Metaphors of life: Psychology's new frontier

Everyone has a metaphor for life—it's a journey, a game of luck, or a mystery tale. In psychology, it seems evident that your life-metaphor reflects who you are, and where you’re headed.

In three words or less, what’s your view of human existence? Does it resemble warfare, a game of luck, or strategy like in chess? How about a journey or a school? A jigsaw puzzle or a mystery tale? Or is it something more fun—like a dance, a party, or a day at the beach? Certainly, those are a few of the popular metaphors today that people embrace around the world. Most likely, you also have a favorite one for human nature and personality: are we essentially machines, flowering plants, trees that grow from tiny seeds, or something else entirely? And what’s your metaphor for love relationships: a glorious duet, a joint adventure, or a stormy sea? Psychologists increasingly believe that your answers to these questions impact your decision-making and actions in daily life. There’s even a growing form of therapy that focuses specifically on our central or root metaphor to catalyze change among individuals and couples. Such is the fascination with this emerging field of knowledge.

The metaphors of great psychologists

It seems that every major psychological theory is based on an underlying metaphor. For example, during much of Sigmund Freud’s life, the dominant technology was steam power. It was as omnipresent a century ago as computers are for us today. Not surprisingly, Freud chose the steam engine metaphor to describe what he called the ‘apparatus’ of the human mind—in which ‘psychic energy’ flows in a ‘psycho-dynamic’ system, and can neither be created nor destroyed. In presenting his tripartite model of personality of id, ego, and superego, Freud also chose another metaphor: the human ego as a lifelong rider struggling to stay atop the wild, primitive stallion of the id.”      

Other psychological leaders, of course, have chosen different metaphors. Though neither John B Watson nor B F Skinner—founders of American behaviorism—explicitly described the newborn baby as a ‘blank slate,’ the behaviorist approach has always been associated with that particular metaphor. And when humanistic psychology arose in the USA after World War II, its founders including Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow deliberately sought new metaphors. Rogers compared us to flowering plants that require the psychological equivalents of air, soil, and sunlight to grow fully, and Maslow compared us to magnificent trees that arise from tiny acorns.

Later, with the rise of computer technology, some psychologists advocated the computer metaphor—that human beings are essentially complex information-processing or cyber systems, and that our sense of self is really an illusion.  Such an approach is often associated with that of artificial intelligence (AI) founder-philosopher Marvin Minsky at MIT, who in his 1988 book Society of Mind argued that the human mind is actually a society of innumerable, microchip-like components that are themselves mindless. So, we are back again to the machine metaphor!                                               

Life metaphors and personality

Though metaphors for human nature seem to come and go with regularity, it was Alfred Adler nearly a century ago who first argued that everyone has a particular metaphor for dealing with life. In Adler’s view, this life plan (as he called it) starts in our childhood and is firmly in place by the age of six. It represents our particular way of navigating life’s uncertainties. Where does it originate? For Adler and his exponents, our life plan comes from our inborn physical and mental strengths—and from our specific experiences involving family members and others. He insisted that our life plan is usually unconscious and that we examine it only when external forces seem to make it ineffective. As his son, psychiatrist Kurt Adler explained to me, “The goal in therapy is to help the person see how and when his life plan began. One can then learn to change it for greater happiness.”

Aside from Adlerians, the notion of life plans and metaphors had little following among social scientists for many decades. But that situation changed dramatically in 1980 with the publication of Metaphors We Live By. “Metaphors are not mere poetical or rhetorical embellishments,” declared its American authors, cognitive linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson. ”They affect the ways in which we perceive, think, and act. Reality itself is defined by metaphor.” Lakoff and Johnson did not provide empirical data to support this view, but rather, marshaled evidence from popular speech like “time is money.” Nevertheless, their persuasive book influenced researchers in fields ranging from business management and organizational theory to psychotherapy and life-span psychology. 

For example, Metaphor Therapy by Richard Kopp in 1995 popularized the specific use of metaphors to treat individuals and couples. With this approach, therapists focus on the root-metaphors that people use to describe their personal lives and relationships. As the New Zealand therapist David Grove has explained, “Metaphor mediates the link between the conscious and unconscious mind.” Thus, when a client says, “I feel like I’m running up against a brick wall,” Grove replies with questions like, “What material is the wall? How tall is it? Who built it? Is it stationary or moving? And, in what direction are you running?” For Grove, the sum total of the clients’ descriptions is known as their Metaphor Landscape—and it forms the context with which growth occurs.

Metaphor study across the globe 

Due to the paucity of empirical data about life-metaphors among South Americans, I’ve recently led two studies in Colombia with co-researchers Dr William Compton and Catalina Acosta Orozco. Published in the College Student Journal, these focused on college student leaders and medical students respectively. Metaphor analysis proved an effective means of uncovering students’ core values, personal goals, and decision-making strategies. For both groups, ‘life is a journey’ was the most preferred metaphor and ‘life is like a prison’ was the most rejected. Though both groups of students espoused metaphors that were mainly active, positive, and individualistic, leadership students’ life-metaphors tended to be more collectivistic and spiritually-oriented than those of medical students. 

Researchers today in the growing field of gerontology are also focusing on metaphors. Dr Rosanne Beuthin, and her colleagues at the University of Victoria’s Nursing School in Canada, recently explored the types of metaphors used by elderly patients taking medication for chronic illness. This is an important topic, for compliance with medication often has life-or-death consequences for the elderly. Four main metaphors dominated their thinking about medication usage—related to being shackled, experiencing renewed hope, feeling dependent on external authority, and fearing communication with medical personnel. 

New metaphors for our time?

A final question to consider: are new life-metaphors emerging today? The answer seems to be a definite yes. When the Matrix movie trilogy appeared during 1999-2003, many admiring viewers praised the series for offering a powerful metaphor for our high-tech civilization—in which machines increasingly dominate our daily existence and maybe even shape our view of reality. For example, American blogger Martin Lass commented, “The Matrix series of movies is more than just a trendy science fiction/martial arts action film. It is a modern metaphor, probably deliberately crafted as such, for the actual state of our individual and collective unconscious.”

Other social analysts view the Internet as generating a different new metaphor for life today—namely, the perpetual tourist. These commentators assert that in a sense, we’re all tourists now—flickering or fluidly moving from one website to another, one online relationship to another—without experiencing any real sense of home or core identity. Whether most people would agree is speculative. But if one thing is certain in surveying psychology’s long fascination with metaphors, it’s that new ones are sure to arise. It also seems clear that in the short—and perhaps even long run—your life-metaphor reflects who you are, and where you’re headed.

Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at 

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