Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How Metaphor Can Help You Find the Hidden You

A literary tool that can open the gate between your outer and inner worlds.

Key points

  • Metaphor is natural to our communication and understanding.
  • Metaphor helps make visible problems and solutions we may not be aware of.
  • Metaphor shines a light on lost (yet deeply human) aspects of ourselves and others.
suju-foto / Pixabay
Source: suju-foto / Pixabay

This post is part 2 of a series. To see the first entry, click here.

In my last post, we discussed how literature can force you to become aware of and understand specific things. We considered how even the sparsest of details are often the most revealing.

At the core of the discussion, we looked at how literature is a gateway to laying out your outer and inner worlds and discovering a desire for goodness so personal and deep we don’t even want to speak of it in conversation. At the personal level, using it this way can enable discovery and deeper, freer, potentially more meaningful experiences.

In this post, I would like to zero in on metaphor and how to use it as a self-discovery tool. In a way, it is surprising how much we rely on the natural flow of metaphor in daily conversation. Even the word “flow" is itself a metaphor. We say things right off the cuff like, “I froze last night, or I froze as I searched for an answer.” Or “We’re going to hit the road running with our new PR campaign.” I recall the popular 1960s expression, “Dig it" as well. We don’t usually stop to consider what these mean or how they apply as they move in and out of daily conversation. We have ingrained their meanings in our memory, and they have become natural, so to speak, and commonplace in our communications. I encourage you to listen in closely to any conversation and spot how much we rely on this tool.

Why do we use metaphors so abundantly? One reason is that they help us say things efficiently. We already know what “hit the road running” means. To explain all that it could entail would require a lot more time and space. Yet we get the basic idea immediately. Metaphor at this level is functional, albeit still creative.

As we get more creative with metaphor, we may use phraseology generated by poets, songwriters, and artists. Here the richness of the meaning will also depend on how many ways the “comparison” (analogy) can mean something to you and whomever you are communicating with. However, the “prize,” will potentially be that your communication becomes more impacting. It can also inspire much deeper thinking, feeling, and emotional connection.

Decades ago, I took a sabbatical in which I studied the effect of various environments around the country on the metaphors one might create. The flipside was how to use environment to create metaphors that would work with intended listeners, readers, etc. So, for example, you might say, “The thought came to me as quickly as the flash of a lighthouse,” if you are from a community where there is a lighthouse smack in the center of the city. However, if you live where I do, that analogy would probably not come to mind, and it wouldn’t be as visceral to other individuals living here. Basically, where some experiential connection already exists between a person and the analogy, the stronger it will be. So, a good place to start as you use or explore metaphor is where some match already exists.

Metaphors help deepen our empathy and connection to others. Take The Beatles' use of the phrase “nowhere man,” in their song of the same title. You are able to zero in on other parts of the song that give the metaphor meaning — the individual has no point of view, for example, and doesn’t know where he is going to (which in and of itself is another metaphor, as “going to” can have a plethora of meanings). In the end, we realize that the entire song itself is a metaphor for all of us and how we may be living our lives. It can take us to thoughts that may inspire a compassionate way out of our own Nowhereville, or maybe how we can help others find their way out. In making sense of metaphors, we are, in a sense, predisposed to know where to look for what authors want us to understand. In Nowhere Man we get enough clues from other lines in the song to “get it.” (Note: I was going to write, “nail it.”)

My point is to locate the metaphors in your favorite works of literature. This may be in poems, aphorisms, short stories, novels, movies, or songs. Locate the ones that seem to resonate for you in a positive way. Contemplate them to see where they take you in your thoughts, emotions, and understandings. The more ways you can connect with a metaphor, the more you will deeply feel it and learn from it. When you find one, I encourage you to work with it for several days. The nice thing is that meaning(s) will continue to “bubble up.” Some may never exhaust of possibilities. Unraveling metaphors is a way to heighten our consciousness as well as deepen self-discovery.

When you find a metaphor you like, you can explore it like this: Take, for example, the metaphor, “Love is a rose.” I have used it with many groups of individuals in various creativity classes. Start by making a mental (or written) list of all the details that come to mind when you think of roses: Roses are associated with love, they are lovely and beautiful, they have thorns that can hurt. Keep going with your thoughts: While the flowers are healthy, they are beautiful; but they die. As they die, they wilt, and they may mold and decay. Roses will transform and keep transforming, but they can dry and a sweet fragrance will return. You can make a lovely potpourri of them. You can make a powder of them, place the powder in the ground, and plant other flowers which can grow from them—and so on with your observations and thoughts. Afterward, you can go back to the original—“Love is a rose”—and see how far it has taken you. Ask what connections you made and consider what meaning they may have specifically for you. You can use this process with any metaphor.

Using metaphor in this way can powerfully guide how you see the world, visually, emotionally, and cognitively, deepening life’s splendor. Ask yourself what you have discovered about love and about yourself via the many places the metaphor took you. Ask if this connection could be related to anything you have experienced (or perhaps not experienced) in day-to-day life. Is there anything you’d do differently?

Once again, when literature—in this case, metaphor—is most successful, it breaks through some linguistic sound barrier. It opens the gate to both your external and internal worlds. It breaks through politics, gender, religion, culture—all “dividers.” It whispers to us the secrets of our unspeakable loves.

More from Joseph Cardillo Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Joseph Cardillo Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today