For Sound Mental Health, Choose Your Metaphors Wisely

The quality of your life depends on the quality of your questions

Posted Nov 13, 2011

I've written here before about the power of metaphors to clear up confusion, usher in change, even promote healing; and, not to sound like a broken record (google it, kids), I'd like to circle back to that topic briefly, if only because it constitutes, well, such a rich buffet of inspiration for life. (Life itself, in fact, can be seen through various metaphorical lenses. You can think of life as a journey, as the linguist George Lakoff pointed out. One travels through it, one's goals are destinations, and the means one uses to achieve them are routes, which are often difficult to navigate, requiring the help of guides. Or you may consider life, "a play of passion" as Shakespeare did. Or maybe "a dream that is never recalled when the dreamer awakes," in the words of the great American poet, Mark Strand.)

What occasioned this latest reflection on metaphors was a TV show I stumbled upon while channel surfing: Charley Rose-that most maddening of interviewers-was talking to (and over and around as per his habit) the Israeli writer Amos Oz. Even in English-which is clearly not his cup of tea-Oz oozes wisdom and wit. And he has a way with stories. The one that caught my attention related to Oz's early years as a struggling writer on an Israeli kibbutz. The kibbutz back then was a staunch socialist farming community, where hard work in the fields and with livestock was lionized, while artistic pursuits were considered inessential-a distraction, or the realm of weaklings. Oz, having managed to wrangle one day a week for writing, nevertheless felt guilty about spending a whole day sitting at his desk, often without writing a single line.

Oz described to Rose his feelings of shame when, during lunch hour in the communal dining room, he would sit shoulder to shoulder with hard working farmers who had just finished milking 50 cows or plowing 100 acres of land. He felt like a lowly parasite. But then, he said, it occurred to him that he could change his feeling by changing his metaphor. He began to see himself as a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper opens his doors every morning and waits. Some days many customers show up-and those are good days. Other days few show up, and the day is not great; either way, the shopkeeper still has done his job. Oz began regarding himself as a shopkeeper, with words as his customers. Whether or not the words came, he was still doing his job, and honorably so. By changing his metaphor, he changed his view of himself in a meaningful way.

Changing your metaphor, of course, is akin to changing your point of view. This is often useful because our point of view-the fact that we view something from a certain point; there's no such thing as the view from everywhere-inherently limits the scope and depth of what we see. Changing your point of view allows you to in the least to augment-and at times entirely supplant-your original view.

You can see this idea at work in various areas of psychology, as competing metaphors help enrich and expand our knowledge of humanity. In developmental psychology, for example, Piaget's view of the child as solitary scientist who learns about the world through manipulating objects was later augmented by Vygotsky's view of the child as apprentice in culture, learning through supportive interactions with other, more competent, members of society.

In health psychology, early theories seeking to explain people's failure to protect against disease took the position that people are rational planners. Hence such theories (like the Health- Belief Model and the Theory of Planned Behavior) focused on people's knowledge and perceptions of risk and reward: if you believe HIV is dangerous, and that you are susceptible, and if you know of a way to protect yourself, then you are likely to do so. However, as research has accumulated to show that these rational decision processes and planned calculations were not predicting people's choices very well, health behavior theorists began to consider a new approach-a new metaphor-viewing people not as rational actors but as spontaneous reactors. You may not have gone to the party for the purpose of doing crack. But once at the party, someone offers you crack. Are you going to try it? The Prototype/Willingness theory-one of those 'new metaphor' approaches-posits that the question people ask themselves before deciding whether to take a risk is not, "What did I plan to do beforehand?" but rather, "What am I willing to do now?"

Changing your metaphor often amounts to changing your questions, which is useful because the quality of your life often depends on the quality of your questions. This notion is at the heart of much of psychotherapy. The incisive existential therapist Victor Frenkl, for example, famously recognized that one's resilience in the face of life's unpredictable twists and turns may hinge on the ability to stop asking, "What do I want out of life?" and start asking, "What does life want out of me?" Of surviving the Nazi concentration camps, Frenkl wrote: "It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly."

An illuminating sentiment, no doubt.

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