Symbolic Modeling is a therapeutic method that uses symbols, metaphors, and modeling to facilitate positive change. In Symbolic Modeling (SyM), therapists use Clean Language to help people identify their metaphoric and symbolic mind-body perceptions to create a “model” of their experiences. Through the process of evolving these metaphors, therapists might support individuals, couples, families, or groups as they work to achieve greater self-awareness, inner peace, and an overall sense of well-being.
Symbolic Modeling is based on the premise that symbols and metaphors are embedded in human neurology. People tend to use metaphors as a means to reflect the inner experiences they represent. For example, someone feeling anxious about some upcoming news might describe anxiety by saying, “It feels like I'm hanging off the edge of a cliff. Good news and I grab hold of the lifeline, bad news and I fall to my death.” This metaphor not only reflects the person's inner experience, but also provides insight into the structure of that person's inner world in the face of potentially life-changing news.
A metaphor may capture exactly what one is feeling, but a metaphor might also hold one back or make a situation worse. That is where the process of Symbolic Modeling can be useful. Therapists can help people identify their metaphors and determine whether they are advantageous or constricting.
Symbolic Modeling involves three main components:
- Autogenic metaphor: Autogenic means “self-generated,” and in this case, an autogenic metaphor refers to a metaphor that is completely created by the person in therapy. For example, a woman who gives up on things easily might describe this process as follows: “I just feel like I would rather keep the car in park than drive away and risk a crash.”
- Modeling: Modeling allows people to develop a systemic representation of what they do in response to various situations or tasks. In other words, SyM uses modeling to help people “map” their processes. The therapist listens for any and all verbal and nonverbal metaphors. These metaphors inform the therapist on the ways a person organizes perceptions. Sometimes, when metaphors are fully established, modeling can help determine where the person is getting stuck. For example, a man shares the following metaphor: “It feels like I am on a treadmill: always running but getting nowhere.” The therapist might help him construct a model of the processes he implements in daily life that lead him to feel that way.
- Clean Language: Once a metaphor presents itself, therapists use Clean Language in order to help a person's metaphors develop further without influencing those metaphors. The therapist will typically ask questions that do not assign meaning to the metaphor but expand the person's own conceptualization of the metaphor. Clean Language questions are intentionally designed to encourage people to discover the symbolic meaning of metaphors on their own. For example, when a person in therapy says, “I have too many things on my plate," the therapist might then respond by saying, “Too many things on your plate. What kinds of things are on your plate?” The therapist uses the person's own words to reflect the metaphor back and then asks for more details without influencing the answer.
These components can be used in conjunction with one another or as separate processes. Additionally, the process of SyM can be used to model successful strategies, facilitate growth and change, or further the creation of new metaphors.
Symbolic Modeling was developed by psychotherapists James Lawley and Penny Tompkins through their work with Clean Language creator and psychotherapist, David Grove. Both interested in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Lawley and Tompkins met in 1991 during their first level of NLP training. NLP both brought the two together and significantly influenced their thinking, leading to the development of SyM.
Find a Therapist
This project allowed them to develop the Symbolic Modeling method, and in 1997, Lawley and Tompkins published their first article on the subject. In 2000, they published Metaphors in Mind, their official guide to the theory and practice of SyM. Today, Lawley and Tompkins conduct training, workshops, and remain active in their psychotherapy practice. Interested mental health professionals or potential participants in treatment can learn more by visiting their official website, The Clean Collection.
Symbolic Meaning draws from several theoretical models and philosophies. In addition to metaphor therapy, modeling, and NLP, SyM is influenced by:
- Experiential constructivism: SyM's core philosophy, experiential constructivism postulates that each person creates a personal experience of reality.
- Cognitive linguistics: Cognitive linguistics is the study of metaphor, cognition, and language and examines how language effects cognition and vice versa.
- Evolutionary dynamics: Associated with survival—adaptation, development, and evolution— evolutionary dynamics represents SyM’s process of change
- Systemic process: SyM incorporates systemic process as its basic model of human cognition and relationships. Systems theory is based upon the premise that understanding the whole is crucial in understanding the individual parts.
Recent research on the use of metaphors has demonstrated that people use anywhere between two and 10 metaphors per minute, which may be why those who practice Symbolic Modeling find metaphors so powerful. The prevalence of metaphor is not limited to speech alone. People can communicate metaphor through nonverbal communication as well. Symbols, metaphors, and imagery can be expressed via words, gestures, body language, and drawings, for example, and they can be expressed both consciously and unconsciously.
People may turn to metaphors in order to:
- Describe a traumatic event
- Express a difficult emotion
- Summarize an experience or event
- Express abstract concepts concretely
- Condense a large amount of information
- Discuss difficult subject matter
- Describe an internal experience
Symbols metaphors and imagery can be explicit or implicit. For example, if a man says “I have the weight of the world on my shoulders," it is obvious he is speaking metaphorically, and therefore, the metaphor is explicit. But if the man were to say, “I wish I could figure out what to do about my job," the words figure out represent the implicit metaphor. Implicit metaphors are used most often, but they are sometimes harder to catch.
In therapy, a therapist will generally incorporate a four-stage process to generate and develop the metaphors provided by the person in therapy. A set of nine basic Clean Language questions are most often used to support this process.
