Metaphors and the Language of the Subconscious Mind

By Herve Boisde


Your subconscious mind takes up over 80% of all of your mental activity. The subconscious is the seat of emotions, your imagination, your unconscious body processes, all of your memorized impressions and unconscious memories since the day you were born. It's also your internalized beliefs, habits, preferences, instincts and drives. In short, there's a lot going on under the surface. When we’re overtaken by strong emotions or in the grip of an unwanted habit, it’s our subconscious mind that’s pulling the strings.

But the subconscious isn't logical and analytical like the conscious mind. It doesn't distinguish between fantasy and reality. And it uses the language of symbols, pictures and metaphors to communicate ideas to your conscious mind. That's what dreams are. But you can also use metaphorical language to introduce ideas to your subconscious mind, since, like a computer program, the subconscious mind doesn't come up with beliefs or ideas on it's own. It just stores them.

A female client that is having problems with relationships might hint at the following metaphor.

Client: "I don't know why I have trouble with men. I guess my thorns are just too sharp."

Therapist: "Roses do have sharp thorns. Do you see yourself as a closed bud, or have you started to bloom now?"

Client: "I guess that I've been seeing myself closed up and that's why I needed the thorns, to protect me."

Therapist: "And that's been fine in the past, but now we need to nurture this bud to allow her to start blossoming, don't you think?"

Imagine you want to talk about an emotional experience. You might say something like,  ‘I’ve got a dark cloud hanging over me.’  and other people will instinctively understand because their subconscious mind knows that a cloud can be used as a symbol for feeling upset or unhappy. Since the subconscious mind doesn't distinguish between reality and fantasy, a hypnotherapist might guide the client into hypnosis and have them picture themselves with a dark cloud over their head, representing their problems and negative emotions. Then the client could be guided to visualize the cloud dissipating and turning into a rainbow, maybe some beautiful golden light surrounding the client or other healing imagery. The negative metaphor becomes transformed into a positive one, and this allows the client to have a shift in perspective, effectively tweaking the program in the subconscious mind that was tripping up the client.

Guided visualization like this can have benefits outside of hypnosis as well. Taking a few deep breaths and closing your eyes can allow the mind to relax enough to be receptive to imagery for goals and positive results. Just picturing yourself healed or successful can help the subconscious think that those things are real and achievable, and allow it to start working towards that reality.

It's also important to be mindful of critical self-thoughts and language. Saying things like "I'm dumb as a brick" or "This is a pain in my neck!" can be interpreted as commands to your subconscious mind with unintended consequences.

The Power of Visualization

By Herve Boisde

Successful athletes and coaches have long seen a connection between the ability to visualize a good performance and achieving the desired outcome.  Some coaches even go as far as saying that sports are 90% mental and only 10% physical. You may have watched downhill skiers during the Olympics mentally going through their run at the top of the mountain minutes before launching themselves down the slope. Nearly every pro skier practices this technique and they are imagining the perfect run as a rehearsal before they do the real thing. There's a reason why they are trying to visualize the "perfect" performance and not the opposite: wiping out disastrously. This is because the subconscious mind does not distinguish between fantasy and reality. So if you can imagine yourself doing something really well, your mind begins to believe that you are actually doing it, therefore it is possible. If, on the other hand, you are only visualizing worst case scenarios, well, guess what, you're more likely to get those results.

Look at the following scientific study for evidence of the startling power of visualization.

Researchers at Bishop's University in Quebec conducted a study which indicated that mental training alone could increase muscle strength.* The two-week study took 30 male university athletes and divided them into three groups. The study focused on the hip flexor muscles, since that is one muscle group that can't be readily exercised in other contexts or with free weights. One group performed physical training with a hip flexor weight machine; one group mentally practiced hip flexions at increasing amounts of weight; the third group did neither. At the end of the study, the group doing the physical exercises had increased its strength by 28.3%, which is not surprising. The group who did nothing not unexpectedly saw almost no difference. But what's astounding is that the guys who practiced only mentally saw their strength increase by 23.7%!

Positive visualization can be used with even more powerful effect in hypnosis. If you were to picture yourself healthier, smoking less (or not at all), maybe slimmer, in a new career, or maybe actually looking forward to going to the dentist(!), you are taking the first step towards positive results. By seeing yourself already achieving your goal, and having your subconscious mind believing that it is already happening, your creative imagination will start to kick in to try to figure out how you got from point A to point B. Most hypnotherapists use visualization with their clients to address phobias, change habits, improve job and sports performance, boost self-esteem, and for health issues. This also explains why limiting beliefs are so enduring since they are usually programmed into the subconscious mind at an early age before we have developed the "critical factor" which is the gatekeeper between the logical, conscious mind, and the more emotional subconscious mind. But positive visualization can reverse those limiting beliefs by creating a new template for positive ideas and habits.


*Reference: Erin M. Shackell and Lionel G. Standing, “Mind Over Matter: Mental Training Increases Physical Strength,” North American Journal of Psychology, 2007, Vol. 9, No. 1, 189—200.