Metaphors are figures of speech that state that one thing is actually another thing. They are a way of creating a comparison that while not literally true, provides a figurative meaning. Metaphors for life are a way of comparing life to other things in a way that may help you think about your life and problems in a different way.
Collectively, metaphors not only help people describe and make sense of their lives, but can serve as a source of encouragement, motivation, or gratitude. There are a number of common metaphors that can be used to inspire you (or help you get out of a rut) in your daily life.
For example, some people see life as a battle. Every encounter is a struggle, and if they don’t win, they feel like they have lost. Others view life as an adventure. A new day brings new opportunities to explore, and if something goes badly today, there’s always tomorrow.
Origin of Metaphors
How do these metaphors develop? As children, we begin to understand and organize the world. If we think of the brain as a filing cabinet, then childhood is when we open the files and label them. We often spend the rest of our lives putting new material in these old files. If childhood was healthy, then we may have a pretty good filing system. If it was a struggle, then we often see struggles for the rest of our life.
We don’t know the origin of many life metaphors, but many have stood the test of time for good reasons. How do metaphors help us make sense of our lives?
Uses for Metaphors in Daily Life
Metaphors not only help us define and describe an experience, but they can be used to improve our lives in many ways.
If you are facing a challenge, a metaphor might help you see the big picture and give you strength; for example, someone going through cancer treatment may view the journey as climbing a mountain.
Metaphors can also provide a picture that helps others enter your world. It’s true that a picture is often worth a thousand words, but a word picture (a metaphor) can sometimes do the same.
Finally, a negative metaphor may help you see that you haven’t been living your life the way you wish, and might just be the stimulus you need to make changes right now.
Common Metaphors for Life
Metaphors for life are not always obvious. We may have to stand back a long way to see patterns like this in our lives. Metaphors can be positive or negative. Because the way we look at life—which is often much easier to understand with a word picture (metaphor)—can have a great impact on how our lives unravel, it’s worthwhile thinking about which metaphors below fit the life you are living today. These are just examples and not every metaphor will resonate with every individual. Take a moment to think of other metaphors that may describe your life or serve you better.
If you see a garden as a metaphor for your life, you may see that relationships with family and friends can be cultivated like flowers or vegetables. Relationships, like flowers, need regular watering. They need sunshine. Sometimes they need to be pruned. Sometimes you need to weed the garden (eliminate toxic friends).
The end result of careful and regular care, with timely interventions for insect infestations or decay, can lead to plants (or relationships) that are growing, producing oxygen that helps you breathe, and create beauty as they flower.
You may see a battle as a metaphor for your life if everything is a competition or a struggle. In a battle, you are always either winning or losing. If a battle represents your life, you may wish to look at how life isn’t always about winning or losing.
Relationships, especially, are not always a competition. Sometimes it is better to be loving than to be right or win.
Viewing your life as a mission can be either positive or negative. You may feel that you have talents and gifts you wish to share widely. On the other hand, in believing that you have the truth, you might feel that you need to convince others that your point-of-view is right. Just as with missions throughout history, your life can be a platform to bring goodness to the world, or instead, impose your beliefs on those who do not wish to hear them.
A journey is a common metaphor for life as it reminds us that the destination is not our only goal. Like with any form of a journey, there are times when the roads are straight (life is on an even keel) and times when they are winding. There are ups and downs and potholes along the way. And there are often wonderful surprises and fun discoveries that you would never have experienced if it wasn’t for the route you chose.
An adventure can also be a beautiful metaphor for life. We don’t always know where we are going, but the thrill of our travels (day to day living) leaves us excited and ready to see new things.
A building is a solid metaphor for life and can be a reminder that a sturdy foundation is needed before building higher. Once you have a firm foundation in place, whatever that means to you, it’s easier to confidently add floors and rooms which will stand the test of time and weather.
