How Metaphors Can Transform ADHD From The Inside Out

In my coach training, I was told to acknowledge whatever came out of the mouth of the client as that person’s subjective truth. And then work with that.

No matter how strange it sounded.

So when my very first practice client presented me with the metaphor that all her aspirations and interests were like an army with no general and that every one of the soldiers was trying to make her go in their direction, I just went along with the metaphor. As a result of her inner experience described in the metaphor, she didn’t know which direction she wanted to go in and had no idea what to do with her career.

I got curious and asked her about the army and the soldiers and everything, and we spent more than two hours understanding and making the metaphor come alive – and then transforming every element of the army. In the end, her experience was that she was the leader of her army and understood that being a generalist with many interests could be a very powerful thing when directed properly.

It took her only days after that session to embark on an incredibly successful career where she would draw on all the soldiers’ competencies and eventually become a founder in her own business.

By then I was deep in the work with clients with the ADHD diagnosis and working with metaphors all day every day.

The Power of Metaphors

We all communicate in metaphor about what is going on inside of us. When I work with externalization, I take the metaphor seriously and use it to help create transformation from the inside out.

If we look at common metaphors among adults, we can see that we use these in our everyday language:

  • My anger is all bottled up inside.
  • I am in a sea of despair
  • I have a broken heart
  • I am feeling bubbly

If we look at common metaphors among adults with the ADHD diagnosis, we can see that they are rich descriptions of what is going on inside of them:

  • I have ants in my pants
  • My mind wanders.
  • Part of me just wants to go outside and play instead of being in class.
  • It’s like there are 16 TV screens in my mind and I feel that I have to focus on all of them to make sure I don’t miss anything.
  • It was the ADHD Monster that made me do it.

You may recognize these metaphors, either from your own child or from the common literature on ADHD. The great thing is that when we accept the metaphors as the inner experience of the person, magic starts to happen.

Metaphors are the programming elements of the mind. The brain may use neurons and firing of electric pulses, but the mind uses metaphors to explain what is going on in there, – and the mind uses metaphors to change the programming of the mind.

This means that when we change the metaphor, we change the inner experience. And the inner experience is driving the behavior. So when we change the metaphor, we change the behavior.

Change the metaphor => change the inner experience => change the behavior.

Transforming the Metaphor

This is where it gets really interesting because metaphors can be changed in normal conversation. This means that you can have a discussion with your partner or friend, – and if your understanding of a subject changes, so does your metaphor for how you understand and talk about the subject.

  • You might say something like: “I had him up on a pedestal before, but when I know that about him, I can’t help but look down on him.”
  • You might say: “I couldn’t make sense of the movie, but now the ingenuity plot has fallen into place for me!”

These are both metaphors that describe what is going on inside of you. Neither the pedestals or the piece that fall into place exists in the “real” world. Yet they describe beautifully the transformation that has happened and that it happened fast. It turns out that the mental fabric that metaphors are made of, is more malleable than children’s play-doh. You can transform one thing into another in seconds.

Imagine instead that your child says:

“I don’t need my anger volcano any longer, so I made it into a statue that tells me in a funny voice that I should relax.”

This transformation did actually occur to one of my clients in a one-hour session.

The key to transforming a metaphor (which is equal to the inner experience, remember!) is to enter a What-if scenario, where you explore the possibility that the metaphor can change.

This happens with questions like:

  • What would you transform the (insert inexpedient metaphor here) into, if you could change it into anything you want?
  • If you could choose something else than (insert inexpedient metaphor here) to pop up in those situations, what would you like it to be instead?

For example, if the metaphor is “I have a short fuse!”, then you can first explore the metaphor and ask what is at the end of the fuse and how fuse gets lit in the first place. All the questions are within the metaphor. Once you find out that the fuse is attached to a round bomb, you can ask a transformational question like: “if you could transform that round bomb into something else entirely, what would you transform it into?”

And on the conversation goes.

Metaphors For Anger

It can be surprisingly simple to transform from the inside out. Even for very small children. I have worked successfully with children down to 6 years with this method, and my oldest daughter has done this kind of work since she was 3.

Common metaphors for anger are:

  • I am boiling with anger. (Hot liquid, put a lid on)
  • My anger is smoldering. (Lava?)
  • I am about to erupt! (Volcano)
  • I unleashed my anger. (Captive animal, lion?)
  • I have a short fuse. (Bomb, dynamite)
  • I was struggling with my anger. (I am having an inner mental fight with the part of my personality that represents my anger)
  • It is Mr. Stupid that makes me do it. (Externalized part of personality)
  • I try to fight it, but my rage always wins when she talks to me like that. (Externalized part of personality)
  • Then I just go on a rampage like a 3-year-old. (non-externalized childish part of personality)

It is interesting to see when children and adults alike choose different metaphors.

Most often when people realize that they have the option to transform their anger into something else, one of two things happen. Either they transform the anger into another and more constructive anger, – one that helps them set better boundaries and is aligned with their current age. Or they transform the anger into something entirely different, – like peace, calm, serenity.

What Happens When You Transform The Metaphor

Think of the metaphor as a program that has been created by the subconscious mind years ago. It hasn’t been updated since. It runs on automatic in the sense that certain outside or inside triggers start the program – and releases the inner experience best described by the metaphor. Then you might experience emotional high-jacking where you do the automatic response without being able to do something else.

When you transform a metaphor, you don’t necessarily transform the triggers, but when the program is triggered, – the program is now an updated version of the program. This “program” is the inner experience of the new or tweaked metaphor. So the trigger triggers the new metaphorical inner experience, – and you have a different behavior based on this new inner experience.

This understanding gives us a new understanding of our minds and our children’s minds. When we help them transform something in their minds, they can immediately express a new behavior. And it will even feel natural to them within 24 hours.

Now Start Listening

Whether you have something you want to change, or your child expresses behavior that needs to change, – you can now start listening for the metaphors.

If it’s you, you can write about your problem, and start sentences like: “My anger is like a …” and then just let your subconscious mind fill in the rest of the sentence. Exchange anger with your specific challenge. Fear, Intimidation, Time Management Skille, Tiredness, Etc. Everything goes. Once you have the metaphor, write a little more about it, so that your subconscious pattern becomes conscious. Then re-write it. What would you like this metaphor to transform into? You can start small and tweak the metaphor, changing the colors or sizes of things, – and if you want, you can transform the entire metaphor from unpleasant to pleasant, from ugly to beautiful, from hard to soft, – or whatever you need.

If you are helping your child, then listen to the metaphors and explore the metaphors with the child. Make it a game to catch the metaphors. And then suggest that you help the child change that inner experience, so that the child can express a different behavior. Curious exploration is what it takes. Never force anything, because if you do the child will protect itself by answering “I don’t know!”

If you want to learn more about helping your child transform through the use of metaphors, and about parenting and much, much more, I have a parenting course called Reclaim Hope coming out in early Jan. 2018. Sign up below to get early access when the course is out.

Ask any questions you want in the comments below!

Have a great day,
Anders