The secret life of metaphor

A little splash of color from my mother
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First published in Ode Magazine

Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another, as in Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet, “Juliet is the sun.” But metaphor is much more than a mere literary device employed by love-struck poets when they refer to their girlfriends as interstellar masses of incandescent gas.

Metaphor is intensely yet inconspicuously present in everything from economics and advertising to politics and business to science and psychology.

Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about one metaphor for every 10 to 25 words, or about six metaphors a minute. Metaphor conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions. In the mouths of politicians, metaphor subtly nudges public opinion; in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation. In science, metaphor is the preferred nomenclature for new theories and new discoveries; in psychology, it is the natural language of human relationships and emotions.

Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.

New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphor influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways. Metaphor has finally leapt off the page and landed with a mighty splash right in the middle of our stream of consciousness. That impact is making a big splash in the field of psychology, through metaphor therapy.

Through a process called symbolic modeling, psychotherapists James Lawley and Penny Tompkins help clients create and explore metaphors around crucial emotions or personal dilemmas. To learn more about the technique, I booked a session with them. A few weeks before our appointment, my mother died and I decided that my mother’s death would be the starting point for our conversation.

By the time I met with Lawley and Tompkins, my mother’s funeral was over. The initial shock had passed. I had spent a week cleaning out her house, the house in which I grew up. Now things were getting back to normal. The routine business of living had resumed. As I struggled to identify exactly how I felt, to reconcile the contrast between the intensity of my mother’s death and the abrupt return to normalcy, the best I could come up with was, “No different.”

“Anything else about that ‘No different’?” Lawley asked.

“The feeling is everywhere, diffuse,” I said, “like a light blanket, not noticeable because it’s so light. The most remarkable thing about it is that it has so few characteristics. It’s almost nothing, like wallpaper.”

“Anything else about that ‘wallpaper’?”

“You ignore it, especially if it’s drab.”

“Anything else about that ‘drab wallpaper’?”

“I don’t like it, its drabness. It reminds me of the house I grew up in.”

My family moved to the house I grew up in when it was brand new, in the early 1970s. As a teenager, I loathed that house. It symbolized to me everything that was flimsy and oppressive about growing up in the suburbs. The hollow plywood door to my bedroom still had the deep gash cut into it when my brother threw his shoe at me and missed. The plastic towel rack in the bathroom still fell off the wall every time I tried to hang a wet towel on it. The lawn and the driveway were still impeccably maintained, just like every other lawn and driveway on this impeccably maintained street.

In going through my mother’s things, I was struck by how few personal possessions she had. She had lots of bric-a-brac—Norman Rockwell commemorative plates, several plaques with “An Irish Blessing” printed on them, some mildly patriotic trinkets—but little else. The trinkets kept turning up everywhere, not just on the walls but also in drawers, under beds, in closets, many of them sealed in plastic bags.

My mother also had an astonishing array of Christmas and Halloween decorations, which she carefully packed up and stored after displaying for the holidays. This stuff had always made me inexpressibly depressed, something about the impersonal sameness of it all, like wallpaper.

Then, in the powder room closet under some old packets of aspirin, bottles of foot spray, and a variety of stray Christmas tree ornaments (all sealed in individual plastic bags), I found my mom’s 1944 high school yearbook. In its warped and moldy pages was a pile of old photographs along with the drawings I had made as a kid for Mother’s Day, Christmas, and my parents’ wedding anniversaries.

The photographs showed my mom in all her glory – dressed as Mother Earth, wrapped in a bed sheet with a plastic Christmas wreath on her head, during one of the many parties my parents threw in the basement; at the front door during her surprise fiftieth birthday bash, gasping in delight and disbelief as she watched Aunt Peggy outfitted as a drum majorette leading a parade of friends and relatives down the middle of our street; tanning in a lawn chair in the backyard with slices of cucumber strategically placed over her eyes.

Among my colorful crayon drawings – full of balloons, exploding fireworks, and huge red hearts – was an apologetic note in which my mother explained that the drawings of my sister and brothers were missing because they had been ruined in one of the frequent post-rainstorm floods in our basement.

“My mom was fun and funny,” I said. “The drab wallpaper blotted out the colorful patches.”

“Anything else about that ‘blotted out’?” Lawley asked.

“That’s what blots out feelings. Memories of my mother can be splashes of color.”

“When you think about those ‘splashes of color,’ then what happens?”

“It’s not so drab anymore. It comes alive.”

The drab wallpaper concealed a lot of feelings – about my mother, my childhood, the house I grew up in. By following the metaphor, aided by Lawley’s gentle promptings, I uncovered memories and emotions that had been papered over long ago.

Lawley and Tompkins are practitioners of “clean language,” a form of talk therapy developed by New Zealand psychotherapist David Grove. Grove, who died in 2008 at the age of fifty-seven, worked with people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – war veterans and victims of violent crime or psychological or sexual abuse. In the 1980s, he began noticing that when clients described their most troubling emotions and most traumatic memories, they always spoke in metaphors.

