Metaphors, Emotions and Confidence

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My friend Sarra recently sent me a link that included chapter from Anthony Pay’s book-in-progress on the use of metaphors in clarinet teaching. At least I think it’s still in progress – the text was from some time ago but I can’t find any evidence yet of its publication. Anyway, when it does come out, I’ll be happy to recommend it on the basis of this extract. He is clearly an experienced and thoughtful teacher – thoughtful both about the processes of playing his instrument, and about how people learn.

The overall thrust of his argument is that metaphors are useful aids to the learning process, and that different metaphors give access to different aspects of the task you are trying to learn. This is a subject on which I have been known reflect, too, of course.

One of the examples he gave was of the metaphors we use to describe emotional states:

If we say of someone, "he is full of anger," we inevitably talk
ourselves into a 'container' metaphor for emotions. We imagine his
anger 'filling' him in some sense. Then, the normal behaviour of
containers filled with things influences us in our assessment of the
possibilities open to him, and therefore, on other occasions, to
ourselves. Whether this is a good idea or not depends on the

One consequence might be that we think of our anger as something that we can only 'let out' or 'hold in'. On the other hand, we might imagine instead that anger is a substance that can 'evaporate' -- this is of course a further metaphor, and possibly a more useful one on occasion.

This is an intriguing observation, and opens up all kinds of questions about what other metaphors we might use to describe our emotional states, and if/how the metaphors affect our emotional experience. I’m hoping that Zoltán Kövesces’s book Metaphor and emotion: language, culture, and body in human feeling might help answer them.

But the thing that most immediately caught my attention was Pay’s next comment that the container metaphor might not be useful for the idea of confidence: not something you want to imagine either evaporating or leaking away, I guess. He then makes the comment: ‘As we shall see in a later chapter, confidence is best thought of not as an emotion.’

Now, the problem with reading extracts from works-in-progess is that you don’t get to see that later chapter. So, in a nice illustration of the idea that we learn more from information we have to work out for ourselves than information freely offered to us, I’ve been pondering as to what he might be thinking of here as his concept of confidence.

My best guess so far is that he’d say confidence is best thought of as a muscle. It can be weak or strong depending on how much we exercise it – another way of saying the only way to conquer our fears is to tackle them rather than retreat from them. And it only gets stronger by exercising it beyond our current comfort levels.

As a metaphor, this is effective because it places us more in control of our experience than we may be feeling if confidence is an issue. It makes our weaknesses both acceptable (of course under-exercised faculties are a bit puny at first), and correctable (you just need to do a bit of exercise). It also encourages a sensible, incremental approach: you need to push yourself a bit at each stage, but don’t try too much at once or your risk injury. And the metaphor also builds in the idea that your reward for effort comes afterwards, with both the immediate reward of feeling good about yourself, and the longer-term reward of increased capacity.

Of course, I have no idea if this is what Anthony Pay was going (is going) to write about confidence. Maybe one day I’ll find out. But in the meantime, it’s a useful thought to be getting on with.

Oh, I will most certainly read the Kövecses! Did I somehow manage not to mention lovely Lakoff, though? This is the short primer on - what it says on the tin, really: 'Metaphors we live by'.

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