“The metaphor is perhaps one of man’s most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot inside one of His creatures when He made him.” jose ortega y gasset

“I’m at the end of my rope.”

“I can’t break through the wall.”

“My head is about to burst.”

“I’m at a crossroads.”

“I struck out.”

“I’m floating on air.”

“I’m drowning.”

“I’m happy as a lark.”

“I’ve reached a dead end.”

“I’m carrying the world on my shoulders.”

“Life is a bowl of cherries.”

“Life is the pits.”

In the last chapter we talked about the power of words to shape our lives and direct our destinies. Now, let’s look at certain words that carry even more meaning and emotional intensity: metaphors. In order to understand metaphors, we must first understand symbols. What creates more immediate impact: the word “Christian” or the image of a cross? If you’re like many people, the cross has more power to produce immediate positive emotions. It’s literally nothing but two intersecting lines, but it has the power to communicate a standard and a way of life to millions of people. Now take that cross, twist it into a swastika, and contrast it with the word “Nazi.” Which has more power to influence you negatively?

Again, if you’re like most, the swastika will tend to produce stronger sensations more quickly than the word itself. Throughout human history, symbols have been employed to trigger emotional response and shape men’s behavior. Many things serve as symbols: images, sounds, objects, actions, and, of course, words. If words are symbolic, then metaphors are heightened symbols.

What is a metaphor? Whenever we explain or communicate a concept by likening it to something else, we are using a metaphor. The two things may bear little actual resemblance to each other, but our familiarity with one allows us to gain an understanding of the other. Metaphors are symbols and, as such, they can create emotional intensity even more quickly and completely than the traditional words we use. Metaphors can transform us instantly. As human beings, we constantly think and speak in metaphors. Often people speak of “being caught between a rock and a hard place.” They feel like they’re “in the dark,” or that they’re “struggling to keep their head above water.” Do you think you might be a little bit more stressed if you thought about dealing with your challenge in terms of “struggling to keep your head above water” rather than “climbing the ladder of success”? Would you feel differently about taking a test if you talked about “sailing” through it rather than “flailing”? Would your perception and experience of time change if you talked about time “crawling” rather than “flying”? You bet it would!

One of the primary ways we learn is through metaphors. Learning is the process of making new associations in our minds, creating new meanings, and metaphors are ideally suited for this. When we don’t understand something, a metaphor provides a way of seeing how what we don’t understand is like something we do understand. The metaphor helps us to link up a relationship. If X is like Y, and we understand X, suddenly we understand Y. If, for example, someone tries to explain electricity to you by throwing around the terms “ohms,” “amperes,” “wattage,” and “resistors,” chances are they’ll totally confuse you because it’s likely you have no understanding of these words, no references for them, and therefore it’s difficult to understand a relationship between them.

But what if I explained electricity to you by comparing it to something you were already familiar with? What if I drew you a picture of a pipe and said, “Have you ever seen water running through a pipe?” You’d say yes. Then I’d say, “What if there were a little flap that could slow down the amount of water going through the pipe? That little flap is what a resistor does in an electrical unit.” Would you now know what a resistor is? You bet—and you’d know it instantly. Why? Because I told you how this was like something you already understood. All great teachers—Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Lao-Tzu— have used metaphors to convey their meaning to the common man. Regardless of religious beliefs, most would agree that Jesus Christ was a remarkable teacher whose message of love has endured not only because of what he said, but also the way in which he said it. He didn’t go to the fishermen and tell them he wanted them to recruit Christians; they would have no reference for recruiting. So he told them he wanted them to become “fishers of men.”

The minute he used that metaphor, they immediately understood what they needed to do. This metaphor instantly gave them an analogous step-by-step process for how to bring others into the faith. When he told his parables, he distilled complex ideas into simple images that transformed anyone who took their message to heart. In fact, not only was Jesus a master storyteller, but he used his whole life as a metaphor to illustrate the strength of God’s love and the promise of redemption.

