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They’re not just figures of speech. We may not be fully conscious of it, but we are heavily influenced by metaphor. In fact, we’re steeped in it, every day of our lives. Metaphor is all around us in the world, not only appearing in our everyday speech, writing, and imagery, but operating internally as mental building blocks from which we construct and understand reality. This is because metaphors work in conjunction with belief, thought, imagination, memory, and the sensory motor system to create our own personal filter; that unique way in which we each see, structure, and experience the world.

A 2011 study out of Stanford University examined the relationship between metaphor and reasoning. Specifically, it was found that metaphor subtly yet powerfully influences logic and the decision making process. The study explored how reading two different metaphors – ‘crime is a beast’, and ‘crime is a virus’ – influenced participants’ reasoning when choosing solutions to a city’s rising crime problem. Participants that read the beast metaphor opted more for a direct method of enforcement, whereas those who read the virus metaphor preferred a social reform-based approach. A follow up survey showed that many participants didn’t remember the metaphor they read, and only 3% thought a metaphor could have influenced their reasoning.

However, the findings of this study indicate that our thinking is indeed swayed by metaphor; the concept that is used sets up a specific picture in the mind that our logic latches onto for decision making. In the study, it was found that the metaphor sets up the internal framework by which we decide what to do, not the facts or figures associated with the issue. Uh, oh. In other words, we’re not quite as objective as we like to think.

Metaphors matter. The words we say, and the concepts we use have a profound influence on our lives, how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves. And what’s interesting is that so much of this remains unconscious. I’ve see this first hand in the therapy room.

One client, T., spoke of her health in terms of a battle she was waging with her impulses. It was war, and she was constantly fighting herself to stay well. Her body was a battleground, and there were crimes committed (smoking, drinking, bingeing/purging), and much violence, neglect, and harm done to the self. Then there were measures taken to counteract the damage, things like meditation, yoga, and detoxes. T. would speak along these lines of battle all the time; eventually I noticed the pattern and pointed it out. A re-frame was in order. My thought was this: the metaphor may be an apt description now, but is this the best way for her to view the relationship between herself, her body, and her health going forward?

It is so easy to become attached to the metaphors we live by without even knowing it. Then, as the Stanford study shows, we live out the script through reasoning from the particular framework we’ve internalised. What I found most interesting about T. was that she hadn’t been particularly conscious of this dynamic of war. She wasn’t aware of the profound influence it had on her life, or of the real toll it was taking. In the end, she worked out that she must have felt this way for at least 20 years. Eventually, the re-frame came from her, when she chose to look at her health in terms of negotiation rather than a fight. The new metaphor (health as negotiation process) represented a move towards a more unified, communicative space.

This experience served as an important lesson for me: look out for the metaphors in a client’s life. How conscious are they? Can these metaphors be fleshed out further and explored? Can they be re-framed if need be?

In his book Metaphor in Psychotherapy, psychotherapist Henry Close describes metaphor as a “language of psychotherapy” and a “language of the heart.” For him, metaphors are personal and intimate things that invite you to embrace truth. I like this assessment, and see it much the same way. In the therapy room, when someone expresses their experience as metaphor, it becomes a bridge to personal truth, a way into that person’s inner world.

I used to be a volunteer counsellor for a bereavement service. One woman in her  50’s, S., who I only saw for 3 sessions, was struggling with her mother’s recent death from long term ovarian cancer. Their bond was incredibly close; her mother was also her best friend, confidant, and support system. In short, it was a terrible, complicated loss for her. And yet, I never understood what the loss was really like until she likened it to a car crash. S. described the scene in great detail, the twisted metal and shattered glass, the pavement glossy and red with blood. She stood there within that scene, looking over her mother’s broken body and felt the trauma and senselessness of her death. This was the language of her heart, and how her mother’s death was for her.

Close also views metaphor as a vehicle for emotional processing, something I witnessed with S. The metaphor of the car crash came to her spontaneously during our second session, and she later explained that this was all she needed at that time. It was enough to know, and deeply apprehend, just what the loss meant to her. She wanted to go away and process this on her own, knowing it would take time.

Metaphor is a not only a simple mental structure, but a nexus and crystallisation of imagination and emotion. Metaphorical thought is one of the processes by which we understand our personal lives, so the metaphors we use often give us away. They describe how we’re living our lives, our belief systems, and our particular take on the world. To that end it’s probably best we become as aware of them as possible. To share a metaphor is to invite someone else to imagine your experience for themselves. I often experience them as pictures I can walk through, a living scene in my mind. In this way, they serve as windows for empathy and understanding.


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