Speaking Metaphorically for Well-Being in Difficult Times

The ubiquitous “How are you?” can pose challenges under the best of circumstances. When we’re experiencing stress, anxiety or illness, the question may seem unanswerable, and diving into details can make things worse. 


A little over a decade ago, I began developing and codifying a strategic use of metaphor called Metaphoric Affect Processing (MAP), to help patients and staff in cancer and psychiatric treatment settings share their most challenging feelings without lapsing into negative thinking modes. 


Right from the start, by harnessing the intuitive nature of metaphoric expression with MAP’s metaphor-based Q&A, we began co-creating new perspectives. The simple act of metaphor-based reflection has been a powerful tool for me in so many settings. It has inspired and surprised more than 1000 people. Individually and in groups, with patients and their family members, medical professionals, teachers, students, counseling clients, and friends, I’ve witnessed the power of metaphor to change how we feel. My research with nurses found that engaging metaphor helped address burnout by reducing stress and increasing empathy. 


Most of us know metaphor best as a Descriptive tool (“The new year is a new dawn!”). We’re familiar with the way metaphor operates intuitively. Metaphor can be used to express what hundreds of words might miss because of its implicational nature. We are able to comprehend all of its complexity. feel metaphor, because it magically bypasses rational cognition (the neurological track of rumination and negativity bias) typically associated with verbalization. 


Decades ago, with their revolutionary Cognitive Metaphor Theory, linguists Lakoff and Johnson introduced metaphor as a “process,” a “neural phenomenon” in which “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing [my italics] one kind of thing in terms of another.” During metaphor-mirroring we use metaphor as a lens, a sixth sense of pre-verbal perception that can scan our emotional landscape and identify the feeling of our feelings as it labels them through color, sound, touch, etc., producing a naturally poetic text—a metaphor mirror—that reflects “how we are.” In the wilderness of raw experiential data, our personal, uniquely resonant metaphors express what may otherwise remain inexpressible.


Try this:


  1. In just a word or two, answer the question “How are you?” as if a friend or family member were asking. Honestly, how are you, right now, in this moment?
  2. Now, ask yourself “What color am I in this moment?” What color are your feelings? What hues, tones, saturations do you perceive? Use your sense of color to “see” how youFeel. (No need to explain or interpret your answer, just let it emerge!)


You may notice these response-searches feel quite different from one another. The two questions activate distinct neural pathways—what Daniel Kahneman would call separate thinking “systems.” The conventional “How are you?” triggers our rational System 2, while “What color are you?” activates System 1 intuitive thinking. MAP uses metaphor as the bridge to get us from analytical to embodied introspection. This concept was crucial to the early codification of the MAP technique, and a successful metaphor-mirroring session depends on it.


As all art can, metaphor expands us beyond ourselves, broadening and deepening our awareness and generating insight. The sense-metaphoric exploration of how we’reFeeling can put a precious distance between us and our emotions. It gives us space and a pause that rational query cannot. It also, simultaneously, gifts a rich language for sharingSentiment, and for honoring them as we speak. Think of “I, metaphor…” as the start of something magical! 


Watch Part 1 of Melissa’s WBI/JCC Positivity Hour webinar below, and register now for Part 2 on February 3. 

The Metaphor Mirror: Reflecting Our Present and Future Selves with Sense-Metaphor 

A Positivity Hour Webinar with Melissa Johnson Carissimo

Melissa Johnson Carissimo

Melissa Johnson Carissimo is a counselor trained in Carl Rogers’ person-centered approach, and a Wholebeing Institute–certified Positive Psychology Coach. She is also the creator of Metaphoric Affect Processing (MAP), which she has researched and taught in oncology, psychiatry, palliative care, and nephrology contexts in the largest public hospitals of Genoa, Italy. MAP is a metaphor-based interview designed to facilitateIntutive introspection and non-analytical expression of difficult feelings, while mitigating counterproductive thought patterns common to states of anxiety and depression. Melissa is based in Genoa and New York City and leads MAP training for individuals and groups. Learn more at  metaphormirror.com.

The post Speaking Metaphorically to Improve Well-Being in Difficult Time appeared first on Wholebeing Institute.

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