Metaphors help us make vivid, colorful comparisons. They capture complexity in just one word, or a few. And the metaphors we carry around in our heads lead us down certain paths rather than others when we’re trying to think about our problems. They guide us toward certain ideas or beliefs about ourselves, and keep other ideas or beliefs hidden from view.
This article is about two metaphors we might use to understand ourselves when dealing with problems: the mining metaphor and the bookshelf metaphor.
THE MINING METAPHOR
The mining metaphor is the one I hear most often when I meet new clients and hear their perspectives on their lives and relationships. The metaphor has us looking at a problem as a surface-level indicator of some deep-seated cause or underlying issue: “Here’s what’s happening, but underneath it all, this is the cause.”*
The mining metaphor guides us to dig through many layers to try to unearth or uncover the truth about who we really are or the real cause of the problem. It has us thinking that the truth about ourselves is hidden, deep down, and hard to find. But once we find that truth we’ve uncovered a precious nugget. And that nugget is often “one” truth, one root cause, one drive or need or personality characteristic or underlying dysfunction that explains us and our problem situation, and promises a solution. We might depict the mining metaphor like this:
When we are guided by this metaphor we ask questions like: “What’s really going on underneath all of this? What’s the real cause of the problem? Who am I really, underneath all of my actions and words? And what does the truth say about what I need to do to change things?”
THE BOOKSHELF METAPHOR
The bookshelf metaphor turns the mining metaphor on its side.** The layers of the mining metaphor become, instead, books on a bookshelf: different options for understanding who we are or what’s the cause or solution to the problem. Instead of seeing a problem as about one thing (or requiring us to confront the one truth of “who we really are”) we can see the problem as having multiple truths. That “precious nugget” from the mining metaphor is still there on the bookshelf, as a book, so to speak. And although it might remain precious, it’s no longer seen as the only story or only explanation or the one-and-only-one real truth that must be accepted, confronted, and/or “resolved.” Other “books” or “stories” become more apparent and are not automatically discarded as irrelevant or of lesser importance. And they offer alternative understandings and perspectives and solutions. In general, the bookshelf metaphor might look like this:
When we are guided by the bookshelf metaphor our main question is: “What are the different ways to understand this problem, and in what specific ways are these different ways, or ‘stories,’ helpful?”
In the next piece in this series, we’ll revisit Dave’s situation with grumpiness and see how these ideas might apply.
* The onion metaphor is similar to the mining metaphor, but with layers that are “peeled away” to reveal an inner-core truth.
** Michael White and David Epston called my attention to this idea of turning our conventional understandings and root-cause-type explanations on their side, in their book, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.
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