People - even experts - often fail to appreciate how deeply idiosyncratic a personal metaphorical alphabet really is, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the case of child abuse survivors. As a general rule of thumb, the younger the person was at the time the events that changed their systems took place, the more their metaphorical alphabet, their inner worlds, diverge from the ordinary.
This happens partially as a natural side effect as words and concepts such as "love" take on a whole different meaning to a child abuse survivor - be this in the case of physical abuse, "I beat you because I love you ..." as well as for sex abuse survivors, obviously. Either way, "love" will never be quite the same again, and metaphors of happy pink roses, smiling fat cherubs, pretty rainbows and dancing maidens will simply not tally with a person who experienced another form of "love" when they were little.
There is also another aspect of this divergence into another form of metaphorical world.
When you create your own words and meanings which are different from those of other people, then other people can't "get into" that world - you have created a structural sanctuary where important aspects are protected from outside influence.
The downside of this process is that it massively disrupts the ability to communicate with others; and when a person then seeks help with therapy or such, that protected world inside which can't be reached by others becomes a real problem.
For example, there was a young man who had been abused at a very young age. That started off a process of diverging metaphors, which he then actively encouraged because people used to say, "Oh my God you're sooo creative!" By the time I met him, he had been unable to communicate beyond every day mundane conversations with anyone for years, and was held to be schizophrenic.
I took some time to enquire into the meaning behind such metaphors as giant metal fish that were slightly rusty, and it turned out that was his code for "God."
That one metaphor example was the tip of the iceberg. He had his own highly idiosyncratic metaphor code for everything. A burning cross in the brain equals "love" - but not love as you or I would define it, at that ...
He wasn't crazy, either. His metaphorical dictionary was perfectly steady, meaning that the giant metal fish ALWAYS meant "god" and the burning cross in the brain always meant "love." Once you knew the dictionary, you could communicate with him.
Now I was able to understand him (eventually!) because I'd done the same thing, as many if not all child abuse survivors do; I know about metaphor, how it works, and I've learned this through a process called Project Sanctuary, which deals with a person's own metaphorical world absolutely and is designed to expand and evolve it.
That's the key - expand and evolve, NOT "change" it or try to change it.
For the young man with the metal fish and burning crosses, you cannot now or ever get him "to change his mind" and all of a sudden find smiling cherubs and dancing maidens anything other than highly disturbing.
To try and do that is a - terrible thing, something that can never work and is also deeply disrespectful of his experiences and the processes that led him to where he was.
However, you can gain traction on all levels by evolving the existing metaphorical world.
We could ask him, for example, what the burning cross in the brain that stands for "love" might need to evolve to the next level of comprehension and understanding.
After all, the burning cross came into being when he was very small, very young; it has stayed the same, hasn't "grown up" with him, and that's a massive structural problem.
What can we do right now with the burning cross to evolve it?
His solution to this was to have the fire burn more strongly and change colour, from orange flames to blue to eradicate it, burn it up altogether so there's only ashes left.
And finally, an *evolution* has taken place ... there is movement in a system that was stuck for over 20 years, at last.
Once you understand the principle of idiosyncratic metaphor and evolution, even the most bizarre seeming internal worlds become reasonable and rational, and they can be evolved.
It is my assertion that it is impossible to "undo" what was done to child abuse survivors; you can't ever be ordinary again.
But what you can do is to take that and evolve it to become different, more functional, more evolved, and then, ever more extra-ordinary.
That is a unique journey, different for every child abuse survivor, and this unique journey can be steered and kept safe by the understanding of a person's internal world, and their own words, meanings and metaphorical dictionaries.
I'd like to close with the remark that if one understands personal evolution by evolving personal metaphors, then there is no need to be so terrified of what goes on in other people's heads any longer.
People - and those include honestly well meaning healers, therapists, carers, relatives, lovers and more - who do not have extremely personalised internal worlds and their metaphors often get very scared when confronted with "crazy stuff" like the cross burning in the brain, the metal fish and other examples of their kind. As they don't have "crazy worlds" inside, they don't know how to deal with that kind of thing, they lack experience and become overwhelmed by it. Then they will either withdraw altogether or try and convince the other that it is "bad" to have such experiences, and they should be other experiences instead.
By simply taking what there is, no matter what it is, and evolving it, you always get movement AND it doesn't matter what you start with. A giant pile of dead kittens with demons dancing round them is no different in that regard from a pretty cherry tree in spring - just evolve the metaphor. Eventually, the demons will eat the dead kittens, or get tired of it and fly away and then the kitten's corpses will decompose over time, let enough time unfold and they will be gone, and something else will take their place. It's not so much the content that should concern us, but simply the evolution, the flow - what happens next?
Understand that, and you don't need to be afraid of any metaphor, no matter what; and understand that, you also understand that the only real problem ever is a metaphor that has been stuck in time and space for any length of time.
Working with and evolving personal metaphor dictionaries and internal worlds isn't just a good thing for child abuse survivors; if only they knew it, all people need to do that in order to "grow up" in a whole different way compared to what we see being modelled as "grown ups" today. With child abuse survivors, who have a much more profound need for evolution, healing, resolution and can't ignore the demands of their systems to DO SOME THING! about the status quo, there is a unique opportunity for personal evolution beyond what was thought possible here.
Dr Silvia Hartmann
Author, Project Sanctuary