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Metaphors: Our critical wellbeing translator

The words we speak are not simply sounds that skate through air waves. They shape our view of the world from private thoughts to patterns of societal behaviour. That language influences reality is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, although there is a long-standing debate over the empirical research to support this theory. 

Metaphors are one powerful aspect of figurative language as they offer a way of talking (and potentially thinking) about one thing in terms of another. Some metaphors are so deeply embedded in language that we forget they’re not literal depictions, for example we say ‘heartbreaking’ to express emotional pain, or we might utter ‘we have to go our separate ways’ to our partner.

At school, we were taught how to infuse our communication with these rich, vivid expressions so that it more strongly resonated with listeners and conveyed the nuances of our inner life. And metaphors continue to play a vital role throughout our lives as they impact and are impacted by our wellbeing. 

This time of year can be daunting as we set new goals for the months ahead, but metaphors can render a complicated experience more digestible. In shining a spotlight on our psychological world, they helps us feel seen and see others. 

Metaphors as a window to the subconscious

In uniting disparate domains of experience, metaphors allow knowledge and feelings associated with one complex domain (e.g., languishing) to be transferred to another (e.g., stagnant water). For example, someone with OCD may describe it as ‘a bully’ when talking to a friend. This is because OCD and bullying bear similarities, but while the former would be highly complicated to relay, bullying is a universally accessible idea. As such, the friend would infer that OCD has a punishing quality which makes them feel ashamed.

Another illustration pertains to depression as drowning. People often allude to the way it feels like a weight dragging you under the surface, which makes it harder and harder to catch your breath. This conveys the all-consuming nature of the illness, which would be difficult to express without metaphors. 

When we pay close attention to how we think and speak about our wellbeing, we understand more about our relationship to a problem which would otherwise remain in the shadows. If you’re expecting a child, you might think to yourself, ‘This is such a rollercoaster, there are so many ups and downs.’ 

This raises a fascinating discussion about the utility of metaphorical language because what you’ve just revealed is that to you, pregnancy feels exciting as well as scary, and acknowledging these mixed emotions is helpful for processing the experience. 

Illness metaphors and wellbeing: Empowering or damaging?

Unfortunately, the influence of metaphors is not always positive. Susan Sontag explored metaphors around illness, and criticised the use of war-related language for cancer and AIDS, such as ‘beating’ or ‘attacking’ the diseases.

She argued that this increases patients’ feelings of fear, helplessness and isolation and pressures them into adopting a brave fighter mentality. Worse still, if someone’s treatment isn’t successful, they feel ashamed and guilty, plunged into the role of the loser. Nonetheless, such metaphors can be useful for fundraising campaigns precisely because of the motivational element.

A popular alternative is the journey metaphor which we’ve undoubtedly all used before at some point! You might tell a colleague that a project is causing stress as there are lots of ‘obstacles’ or it feels like you’re making no ‘progress’, ‘moving slowly', or 'entirely uphill’. For some, this metaphor is less disempowering than the war metaphors.

Think about how you’re feeling today, how would you describe it? What metaphors can you use to best relay your wellbeing in this moment? Humans evolved to communicate in a way unlike no other species, and so being curious about our metaphorical language is a beautiful way of learning about ourselves and others. 

Date: 23rd January

Word count: 644