A Roller Coaster
A roller coaster can be a metaphor for life in general, or instead, describe the speed bumps we all encounter. For example, people with cancer know all too well the roller coaster effect of a challenging diagnosis. Using the metaphor of a roller coaster also illustrates what many people who have had hardships understand so well. You don’t fully experience the high points of your journey without the contrast of the lows. As recent proof of this theory, studies are now finding that being diagnosed with cancer changes people in positive ways as well as introducing challenges.
A Stained-Glass Window
The metaphor of a stained-glass window illustrates not just the variety of lights and colors which make up our world, but the beauty in every person and situation. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude by taking the time to see what isn’t obvious at a quick glance can be illustrated by this metaphor.
A Mountain Climb
Climbing a mountain is a great metaphor for many parts of our lives. It can describe our education or the steps we take in climbing the corporate ladder. Life often consists of hierarchies. This metaphor also illustrates that it often takes hard work, determination, and sometimes sheer endurance to get where we wish to go. Most mountains paths are not directly uphill, but take us down through valleys to get to the next peak.
Emotional resilience allows you to follow the trail as it descends before it turns the corner and heads back up again.
A race can be both a positive and negative metaphor for life. In the biblical sense of the metaphor, we are called to run the face of life not only for the prize. A race can also be a negative metaphor as in the “rat race” of our lives, describing how sometimes we are so busy going from one place to another that we never really stop to enjoy any particular moment. In yet another negative sense, a race can describe the practice of always finding the fastest route, or needing to keep up with the proverbial Joneses.
If you view life as a courtroom, life can be challenging. In a courtroom, everything in life should be fair. Real-life, however, is not always fair. Good people die young and criminals go free. If you try to constrain your life to the metaphor of a courtroom you open yourself up for repeated disappointment.
Stepping stones can be a metaphor for life in many ways. In a negative sense, stepping stones may describe the phenomena in which we barely get comfortable where we are before we are looking for a better job or a bigger house. In another sense, stepping stones can be a very positive metaphor of a life lived with goals in mind, and conscious awareness of the steps needed to get there.
In yet another sense, such as those stepping stones crossing a stream in a Japanese garden, they can describe how we sometimes take a detour right or left along our way to prevent negative influences from catching up with us.
Life is a classroom in so many ways and there are always new lessons to learn no matter your age. This metaphor can be a reminder to keep your mind active and learning throughout your life.
A prison can be a metaphor for a life in which you feel out of control. You may feel like you don’t have choices and that others have the power. If this is you, it might be helpful to visualize a key to the door by which you can escape to your freedom, and what that might mean in real life.
Learning to reframe a situation such as this can shift your perspective and change everything.
A battery can be a life metaphor of being drained and recharged through life, such as the daily drain of energy-related to work, followed by weekends and evenings in which to recharge. Often taking small periods of time to recharge at frequent intervals leaves your battery less likely to die (lose all energy).
Effects of Life Metaphors
While there are no specific studies looking at commonly held life metaphors and wellness, positive thinking is beneficial in many ways. A general attitude of optimism has been correlated with lower rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and infection.1
How to Use Metaphors In Your Life
The examples above are just a few of the life metaphors that illustrate people’s lives. What metaphor(s) fit your life? Do they work for you or do they cause problems and limit your choices? It’s possible to change metaphors or modify yours (such as adding the key to the prison cell,) but it can take some effort.
Taking the time to think about the metaphors which fit your life can be used to find patterns that aren’t working well for you, to motivate you in positive directions, and to help you cope with the obstacles we all periodically face. Think of your life metaphors today, but don’t stop there. Periodically re-think your life metaphors. Are they positive metaphors that bring you peace and contentment, help you reach goals, or allow you to see the beauty around you? Or are they negative metaphors which are limiting your life?
The particular metaphors you choose should be those that fit you alone, not somebody else. Good mental health includes having life metaphors that help you see the big picture of your life. After thinking about your life metaphors, learn about other ways in which you can become a positive thinker and reduce stress in your life.