Psychoanalysis and Metaphor

Treatment that relies on the analysis of transference is based on a metaphor.

Posted Nov 29, 2018

I started consciously thinking about metaphors and similes when I began writing my first novel, Two Sisters of Coyoacán. I wanted to describe characters and events in rich ways that would make the reader see them. For example, to immerse the reader in the experience of walking down the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1932, I wrote: "Suddenly, an unkempt, bow-legged man stopped right in front of Miriam and put his wrinkled face within two inches of her nose. He had a tiny gray beard like the tuft of hair that covers the skin dangling from the throat of a goat."

I soon realized I'd been immersed in similes and metaphors my entire professional life as a psychoanalyst. Similes, like metaphors, are used to describe things more vividly. In a simile, you say something is like something else. In a metaphor, you say something is something else. That is the essence of psychoanalysis—the present is understood in terms of the past. And the way the analyst interprets what is being repeated in the present is by making reference to the past.

My patient Joann, for example, is a financial officer in her company. She says that when she asks a question of a vendor and he responds to the male colleague sitting next to her, she wants to scream at him, "I'm not invisible, I'm the one who asked the question."

I could respond sympathetically and say something like, "Yes, that's annoying. He's really rude." But I know, from years of working with her, that she is re-experiencing her Chinese father refusing to teach her anything about plumbing or carpentry because she is a girl. Her younger brother, Robert, was the first son and her father's attention always went to him. So I said, "Your father's ignoring you; he's only interested in talking to Robert."

Joann responds tearfully, "Yes, I just can't stand it." The use of metaphor created shared meaning and an intimate interpersonal space between us. It also enabled her to get in touch with the old feeling that is being revived in the current situation. Using a simile would serve the same purpose, "The vendor is rude, but the reason it is so painful to you is because it feels like your father is teaching your brother how to fix things, but refusing to explain it to you."

My interpretation to Joann explained the present in terms of the past. But I also use metaphors as a way to communicate an insight in a direct and simple way that becomes a code between us. For example, when my patient Hal was disappointed in a business partner, he said, "I don't care. It's stupid, I don't want to build that business anyway." I responded, "You're disappointed so you're kicking down the sand castle." That became a shorthand for us. whenever he responds to a disappointment or frustration by insisting he doesn't care, one of us (usually Hal at this point) says he's kicking down the sand castle. (For more on this, CLICK HERE.) The metaphor serves several functions—it activates the observing ego, it strengthens the working alliance, and it enables Hal to get control of his anger quickly.

My patient Patricia and I share many metaphors as well. She has trouble tolerating my being separate from her. She has several reactions to it: sometimes she avoids it by insisting that we are the same, sometimes she insists that I am contemptuous of her if she feels differently than I do, and sometimes she gets angry at me for feeling differently. I call this "the chocolate and vanilla problem." We both use the term now as a shorthand to alert us that she is having trouble being separate from me.

Clearly, the use of metaphor is at the heart of psychoanalytic work. There are many kinds of therapies, but any treatment that relies on the analysis of transference is based on a metaphor. The past experience is transferred on to the analyst and the patient treats the analyst as if he/she were the parent or other important object. Within that general context, metaphors and similes can be used to interpret the patient's repetitive feelings and behavior in a poignant way that strengthens the observing ego and deepens the therapeutic alliance.

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