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Metaphors Matter

The right metaphors lead to growth and healing, the wrong ones keep us stuck.

The most profound part of the brain has a special love of metaphors, where a word or phrase means something other than what it literally denotes. In addition to stimulating higher levels of mental processing, metaphors elevate discourse beyond mere relating of facts, affording us a richer expression of concepts, perceptions, and emotions. Used well, they deepen communication, advance knowledge, and often inspire us. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, metaphor is the natural language of the arts and humanities. Without metaphor, the written word would have the vitality of technical journals and conversations would be banal or vulgar or hopelessly complex or simply boring.

During my many years of clinical practice, I’ve made a habit of asking people at intake what metaphors described their lives. Typical responses have been:

“Life is a minefield.”

“Life is a journey.”

“Life is a three-ring circus.”

“Life is a race.”

“Life is a marathon.”

“Life is a battle.”

“Only the strong survive.”

Such metaphors sound subtle alarms in the Toddler brain, experienced as a general unease or tension, often incorrectly attributed to stress. They distort appraisals of reality and make us ever ready to invoke the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, or avoidance.

Because metaphors are critical to understanding the world around us, choosing the wrong ones can make the struggle for autonomy and connection seem like standing astride two galloping horses.

An example if a bad metaphor is the description of angry outbursts as “letting off steam.” This unfortunate phrase derives from a 19th Century understanding of emotions, when the dominant technology was the steam engine. The theory held that, without frequent “release,” emotions “build up” to dangerous levels until they cause an explosion, like a stream engine with a stuck valve. The steam engine metaphor led to widely discredited “therapeutic” techniques like punching pillows, dolls, or dummies, and using foam baseball bats to club imaginary adversaries. Many studies have shown that such techniques actually make people angrier and more hostile, not to mention more entitled to act out their anger. Rather than “getting it out of your system,” repetition forms habits that make Toddler brain processing more dominant and automatic.

Scientific evidence shows that emotions are not like steam engines at all. Rather, they function more like muscles—the more you use them, the stronger the neural connections underlying them grows. The more you focus on any emotion, the more likely it becomes that you’ll frequently re-experience it by habit.

The best way to mitigate Toddler brain influence on appraisals of reality—and subsequent choices of behavior—is to base metaphors on values, rather than transitory feelings.

These are the implicit feelings-based metaphors that intensified and prolonged the painful standoffs between a recent client and his wife:

“A good husband is like a rock,” which made him hard and intransigent.

“If a husband seems weak, he’ll be manipulated,” which made him insensitive to the internal world of his wife.

Marriage is like a movie thriller; you have to drive hard to avoid a bad end,” which made him too forceful.

“Love is a meal we must eat together,” which made him feel hungry and needy.

We replaced these dysfunctional metaphors with those based on his deeper values:

“A good husband is like a champion, a nurse, a guide, and a shade tree.”

“Marriage is like a handful of seeds. With nurturing and care, they develop into a lovely garden.”

“Marriage is a movie with some comedy, mystery, excitement, sorrow, pain, love, and beauty.”

“Love is a lifeline that keeps us connected, even when we’re apart.”

When values fuel metaphors, they tend to improve and enrich experience.