Harness the Power of Metaphor to Break Free From Mental Limitations

In moments of complete fear and paralysis, I often envision the worst. And that’s a good thing.

Imagine a massive wall in front of you. The wall is covered by dreadful mouths screaming abuse at you. Your deepest fears, your biggest failures.

Rotten teeth are ready to sink into your skin as soon as you try to climb over it.

The more you stare at it, the louder the voices get. Your chest feels tight, your neck hurts. It’s paralysing.

This image of the “Wall of Dread” is not mine.

It is borrowed from a writer I talked to yesterday. The haunting image of the wall is how she sees her writer’s block.

The metaphor was so strong, I could feel the panic in my body. I took a moment to catch my breath.

“What if I told you there is no wall?”, I asked.

“But we’ve just seen it”

“What if you didn’t have to climb over it? Could you just stay where you are?”

“I can’t stay here. I can’t bear it,” she said.

We took a few deep breaths together. Then I had an idea.

“What if there was … a door?,” I asked.

“A door?” She let it sink in and I could see her shoulders relax. “Where’s the door?”

“We don’t know yet. But do you trust there could be one?” I asked.

“Yes, maybe.”

And that was our way in.

All she needed, in that moment, was to trust that there is a door, and that she can find it.

The conversation gave me goosebumps. As a coach, I have many transformational encounters, but this one cut deep.

Is there really always a door?

Knowing that there’s always a door, even if it’s hidden, is what I needed to hear myself.

(Coaches often end up with clients who have the exact same blockages, I wonder why…).

I’ve encountered many walls of my own walls of dread without realising it.

And the metaphor doesn’t always look the same.

  • When I was burned out from the toxic workplace of academia I could only envision a train at full speed, rushing towards a cliff. Once you have a tenured position, you don’t give that up. But I was burned out, hated the publish or perish culture, and lost my joy in writing. That train of academia kept going, and I realised: I needed a parachute. (I did use one, metaphorically, months later, typing my resignation letter).
  • When I held my husband’s hand, knowing that our marriage is over, I closed my eyes and saw a huge dark gaping hole. I dreaded being alone and abandoned, but I did say the words “I think we both know it’s not working.” I’m now trying to find a bridge over that hole, but the sheer thought of there being one somewhere, made me feel less despair.

If you look long enough, you will find a door. Or a bridge. Or a parachute.

How to find the right metaphor for you

In moments of complete fear and paralysis, I often envision the worst. And that’s a good thing.

Hear me out.

The worst emotions and body symptoms are grounded in trauma that we try to suppress. Read Van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score” or Gabor Mate’s “When the Body Says No.”

Next time you’re feeling like you’re facing the abyss, the hole, the rushing train of despair, take pen and paper and go all in.

It means you’re not running away or suppressing your fears.

It means you’re present, going forward, and supporting yourself.

Your 5-step journaling about metaphors of despair

Here’s what to gently and courageously journal about and visualise in your head:

  • What is it that you see in those moments? (feel it all, allow it)
  • What metaphor can you describe? (you are detaching slightly)
  • Where could there be a sneaky way through this; a door, bridge, parachute, …? (you’re opening space for a solution, even if you can’t see it)
  • Can you see yourself opening that door / bridge … and going forward?
  • What’s on the other side? (envisioning your future)

What’s on my own list?

My own “wall of dread” for 2024 is:

Divorce & Spider’s Web

After over a decade of marriage and imagining a future together, I have found that I have spent many years paralysed in a big spider’s web.

Hoping I’d some day, magically, be rescued or find an easy way out. But there is no easy way out. In fact, I probably have to realise that the only way out of the sticky web is being still. Being aware. Letting myself feel the panic of being alone. And then, metamorphosis.

What’s my way out? Perhaps the spider will eat me and I’ll come out the other way (eeek.). Perhaps, once I let go, the web won’t be so sticky. I don’t know what the door will be, but I will start to imagine, journal and visualise in the next few months to find a way through this.

Neurodiversity & Labyrinth

I found out my child is neurodiverse. Right now, as a mum, I see only a labyrinth. Every turn I take could be the wrong one. Saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong parenting style, could traumatise my child forever.

I have a stack of books about autism on my desk and I’m afraid to turn the first pages. What will await me. How can I manage? I feel like I want to hand it all over to someone else to sort. But the best therapistis, schools, friends can’t be the mother my child needs.

What’s my way out? I think there won’t be one. I’ll enter the labyrinth knowing what I know, and figure out the path on the way. I’ll probably take a lot of wrong turns, but I’m in there, fighting for my child and doing what I can with what I have. There’s no other choice, is there?

As a next step, I might take my vision to a new level and write a story for those scenarios. Perhaps with a character I’ll give a different name than mine to have more liberties. How she found a bridge over the hole and a guide out of the labyrinth. I bet it will help me script my life, and it might help you, too.

What is your metaphor for 2024?

My best advice as someone who is just a tiny step ahead of you, and still struggling, is this:

Be brave, take pen and paper, and envision that thing you most dread for next year. Turn it into a metaphor. Breathe, and feel it in your body.

Then, envision a potential way out, and make one step forward.

Perhaps even draft a whole story around it — during writing, insights often come that we didn’t expect.

You won’t be alone.

Will you share in the comments what your vision is?

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