A Metaphors of Movement Case Example: “At Sea”

A Metaphors of Movement Case Example: “At Sea”

I’d like to share some of the interesting elements that came forth in the Metaphors of Movement training I taught in Boulder in 2019.

For those of you who are new to Metaphors of Movement (developed by Andrew Austin from the UK), the basic thing we ask is, “OK, the whole thing you came to me about—the whole problem—What is it like?” Then we notice what metaphor comes, such as, “It’s like I’m stuck in a rut… I’m on edge… I’m in the pit of despair… I’m in the dark… I’m banging my head against a brick wall… I can’t move forward… I don’t know which way to turn…”

You’ll start to hear these metaphors everywhere once you begin listening for them. And though they are a tiny portion of someone’s communication, they carry more information about someone’s experience than all the other words surrounding the metaphor. We’re used to ignoring the metaphor and paying attention to everything else the person tells us—the “story of woe” that focuses on examples of the problem, consequences of the problem, how we feel about the problem, or self-diagnosis. However what Andrew Austin has found, is that when we ignore all these words, and instead focus on the metaphor—What it’s like—suddenly a world of information opens up to us about someone’s experience.

One woman from the training I taught last year had this metaphor for a problem situation:

“It’s like I’m at sea.”

Even this small start already tells us a lot. We can reflect back to her, “So you’re really immersed in this situation. You’re adrift, treading water. It’s sink or swim. You’re inundated. Sometimes you may be in over your head. And for anyone to get close to you, they’re going to have to get all wet for sure, and put themselves at risk of getting swept away with whatever tide you’re in. You can understand how people who get close to you may think you’re a bit of a damper on the situation. And if someone doesn’t want to get their feet wet, there will always be distance between you and that person. You’re not very grounded, so you can’t take steps of your own. And the currents that you’re caught in make you a colder and colder person…

This is just a start, there’s much more we can deduce just from the phrase “I’m at sea,” however we can learn even more when when we ask about the full metaphorical landscape: “What are you standing on? And what’s to the left, right, front, back, and above?” When her group asked her these questions in the exercise on the first training day, here’s what she answered:

“I’m at sea. It’s like I’m in water that’s 3-4 ft. deep. The bottom is within reach, but I’m not standing on the bottom. I’m floating in the water and the water is full of life like what a sea diver would see, all these wonderful things. There is endless water behind me. There’s a coastline way off to the left, and to the right, not as far, there’s an Island. In front of me there is a coastline with people on it. Above is blue sky.”

Her group focused mostly on pointing out the positive aspects—her surroundings being full of life and wonderful things. This left her feeling like she wasn’t getting the value of the process. This was a metaphor for a problem situation, and she came here to change. Now she just felt like people were telling her the situation was wonderful—and she knew that wasn’t the full picture, but didn’t have a clear understanding of what the full picture really was. So let’s look at what else we can add.

Having elicited the full metaphorical landscape, we now know she isn’t in this nearly as deep as one would have guessed from the phrase, “I’m at sea.” Also, she seems quite comfortable in this environment (as her group focused on). We can draw a simple picture of her metaphor like this (remembering that there is an island to her right, and a coastline to her left):

And now we can really seem like psychics, reflecting back idioms and elements that are literally true of the picture (I’ve marked out the idioms in italics):

“The right thing for you is totally isolated, but that’s only because of how you’ve positioned yourself. You look forward to this group of people who look down on you, if they see you at all… And they can never see your full self because from their standpoint they can’t see much beneath the surface, or if they can, it’s going to be a distorted view. You, on the other hand, are totally surrounded by this. You’re immersed in it. You can look down and see there’s a lot of life beneath the surface, and yet as you float here, you’re not taking a stand for yourself. Because what’s left for you here is “just coast.” Perhaps you’ve been coasting for a while now. You’re a drifter. You could get to the bottom of this, it’s within reach, but instead you choose to let yourself be supported by what’s around you, rather than supporting yourself. And it may be quite wonderful in many ways to be supported by your environment, but it keeps you from taking steps of your own. It keeps you from putting a foot down and standing up for yourself.

