About this blog

I'm a Marriage and Family Therapist and my primary theoretical orientation is Narrative Therapy. I find the ideas of narrative therapy and the conversations that develop with my clients to be so rich, so life-giving, and at the same time so practical, that I wanted to find a way to share those ideas with others outside the walls of the therapy office. I hope you enjoy reading, and find some value in these posts. Please note that this blog is not intended to provide therapy nor to be a substitute for therapy.

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Metaphors - Part 3


Instead of arranging the different ideas about Dave’s grumpiness in a hierarchy, with one key underlying cause, in the bookshelf metaphor the ideas or explanations are arranged side-by-side, like books. Below are the items from the layers of the mining metaphor, now shifted 90 degrees to become books on a bookshelf, with slight name changes to move from “causes” to book titles:

[These titles are also listed at the bottom of this blog entry, along with the original list of causes from the mining metaphor blog entry]

From a narrative therapy perspective this simple change from a top-to-bottom to a side-by-side arrangement of these items can prompt some important shifts in our thinking about a problem situation.


First, what were “causes” or “underlying causes” in the mining metaphor now become “books” in the bookshelf metaphor. The imagery and idea of books tends to evoke an interest in stories, drama, action, plot, and character, which I don’t usually think of when I see causal statements like those in the mining metaphor. And whereas calling something a “root cause” tends to function like a period at the end of a sentence (“It’s been explained, conclusion reached: It’s all over!”), calling it a “book” functions more like a comma, and elicits my curiosity: I want to know more. I’m drawn to learn about the chapters of the book and the details of the story, to see how it was developed and where it goes.

As an example, let’s look at one of the “deeper” causes we named as part of the mining metaphor:

"Dave's unresolved anger toward his parents keeps him unclear about the direction of his life and uncomfortable as a father."

When I see this idea presented as a cause, two or three thoughts occur to me rather immediately:

  • The word “unresolved” jumps out at me and makes me think that it’s a problem that the anger hasn’t been “resolved.” I don’t know what “resolved” means or what it would look like for Dave, but I wonder what’s wrong with him, and how messed up his family is, that he hasn’t been able to resolve this anger.
  • It seems that it’s imperative that Dave resolve this anger issue if he is to have any hope of being less grumpy at home.
  • As depicted in the mining metaphor, in Part 2 of this series, there are even deeper issues than “unresolved anger,” so I suspect that Dave will be unable to resolve his anger until he addresses those deeper issues: introversion, insecurity, and fear of intimacy. And when I think about this, I start to feel overwhelmed for Dave, and lose hope that he will ever make any real change in his grumpiness at home.
In contrast, when I see the book on the bookshelf, “Anger at My Parents: Effects on My Parenting and Life’s Direction – by Dave,” I feel much more curious about Dave and his experiences with his parents. Instead of being pulled toward the elusive imperative of “resolving” something, I want to know more about Dave, his family, his experience of anger, and the effects of anger on his life. Some of the specific questions I start to have are:
  • What experiences have led to this particular story about how anger is affecting Dave’s life and parenting?
  • Who holds this story? Is it Dave alone, or did others help in putting together the different events and experiences of his life to build the story about anger at his parents? Does Dave find that the story fits his experience?
  • How does this story help to make sense of Dave’s relationship with, feelings about, and experiences of his parents? And how does it tie in with grumpiness?
  • Under what circumstances are the anger and its effects most pronounced, and when are they least noticeable, powerful, or influential?
  • Are there experiences that Dave has had with his parents that don’t fit with this “anger” story? If other stories were told about those events, what would the titles of those stories be?
  • If these other stories were added with the anger story, would this become a richer, more complex story overall, and how well would the “larger” story fit with Dave’s own experience?

Second, and what may be the most helpful for me, the bookshelf arrangement of these ideas frees me from the almost impossible search for the “one truth,” “one right answer,” or one core, essential explanation of the problem. I’m freed from trying to make distinctions between “core causes” and “surface manifestations.” I’m freed from trying to reach definitive conclusions about whether a particular explanation is true or false. Instead, I can think about the different books or stories on the bookshelf and consider the specific ways each is helpful and unhelpful. The downward pull of the mining metaphor, to find the core cause “underneath it all,” is replaced by a less pressured desire to examine the different books to see what’s in them and what each has to offer.

What may be most valuable here is a sense of personal agency: the feeling of having the authority to decide, through my own thinking and conversations, how a given story is helpful and unhelpful for my life. In contrast, answering the question of whether a particular cause is true or false, or is, indeed, the root cause of the problem, seems to require either the “objective” evaluation of an “expert,” or making a fairly arbitrary choice among alternative explanations. And because the mining metaphor often carries with it the “requirement” that I “get it right” and address the “core issue” before moving on, it’s easy to remain stuck (paralyzed by the nearly impossible challenge to define the “one truth”). Identifying what is “helpful” seems much more within my grasp. I feel more freedom to “take action” or “move forward” based on what I find helpful rather than waiting until I’ve figured out “real causes” and “core truths.”