It is easy enough to label a specific emotion, such as grief, fear, pride, or happiness. It is much harder to convey the actual qualitative experience of that emotion. But metaphorical language can describe the indescribable. Saying that grief is like “having your heart ripped out” or that joy is “popping out of your body like a champagne cork” is not just the most vivid way to express the experience of these feelings, it is the only way to express the experience of these feelings.

“We can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else,” George Eliot wrote in The Mill on the Floss. In saying that my feelings about my mother’s death were like drab wallpaper, I discovered what my feelings really were.

Lawley and Tompkins, who are based in the United Kingdom, spent five years studying with Grove to produce a systematic account of his approach to metaphor in their book Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. “I noticed, if I didn’t force people when they were talking they would naturally start using metaphor to describe their experience,” Grove told them. “So I realized here was another way to structure experience. I decided that metaphor was a whole language worthy of study.”

Grove paid careful attention to clients’ metaphors, observing that they gradually took on a highly personalized significance. If a client stayed with a metaphor long enough, it became increasingly elaborate, often evolving into a kind of parable that contained an important lesson. The metaphors had a consistent structure and a direct relevance to the client’s experience. And when the metaphors changed, Grove noticed, the people changed, too.

Grove devised clean language as a technique to help clients, those with PTSD and those without, develop their own metaphors – and use those metaphors to achieve emotional insight and psychological change.

Grove’s clean language involves the relentless pursuit of the unexpected and idiosyncratic in client metaphors and the commitment to hold fast to the client’s own words and imagery. Allowing the client’s unconscious to analyze itself through metaphor is key to how Grovian therapy works.

But Grove believed that client metaphors were unique to individuals rather than being of universal significance like Jungian archetypes. He also went out of his way to avoid interpreting client metaphors, a practice he believed only interfered with the therapeutic process. Grove called his language “clean” precisely because it pared away the therapist’s own assumptions, ideas, and biases. Clean language is meant to be a blank slate on which the client paints a metaphorical landscape. The technique, he once told Lawley, is for the client to “interrogate the metaphor until it confesses its strengths.”

To facilitate these interrogations, Grove devised questions to elicit and enhance client metaphors. Grove’s questions address the metaphor itself, not what the client or the therapist happens to think about the metaphor. The therapist’s role is “to pay unbelievable attention to the client’s exact words,” according to Tompkins. “You have to walk side by side with the person through their metaphor landscape. You have to keep the attention on their experience in the moment. The power of directing attention where people don’t normally go is astronomical. When you notice the uncanny in a metaphor, when you hear the shock in the client’s voice, you know you’ve hit pay dirt.”

So, when a client uses a metaphor in a clean session, the therapist treats the phrase literally and begins asking questions of it. “When someone says, ‘I’m a ticking bomb,’ normal logic says, ‘That’s not real,’” Lawley explains. “Clean language asks, ‘What kind of bomb? Is there anything else about that ticking?’”

For Grove, metaphors carry information, and that information can only be accessed through the metaphors themselves, not through a therapist’s or a client’s clever explications of them. Explication is not only unnecessary but also unhelpful. “Questions couched in ‘normal’ language ask the client to comment on his experience,” Grove wrote in Resolving Traumatic Memories: Metaphors and Symbols in Psychotherapy. “Every time he does that he comes out of a state of self-absorption to perform an
intellectual task which interrupts the process we are working to encourage and to facilitate.”

That process – the process of personal transformation – is about experience rather than interpretation. Metaphor has a paradoxical power. It distances an experience by equating it with something else, but in so doing actually brings that experience closer. “By talking about what something is not, you understand what it is,” as Lawley puts it:

“Our questions will have given a form, made manifest some particular aspect of the client’s internal experience in [a] way that he has not experienced before,” Grove wrote. “The experience is alive and real; not just contained in words or dissipated in answers. We structure an environment internally: the client is going to experience rather than describe what the experience is like.”

Clean language is not limited to therapeutic encounters. The practice has been used by the British police force to help officers with their interviewing techniques; by the British National Health Service to improve patient-doctor communication; in Northern Ireland and Bosnia as part of the post-conflict reconciliation process; and by major
consultancy firms as an aspect of their management training schemes.

Caitlin Walker, a consultant who designs learning and development programs that address diversity, conflict, and leadership issues, has used clean language with unruly British adolescents in the context of anger management sessions. Working with one teenage boy who had a long history of getting into fistfights, she asked:

“What happens just before you hit someone?”

“I just switch, Miss,” he replied, snapping his fingers. “I go red. Everything just goes quiet.”

“You ‘go red.’ You ‘switch,’” Walker repeated, using the teenager’s exact words and also snapping her fingers. “‘Everything just goes quiet.’ And when it ‘goes quiet,’ what kind of quiet?”

“Like shutters, Miss,” the boy said, cupping his hands around his eyes like horse blinkers. “I can’t hear anything in my head and it’s like I can only see the one in front of me. The next thing I know is people are shouting, someone’s lying on the ground, and I’m in trouble.”

