Psychologist logo
Graphic from the cover of Deep Knowing
Personality and self, Research, Teaching and learning

What’s your metaphor?

Kim Hermanson on the themes of her book 'Deep Knowing: Entering the Realm of Non-Ordinary Intelligence'.

03 October 2022

Maria just lost her father. After he died, she rented a truck to bring some of his office furniture back to her own home 500 miles away. She’s barely over five foot tall and she wondered, as she struggled to crawl up into the cab, ‘Am I going to be able to drive this thing?’ When she relayed the story to me later, it was clear that driving an oversized truck on a long-distance trip was not merely a casual image. It was a metaphor for approaching the next phase of her life without her beloved father. How will she be able to ‘drive’ without him?

Maria is a client of mine. I’m a psychologist who works with creatives from all over the world, helping them shift into another way of knowing.

Another client named Katy has an elderly mother who has needed a lot of help in the last couple years. Katy could look at caring for her mother as a burden, but she could also view it in a different way. Perhaps she will see that caring for her mother will help her be more centered and grounded in her life, or some other quality of character that’s important to her.

Being centered, burdened, or grounded are all metaphors.

Fifty years of outstanding research by George Lakoff and others has demonstrated how metaphors form the basis of our cognition, defining how we think, speak, and act in everyday life.

In his book, Metaphor Therapy, psychologist S.B. Kopp writes that there are three ways in which humans know. With empirical observation, we depend on our senses – seeing, touching, smelling, and hearing. The second way is rational thought – if something fits logically with what we already know, we accept it as true. Kopp’s third way of knowing is metaphor. We draw on metaphor as way of knowing when things are fuzzy, confusing, or uncertain. Metaphor helps us make sense of our experience.

Fifty years of outstanding research by George Lakoff and others has demonstrated how metaphors form the basis of our cognition, defining how we think, speak, and act in everyday life. In their seminal book Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson write that metaphorical thought is ‘unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious’. According to Lakoff, metaphors are so embedded in our thought processes that it’s impossible to become conscious of them all.

At any given time, we might say we’re feeling ‘light’ or ‘heavy’, ‘scattered’, ‘crystal clear’, or ‘in over our head’. We might say we feel overwhelmed, like we’re drowning, or ‘on top of the world’. We might say, ‘I’ve closed that door but don’t see the next one yet’, ‘I feel like I’m swimming upstream’, ‘I need a time out’, or ‘She’s looking through rose-tinted glasses’.

Lakoff writes that the ability to comprehend our experience through metaphor could be thought of as a sense like seeing, touching or hearing. In my work with clients, I find that metaphor is often connected with intuition. For example, someone might walk away from a conversation and say, ‘I can’t put my finger on it, but something feels off’, or visit a friend’s new home and describe it as ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ or ‘cheerful’.

Of course, clients often come to therapy because of negative associations and patterns (negative metaphors). Once you have uncovered the negative metaphoric image, you could simply ask the client: ‘If you could change this image, how would you change it?’ But in my own work, I find it helpful to go deeper… into a client’s innate positive (rather than negative) metaphoric associations.

Ingrained ways of seeing

Lakoff reminds us that metaphors are ‘ways of seeing’ and our deepest, ingrained ways of seeing the world develop when we are very young. Kopp writes, ‘Our personal mythic reality –our own metaphoric structure of individual reality – is revealed in our early memory metaphors’. In other words, each of us hold early metaphoric images that go on to shape the way we see the world. These images come from happy memories – things, situations, places, or people – that we cherished and became imprinted on our hearts when we were children. These images are often associated with the natural world.

In my book Deep Knowing, I share the following exercise to uncover these early, positive metaphoric associations.

When you think about your childhood, what people, places, and things do you remember fondly? What images come to mind and of those images, what one feels like a support –something you can rest or settle into? What moves you emotionally, in a heartfelt way, when you reflect on it? Once you have your image, ask yourself:

  • How is this image a metaphor that has shaped how I see the world and my place in it?
  • How does this metaphor help me understand the events of my life?
  • How does it nurture and support me when life is difficult?
  • What guidance does it offer my future?
  • If this image could speak to me, what would it say?

A career coach did this exercise and found it deeply meaningful, helping her understand her ‘ramshackle’ life:

I keep going back to this country house we had. I always call it ‘ramshackle magic’. It was one of the first experiences I ever had that became the basis of my whole life. Because we had a nice house in Brooklyn, a more respectable house that had higher value than this place. But I wasn’t happy in the Brooklyn house, I was happy in the ramshackle house. Your exercise helped me realise, ‘Wow, what was valuable to the world wasn’t necessarily valuable to me’. That image explains so much to me. It tells me how my life’s work makes sense.

This exercise also helped a therapist understand something valuable about herself:

I did the suggested exercise and reconnected with a very special memory of doing my homework under an old oak tree in the forest. And then I suddenly understood differently the comment I often got from my former bosses, that I am pretty laid-back yet surprisingly performant. It enlightens that such relaxed approach to life is not negligence but an essential part of me.

The image that has guided and inspired my own life and work is my father and grandfather digging in soil and planting in the fields. Despite having lived much of my adult life in the city, rich soil is my place of inner nourishment and strength. When I feel lost or in despair, remembering the simple image of fertile, nurturing soil brings me back to my centre.

Your primary image could be a memory of your home’s physical terrain (backyard, a favorite tree, mountains, natural bodies of water). It could be an object from your parents’ lives or occupations (your mother’s stethoscope, your father’s briefcase). It could be a scene such as cooking in your grandmother’s kitchen or fishing with your dad. One of my students who grew up in Mexico holds the image of festive local markets in her heart. Their colour, vibrancy, and lively people have guided her and given her life meaning. The writer E.B. White was fascinated by spider webs as a child. He went on to write the bestselling book, Charlotte’s Web. Happy images from childhood have a potent influence on our lives.

A final helpful tip for using metaphor in client sessions

One noteworthy quality of powerful metaphors is that they combine both an image and a feeling sense. For example, if someone says, ‘I’m on fire’, we understand what they are saying both as an image of fire, but also through a body sense – we can imagine what it would be like to be ‘on fire’. My image of rich soil is not only an image, but a feeling quality of being nurtured and held by something loving (the soil).

For that reason, I have found that simple metaphors are both the most revealing and the most helpful. The more complex or embellished the metaphor, the more the clients are in their heads creating stories about ‘what it all means’. Simple metaphors lend themselves to the most powerful shifts of being.

During a client session, listening for metaphoric language will give you potent information about how someone thinks, feels, perceives, and understands his or her world. For any given situation, there is a lens that person is looking through. The question is: is that lens (that way of looking) limiting the person’s vision and sense of possibility in life? Or is it expanding her world and helping to facilitate growth and learning?

About the author

Kim Hermanson, PhD is the author of Deep Knowing: Entering the Realm of Non-Ordinary Intelligence, a 2022 National Indie Excellence Award winner. The New York Times bestselling author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, has called her work ‘pioneering’.