I still remember the first time I witnessed the power of metaphor with a client. Michael was 14 years old. He had bounced from one therapist to the next and was guarded, cynical about adults in general, and therapists in particular. He had run away from his parents’ house on several occasions. To put it simply, the instant he walked in, we both knew that he did not want to be there and he had little interest in anything I had to say.

By that time, I had been practicing child and adolescent therapy for a few years. It was not the first time I met with a teen who had a bias about what therapy didn’t have to offer him. That first meeting, I spent a fair amount of time showing him that meeting with a therapist was not what he expected it to be. I wasn’t simply going to push his parents’ agenda. I didn’t talk down to him. And I acknowledged that his situation sucked.

Validating his position was clearly important. If he was going to trust me at all, I had to communicate to him that I could see and understand the world as he saw it. I had to convey that to some extent I understood his perspective. If I started with anything else, I would have sounded like just another clueless adult.  So much of that first meeting was spent joining him in how he viewed his relationships.

There was another message that my professional instincts were driving me to communicate to Michael. Once he understood that I ‘got it,’ I wanted to also introduce the idea that ‘it’ was not all there was to “It;” meaning that what he ‘knew’ as reality was really a subjective perspective on Reality. How could I suggest that his perspective, while still valid and real to him, might be biased and limited? More importantly, how could I explain to him that other people have equally valid points of view that he could not perceive?

He was so used to having to defend his perspective from being minimized and dismissed, that I sensed a minefield around me. I knew that if I approached this directly, it was more than likely that he would resent me for taking his parents’ side. Yet if he was to grow and learn to examine his choices and their consequences, it was crucial that he begin to understand that his parents had a valid perspective too; that their actions and words make sense to them.

So I sat there, facing Michael, very aware of this concept and very mindful and present in our relationship. In a moment of inspiration, I grabbed my travel mug, and put it on the desk between him and myself. This is what he saw:



I asked him to describe the cup fully; and he described the cup fully, from his perspective. To paraphrase, he told me that it was a mug, cylindrical in shape, four or five inches tall. He said it appeared to be made out of metal, and insulated for warm drinks. He went on to say that it was greenish/blue on the outside, and metallic silver on the inside.

I asked him if he felt that he had given a complete description of the cup visually, so that if he were describing it to someone else, that person would have an accurate visual image of the cup. When he was satisfied with his response, I rotated the cup:



I asked him why he had not told me that the happy face was there. He answered that all he saw was the greenish/blue color. He could not see the happy face from his position. But he also had not checked to see what the other side looked like. Without realizing it, he had assumed that the rest of the cup looked the same by extending from what he could see. I told him he was exactly right, and that in relationships there are always aspects that one cannot see. That when his mother acts in a way he can’t understand, it may be because she can see something that he cannot.  I suggested that sometimes he makes assumptions about her intentions based on how her behavior affects him, while he cannot see how her behavior appears to her. I watched as he took this in, and for the first time considered that his parents’ motives might not be malicious or inconsiderate. Michael had a breakthrough that session. Additionally, I learned a powerful lesson as a therapist. I had learned the power of metaphor to move people.

The cup perspective metaphor provides an ideal and concrete example of the phenomenon of point of view.[i] From Michael’s point of view, he did describe everything that he saw accurately. His response was correct, but it was also incomplete, although he didn’t know it. He did not see what I was able to see from my point of view. The mistake was in thinking that what he saw was ALL there was to see. There is always more to the cup. The natural assumption is to extend what we do see to the areas that we don’t see. It is a commonplace assumption that helps us fill in the gaps when we don’t get to see everything. There is a certain logic to these assumptions. After all, I have seen most of the cup and it has all been the same so far. If I want to save myself the time, or, if I don’t have the opportunity of seeing the rest of the cup, then I can decide that I have seen enough to assume that the rest of the cup is the same as what I have seen so far. However, it is important to remember that this is an assumption, and we don’t know what is on the other side of the cup. Sometimes, this process can be so commonplace that we are not even aware of making the assumption, and believe that we do know what is on the other side of the cup. There are always parts of the cup that we cannot see, and we don’t even know that they are there or that we are imagining (assuming) them incorrectly (like the happy face). There are always other people who see part of the cup that we don’t. No one sees the whole cup.

I have repeated this exercise with other clients after Michael. Some clients will say more or less than others. I always give them another chance, and ask them if this is a complete description of the cup visually. Only a few clients ever ask to pick up the cup and verify if their view and description are complete.

A classic example of how people can forget that their perspectives are limited is the “I didn’t yell” argument. This is the ultimate ironic argument, arguing about arguing. From the husband’s perspective, his wife was attacking him; he was feeling attacked and was defending himself. Perhaps he was a little defensive, maybe even upset. But he certainly wasn’t yelling. She, on the other hand, was yelling at him. Of course, from her side of the cup, she saw him raising his voice in anger. I don’t know about you, but where I come from they call that yelling. The problem is that most people yell when they are angry (no kidding). And people who are angry have an even less objective perspective than usual.

Emotions distort, and people tend to be most unreliable at accurately remembering or judging their own behavior when they are upset. It is as if the cup gets further away and they are looking through tinted glasses. Nonetheless, their own memory is as real to them as any other memory, distorted as it may be. He remembers her yelling at him, she remembers him yelling at her. He remembers that he was only defending himself from her attack, etc… They may both be “right” or one of them might be “more right.” Who knows? At this point they are both unreliable witnesses.

If our perceptions can be limited or subjective, then that goes double for our memories. We tend to treat our memories as if our brains functions like a camera, taking ‘snapshots’ of events that are pristine and frozen in time. We treat them as FACTS, but research shows that our memories are not nearly so accurate. They can be significantly altered by mere questions and suggestions without our knowledge. The process of recalling memories can actually alter them, especially emotionally salient memories. When we are emotional about the memories, those emotions that are felt as we recall the memories can actually alter those memories.[ii] And while we tend to be more confident of memories of significant emotional events, those memories are not all that accurate. In fact, such memories can be quite distorted despite a strong sense of confidence in their accuracy.[iii] Just because you remember it that way, does not mean that is how it happened.


[i] For a more thorough exploration on the subjectivity of perspective and point of view see Gilbert, Daniel. (2005). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books  (Random House Inc.).


[ii] Gilbert, Daniel. (2005). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books  (Random House Inc.) 87-90.

Neisser, Ulric. (Nov. 29, 1997). The Ecological Study of Memory. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 352(1362), 1697-1701.

Novella, Robert (Summer, 1998). Memories: constructed, confused and confabulated. The New England Journal of Skepticism, 1(3). Retrieved February 1, 2008, from http://www.geocities.com/skepdigest/Memories_Confused_Constructed_and_Confabulated.html


[iii] One study explored memories around a shared emotionally vivid event, the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. Students were asked to fill out a questionnaire about the incident. This questionnaire covered a variety of details, such as how they found out, where they were, etc. Three years later, he had the same students fill out the same questionnaire, and then again at half-year follow-ups. At least 25% of them were wrong on EVERY major detail. Only 10% matched their responses to the original ones. Furthermore, the students’ confidence was unrelated to their accuracy. Many students were highly confident in their answers, and were quite surprised to find that they were significantly different than the responses given three years earlier. When the students made such errors, the errors appeared to be permanent. They stuck to the mistaken stories when given the questionnaire again a half-year later, despite having been shown their original responses. Neisser, U., & Harsch, N. (1992). Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger. In E. Winograd & U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of “flashbulb memories” (pp. 1-30) New York: Cambridge University Press.

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