Metaphors can empower us by expanding and enriching our experience of life. Unfortunately, though, if we’re not careful, when we adopt a metaphor we instantaneously also adopt many limiting beliefs that come with it. For years physicists used the metaphor of the solar system to describe the relationship of the electrons to the protons and neutrons within the nucleus of an atom. What was great about this metaphor? It immediately helped students understand the relationship between the atom and something they already understood. They could immediately picture the nucleus as the sun and the electrons as planets revolving around it. The challenge was that by adopting this metaphor, physicists—without realizing it—adopted a belief system that electrons remained in equidistant orbits from the nucleus, very much in the same way that planets remained in basically equidistant orbits from the sun. It was an inaccurate and limiting presupposition. In tact, it locked physicists for years into a pattern of irresolution of many atomic questions, all because of a false set of presuppositions adopted due to this metaphor. Today we know that electrons don’t maintain equidistant orbits; their orbits vary in distance from the nucleus. This new understanding wasn’t adopted until the solar system metaphor had been abandoned. The result was a quantum leap in the understanding of atomic energy.

Remember my raging CEO? The same day I made the distinctions that led to the creation of the technology of Transformational Vocabulary, I discovered the value of what I call global metaphors. I knew that my CEO used words that intensified his emotion, and I wondered what made him feel those negative feelings in the first place. As you and I already know, everything we do is based on the state we’re in, and our state is determined by our physiology and the way we represent things in our minds. So I asked him why he was so upset, and he said, “Well, it’s like they have us in a box with a gun to our heads.” Do you think you’d react rather intensely if you believed or represented in your mind that you were trapped in a situation like this? It’s not hard to figure out why he was in a rage. Now, for many years without realizing it, I’d helped people change how they were feeling by interrupting their patterns and changing their metaphors. I just wasn’t aware of what I was doing. (That’s pan of the power of creating a label: once you have a label for what you do, you can produce a behavior consistently.)

I turned to the CEO and asked, “What color is the squirt70 gun?” He looked at me in a puzzled state and said, “What?” I repeated the question, “What color is the squirt gun?” This immediately broke his pattern. In order to answer my question, his mind had to focus on my weird71 question, which immediately changed his internal focus. When he began to picture a squirt gun, do you think his emotion changed as a result? You bet! He started to laugh. You see, virtually any question we ask repeatedly, a person will eventually entertain an answer to, and when they do answer your question, it changes their focus. For example, if I tell you over and over, “Don’t think of the color blue,” what color are you going to think of? The answer, obviously, is “blue.” And whatever you think about, you’ll feel. Getting him to think about the situation in terms of a squirt gun, I immediately shattered his disempowering imagery, and thereby changed his emotional state in the moment. What about his box? I handled that in a different way because I knew he was competitive; I simply said, “As far as this box idea is concerned, I don’t know about you, but I know no one could ever build a box big enough to hold me.” You can imagine how quickly that destroyed his box! This man regularly feels intense because he’s operating with aggressive metaphors. If you are feeling really bad about something, take a quick look at the metaphors you’re using to describe how you are feeling, or why you are not progressing, or what is getting in the way. Often you’re using a metaphor that intensifies your negative feelings. When people are experiencing difficulties they frequently say things like “I feel like the weight of the world is on my back” or “There’s this wall in front of me, and I just can’t break through.” But disempowering metaphors can be changed just as quickly as they were created. You choose to represent the metaphor as being real; you can change the metaphor just as quickly. So if someone tells me they feel like they have the weight of the world on their back, I’ll say, “Set the world down and move on.” They’ll give me a funny look, but sure enough, in order to understand what I just said, they’ll make a change in their focus and therefore how they feel immediately. Or if someone tells me that they just can’t make progress, that they keep hitting a wall, I tell them to stop hitting it and just drill a hole through it. Or climb over it, or tunnel under it, or walk over, open the door, and go through it.

You’d be surprised, as simplistic as this sounds, how quickly people will respond. Again, the moment you represent things differently in your mind, in that moment you’ll instantly change the way you feel. If someone tells me, “I’m at the end of my rope,” I’ll say, “Set it aside and come over here!” Often people talk about how they feel “stuck” in a situation. You’re never stuck! You may be a little frustrated, you may not have clear answers, but you’re not stuck. The minute you represent the situation to yourself as being stuck, though, that’s exactly how you’ll feel. We must be very careful about the metaphors we allow ourselves to use.

