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by Janine Kovac
The other morning was like a perfect storm.
I thought my daughter was ready to go to school, but when we were about to leave, one of her cowboy boots could not be found. This was followed by crying because her other pair of shoes fit funny. These were shoes that I didn’t want to buy in the first place because…I thought they fit funny. Shoes my daughter had begged me to buy because she needed sneakers for gym class and liked the pink sparkles.
“But I don’t like these shoes anymore!” she whines as I try to hurry her into the sneakers and out the door.
I clench my teeth and hold back the words, “I told you so.” My shoulders tighten and my throat is taut. I try to take a deep breath, but it comes out as an exasperated sigh. I try to “validate my feelings of frustration.” But validation doesn’t help us find the missing cowboy boot. We’re still late for school and I’m still frustrated. I am losing patience.
I realize that normal people don’t usually think about this, but “losing patience” is a metaphor. We say we have a lot of patience or that we lose patience, but patience is not an object. It’s not something we store in the pantry for weekday emergencies when we need more patience.
Every student cognitive science major at UC Berkeley, as I was, hears the story behind conceptual metaphor analysis. Renowned linguist and cognitive scientist, George Lakoff was teaching a graduate seminar in the late seventies at a time when metaphor was thought of as flowery and poetic—a superfluous quirk of language rather than an elegant and efficient use of words that can convey abstract thoughts.
As Berkeley lore has it, one day a young woman rushed into Lakoff’s class several minutes late. She was an emotional wreck. She hadn’t slept. She hadn’t done the homework. In the version told to my class, the young woman’s face was tear-stained and she was soaked to the bone from torrential rains outside.
“I have a metaphor problem with my boyfriend,” she explained, by way of apology.
Professor Lakoff stopped the class to discuss the young woman’s metaphor problem. (It was Berkeley. In the seventies. Of course they stopped the class to discuss her metaphor problem with her boyfriend.)
“We’re at a dead end,” he had told her, or so the story goes.
When your boyfriend says, “we’re at a dead end,” you know the relationship is over. There’s no discussion. No second chances. To the class’s surprise, they came up with a number of similar metaphors that meant more or less the same thing:
We’re at a fork in the road.
We’re spinning our wheels.
That marriage is on the rocks.
She’s drifting away from him.
He’s going to drive this relationship into the ground.
Of course, there are journey-related metaphors to describe healthy relationships, too:
Since the wedding it’s been smooth sailing.
Counseling has turned this marriage around.
Everything is back on track.
That put our relationship into high gear.
Open communication paved the way for reconciliation.
The phrase “drifting away” tells you the break-up is gradual. “Spinning our wheels?” This means that you’ve put in a lot of effort, but there has been little progress, whereas “smooth sailing” implies that you hardly need to work at all.
The problem is that a relationship is not a boat or a car or a train. It is an ongoing dynamic process that involves communication, compromise, kindness—to mention just a few things. (My husband and I have a solid marriage and we rarely fight—it’s smooth, but certainly not effortless!)
In the weeks that followed, Lakoff and his students outlined several other conceptual metaphors. For example, we have numerous metaphors in which abstract concepts are thought of as objects.
You gave me that idea.
He threw his power around.
She grabbed control.
We passed judgment.
And: I lost my patience.
Of course, even though we toss around these metaphors, it’s nonsensical to think that I could lose patience the way my daughter lost her cowboy boot. But if in that moment, I can remind myself that this is a misplaced metaphor, I can actually change my behavior.
Patience is a skill. I don’t need to have more patience; I need to practice.
So when we’re scrambling in the morning and my daughter is crying about her sparkly sneakers—that’s when I have to remind myself to practice patience. Part of the practice is taking that deep breath and empathizing with my daughter. After all, I don’t like shoes that fit funny, either. Perhaps part of the practice is thinking of a future solution: I can tell her that when she gets home from school, we’ll look for the other cowboy boot. And part might be reassurance: “It’s ok if we’re late to school.”
The metaphors we choose influence how we reason, and how we respond to stressful situations. We have metaphors for problem solving, metaphors for emotions, and metaphors for how we rationalize. Some are fixed-mindset metaphors; others are growth-mindset metaphors. In this next series of guest posts, I’ll highlight those we use in our everyday lives even though we might not be aware of them.
Sometimes all it takes is a shift of metaphors to change our perspective–and shed light on new solutions that otherwise might not have occurred to us.