“And while you see what’s beneath the surface, and appreciate the life that’s there, you’ll always be a bit separate from that, because no matter how much you enjoy it here, this is not your environment. The only way to truly join that life is to give up breathing, and then you’d drown—the support you’re getting could kill you. You’re a visitor here. And while you may feel you are a deeper person than those standing on shore, they have a different perspective and a different understanding. They might see you and your sea creature friends as less evolved—not yet having grown the legs to crawl up onto land and stand up and support yourselves. And while you do have a certain depth that they lack, they likely just see you as a shallow person. And while you have a lot of depth in your background, that’s a depth that you’ve turned your back on, staying in this shallow place. And staying immersed in this makes you a bit of a cold person. And the longer you stay where you are, the colder you’ll get. And the funny thing is that while they don’t understand the depth of your experience, and they look down on you where you are, at the same time you look up to them, and you look forward to this group of people who see you as less evolved. So I have to wonder, “Who is this person?” Some might call her a floater. Some might call her a drifter. But I think I know who she really is, she’s a low life.

“But if she started to support herself more, she’d look up to that group a little less. And while they’re what she’s facing now, she only looks forward to them because of the position she’s taken. And while people can be criticized for changing position, it can be done if there’s something else she’d rather look forward to other than being looked down upon by people who have a more solid understanding than she does.”

I didn’t work with her in the training, so most of the above was not delivered to her when she was doing the exercise with her group. As I mentioned, her group had focused mostly on the positives in the metaphor, completely ignoring the negatives—which is of course what she was already doing in her life before coming to the training. That’s one of the things that keeps us from changing. So on the next training day she asked about this, and a lively discussion ensued which I share with you below for a sneak peak inside a metaphors training. As you read, notice how she starts out by objecting and disagreeing with me. Yet I and the participants stay with the process of stating what’s literally true in the metaphor, and by the end she is really resonating and in agreement. You’ll also get a glimpse of how the group explores these things together in the metaphor training.

Register here for Metaphors of Movement Level 1 and/or 2

Transcript with small edits for clarity:

Woman with the metaphor: “Yesterday when I was working, I didn’t get to that place of discomfort with it…. Somehow in the set up yesterday I felt like there wasn’t a place for me to enlarge the picture so that the discomfort of it could be revealed.”

NOTE: [Had she gotten the full idioms I listed above, she would have gotten this full picture that reveals the discomfort she’s wanting to connect with and recognize—the discomfort that will allow her to consider how to take her next steps to get somewhere better. Keep in mind that it’s easier to come up with a huge list like I’ve shared above, when you have the time to think about it and write it out like I did for this blog. When working with clients, I’ll share in the session as many of the idioms that come to me in the moment, and then email over any further idioms that come to me later.]

Mark: “So we want to be sure we’re including the full picture… Yesterday when I came over to your group I said, ‘You can understand how somebody might think this is a cold person.’ And you were like, ‘What?!’ So those are the kinds of elements you want to bring out. Because I don’t care how tropical this is, it’s going to be significantly below body temperature, that water. Even if it’s 80 degrees, if you hang out there forever, you’re going to become a colder person.”


Mark: “You know if you have a problem, and there’s no solution, what’s the best thing you can do in the situation? It’s to build the most comfort possible. [Pointing to the picture] At least there’s a lot of wonderful sea life here you can hang out with. It’s not very evolved, but it’s something.”


Woman with metaphor: “That’s a judgement. That’s a judgement.”

Mark: “Exactly, so get more of those judgments in there.”

NOTE: [What I mean by ‘get more of those judgments in there,’ is don’t be timid about withholding insights that are accurate descriptions of the metaphor, especially if they may seem judgmental or mean, as those will likely be the insights that person has ignored, or never seen. By a certain definition it is accurate to describe the fish and other species as “less evolved,” and yet she’s choosing to hang out with them. Bringing in this equally true description that is more negative is exactly what she was asking for. She complained that with all the “positive” descriptions her group had offered, she wasn’t “getting to the place of discomfort” she knew was there. If you make a judgement that is not true in the metaphor, then be prepared to offend. But if what you’re pointing out is literally true—even if it seems rude from the outside—the person with the metaphor usually experiences it as truly “getting” their situation, or bringing about useful insights they hadn’t noticed before. In this case it takes a little longer than usual to get there, but as you keep reading you’ll see how we do.]