Be careful of the metaphors that other people offer you as well. Recently I read an article about the fact that Sally Field is now turning 44. The article said she’s beginning to start “down the slippery slope of middle age.” What a horrible and disempowering way to represent your expanding wisdom! If you feel like you’re in the dark, then simply turn the lights on. If you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of confusion, walk up the beach and relax on the island of understanding. I know this can sound juvenile, but what’s truly juvenile is allowing ourselves to unconsciously select metaphors that disempower us on a consistent basis. We must take charge of our metaphors, not just to avoid the problem metaphors, but so that we can adopt the empowering metaphors as well.

Once you become sensitized to the metaphors you and other people use, making a change is very easy. All you need to do is ask yourself, “Is this what I really mean? Is this really the way it is, or is this metaphor inaccurate?” Remember, anytime you use the words “I feel like” or “This is like,” the word “like” is often a trigger for the use of a metaphor. So ask yourself a more empowering question. Ask, “What would be a better metaphor? What would be a more empowering way of thinking of this? What else is this like?” For example, if I were to ask you what life means to you, or what your metaphor for life is, you might say, “Life is like a constant battle” or “Life is a war.” If you were to adopt this metaphor, you’d begin to adopt a series of beliefs that come with it. Like the example of the atom and the solar system, you’d begin to conduct your behavior based on a set of unconscious beliefs that are carried within this metaphor.

A whole set of rules, ideas, and preconceived notions accompany any metaphor you adopt. So if you believe life is a war, how does that color your perceptions of life? You might say, “It’s tough, and it ends with death.” Or, “It’s going to be me against everybody else.” Or, “It’s dog eat dog.” Or, “If life is really a battle, then maybe I’m going to get hurt.” All these filters impact your unconscious beliefs about people, possibility, work, effort, and life itself. This metaphor will affect your decisions about how to think, how to feel, and what to do. It will shape your actions and therefore your destiny.


Different people have different global metaphors. For example, in reading interviews with Donald Trump, I’ve noticed that he often refers to life as a “test.” You either win first place, or you lose there’s no in between. Can you imagine the stress that must create in his life, interpreting it this way? If life is a test, maybe it’s going to be tough; maybe you’d better be prepared; maybe you could flunk out (or cheat, I suppose). For some people, life is a competition. That might be fun, but it could also mean that there are other people you have to beat, that there could be only one winner. For some people, life is a game. How might that color your perceptions? Life might be fun—what a concept! It might be somewhat competitive. It might be a chance for you to play and enjoy yourself a lot more. Some people say, “If it’s a game, then there are going to be losers.” Other people ask, “Will it take a lot of skill?” It all depends on what beliefs you attach to the word “game”; but with that one metaphor, again, you have a set of filters that is going to affect the way you think and the way you feel.

Surely, Mother Teresa’s metaphor for life is that it’s sacred. What if you believed life is sacred? If that were your primary metaphor, you might have more reverence for it—or you might think that you weren’t allowed to have so much fun. What if you believe life is a gift? All of a sudden it becomes a surprise, something fun, something special. What if you think life is a dance? Wouldn’t that be a kick? It would be something beautiful, something you do with other people, something with grace, rhythm, and joy. Which of these metaphors properly represents life?

They’re probably all useful at different times to help you interpret what you need to do to make changes. But remember, all metaphors carry benefits in some context, and limitations in others. As I’ve become more sensitized to metaphors, what I’ve begun to believe is that having only one metaphor is a great way to limit your life. There would be nothing wrong with the solar system metaphor if a physicist had many other ways of describing atoms as well. So if we want to expand our lives, we should expand the metaphors we use to describe what our life is or what our relationships are, or even who we are as human beings.

