Last week I talked about belief systems, and perception being the lens through which we see and understand the world (you may want to read my previous blog before reading this one).
Our thoughts and imagination create our belief systems, and our belief systems are shared with the world through the words that we use. While some poets may believe that “our eyes are a window to our soul,” I think words, when listened to carefully, lay bare the beliefs and thoughts that guide us through our human experience.
As I listen to my clients share their experiences, I listen carefully to their words, especially their metaphors because, for me, these are the keys to the mental kingdom.
A metaphor is a word or description that accounts for one thing in terms of another. For instance, if someone’s final exam was ‘a breeze’ or your girlfriend is “beautiful as a summer’s day,” the speaker is using “breeze” and “summer’s day” to give us a picture in our mind of what he or she is trying to express.
Metaphors allow us to convey a long-winded description in a word or short phrase. For example saying, “Her hair hung to her shoulders, was sort of yellow blonde and sparkled when she was outside in the sun,” is a rather rambling way to say that, “Her hair was a river of gold.” Which description creates the image in your mind of what the speaker is trying to express?
When it comes to metaphors, it’s not whether one is more or less accurate; it’s about conveying one person’s experience to those living outside his or her head.
The medical community loves to use the metaphor that “the body is a machine,” in trying to understand and explain disease (cancer has ravaged the body, the brain is like a computer, etc.). Yet, anyone who has lived in a human body for a few decades knows that it doesn’t operate in an “A leads to B” kind of way. If that were true, we would have figured out the key to the obesity epidemic, the cure to cancer and would be living happily ever after in Shangri-La.
Viewing the body as a machine and its incredible limitations is part of what drew me to look at the metaphors that we use and how those metaphors might limit our imagination, our reasoning, and how we interact with the world.
The science that is coming out now supports a much more creative expression of the human body, which is why I created the term Body Pastiche, meaning the body is a collage of many pieces, fabrics and textures.
To understand my clients’ perceptions and belief systems, I listen closely to their metaphors. Are they “at war” with their body? Does their body have “a mind of its own?”
When I hear this, I know I need to help the client reconnect with their physical body. Is food “comfort,” “fuel,” or “the enemy?” Understanding a client’s relationship to food helps me to know how to move them forward. The metaphors that they use helps me chose the metaphors I use in speaking to them.
If they see food as comfort, what are other ways to find comfort? If they see food as fuel, what really is the best way to fuel the body? Food as an enemy is a toughie because when clients talk about food being the enemy it usually means that they are “at war” with their body and their surrounding environment. These people also tend to be wound tightly and operating with their “fight or flight” system in over drive. Calming them down and enabling them to make peace with themselves, their environment, and their food, would be at the top of my list.
Just for fun, next time you’re with a group of friends, listen for the metaphors— was someone’s day “slammed” or “crazy?” Is life a ‘”struggle,” “a journey” or “a dream?” The metaphors we chose to convey our thoughts and beliefs are a direct result of how we see the world, and important decisions are made based on this sort of talk.
Public policy is created based on our belief systems and a good example of this is when researchers conducted a complicated study about how people think of crime, for example. When people thought of crime as a “beast,” the solutions to crime were about attacking crime, harsh punishments, and killing the beast. Whereas when people saw crime as a “virus,” the solutions were about looking for the causes, inoculating the population, and education.
Now, whether you agree with one description or the other is not my point. My point is that the way we frame an idea, and the words we use to express ourselves, are direct links to what is going on inside our head and a strong reflection of our belief systems.