Third, the bookshelf metaphor is a much better fit than the mining metaphor for thinking about preferences (which is where we first met Dave and grumpiness several months ago – click here to read more about the practical value of preferences). Several features of the bookshelf metaphor help to create a context for thinking about preferences:
By portraying the explanatory ideas as existing side-by-side rather than top-to-bottom, it helps us to more easily consider them all as legitimate alternatives, rather than having one explanation be true or core and the others be false or “surface.”
  • So I can ask, if there are several legitimate ways of understanding or making sense of my difficulties, which explanations (or “stories”) do I find helpful, and which do I prefer?
By leading us to think in terms of “stories” or “texts” rather than “causes,” the bookshelf imagery invites us to explore the experiences, events, plots, dramas, chapters, and details that have helped shape particular understandings of our problems and our lives.
  • So I can ask, of the many experiences contained in these stories of my life, which have I found to be most life-giving, most exciting, and most desirable? In light of this, which do I prefer?
By helping to free us from waiting for an expert to determine what’s really true about our lives (or who we “really” are), we can feel more authority to consider which stories about our lives matter most or most reflect the values and commitments we hold.
  • So I can ask, which stories, ideas, or explanations do I prefer because they provide me with a focus or direction that fits with my values and commitments?
By helping to free us from the search for the elusive “one true cause,” we can focus on what we already know about ourselves, and we can draw on our experiences to name our preferences.
  • So I can ask, if I have expertise about my own life, and can draw on the wealth of experience I already have, how do those experiences lead me to a better understanding of what I prefer?
By evoking images such as libraries with aisle after aisle filled with books, or a whole wall or room filled with bookshelves, we can imagine that there are even more possibilities than those that are currently visible. This might be especially valuable if none of the current batch of stories is particularly moving or compelling.
  • So I can ask, what book would I like to see on the bookshelf that would capture my preferences more accurately or powerfully? What is its title, its main characters, its plot? Why does it move me or draw me in? What does it make possible for my life and why do I prefer it?


With these questions in mind, and using a little imagination, the practical results of this kind of thinking, for Dave, might look something like the revised book titles below:


It’s difficult for me to write about mining and bookshelf metaphors and have them remain metaphors. As I write, they often stop being helpful representations and turn into hard, cold, essential realities. Quite often in writing this piece, I’ve had to step back and get some perspective, to remind myself that these are, indeed, metaphors I’m writing about. Mostly, I have to remind myself that it’s quite possible to use the bookshelf imagery to think about my life, but to have that bookshelf be just as confining and limiting as the way I’m portraying the mining metaphor here. It’s possible to use the imagery of books on a bookshelf to think about my problems, but then to launch into a frenzied pursuit of the “one true book” or the “real, essential story” of my life.
In other words, whether it’s a bookshelf or a mine – or a jungle or a machine or a box of chocolates – the metaphors that you and I use to help shape our thinking about our lives, our problems, and our relationships, can end up constraining our thinking and limiting our options, or they can provide us with alternatives, a sense of freedom and playfulness, the authority to know what we prefer for our lives, and the desire and will to act on that knowledge.

Mining Metaphor "Causes"

"Dave's Problem - 'On the Surface': Grumpiness at home in the evenings"
"Underlying cause: Stress at work, compounded by Dave not knowing what he really wants to do"
"Deeper cause: Dave's unresolved anger toward his parents, keeps him unclear about the direction of his life and uncomfortable as a father."
"Deeper yet: Dave is an introvert.  It's his personality type.  It's painful to have to interact with others."
"Even deeper: Dave is a very insecure person."
"Root cause: Dave is afraid of and avoids intimacy because he hasn't accepted his real self."

Bookshelf Titles - Version 1 - Stories Related to Grumpiness

"Grumpiness at Home in the Evenings"
"Stress at Work: What do I Really Want to Do?"
"Anger at My Parents: Effects on My Parenting and Direction in Life - by Dave"
"Experiencing Introversion: Difficulty Interacting with Others"
"My Story of Insecurity"
"Understanding what Scares Me About Intimacy: Why I Avoid It"

Bookshelf Titles - Version 2 - Stories Related to Grumpiness ... With Preferences Added (in Orange)

"Why I Prefer Playfulness over Grumpiness at Home in the Evenings"
"How I Learned to Leave Stress at Work, And Paid More Attention to What Really Matters to Me"
"Anger at My Parents Taught Me to be Patient and to Connect with My Son - by Dave"
"Beyond Introversion: How the Night Sky Helped Me Engage with Others"
"My Story of Insecurity: Seeing It, Naming It, and Stopping the Pattern"
"Understanding what Scares Me About Intimacy: Remembering how Closeness and Calm Overcome All"