Are we limited to metaphors about life or about atoms? Of course not. We have metaphors for almost every area of our experience. Take work, for example. Some people will say, “Well, back to the salt mines” or “I have to put my nose to the grindstone.” How do you think those people feel about their jobs? Some business people I know use global metaphors like “my assets” for the businesses they own and “my liabilities” for the people they employ. How do you think that affects the way they treat people? Others look at business as a garden where every day you have to maintain and improve it so that eventually you will reap a reward. Still others see work as a chance to be with friends, to join a winning team. As for me, I think of my businesses as families.

This allows us to transform the quality of the connections we share with each other.

“Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum.” OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR.

Can you see how changing just one global metaphor from “Life is a competition” to “Life is a game” could instantly change your experience of life in many areas simultaneously? Would it change your relationships if you saw life as a dance? Could it change the way you operate in your business? You bet it could! This is an example of a pivot point, a global change, where just making this one change would transform the way you think and feel in multiple areas of your life. I am not saying that there is a right or wrong way of looking at things. Just realize that changing one global metaphor can instantly transform the way you look at your entire life. Just as with Transformational Vocabulary, the power of metaphors is in their simplicity.

Years ago I was conducting a two-week Certification program in Scottsdale, Arizona. In the middle of the seminar, a man jumped up and started stabbing out at people with his bare hands as if he were holding a knife, while screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m blacking out, I’m blacking out!” A psychiatrist who was sitting two rows in front of him shouted, “Oh, my God! He’s having a psychotic breakdown!” Fortunately, I didn’t accept the psychiatrists label of Transformational Vocabulary. Instead, all I knew was that I needed to change the excited man’s state instantly. I had not developed the concept of global metaphors yet; I just did what I knew how to do best. I interrupted his pattern. I went up to him and yelled, “Then just white it out! Use that stuff you use when you’re typing! White it out!” The man was stunned for a moment. He stopped what he was doing, and everybody paused to see what would happen next.

Within a matter of seconds his face and body changed, and he started to breathe differently. I said, “White out the whole thing.” Then I asked him how he felt and he said, “That feels a lot better.” So I said, “Well, then, sit down,” and continued with the seminar. Everyone looked dumb-founded, and to tell the truth. I, too, was a bit surprised that it worked this easily! Two days later this man approached me and said, “I don’t know what that whole thing was about, but I turned forty that day and just lost it. I felt like stabbing out because I was in this blackness and it was swallowing me up. But when I put that White-Out on, everything just brightened up. I felt totally different. I started thinking new thoughts, and I feel fine today.” And he continued to feel fine for the duration—just by changing one simple metaphor.

So far we’ve spoken only of how to lower our negative emotional intensity through the use of Transformational Vocabulary and global metaphors. However, sometimes it’s useful and important to get ourselves to feel negative emotions with strong intensity. For example, I know a couple who have a son who was caught up in drugs and alcohol. They knew they should do something to get him to change his destructive patterns, but at the same time they had mixed associations with interfering in his life. What finally pushed them over the edge and gave them enough leverage to get themselves to take action and do something was a conversation they had with someone who’d once been addicted himself. “There are two bullets pointed at your son’s head right now,” he told them. “One is drugs, the other is alcohol, and one or the other is going to kill him—it’s only a matter of time—if you don’t stop him now.”

By representing things in this way, they were driven to action. Suddenly, not taking action would mean allowing their son to die, whereas previously they had represented his problem as merely being a challenge. Until they adopted this new metaphor, they were missing the emotional potency to do whatever it would take. I am happy to tell you that they did succeed in helping this young man turn things around. Remember, the metaphors we use will determine our actions.


As I developed “antennae” to sensitize myself to people’s global metaphors, I read an interview with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in which she said, “Few things are more debilitating than a toxic metaphor.”* That’s quite an insight, and one with which I was soon to gain firsthand experience.

At one of my Date With Destiny seminars, most everybody was complaining about a certain woman even before the program had begun. She had created a commotion at the registration area, and when she got into the room she started complaining about everything imaginable: first the room was too hot, then too cold; she was upset with the person in front of her because he was too tall; and so on. By the time I got up to speak I couldn’t go for more than five minutes without her interrupting and trying to find how what I said really didn’t work, or wasn’t really true, or for which there was some kind of exception.

