If you let go too soon it doesn’t go where you want it to; if you let go too late it doesn’t go where you want it to go. You have to let go at the right time. Erickson says if you don’t let the ball go at just the right time, it can lead to frustration. Letting go at just the right time gets it where you want it to go, and that’s what leads to success.

And then Erickson talked to him about archery. And he says you know when you aim at something the pupil of our eye automatically contracts. You don’t have to think about. And he talks about the digestive system and how after you eat something you don’t have to think about how to digest it. The valve and the processes happen in there. They open up and close down as the nutrients move through the system in just the right order at just the right time. And then he sent the boy away and the boy never wet the bed again. Erickson talks about baseball, archery and the digestive system and the boy never wet the bed again.

Let us look at what type of problem is bedwetting? It all includes the timing problem, the muscle control problem, the sensory problem, and the awareness of the sensation to wake the boy up. Erickson provided solutions in the story for those types of problems. We noticed that Erickson did not mention bedwetting during the conversation with the boy. But after telling the boy these three stories/metaphors, his bedwetting has stopped. What a remarkable lesson we learn from Erickson.

Now I am telling you a Chinese Cracked Pot story:-
A water bearer in China had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water to his house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After 2 years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself because this crack in my side causes water to leak all the way back to your house.” The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.”

What message have you got after reading the Chinese Cracked Pot? Ask you friend or your family member if they have noticed any change in you in a few weeks’ time.

Berman, M; Brown, D. (2000). The power of metaphor. Story telling & guided journeys for teachers, trainers & therapists. UK: Crown House Publishing Company
Moine, D; Lloyd, K. (1990). Unlimited selling power. How to master hypnotic selling skills. New York: Prentice Hall
Personal .psy.edu. Chinese cracked pot. Retrieved from http://www.personal.psu.edu/staff/k/a/kah19/parable.html.

Gabriel Wong
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