What are your Life Metaphors?
by Leonard Holmes, Ph.D.
On the television show Ally McBeal the characters had theme songs. The songs were supposed to reflect how they lived their lives, or maybe how they would have liked to live their lives. Most of us don't have theme songs, but we often have metaphors for our lives that either help us or hinder us.
Some people see life as a battle. Every encounter is a struggle, and if they don't win, they feel like they have lost. Others view life as an adventure. A new day brings new opportunities to explore. If something goes badly today, there's always tomorrow.
How do these metaphors develop? As children we begin to understand and organize the world. If we think of the brain as a filing cabinet, then childhood is when we open the files and label them. We often spend the rest of our lives putting new material in these old files. If childhood was healthy, then we may have a pretty good filing system. If it was a struggle, then we often see struggles for the rest of our life.
What are your metaphors? This is not usually obvious. We have to stand back a long way to see patterns like this in our lives. A few examples:
- A Battle - Everything is a competition or a struggle. We are always either winning or losing.
- A Garden - Relationships are cultivated like flowers or vegetables. We see things as growing, flowering, producing.
- A Mission - We believe that we have the truth and we need to convince others that our point-of-view is right.
- A Journey or an adventure - We travel from place to place meeting new people and exploring.
- A Building - Starting with a solid foundation, then adding floors and rooms.
- A Roller Coaster - Life consists of ups and downs, and we are along for the ride.
- A Stained-glass window - full of light and colors.
- A Mountain Climb - Life consists of hierarchies. We are always climbing the corporate ladder.
- A Race - always finding the fastest route, "keeping up with the Jonses."
- A Courtroom - Everything in life should be fair.
- Stepping Stones - We barely get comfortable where we are before we are looking for better job or a bigger house.
- A Prison - Feeling like we don't have choices, like others have all the power.
- A Classroom - There are always new lessons to learn.
- A Battery - Every encounter seems to drain energy. We need the weekends to recharge.
These are just a few of the life metaphors that run people's lives.
What metaphor(s) fit your life? Do they work or do they cause problems and limit your choices? It's possible to change metaphors, but it's not easy. Good mental health includes having life metaphors that work.