I kept trying to break her pattern, but I was focusing on the effect rather than the cause. Suddenly I realized that she must have some global belief or global metaphor about life that made her such a fanatic for detail and almost spiteful in her approach. I asked her, “What are you trying to gain by doing this? I know you must have a positive intent. What is your belief about life, or about details, or about whether things are right or wrong?” She said, “J guess I just believe that small leaks sink the ship.” If you thought you were going to drown, wouldn’t you be a little fanatical about finding any possibility of a leak? That’s how this woman viewed life!

Where did this metaphor come from? It turned out that this woman had experienced several situations in her life where little things cost her a lot. She attributed her divorce to some small problems that didn’t get handled—problems she wasn’t even aware of. Similarly, she felt that her financial woes were the result of equally small causes. She adopted this metaphor to keep her from re-experiencing pain like this in the future.

Obviously, she wasn’t very excited about changing metaphors without my providing a little leverage. Once I got her to feel the pain that this metaphor was constantly creating in her life, and the immediate pleasure she could have by changing it, I was able to assist her in breaking her pattern and changing her metaphor by creating a series of new ways of looking at herself and life. She combined a variety of global metaphors—life as a game, life as a dance—and you should have seen the transformation, not just in the way she treated other people, but also in the way she treated herself, because she had always been finding small leaks in herself as well. This one change affected the way she approached everything and is a great example of how changing one global metaphor can transform every area of your life, from your self-esteem to your relationships to the way you deal with the world at large.

With all the power that metaphors wield over our lives, the scary part is that most of us have never consciously selected the metaphors with which we represent things to ourselves. Where did you get your metaphors? You probably picked them up from people around you, from your parents, teachers, co-workers, and friends. I’ll bet you didn’t think about their impact, or maybe you didn’t even think about them at all, and then they just became a habit.

“All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy.” HENRY DAVID THOREAU

For years, people asked me what it was I did exactly. At various times I tried different metaphors— “I’m a teacher,” “I’m a student,” “I’m a hunter of human excellence,” “I’m a speaker,” “I’m a national best-selling author,” “I’m a peak performance consultant,” “I’m a therapist,” “I’m a counselor”—but none of them conveyed the right feeling. People gave me plenty of metaphors. I was known by many in the media as a “guru.” This is a metaphor I avoided because I felt that the presupposition that went with it was that people were dependent upon me to create their change—which would never empower them. Since I believe that we all must be responsible for our own change, I avoided this metaphor. One day, though, I finally got it. “I’m a coach,” I thought. What is a coach? To me, a coach is a person who is your friend, someone who really cares about you. A coach is committed to helping you be the best that you can be. A coach will challenge you, not let you off the hook.

Coaches have knowledge and experience because they’ve been there before. They aren’t any better than the people they are coaching (this took away my need to have to be perfect for the people I was “teaching”).

In fact, the people they coach may have natural abilities superior to their own. But because coaches have concentrated their power in a particular area for years, they can teach you one or two distinctions that can immediately transform your performance in a matter of moments. Sometimes coaches can teach you new information, new strategies and skills; they show you how to get measurable results. Sometimes a coach doesn’t even teach you something new, but they remind you of what you need to do at just the right moment, and they push you to do it. I thought, “What I truly am is a success coach. I help to coach people on how to achieve what they really want more quickly and more easily.”

And everyone needs a coach, whether it’s a top-level executive, a graduate student, a homemaker, a homeless person, or the president of the United States! As soon as I started using this metaphor, it immediately changed the way I felt about myself. I felt less stressed, more relaxed; I felt closer to people. I didn’t have to be “perfect” or “better.” I began to have more fun, and my impact on people multiplied manyfold.


Two people Becky and I have the privilege to count as friends are Martin and Janet Sheen. They have been married for close to thirty years, and one of the things that I respect most about them is their absolute support for each other, for their family, and for anyone in need. As much as the public knows Martin is a committed giver, they have no idea how much he and Janet do together for others on a daily basis. These two people are the epitome of integrity. Their metaphor for humanity is that of “one giant family,” and as a result they feel the deepest caring and compassion even for complete strangers. I remember when Martin shared with me the moving story of how his life changed years ago while he was making Apocalypse Now. Before that time, he had seen life as something to fear. Now he sees it as an intriguing challenge. Why? His new metaphor is that life is a mystery. He loves the mystery of being a human being, the wonder and sense of possibility that unfolds with his experience of each new day.