Woman with metaphor: “Well, I won’t go into that.”

Mark: “Now she’s defending her position, right?”

Woman with metaphor: “Absolutely I am, I mean just depending on what sea life means.”

Mark: “Exactly. [To group] So that’s what you want to be doing, right? She can have whatever experience she can have, and I can have whatever experience I can have.”

NOTE: [This is building on something shared earlier in the training. With metaphors work we don’t have to be ‘nice’ and ‘in rapport’ with our client. In fact we can be in a state that Andy calls ‘dis-rapport,’ where my experience as the guide doesn’t have to be linked or ‘stuck’ in rapport with my client. This allows a great deal of freedom and flexibility in delivering the insights that otherwise would seem too rude or blunt to say. Imagine a really good friend who is so close they swear in front of you and tell you what they really think because nothing could possibly threaten the relationship. That’s what we’re going for with ‘dis-rapport.’]

Mark: [To group] “And you can understand how a lot of people might see this [pointing to metaphor] as less evolved—the life that she’s interacting with.”

Woman with metaphor: “No, I have to say, I mean a lot of the examples that were presented yesterday, it was very… You know like somebody being in concrete, OK? And obviously, I think it was seen as something that was uncomfortable. But what I’m presenting is a situation where, yes, I am surrounded by comfort, but it isn’t the whole picture of what’s uncomfortable. So why I said it was a judgement is, it’s very evolved what’s going on around me, in this particular environment, and because of that it makes it even harder for me to see what’s on the other side. I don’t know if that makes sense to you. It’s very compelling, it’s very engaging, it’s rich in life, that’s what I’ve said.”

Mark: “Um hmm, right.”

Woman with metaphor: “It’s rich in life.”

Participant: “You’re also not a part of that life because your head’s above water, so you’re not interacting or a part of that sea life that’s underneath you, and you’re not with the people who are on the land either.”

Woman with metaphor: “Oh, well, yesterday I was explaining that I was interacting with that life.”

Participant: [pointing to picture] “Because in this one her head’s above water, and the sea life is beneath her.”

Woman with metaphor: “I mean I guess I… OK. I can explain that.”

Mark: “So you’re interacting with the sea life with your hands and legs or something?”

Woman with metaphor: “The beginning image was, at sea. OK, and so when you’re at sea and you’re not uncomfortable and you’re not drowning… So when that question came up [about the sea life] it’s like, ‘No, I am interacting with it, but the way it was drawn originally, it wouldn’t suggest that, so the drawing needed to be modified along the way.”

Mark: “OK, so there’s like a starfish in this hand… and… stuff like that?” [adding to the picture some sea life that she’s touching.]

Woman with metaphor: “Yeah there’s activity.”

Mark: “So you’re picking stuff up, or something?”

Woman with metaphor: “OK, in my life today, my life is…”

Mark: “No, let’s not go into that.”

Woman with metaphor: “OK”

Mark: “We’re doing metaphors.”

Woman with metaphor: “OK, head above water, doesn’t mean… that means… you know, breathing air. You can’t always be under the water.”

Mark: “So let me offer something, here. See how we can get into arguing about the meanings and interpretations?”
Woman with metaphor: “Umhmm”

Mark: “That’s not what we want to do. That’s why we stick with the idioms, and what’s literally true of the metaphor.”

Woman with the metaphor: “Put the water over the head if that makes it easier.”

Mark: “No, it isn’t your job to change the metaphor to fit what someone says. It’s your metaphor, it is how it is. What you can do is just notice first if what someone says is actually true about the metaphor or not. If someone says something that’s not true of the metaphor, then definitely say, ‘No, that’s not true, look at the picture. Or say, ‘Wait, no, I’m interacting with the life,’ or whatever. Make those corrections, because that’s important. But when someone says something that’s literally true of the metaphor, notice how it lands for you.”

NOTE: [It’s interesting that within this metaphor, nothing has landed for her. She’s afloat and adrift. She could land if she wanted to, but she hasn’t touched down yet. So it isn’t surprising that she’s a bit afloat and adrift in this conversation about what it’s like.]

