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. In so many settings, for more than a thousand participants, the simple process of metaphor-based introspection has surprised and inspired me. 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. The implicational nature of metaphor means it can encompass what hundreds of words might miss. In all its complexity, we 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.
- 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?
- 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 you feel. (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’re feeling 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 sharing feelings, 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 facilitate intuitive introspection and non-analytical expression of difficult feelings, while mitigating counterproductive thought patterns common to states of anxiety and depression. Based in Genoa and New York City, Melissa leads MAP training internationally, for individuals and groups. Learn more at metaphormirror.com.