What changed his metaphor? Intense pain. Apocalypse was shot deep in the jungles of the Philippines. The shooting schedule was normally Monday through Friday, and usually on Friday night, Martin and Janet would make the two-and-a-half-hour drive for a weekend “retreat” in Manila. On one weekend, though, Martin had to stay for an additional Saturday morning shoot. (Janet had already committed to going into town to purchase a glass eye for a crewman who was so poor he was unable to buy his own, so she went ahead.) That night, Martin found himself alone, tossing and turning, perspiring profusely, and beginning to experience intense pain. By morning he began to have a massive heart attack. Portions of his body became numb and paralyzed. He fell to the ground, and through nothing but the sheer power of his will, crawled out the door and yelled for help. Lying there on the ground, he said he actually had the experience of dying. All of a sudden, everything felt calm and smooth. He could see himself moving across the lake and the water in the distance. He thought to himself, “Oh, this is what dying is,” and it was then that he realized that he wasn’t afraid of dying, that he had really been afraid of life! In that moment, he realized that life itself was the real challenge. Instantly, he made the decision to live. He mustered every ounce of energy he had left, pushing his arm out to grab some grass.

With total focus, he slowly pulled it up to his nose. He could barely feel a thing. The moment he smelled the grass, the pain came back, and he knew he was alive. He kept fighting. When the crewmen discovered him, they were sure he would die. Both the looks on their faces and their comments made Martin question his own ability to make it. He began to lose his strength. Realizing there was no time, the top pilot on the Apocalypse crew risked his own life and flew the helicopter sideways through thirty- to forty-knot winds in order to get him to the hospital in town. Upon arriving, he was put on a stretcher and wheeled into the emergency room, where he continued to receive both subliminal and overt messages that he was going to die. He was becoming weaker with each moment. Then Janet came in. All she’d heard was that he’d had a heat stroke, but then the doctors informed her of the graveness of his condition. She refused to accept it—she knew that Martin needed strength; she also knew she had to break his pattern of fear as well as her own. She took immediate action, and accomplished it all with one statement. When he opened his eyes, she smiled brightly and said, “It’s just a movie, babe! It’s only a movie!” Martin said that in that moment he knew he was going to make it and began to heal. What a great metaphor! Instantly, the problem didn’t seem so grave—it was something he could handle. “A movie certainly isn’t worth having a heart attack over” was the implied message, but also, subliminally, I believe the metaphor cut even deeper. After all, the pain you’re experiencing when you make a movie never lasts. It’s not real, and at some point the director will say “Cut!” Janet’s use of this brilliant pattern interrupt, this single metaphor, helped Martin to marshal his resources, and to this day he believes it saved his life.

Metaphors don’t just affect us as individuals; they affect our community and our world as well. The metaphors we adopt culturally can shape our perceptions and our actions—or lack of action. In the last few decades, with the advent of moon missions, we began to adopt the metaphor of “Spaceship Earth.” While this metaphor sounded great, it didn’t always work well for creating an emotional response to dealing with our ecological challenges. Why? It’s hard to get emotional about a spaceship; it’s disassociated. Contrast that with the feelings created by the metaphor “Mother Earth,” How differently would you feel about protecting your “mother” than you would about keeping a “spaceship” clean? Pilots and sailors often describe their planes or ships as beautiful women. They say, “She’s a beauty.” Why don’t they say, “He’s a beauty?” Because they’d probably be a lot rougher with that plane or ship if they thought it was some big, fat guy named Joe rather than some shapely and sleek princess gliding through the shimmering air or sea.

