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Seeking Authenticity: The Animal Metaphor Exercise

This lesson is a part of an audio course Seeking Authenticity by Stephen Paul King

“Resentment is the poison of the spiritual life, it reinforces the self as a victim! It isolates us in imprisonment in a painful past.” —Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham

It is often easier to explain or comprehend a difficult or emotional situation or dilemma through the use of fable, story, or metaphor. Likewise, it is easier to understand ourselves via the relatively “soft” approach of using metaphor in learning and deliberating more about the Self. Metaphors provide us with an ability to safely see, observe, self-reflect, distance from and absorb our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors – which, in turn, provides a means to becomes less fearful and move forward in directions of true choice.

Metaphor provides the ability to observe our own patterns, attractions, and dilemmas – to get to the point of establishing and owning the “unfinished business”.

The purpose of this exercise is to gain an understanding of the dynamics of continually attracting certain people or patterns into one’s life.

The method – ask the client to relax as much as is possible under the circumstances, to close their eyes, and to go inside and ask for an image of an animal that to them represents their maleness (masculinity), if they are male, or their femaleness (femininity), if they are female. Then once they suggest that they have an image in mind, ask that they put that image aside and then to again go inside and ask for an image of an animal that to them represents their opposite gender. When they have let you know that they have such an image in their mind’s eye, ask that they now stay focused inside and observe those two animals in some form of interaction for a couple of minutes, or until you suggest otherwise.

Once you have timed a couple of minutes or feel that the client’s body language suggests it’s time, just ask that they take the next 20-30 seconds or so to allow the scene to come to some sense of closure, whatever that might mean to them.

Following the completion of the scene that the client observed, one should ask the following questions to ascertain its particular context for that client. It is also a very good idea to make sure that you make notes of the client’s responses to the following questions:

  • “What animal represented the male/female?” Always first ask for the name of the animal that represents the client’s own gender.
  • “What animal represented the female/male?” (the opposite gender to the client)
  • “What do you consider to be the characteristics of a…?” (the animal that represented the client’s gender)
  • “What do you consider to be the characteristics of a…?” (the animal that represented the opposite gender)
  • “What happened in the scene?”
  • “What happened to bring it to some sense of completion?”
  • “How did it leave you feeling?”

Having noted the client’s responses to these questions, it is a good idea to go over them and see if the exercise held any confusion for them if it explains anything or confuses them.

Do they have an understanding as to why these particular animals would show?

Could they relate to the characteristics?

Who do they believe was the first … in their life? (meaning the animal in their imagery that represented the opposite gender)

Did the manner in which the scene closed, or whatever happened in the scene, have any correlation to what is, or has happened, in their own life?

Did they notice any patterns, i.e. metaphors for themes that have played out in their own life?

Any gender relationship patterns?

They may state for instance that it reminds them of their own relationship or that of their parents` relationship with each other, or with the client.

Following some of the client’s own analysis of what they “saw”, and if they felt there was any bearing or relevance to them in the exercise I would then usually ask:

  • “Were you the animal you would choose to be?”
  • “If you could be any animal within the animal kingdom, which would it be and why?”

Clients can see whether or not they are living according to the path of their true beliefs, or if they are living like “processionary caterpillars” (see below), who just continue to go around in circles, without stopping to check if they are going in a direction that is right or healthy for them.

This exercise was of particular help to a woman who had married five alcoholics and she was still wondering if there was some sort of pattern! It showed her that the pattern was just a continuation of taking care of men in the same fashion that she had her own father. She had never told herself that she had done a first-class job for her long-deceased father, and no longer “needed” to fill that void with another caregiver position.

This exercise can often assist sometimes in making choices for change in a manner that is relatively safe and does not necessarily involve any abreactive reaction on their part, just some rational decision-making that can have a profound effect in breaking the negative patterns.

I do not know the origin of the following but do I like the metaphor/analogy that it provides.

Processionary caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half-closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up to the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a procession, with neither beginning nor end.

The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march, and start off in some new direction. But not so.

Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not been for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.

Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.

They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – “standard practice” – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.

They meant well – but got no place.

For a selection of goal-oriented metaphors for adults and children in therapy, I would recommend reading Tales of Enchantment by Carol H. and Stephen R. Lankton.

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Written by

Stephen Paul King

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