Participant 2: “Can I ask a question? Because what I’m hearing her say, and I’m informed by a conversation I had with her, so I know a little bit. And we were talking about that word “evolution” and the problems with that word. Cultural problems. And so what I heard when she said about the sea life, ‘Well it’s not un-evolved,’ she was having a cultural argument with you about the interpretation.”

Mark: “OK, great. So now through me saying it’s un-evolved we learn more about this situation.” [Speaking to woman with metaphor and pointing to the picture of her at sea] “So this is a place where you, in this position, you’re in a position to appreciate the variety of life, and all that it has to offer.”

Woman with metaphor: “Yeah.”

Mark: “These people” [pointing to the people on the coastline in the metaphor] “don’t have the same perspective. So we have a situation where you may see how evolved all of this is, and nobody else understands. They may see this person as spending all their time with stuff that’s way less evolved. How does that fit?”

Woman with metaphor: “Um, yeah that’s… a piece of it, yeah.”

NOTE: [It could be further clarified that the people on shore have a different understanding than hers, and she isn’t even using her understanding, as she prefers to float and be supported by an environment that she isn’t suited for.]

Mark: “Yeah, so that’s all we’re doing here, is we’re reflecting back what’s literally true of the situation, and if it’s literally true, then that’s going to resonate.”

Woman with metaphor: “I just needed to get the coastline people, in the… The coastline that is accessible.”

Mark: “Yeah,” [pointing to picture of the metaphor] “And so all you have to look forward to, are people who have no appreciation for what’s under the surface.”

Participant 3: “That’s not how she described it in the exercise yesterday.”

Woman with metaphor: “That’s fine, that’s true of the picture.”

Mark: “This is how she described it, and this is literally true of the situation.”

Participant 3: “But there are people there…”

Mark: [pointing to elements of the picture.] “You can’t argue with this. She is looking forward, to people.”

Participant 3: “Yesterday when we were doing the exercise, the people who were in reach, they were really interesting, and lively.”

Mark: “So, she might be looking forward to people who are interesting and lively, they still have—”

Participant 3: “Yeah, the drawing was interesting and lively beneath the water. It was also interesting and lively people on the shore.”

Mark: “Yeah, that doesn’t contradict what I just said.” [looking to woman with metaphor] “Right?”

Woman with metaphor: “Right.”

Mark: “People can be interesting and lively and still have no appreciation for what’s deeper.”

Woman with metaphor: “Right.”

Mark: “And that may be part of the problem.”

Woman with metaphor: “Right.”

Mark: “See how this, if you stick with what’s literally true… Don’t worry about what it means, if you go into meaning land it’s so easy to start going into your own world, your own reality, and forget what’s actually here. And multiple conflicting things can be true in a metaphor. So, there can be contradicting things, if they’re both true of the metaphor, they both will be true. Life has paradoxes.”

Woman with metaphor: “Exactly.”

Mark: “So sticking to the idioms is really, really key, as long as we’re doing that, we know we’ll be on track. If we go into our own interpretations or meanings about it, or think that just because this is interesting, and that is interesting, that somehow that can’t coexist, then we’re going to be missing a lot that’s there.”

Woman with metaphor: “That’s the absolute crux of it.”

Mark: “Exactly, great.”

Register here for Metaphors of Movement Level 1 and/or 2

Another interesting thing happened later that day when we were exploring the taxonomy of “container metaphors.” There were lots of different container metaphors. Some people’s metaphors were that their feet were in blocks of cement, or they were trapped in a glass bottle, or standing in a kiddie pool, or a cardboard box. One man’s metaphor was like being in a pit that was over his head. In the Q & A after exploring container metaphors, I called on a lot of people, but I totally overlooked this man’s raised hand for a long time. Afterward a friend who was in the training asked me, “Did you ignore him on purpose because he was in a pit? Were you intentionally interacting with him as if he was in a pit where you couldn’t see him—someone easily overlooked?” I wish I could say that I did it intentionally, but in fact I didn’t realize his hand had been in the air for such a long time! I think this is even more interesting, and I don’t think it was just coincidence because he was front and center in the room. I think this was an example of how our metaphors can manifest in the world, becoming self-confirming, self-fulfilling prophecies. It makes sense, because if a problem wasn’t self-reinforcing, how could it stick around so long?

~Mark Andreas

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