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Opening Hearts and Minds With Metaphors

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The well-practiced professionals on IYR’s Family Counseling staff know that patience, empathy, and especially creativity are keys to helping clients break old patterns and create true change in their lives.

Senior Clinician Mai Provencio was working with a family who seemed stuck in their struggles with each other, until she found a way to open the door to new understanding.

Mai Prvencio, IYR Senior Clinician

Recently I was assigned a very determined young man who was extremely protective of his position in the family. Matt was adopted at birth through IYR Adoption Services. He was having problems with his parents and couldn’t understand their tendency to be overly protective. Thus far, after a lot of therapy before coming to IYR, nobody had been able to help the family create change. Because Matt wielded the most power in the household I felt it was especially important to start with him.

One day I asked Matt to play a game with me and tell me about his dream car. I asked him to pretend someone bought it for him and to explain, in detail, what the inside and outside of the car looked like and how he would take care of it. Matt took a good 10 minutes to explain all the accessories he would put in the car and how clean he would keep it. He spoke about the red paint and how shiny it would be. He even said he wouldn't let his friends drive it, ever, because what if they didn't take good care of it? I encouraged Matt by saying the car sounded so awesome and I could totally see him in it which seemed to propel him further into more conversation about the car.

Then I asked Matt to imagine that one day he took out his dream car and little things started going wrong. It didn't run correctly or maybe it sputtered when he tried to start it. I asked him to imagine he turned the blinker on and the windshield wipers came on instead. I asked him to imagine all these annoying little things happened, BUT only when he was driving.

When someone else, like a neighbor, got into the car it worked perfectly! But when Matt got back into the car it started acting up again. Matt said he would probably sell it because that wouldn't be acceptable and would make him mad. I said, "You'd sell your dream car?! Like, give it back?!" Matt answered in the affirmative. I waited a little bit before saying anything to allow the moment to sink in.

I then asked Matt to imagine a young couple who had a dream. Their dream was just as real to them as Matt's dream of his car ... maybe even more real. Their dream was to have a baby. They saw themselves with a baby. They envisioned their lives with a baby. And despite not being able to bear their own baby, their dream came true through adoption! And they were so thankful for this baby and treated it very, very carefully, like Matt would treat his dream car.

But lately, every time they try to do something with their dream baby it balks back even though it's so nice to other people (most of the time). The parents have tried all these different things to help fix the problem but nothing has been working. Still, they won’t give up. Unlike Matt and his dream car, they can't and don't want to give their dream baby back even if there are 'problems' in the system. They just want to fix what’s wrong so they can all be happy together again and the baby can be happy as well.

Matt looked at me forever. He was quiet. He just nodded. Both of his parents, at this point, were crying. Matt said, "OK."  That's all I needed. I knew, in that moment, that he finally understood.

Metaphors don't always work out and they're not always so intense but in this instance it was a pivotal moment. Matt and his parents have a long way to go but they are making great strides and they are now all more amenable to changes in their relationship.

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