The Magic of Metaphor

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

First published in The Caroline Myss Newsletter, March 2002

“Learning to read the language of symbols has a positive effect on your self-image and energy. You do not have to wait for a crisis to see things symbolically and accurately.
You can start wherever you are.”
Caroline Myss, Sacred Contracts

This article is about learning to use your personal metaphors and symbols in order to read and understand your own symbology. Your metaphors enable you to know yourself and and understand your life in a new way. Notice the richness of the description in the following statement:

My anger is like dancing with a tiger. I can see it all now, the room, the chandelier, hear the music, feel my heart pounding as we swirl between other couples on the dance floor … I’m on the edge of life and death.

Metaphor is indispensable. We cannot speak without metaphor. We cannot think without metaphor. And we would never have evolved into conscious beings without metaphor.

Our language is littered with metaphors. Recent research into everyday conversation shows that we use four metaphors per minute. Why is this statistic a surprise? Because we are not aware of the vast majority of metaphors that we use. Metaphor is so fundamental to the way we think and speak that only the more obvious ones register in our awareness:

I’m forever running up against a brick wall.

I’m carrying the world on my shoulders.

I think I’m cracking up.

I see a light at the end of the tunnel.

These expressions are obviously metaphoric. We know there is no real brick wall, that the speaker has not turned into Atlas or an egg, and that they are not in an actual tunnel. Instead we have an inbuilt mechanism that registers the figurative nature of these expressions and accepts them as symbolizing an experience rather than being the experience itself. We intuitively know that everyday things and behaviors (walls, running, shoulders, the world, cracking, light and tunnels) are being used to represent other experiences: a lack of progress, excessive responsibility, an unwanted state of mind, and finding hope.

Metaphors evoke rich images and a felt sense of what is being described. They can vividly express a single idea or a lifetime of experience. Although many linguists used to dismiss them as ‘merely figurative’, today they are accepted as a highly accurate description of the speaker’s perception. When we talk about our problems, our emotions, our desires, our relationships – the things most important to us — we are even more likely to make use of metaphor to help us describe the depth and complexity of our experience.

What Exactly is a Metaphor?

In George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s mind-expanding book, Metaphors We Live By, they say:

“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”

We like this simple definition for a number of reasons. First, it recognises that metaphor is about capturing the essential nature of an experience. For instance, when a client of ours described his situation as, “It’s like I’m a goldfish in a deoxygenated pond having to come up for air,” his sense of futility and impending doom was instantly apparent.

Second, the definition acknowledges that metaphor is an active process which is at the very heart of understanding ourselves, others and the world around us. Third, it allows metaphor to be more than verbal expression. Metaphors are also expressed non-verbally by gestures, sounds, objects and images. In other words, whatever a person says, does, sees, hears, feels or imagines has the potential to be a metaphor that stands for another experience.

The word ‘metaphor’ has the same root as ‘amphora’, a container used to store precious oils and spices, and to carry them from one place to another. Similarly, metaphors store precious information and have the innate capacity for carrying it from the mundane to the extraordinary, or indeed, to the sacred.

A metaphor itself is comprised of a number of interrelating components which we call ‘symbols’. So a metaphor is a whole and a symbol is a part of that whole. For example, “I feel like my back is pinned against a wall” refers to three symbols (I, my back, and a wall), with a fourth (whatever or whoever is doing the ‘pinned’) being implied.

In Man and His Symbols Carl Jung noted there is always something more to a symbol than meets the eye and no matter how much a symbol is described, its full meaning remains elusive: “What we call a symbol is a term, a name or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown or hidden from us.”

The way we relate to a symbol is all-important. Symbols such as national flags or religious icons may have a shared cultural meaning, but it is our personal connection with them that imbues them with significance.

Even though we may use common metaphors, when these are examined more closely a uniquely personal meaning always emerges. Our personal symbolism connects us to our history, our spiritual nature, our sense of destiny and to the “vague, unknown or hidden” aspects of our life. The more this symbolism is explored the more its significance emerges, and the more we can use it as a guide to awareness and action.

Making Use of Metaphors

Once you start to recognize the metaphors you and others use, you will notice them everywhere. In fact it is ‘hard’ to ‘put together’ an ‘everyday’ sentence which does not ‘contain’ a ‘hidden’ metaphor. The pervasiveness of metaphor in language is, however, only half the story. We also think, reason, make decisions and base our actions on those very same metaphors. In this way our metaphors determine how we live our lives, and what kind of lives we live.

If you take metaphors as literal descriptions of unconscious processing they become a gateway to increased awareness, understanding and change.

Take ‘anger’ as an example. What kind of anger do you experience? Do you:

Reach boiling point and then blow your top

Have a ferocious temper and try to fight back your rage

Unburden your anger by getting it off your chest

or something else entirely?

In the first example anger is symbolized as a hot fluid. So your natural response might be to ‘cool things down’ or ‘let off steam’. In the second example, anger is represented as an opponent or wild animal, so you may want to ‘defeat it’ or ‘keep it under control’. In the third example, anger is regarded as a burden to be removed; therefore you might want to stop ‘it building up’ or ‘holding on to it for so long’. Inevitably the actions we take will be consistent with the metaphors we use.

Not only do we use metaphor to make sense of our own emotions, we also try to fit other people’s emotions and behaviors into our own metaphorical way of seeing the world. What we feel they should do and the advice we give them will derive in large part from our own metaphors. 