We use metaphors constantly during war. What was the name for the first pan of the operation in the Persian Gulf War? Before war was declared, it was called “Operation Desert Shield.” But as soon as the command to fight was given. Operation Desert Shield became “Desert Storm.” Think how that one change of metaphor instantly changed the meaning of the experience for everyone. Instead of shielding the rest of the Arabs from Saddam Hussein, in General Norman Schwarzkopfs words, the troops became “the storm of freedom,” sweeping the occupying Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

“An iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” WINSTON CHURCHILL

Think how radically the face of eastern Europe has changed just in the last couple of years. The “Iron Curtain” was a metaphor that shaped the post-World War II experience for decades, and the Berlin Wall served as a physical symbol for the imposing barrier that divided all of Europe. When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, more than just a stone wall was demolished. The destruction of that one symbol instantly provided a new metaphor that changed the beliefs of multitudes of people about what was possible in their lifetimes. Why did people have so much fun digging away at an old, crumbling wall when there were plenty of gates they could go through? It was because knocking down the wall was a universal metaphor for possibility, freedom, and breaking through barriers.


Being aware of the vast power contained in metaphors includes knowing how to use them in an appropriate context. The challenge is that a lot of people have metaphors that help them in their professions, but create challenges at home. I know an attorney who found herself trying to apply the same adversarial metaphors at home that served her so well at work. Her husband would start a perfectly innocent conversation with her, and the next thing he knew, he felt like he was up on the witness stand being cross-examined! That doesn’t work too well in a personal relationship, does it? Or suppose someone is a totally dedicated police officer. If they can’t let go of their work when they get home, do you think they might always be on the lookout for other people violating their standards? One of the best examples of an inappropriate metaphor is a man who was so dissociated that his wife and children didn’t feel any connection with him at all. They resented the way he never expressed his true feelings and the fact that he always seemed to be directing them. Do you know what his profession was? He was an air traffic controller! On the job he had to remain detached. Even if there was an emergency, he had to keep his voice absolutely calm so as not to alarm the pilots he was directing. That disassociated attitude worked well in the control tower, but it didn’t work at home. Be careful not to carry the metaphors that are appropriate in one context, like the environment in which you work, into an incompatible context, like how you relate to your family or friends.

What are some of the metaphors people have for their personal relationships? Some people call the person they’re in a relationship with “the old man” or “the old hag.” Some call them “the dictator,” “the ball and chain,” “the warden.” One woman actually called her husband “the Prince of Darkness”! What are some more empowering alternatives?

Many people call their mate their “lover,” their “better half,” their “partner in life,” their “teammate,” their “soul mate.” By the way, even changing one slight nuance of a metaphor will change the way you perceive the relationship. You may not feel passionate for a “partner,” but you certainly would for your “lover.” Do you think that the metaphors you use in representing your relationship to yourself as well as to others would affect the way you feel about it and how you relate to one another? You bet! One lady who came to a Date With Destiny seminar kept referring to her husband as “this jerk I’m with,” and I had noticed that whenever he talked about her, he called her “the love” of his life or his “better halt” or his “gift from God.” When I pointed this out to her, she was shocked, because she’s a very loving woman who hadn’t realized how toxic one casually adopted metaphor could be. Together we selected more appropriate metaphors for her relationship with her husband.

One of the most empowering global metaphors that has helped me through tough times is a story shared by many speakers in personal development. It’s the simple story of a stonecutter. How does a stonecutter break open a giant boulder? He starts out with a big hammer and whacks the boulder as hard as he can. The first time he hits it, there’s not a scratch, not a chip—nothing. He pulls back the hammer and hits it again and again—100, 200, 300 times without even a scratch. After all this effort, the boulder may not show even the slightest crack, but he keeps on hitting it. People sometimes pass by and laugh at him for persisting when obviously his actions are having no effect. But a stonecutter is very intelligent. He knows that just because you don’t see immediate results from your current actions, it doesn’t mean you’re not making progress. He keeps hitting at different points in the stone, over and over again, and at some point—maybe on the 500th or 700th hit, maybe on the 1,0004th hit—the stone doesn’t just chip, but literally splits in half. Was if this one single hit that broke the stone open? Of course not. It was the constant and continual pressure being applied to something else. And pretty soon, what does it become?” And he said, “A butterfly.”