- Stage 1 (Identify the metaphor): When a person in therapy uses a metaphor during therapeutic dialogue, the therapist will point it out, asking clarifying questions to get started.
- Stage 2 (Develop the metaphor): Using the nine Clean Language questions, the therapist will facilitate the expansion and clarification of the given metaphor, with a goal of helping the person connect to the metaphor on many different levels. The therapist will usually stay in this phase for some time, thoroughly exploring the metaphor through language, gesture, art, and so on.
- Stage 3 (Work the metaphor): Once the person in therapy has fully clarified and identified with the metaphor, the therapist will guide the session toward a particular therapeutic goal. For example, the therapist might explore the limitations of the metaphor, help the individual reframe the metaphor, or ask for a story containing the elements of the metaphor.
- Stage 4 (Mature changes): Throughout this process, the metaphor usually changes or evolves in some capacity. During this stage, the therapist can help “mature” these changes in order for the person gain a new perspective that can be applied to daily life.
STAGE 1: Metaphor is identified.
Person in Therapy: Lately I have been feeling like I'm invisible.
Therapist: And when you feel invisible, what kind of invisible is it?
P: Like I am a ghost.
TH: And that ghost, what kind of ghost is it?
P: A spirit made of mist. You can walk right through me.
STAGE 2: Metaphor is developed.
TH: And when someone walks through the mist, then what happens?
P: It dissipates. It blows away.
TH: And when it dissipates, where does it go?
P: All over the place. You can barely see it.
TH: Could you show me where it goes with your body?
P: (person moves around the room, making circles repeatedly with arms)
STAGE 3: Metaphor is reframed.
TH: So sometimes you feel like an invisible ghost of mist that people walk through, causing the mist to dissipate and go all over the place. When the ghost first appears, what would you like to have happen?
P: I would like to be seen. I would like to come alive.
TH: And when you are seen and you come alive, then what will happen?
P: They will have to notice me and know that I matter.
TH: And what needs to happen for the ghost to be seen, come alive, be noticed, and matter?
P: The ghost needs to stop fading into the background. It needs to materialize.
STAGE 4: Metaphor evolves and person applies changes to their perspective.
TH: What needs to happen for the ghost to stop fading and materialize?
P: It needs to say what it wants out loud. To not be afraid to get hurt.
TH: And when the ghost says it out loud, unafraid of getting hurt, what happens next?
P: I will finally feel confident and whole. I will be honest with myself. And they will know who I really am, take it or leave it. And I will be all right with that.
After this process, people in therapy are generally guided to identify a new narrative with an evolved metaphoric landscape. Sometimes, people experience benefit from simply identifying their metaphor, while others take the process further, achieving full transformation. In either scenario, people often experience increased self-awareness and a general sense of well-being as a result of metaphor therapy and Symbolic Modeling.
The official website of Symbolic Modeling, The Clean Collection, includes a fair amount of research studies, academic papers, and professional articles that support the efficacy of metaphor therapy and SyM. For example, a study published in The Journal of Organizational Change Management (2008) found that the use of visual metaphors gave voice to the emotional experiences employees encountered during organizational change. Nonetheless, the field may benefit from more research. Studies that explore the therapeutic outcomes of Symbolic Modeling would likely reinforce the credibility of the practice.
In addition, Symbolic Modeling seems to involve a specialized skill set and clinical ability that requires solid training. Limited availability can make it challenging for interested practitioners to get the training they desire. An increase in outreach and educational opportunities will not only provide professionals with the resources they need, but may also expand the practice in general.
- Frequently Asked Questions. (n.d.). In Clean Learning. Retrieved from https://cleanlearning.co.uk/resources/faq
- Lawley, J., & Tompkins, P. (2001, May). Metaphors in Mind: a case study. Anchor Point, 15(5). Retrieved from http://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/13/1/Metaphors-In-Mind-A-Case-Study/Page1.html
- Lawley, J., & Tompkins, P. (1997). Symbolic Modelling. Rapport, 38. Retrieved from http://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/5/1/Symbolic-Modelling-an-overview/Page1.html
- Rees, J. (2006, May). Theoretical Underpinnings of Symbolic Modeling. In Clean Change. Retrieved from http://www.cleanchange.co.uk/cleanlanguage/2008/08/09/theoretical-underpinnings-of-symbolic-modelling
- Robinson, F. (2013). How does exploring metaphorical representations of organisational change at its best affect levels of well-being in an ambiguous and rapidly changing public sector work environment? Acuity, 4. Retrieved from http://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/332/1/Exploring-Metaphorical-Representations-of-Organisational-Change/Page1.html
- Tompkins, P. (2001). Conversing with Metaphor. New Learning, 9. Retrieved from http://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/12/1/Conversing-with-Metaphors/Page1.html
- Tompkins, P., & Lawley, J. (n.d.). Frequently Asked Questions. In The Clean Collection. Retrieved from http://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/pages/FAQs.html#What%20is%20Symbolic%20Modelling
- Tompkins, P., Sullivan, W., & Lawley, J. (2005, October). Tangled Spaghetti in My Head: making use of metaphor. Therapy Today. Retrieved from http://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/30/1/Tangled-Spaghetti-in-My-Head-Making-use-of-metaphor/Page1.htm