Are you living your life according to your own metaphors? Or is your system being restricted by ill-fitting second-hand ideas, images and connections?

As I’ve mentioned frequently in this blog, the metaphors you use in your thinking (including your subconscious processing) have a profound impact on your behaviour. It’s inevitable, because metaphor is the language of the unconscious mind. The metaphors we use in our language (at a rate of around six per minute in English) can provide clues to the metaphors in our thoughts.

You’ll certainly be living in a world of second-hand metaphors, because they are profoundly infectious. We’re constantly picking up metaphors from our environment: for example, when you start work in a new industry you’ll soon adopt the jargon used by your colleagues.

As small children, we adopt metaphors from parents and other carers. As we grow up, we borrow them from friends, from advertising, from TV. It would be impossible not to think in second-hand metaphors.

But we rarely stop to ask, “Does this metaphor actually work for me, or is it restricting my thinking?”

And we probably never stop to wonder about the details of our metaphors, and how these may have been altered in the process of adoption. As a Clean Language expert, I know the details can make a huge difference!

Here’s a personal example. Marketing experts constantly encourage coaches to “find their niche” – by which they mean, to find a specialist area of coaching which suits them.

I’d been struggling to make this second-hand metaphor fit for me. And recently I realised why.

By asking myself “what kind of niche?” I discovered that for me, a “niche” was a small space in a rock face, like a foothold on a cliff, just a few inches square. That ind of niche was way too small to accommodate the five- to six-foot frames of the wonderful coaches I knew – and way too small for me. To actually fit into one, I’d need magical powers!

What had happened? At some point in the past, perhaps when I first learned the word “niche”, I’d unconsciously filled in the details in my own way. And my details were different from the marketing experts’ details.

It was as if we’d used different colours to complete a child’s painting-by-numbers activity. The outline was the same: the details were different.

I’m sure that if I were to ask one of those experts “what kind of niche?” they’d have a very different idea about the details of the metaphor: a “niche” for them must be at least as large as a human being, and probably has many other attractive features.

From this realisation, there are two ways to go. Either I could re-colour my painting-by-numbers to make the metaphor work for me. Or, I could come up with my own metaphor for the concept. See my YouTube video for how to do this.

I went with my own metaphor, and started to experiment with assisting coaches to find a “commercial sweet spot” – one of the places where their unique skills, experience and knowledge matched up with the needs of a cash-rich hungry crowd, with a view to creating their own commercial online product.

The results so far: most people who’ve been offered a “sweet spot session” have jumped at the chance. And it looks like I’ve found one of my own “commercial sweet spots” in the process of the experiment.

Now I’m curious. Which would you prefer to discover? Your niche, or one of your commercial sweet spots? Or would your metaphor for this kind of concept be something completely different? Please comment below.

    5 replies to "Are Second-Hand Metaphors Restricting Your Life?"

    • Maarten Aalberse

      Lovely, Judy…

      As you say, a main trick is to recognize “second-hand” metaphors as metaphors…
      (makes me think of mindfulness practices that help us label “thinking” as such, rather than getting “caught up” in thinking)
      … then to explore these with openminded curiosity.

      Oh, and somehow I like “sweet” much more than “clean” 🙂

    • Judy

      Thanks, Martin.
      Anything else about that “sweet”? 🙂

    • trine


      some sanity!

      second hand metaphors can be like second hand, now you see now you dont gone in a flash wilted like secnod hand roses,,they droop…

      lokking for niches is like looking for cracks in the pavement, theres plenty, but no space to fall into, but enough to trip.
      marketeers have their trips,and headings.

    • Rhana Pytell

      As one of those who jumped at the chance of a “sweet spot session” with you, I can attest that if it had been offered as a “find your niche session” there would not have been any response from me. Why? Is niche overused? It’s origin is “nest”.

      As a metaphor “Sweet spot” sounds optimum, resonant and less labor like than “niche”.

      Thanks for the food for thought … and the enlightening “sweet spot session”!

    • Marty

      This is really weird. Because when I read the phrase “second hand metaphors”, I had this flash of a second hand bookshop come into my head. Only for a second. But there nonetheless.

      So, my metaphor for “second hand metaphors” is basically that they come from second hand bookshops. If that makes the slightest bit of sense? I like second hand bookshops.

      I like second hand books. But second hand books so often have no connection to me. I always feel like they’re something I discovered but they belonged to another person. You can usually tell that they belong to someone else by the fact they’ve got “Happy Christmas 1973, Derek, love from us all…” written in them sometimes. Or words to that effect.

      So using second hand metaphors is, for me, basically using metaphors that belong to and are dedicated to other people.

      The problem comes with the words “sweet spot”. For me, those words flash up images of ice cream and one rather interesting association to do with what adults who love each other very much get up to in private. “Sweet spot,” to me, is much harder to understand than “niche” is but I don’t like “niche” either.

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