As you might guess, when two people have widely contrasting metaphors it is often a recipe for miscommunication. For example, when one person likes to ‘smoulder’ before ‘raking over the coals’, and another has a ‘short fuse’ and wants to ‘get it over with’, they will almost certainly disagree on how to express their emotions and probably end up in conflict.

Metaphors create insight, but they also create ways of not seeing. Metaphors can liberate, and they also can limit. They can empower or they can disempower. They can be a tool for creativity, or a self-imposed prison. The exercise below offers you the opportunity to unlock your creativity and open those prison doors.


The purpose of this exercise is to enable you to have more choice in how you respond to situations where, in the past, you feel you have acted inappropriately. There could be a whole range of emotionally-based actions that would fit here, but we are going to continue to use ‘anger’ as an example.

The purpose of the exercise is for you to:

(1) identify a metaphor for when you are angry and act inappropriately as a result;
(2) identify a second metaphor for how you would prefer to respond;
(3) explore how you can convert or evolve the first metaphor into the second;
(4) translate your insights into how you can change your behavior in your everyday life;
(5) rehearse this new behavior.

You will need blank paper and colored pens. You might like to read through the exercise and the following example so that you have an understanding of what you will be doing before you start. When you answer the questions in the exercise, give yourself time for images and feelings to emerge into consciousness before writing or drawing.

1. Identify a metaphor for when you are angry and act inappropriately as a result:

a. Ask yourself, “When I am angry and act inappropriately, that’s like what?”

b. Draw the metaphor that comes to mind.

c. Look at your drawing and ask yourself the following questions so you get to know more about the symbols in the metaphor. For each part of the drawing, ask:

“What kind of ……?”

“Is there anything else about ……?”

Add new information to the drawing, and when you’ve got all that you can get for now, go on to the second metaphor.

The purpose of these Clean Language questions is to focus your attention on each part of the metaphor so that you consider its qualities and characteristics. They are specially designed to work with personal symbols. There will be aspects to your metaphor that you did not consciously decide. By putting your attention on each part of your metaphor you are likely to discover something new about yourself or the situation. These unexpected elements are often the places where a new kind of change can emerge.

2. Identify a second metaphor for how you would prefer to respond:

a. Ask yourself, “How I would prefer to respond is like what?”

b. Draw the metaphor that comes to mind.

c. For each part of the drawing, ask yourself the following questions so you get to know more about the symbols in this metaphor:

“What kind of …… ?”

“Is there anything else about …….?

Add new information to the drawing, and when you’ve got all that you can get for now, go to Step 3.

3. Explore how you can convert or evolve the first metaphor into the second:

a. Place your drawings in front of you.

b. Consider how Metaphor 1 can evolve into Metaphor 2.

c. Notice:

“What’s the FIRST thing that needs to happen for Metaphor 1 to start becoming Metaphor 2?”

“What’s the LAST thing that needs to happen before Metaphor 1 becomes Metaphor 2?”

Take your time when completing Step 3. You don’t have to accept the first idea that comes to mind – the purpose is for you to consider something new. You might like to imagine yourself as the symbols (as if inside the drawings) and wonder what is required for Metaphor 1 to change into Metaphor 2. 

Remember it may take a number of intermediate stages for this to happen. Don’t reject an idea just because it seems bizarre (the land of metaphor is often closer to a dream world than to everyday reality). You’ll know when you’ve found the solution that’s right for you, and it usually contains an element of a surprise.

4. Having identified a way for Metaphor 1 to become Metaphor 2, how does this translate into what you need to do in your everyday life? How will this information guide your behavior next time you are in a similar situation?

5. To start getting used to this new way of responding, rehearse being Metaphor 2 by embodying its characteristics NOW:

What is your posture?
What do you feel inside?
Where is your focus of attention?
What do you say and how are you saying it?


The following is a short summary of the results of one person going though the exercise. Your answers will likely be very different to these.

1. When I am angry and acting inappropriately, that’s like what?

“Like a gladiator on the back foot.”

What kind of ‘gladiator’?

“He’s a Roman gladiator with a trident.”

What kind of ‘trident’?

“Rigid, belittled and ready to strike.”

Is there anything else about ‘on the back foot’?

“His back foot is under pressure and out of balance.”

And so on.

2. How I would prefer to respond is like what?

“To be standing tall like a tree able to bend in the wind. The tree is flexible, with deep roots, proud and grounded. The wind is gusting, but eventually calms down.”

3. How can Metaphor 1 become Metaphor 2?

“The gladiator stands upright, balanced on both feet, plants his trident into the ground and this grows roots deep into the earth. First, he takes a deep breath. Last, he feels himself proudly beginning to bend with the wind.”

4. How will this information guide your behavior next time you are in a similar situation?

“I’ll realize the person’s attacking words can fly past me rather than going into my core. I know if I stand tall and feel balanced and grounded then I can’t be hurt by their words. If I still feel angry at what they’ve said, I can ask them what they’re trying to achieve by saying these things, but I don’t have to strike back.”

In Conclusion

Our personal metaphors and symbols help us make sense of the world. They give form to those aspects of our lives which are the most mystifying – our problems and their solutions, our fears and desires, our illness and health, our poverty and wealth, and our capacity to love and to be loved. When these experiences are given form, and are seen with symbolic sight, they then become amenable to exploration and transformation.


Jung, Carl, Man and his Symbols, Picador, London 1964.

Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark, Metaphors we Live By, University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
body * { color: inherit !important; }