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Coaching in an empty mirror: Beware of Metaphors bearing false gifts

Updated on January 2, 2013
Coaching in an empty mirror.
Coaching in an empty mirror. | Source

Seeing through the stories

In a way analogous to wearing glasses, the stories we tell ourselves change the way we perceive the world. Some lenses can be helpful and bring the world into focus when we need it to be very clear, driving for instance. Some lenses, perhaps just outdated, may obscure rather than clarify. If we cannot see the world clearly, it is harder to respond appropriately to it.

Now all of that may make sense to you. It's a way of explaining a point about the world that I think is helpful. It's a metaphorical way of conveying a point.

The self help world is replete with metaphors that are spread liberally across the internet and without any critical regard as to their value, or even the possible harm they could do. Just as we would not offer one lens prescription for everyone, we should be very wary about how we engage with a particular metaphor.

Below is a story that I took from a Facebook posting. It was offered as inspirational and attracted a lot of likes. It is in fact a very nice story. Read it and see what you think:

You can find this story in many places on the internet. I took this one from a posting made by a friend on Facebook.
You can find this story in many places on the internet. I took this one from a posting made by a friend on Facebook.

It is a nice story, is it not? The moral and following 'simple rules to be happy' are another matter. The moral is simply inane. 'Life' we are told is going to shovel dirt on you. All you need to do is shake it off and use it as a stepping stone. Really?

Life shoveling dirt on us is a metaphor for bad things happen. Pretty undeniable. But let's go back to the story. For the donkey the bad event was falling in the hole, not the dirt. The donkey certain thought the dirt was more bad news, to begin with, but then realised it was actually the solution. So the problem came before the dirt. Perhaps a closer moral would have been that solutions may turn up in different guises. Notice that this solution was completely outside the donkey's control. If the farmer had been away on holiday the donkey would have gone undiscovered. It is not so inspiring when it is chance whether we make it out of the hole. Also note that the donkey was only able to use the soil because it came in manageable amounts. If the farmer had used a bulldozer then, one dead donkey...At this point 'shaking it off and never giving up' are irrelevant nonsense.

It does not seem to me that Life carefully measures the amount of dirt shoveled. Sometimes we can cope and sometimes we can't; and that is just how it is, none of us is immortal. Perhaps part of life is about understanding that is OK, and then still choosing to be joyful and generous? I would have to admit that this is now above my pay grade.

Moving on, the five simple rules are tagged on the end as if they had some connection. Let's see:

1. Free your heart from hatred - Forgive.

The farmer acted independently of the donkey's attitude. Forgiveness was totally irrelevant as far as getting out of the hole was concerned (although may have other benefits for the donkey, if it survived).

2. Free your mind from worries - Most never happens.

It did happen! The donkey did fall in the hole. It was complete luck that it survived.

3. Live simply and appreciate what you have.

Affirmation for today: 'I appreciate being in this hole'... This just strikes me as dumb.

4. Give more.

Perhaps the donkey had a smartphone and could donate to charity in exchange for the farmer's assistance? The charitable habits of donkeys in holes have no bearing on their survival.

5. Expect less from people but more from yourself.

Exactly the reverse of the story. It was only because someone else acted that the donkey survived.

What's a meta for?

So, it's a nice story that someone has tagged some psychobabble on to. We should not switch off our common sense when we see some feel good metaphor. By all means enjoy the story but keep your brain. If the moral has but a fleeting connection (if that) with the story then recognise donkey droppings for what they are.

The self help field is rife with this sort of tosh and it is a revelation to notice which of the metaphors have made it through our intelligence and become unconsciously accepted. I recommend the book Psychobabble by Dr Stephen Briers for an interesting (if at times patchy) examination of the beliefs we have bought in to, that may not be true and don't serve us.


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      5 years ago

      What you have written makes a lot of sense! Some people who use metaphors can be very lazy when they try to analyse them and, as readers, we have to be super aware to ensure that we don't fall into the same trap of laziness. Thanks for this!!


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