What’s Your Metaphor? How’s It Working for You?

Due to my concussion (see blog), I get headaches—pretty much daily, and often severe. When the headaches are potent, I am debilitated: the pain is so intense that there is little I can manage to accomplish—attempting tasks prolongs both the pain and the recovery time. However, my ambition does not decrease commensurate with my ability. So, I also get frustrated—this frustration and the accompanying tears only increases the headache.

When I went on sabbatical, I started working on a book about love and fear in relationships—that work was the impetus for this blog. My process was to read and notate a source; handwrite meaningful notations and quotes in a journal, adding additional insights; and then add notes and quotes to my book outline. It’s a slow process—arguably, a redundant process. Last year, I read many sources, but I did not summarize them into my journal nor add the pertinent content into my book draft. Due to my concussion, I wasn’t up to the synthesizing required.

This year, with greater capacity and a growing stack of read books and articles waiting to be outlined, I wondered if I could expedite the process: could I skip the slow, handwritten summary stage? Serendipitously, two sources that I greatly respect discussed the value of copying material longhand to our thinking: the podcast, On Being, and the blog, The Marginalian. I had a system that was working well for me—I should follow it. I am privileged to have the time for introspection—but many of us (myself included) look for means to avoid or shortcut self-awareness. The pandemic of busyness has led us to increased illness, unhappiness, and dehumanization. It turns out that the couple of hours that it takes me to handwrite my summary and responses to valuable sources are minutes well spent—my wise teachers and inner voice are onto something!

I started with Tamsin Hartley’s The Listening Space, which I had just finished reading. In The Listening Space, Hartley outlines a process to uncover the metaphors that we use to explain events or aspects of our lives. Seeing our metaphors[1] allows us to both understand our current conceptualizations, and consider alternative metaphors—alternative explanations. As I completed my handwritten summarization of the book, I decided to try the process. Immediately, because I was in pain, I knew I wanted to explore my relationship to my headaches. That day, I had been describing my headache as a spike being pounded into the center of my forehead.

As I answered the questions and drew my metaphor, I realized that I was imagining a mining drill making a space in a rock to insert dynamite. This spoke volumes[2] about how I am relating to my headaches: (1) I view the headaches as something hard, foreign, and outside myself, (2) I’m scared of the headaches—in this metaphor, ultimately my head will get blown up, and (3) I am quite unyielding—my head is made of stone—I am trying to resist, even fight, the headaches. Was this metaphor serving me well? No. My fear of and resistance to what is currently a reoccurring aspect of my life was only serving to increase my anxiety—and, anxiety only increases my headaches.

The next morning, as I journaled, I considered alternative metaphors. The one I have settled on (for now) is that my headaches are a lake within the ecosystem of my mind. Sometimes, weather systems move in (various stressors, such as noise and chaotic social situations) and the lake waters are turbulent—causing severe headaches. Usually, the lake is placid, the waters are still. A lake is a special, beautiful place. Often on alpine hikes, my objective is to reach a lake. Relating to my headaches as an alpine lake within, rather than a spike pounding into, my head is a lot more calming for me. When the weather becomes rough, I remind myself that, inevitably, the storm will pass—the lake will be calm again.

What’s a metaphor you are using to explain a challenge in your life? What insights does that metaphor offer? What are other metaphors that could support a different way of relating to this issue for you?

[1] I wrote this—and then “saw” my metaphor of viewing a metaphor. As I am a visual learning, this is not a coincidence. A kinesthetic learner might have intuitively thought of “Playing with our metaphors.” How would you describe relating to (yet another metaphorical means) your metaphors? [2] That one was on purpose—I couldn’t resist!

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