Walker then explored what happened just before he hit someone:

“You ‘go red,’ and when you ‘go red,’ what kind of red is it?”

“Blood red. It just gets red and I get angry, like my blood’s boiling.”

“And when ‘my blood’s boiling,’ what happens just before it’s ‘blood red’ and ‘boiling’?”

“It’s cooler!”

“And when ‘it’s cooler,’ ‘it’s cooler’ like what?”

“It’s cool blue, like the sky, like my Mum,” he replied, looking upward and- uncharacteristically – smiling.

“And ‘cool blue, like the sky, like your Mum,’ then ‘blood red’ like
your ‘blood’s boiling,’ and then what happens after ‘blood’s boiling’?”

“I get raj [enraged] and attack. Then it’s out of me and I run and look
at the sky and think of my Mum and breathe in blue until the red’s

Through this clean interrogation, Walker helped the boy see the full spectrum of thoughts and feelings preceding a violent encounter. She asked the boy to think of his color metaphors the next time he felt himself losing his temper, and to use the metaphors to get himself out of the situation before fists started flying.

When they next met, he reported back:

“You know I go red? Well, yesterday I felt it happening. I get up in the morning, blue and relaxed, then I see Dad’s drunk – red! Then I have to put dirty clothes back on cause he hasn’t done laundry – red! No money for the bus – red! I’m cold and I’m late for school – red! I get to school and get detention and I’m red and anyone says anything it boils! So, I thought, what if I walk to school past the duck pond and I stop and look in the water, cause that makes me blue and if I breathe in blue and think of my Mum then I won’t boil so fast.”

Now, every time this boy feels himself going red, he breathes in blue by the duck pond near his school. With his anger under better control, he has been able for the first time to start building friendships with his classmates.

This translation from metaphor to real life is a central tenet of Grovian therapy. To encourage that transition, Grove often asked clients to actually do something related to their metaphor, a technique he picked up from Milton H. Erickson, a psychiatrist who specialized in clinical hypnosis.

Erickson often used parables in his therapeutic work, coupling these with specific tasks for clients to perform. One of Erickson’s clients was an alcoholic. Erickson told this man a bit about the humble cactus, how the plant conserves water and can survive for up to three years in the desert without rainfall. He then told the man to go to the local
botanical gardens to observe cacti. Erickson never heard from the man again. Many years later, after this client had died, the man’s daughter visited Erickson to tell him that her father had been sober since the day he went to the botanical gardens.

Erickson called these tasks “ambiguous-function assignments,” but their role in furthering psychological change has become far less ambiguous since he began experimenting with them. In describing difficult emotions, we often use metaphors of containment: we keep our feelings bottled up, our bad memories sealed off, and our resentments buried. To test whether the physical acting out of these metaphors had a psychological impact on the experience of these emotions, researchers in Singapore and Canada devised an ambiguous-function assignment of their own.

They first asked participants to write down their recollections of a recent decision they regretted. Half the group then sealed their texts in an envelope before handing it in; the other half did not. When subsequently asked how they felt about the regrettable decision, those who had sealed their recollections in an envelope reported significantly fewer negative emotions.

In a related experiment, the same research team asked subjects to write down two things: their account of a news report about an infant’s accidental death and their plans for the weekend. Half the group sealed their account of the infant’s death in an envelope; the other half sealed their plans for the weekend. The researchers found that those whohad sealed up the story of the infant’s death recalled fewer details of the event than those who had sealed up their plans for the weekend. Their conclusion: physical closure helps achieve psychological closure.

Grove used ambiguous-function assignments with his clients, too. If, for example, a client had said, “I’m in a brick tunnel and I can’t see either end,” Grove might have sent the client to a transport museum to find out about tunnels, to a bricklayer to learn how tunnels are built, or to a DIY store to buy material to construct a replica tunnel. The goal: to translate insight into action.

After I finished cleaning out my mother’s house, there was only one place left to look: the attic. The entrance to the attic was through the top of my bedroom closet. I knew we never kept much of anything up there, because that was where I hid things – my teenage diaries, in particular – that I didn’t want my mother to discover. Still, I thought I would check the attic just to make sure nothing was left behind.

When I popped my head into the attic, I discovered three dilapidated hatboxes. In each of the three boxes was one of my mother’s hats from the 1960s. One hat in particular I recognized: a pillbox hat made of bright pink feathers. Black-and-white shots of my mother wearing this hat were among the cache of photos I had found in her high school

The hat was covered in fine black dust and a few of the feathers had fallen out. But, despite nearly forty years in the attic, it was still intact.

I took the hat home. I had it cleaned and repaired. It now occupies pride of place on our mantelpiece, a little splash of color from my mother.

Watch Metaphorically Speaking, a TED Talk by James Geary.

This is an edited extract from James Geary’s book, I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, published in 2011 by HarperCollins.

© Ode Magazine USA, Inc. and Ode Luxembourg 2009.

First published on this website: 7 Feb 2011.

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