Resilient Metaphors: Is Your Glass Half Full?

“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,”. Whenever one thing is described in terms of another, that’s a metaphor (Lakoff, 1980). The word originates from the Greek word metapharein, which means to transfer. We use metaphors to transfer our knowledge of a situation into the container of a metaphor so that we can better understand ourselves and the world around us. They are so deeply embedded within our language that we use them without even noticing, at a rate of about 6 metaphors per minute (Geary, 2011). How could this extensive use of thought and language influence our well-being subconsciously?

Consider how often we might have heard ourselves or others say, “I am not getting anywhere with this”, “I feel stuck”, “I’m at a crossroads right now”, “I’m going around in circles”

We make sense of progress in our life and careers through the common metaphorical vehicle of travel, if our journey is disrupted, delayed or we aren’t where we believe we should be then this can cause some internal disharmony.

As a coach I am attentive to the type of language being used by my coachees, if I sense that a metaphor is potentially detrimental to their well-being or performance, then collaboratively exploring this is a great way of raising awareness of how this person may be making sense of their world using a deleterious metaphor that only serves to further their frustration, stress or act as a barrier to positive change.

“I’m treading water at the moment” would be something that immediately catches my attention, because the consequence of the cessation of treading water would be to drown. This is often how people feel when they are in the resistance phase of General Adaptation Syndrome(Selye, 1946), the third phase is exhaustion or drowning in the metaphorical sense. The meanings we derive from metaphors are so strong, that on a subconscious level, drowning is a perilous reality. One could posit, holding onto this metaphor is not conducive to mental well-being.

Part of positive stress management and developing resilience is to build awareness of the metaphors we live by, dispute and evaluate their usefulness, construct healthier ones or make the unhealthy ones redundant. A process for the treading water example would be, to draw the image or write it down and ask the following questions:

1. Does this image or text accurately portray my situation or is it symptomatic of a cognitive distortion

2. If it feels accurate then populate the metaphor by adding more detail for example

a) Am I alone in the water?
b) How deep is the water?
c) How close am I to the edge?
d) Do I have something to keep me afloat?
e) Is there an option to get myself onto dry land?

3. Review the metaphor and see if it has provided you with more information, unfolded sensuous reflections or expanded the dimensions of actions, perceptions and thoughts. It may even provide some clarity as to the options available to us when our thinking is limited by the negative downward circular experience of chronic stress.



Geary, J. (2011). I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World: HarperCollins.
Lakoff, G. (1980). Metaphors we live by: Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Selye, H. (1946). The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation. The journal of clinical endocrinology, 6(2), 117-230
A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities“There is prodigious strength in sorrow and despair.” As the end of term arrives, I have found myself reflecting on the...

read more