I asked, “Can the other little caterpillars on the ground see that this caterpillar became a butterfly?” He said, “No.” I said, “And when a caterpillar breaks out of the cocoon, what does he do?” Joshua said, “He flies.” I said, “Yeah, he gets out and the sunlight dries off his wings and he flies. He’s even more beautiful than when he was a caterpillar. Is he more free or less free?” Josh said, “He’s much more free.” And I said, “Do you think he’ll have more fun?” And he said, “Yeah—he’s got less legs to get tired!” And I said, “That’s right, he does. He doesn’t need legs anymore; he’s got wings. I think your friend has wings now.

“You see, it’s not for us to decide when somebody becomes a butterfly. We think it’s wrong, but I think God has a better idea when the right time is. Right now it’s winter and you want it to be summer, but God has a different plan. Sometimes we just have to trust that God knows how to make butterflies better than we do. And when we’re caterpillars, sometimes we don’t even realize that butterflies exist, because they’re up above us—but maybe we should just remember that they’re there.” And Joshua smiled, gave me a big hug and said, “I bet he’s a beautiful butterfly.”

Metaphors can change the meaning you associate to anything, change what you link pain and pleasure to, and transform your life as effectively as they transform your language. Select them carefully, select them intelligently, select them so they will deepen and enrich your experience of life and that of the people you care about. Become a “metaphor detective.” Whenever you hear someone using a metaphor that places limits, just step in, break their pattern, and offer a new one. Do this with others, and do it for yourself.

So try the following exercise:

1. What is life? Write down the metaphors you’ve already chosen: “Life is like. . .” what? Brainstorm everything you can think of, because you probably have more than one metaphor for life. When you’re in an unresourceful state, you probably call it a battle or a war, and when you’re in a good state, maybe you think of it as a gift. Write them all down. Then review your list and ask yourself, “If life is such and such, what does it mean to me?” If life is sacred, what does that mean? If life is a dream, what does that mean? If all the world is a stage, what does that mean? Each of your metaphors empower and limit. “All the world’s a stage” may be great because it means you can go out there and make a difference and be heard. But it also may mean you’re someone who’s always performing, instead of sharing your true feelings. So take a good look at the metaphors that you’ve made available to yourself. What are their advantages and disadvantages? What new metaphors might you like to apply to your life in order to feel more happy, free, and empowered?

2. Make a list of all the metaphors that you link to relationships or marriage. Are they empowering or disempowering? Remember, conscious awareness alone can transform your metaphors, because your brain starts to say, “That doesn’t work—that’s ridiculous.'” And you can adopt a new metaphor easily. The beauty of this technology is that it’s so simple.

3. Pick another area of your life that impacts you most—whether it’s your business, your parents, your children, your ability to learn—and discover your metaphors for this area. Write these metaphors down and study their impact. Write down, “Learning is like playing.” If studying is like “pulling teeth,” you can imagine the pain you’re giving yourself! This might be a good metaphor to change, and change now/ Once again, notice the positive and negative consequences of each of your metaphors. Exploring them can create new choices for your life.

4. Create new, more empowering metaphors for each of these areas. Decide that from now on you’re going to think of life as four or five new things to start with, at least. Life is not a war. Life is not a test. Life is a game, life is a dance, life is sacred, life is a gift, life is a picnic— whatever creates the most positive emotional intensity for you.

5. Finally, decide that you are going to live with these new, empowering metaphors for the next thirty days.

I invite you to allow the radiance of your new metaphors to “sweep you off your feet” and make you feel like you’re “floating on air” until you arrive at “Cloud Nine.” While you’re “on top of the world,” you can look down on “Easy Street” and be “tickled pink,” knowing that the amount of joy you’re feeling in this moment is only the “tip of the iceberg.” Take control of your metaphors now and create a new world for yourself: a world of possibility, of richness, of wonder, and of joy. Once you’ve mastered the creative art of Grafting metaphors, transforming vocabulary, and asking empowering questions, you are ready to harness. . .

-Tony Robbins

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