Metaphorical Feelings

Photo by Ryan Magsino on UnsplashAs if understanding feelings wasn’t hard enough, we also have to understand feelings that aren’t really feelings: metaphorical feelings, I mean.

For instance, when somebody says they’re in pain, you don’t know if they mean emotional pain or physical pain. If we’re being precise about it, the only one of the two that’s real pain is physical pain. Emotional pain is not the same thing as burning your hand on a hot stove even though there are striking similarities. Nociception is absent and, in most cases, there’s no adrenalin rush. Everything else is the same which is why many use the same word, pain, to describe somewhat different experiences. With emotional pain, like when your friend dies, you get a hot, searing jolt of grief that’s not actually hot and searing. Hot and searing are used as metaphors as is pain in this case. A metaphor is a figure of speech that describe something in a way that’s not literally true. When someone says they’re in pain because their friend died, they are actually in grief, but the grief is so intense it’s as if they were in pain.

I’m not saying that emotional pain isn’t real. All I’m saying is, in taking the experience of physical pain and using it to describe what you feel when your friend dies, there are some things that are going to match and others that don’t.

It’s important to know what metaphors can do for us and the ways they fall short. For instance, if I say to someone, “You ain’t nothin but a hound dog,” I’m not saying that they have long, soft, silky ears. Using the metaphor of a hound dog is a vivid way of illustrating that they’ve been pestering me a lot and won’t take no for an answer. It some ways the metaphor fits and in other ways it doesn’t. No person is a perfect match for a hound dog.

In the same way, you may say you’re in pain when your friend dies, but you aren’t actually in pain in the same way you are when you burn your hand. You’re metaphorically in pain.

If you listen, you’ll catch people using feelings as metaphors all the time. Yesterday, someone said to me, “I get anxious when I have to speak in front of a group of people.” I asked where she felt the anxiety on her body. Did she have butterflies in the stomach, nausea, a racing heart, difficulty breathing? She had none of those. What she meant was that she was eager to do it, was very focused on her performance, and could imagine saying something wrong. I’m glad I asked those questions because what she was experiencing was not anxiety, strictly speaking. I might have concluded she had a social phobia when she was really just describing a pretty normal and desirable state of being prepared to give a speech.

This woman used feelings as metaphors several times when we were speaking. She said she was afraid of saying something wrong, when, as I discovered after questioning her further, she really meant she could imagine saying something wrong. She said she was worried when she was focused, nervous when she was eager. In every case, she was using a feeling word as a metaphor for something that wasn’t a feeling.

Strictly speaking, when she said she had a feeling, she should have been referring to a body sensation. There was a big difference between she, who gave the speech and did fine, and someone else who might have been so nauseous and unable to breathe that they couldn’t go on. That person would have been truly anxious.

Now, I don’t go around correcting people who use feelings as metaphor, nor should you. It’s really fine with me if they do. I’m just pointing out a distinction that can be confusing if you’re not aware. I also want to warn you of what might happen if you take your own metaphors too seriously. They can capture you and not let you go.

Let’s take the woman who’s preparing to give a speech. She is eager, focused, and can imagine saying something wrong. If she calls this anxiety, she might mistake her condition as more serious than it is, as I almost did. She has something in common with a person so nauseous and unable to breathe that they couldn’t go on. They both have the same thoughts, but they don’t have the same feelings. She has as much in common with that person as a pestering individual has with a hound dog. She is at risk of being captured by a metaphor.

Being captured by a metaphor is an awful thing. It’s easy to get in their clutches and hard to escape. This is how it happens. First, you use a metaphor to capture a meaning. You say to that guy who won’t take no for an answer, “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog.” The description seems so apt that you always think of him as a hound dog and start treating him as such. Then you start thinking of anyone who asks anything of you as a hound dog even though they’re deferential and respectful. Before you know it, all men are hound dogs. You can’t think outside of the metaphor. You are its prisoner.

Now, in the case of the woman who is preparing to speak, she notices that she’s eager, focused, and can imagine saying something wrong. She’s ready to give a speech, but she doesn’t say that about herself. If she says she’s anxious, she starts to think that she’s just like people she’s seen who are so nauseous and unable to breathe they couldn’t go on. Then, she imagines this happening to her. The next thing she knows, she’s starting to get nauseous, frenzied, and unable to breathe. She thought of herself as anxious until she became anxious. See how that works?

Go ahead and use metaphors to describe your feelings if you want to; but know their limits. Don’t confuse a metaphor for the real thing.

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