Abraham Lincoln, Psychotherapist to the Nation: The Use of Metaphors

By Leetz, Kenneth L. | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Abraham Lincoln, Psychotherapist to the Nation: The Use of Metaphors


Leetz, Kenneth L., American Journal of Psychotherapy


The author presents accepted definitions of the term metaphor and reviews types of metaphors in common usage. He then attempts to elucidate the purposes behind utilizing psychotherapeutic metaphors and their inherent value in a therapeutic context. Following a historical survey of Abraham Lincoln's life and some examples of his writings and speeches, which depict him as a master of metaphor, the reader gains an appreciation of Lincoln's ability to translate complex subjects into understandable terms for the citizens of his time-a process not unlike that of psychotherapy.

Metaphors are a time-honored way to explain the abstract in a more understandable fashion. Speaking the language of the patient in a psychotherapeutic setting becomes important for the progress of therapy and, perhaps more to the point, allows the patient to feel valued and comfortable in this setting. The literature on metaphors and psychotherapy has burgeoned in the past twenty years with several good starting points for the interested reader such as Barker's Using Metaphors in Psychotherapy, "Metaphor and Psychotherapy,"2 and Trad's Previewing: A Developmental Principle that Promotes the Therapeutic Use of Metaphor.3 After a brief presentation of the current definitions of metaphors and variations of the term, I will review Abraham Lincoln's use of metaphors as historical examples of their therapeutic value.

One definition of metaphor is "a figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy."2 Another view is that "the essence of metaphor is understanding one kind of thing or experience in terms. of another."2 For instance, the phrase "he is a lion in battle" transfers the qualities of a lion, namely ferocity and courage, to a persona (p. 5). There are many types of metaphors and we may include allegories, anecdotes, proverbs, parables, and fairy tales as different examples. Jesus taught in parables and some of these have survived 2000 years. Characters from these parables, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, have even entered our customary language1 (p. 8). Sometimes metaphors are so widely used and applied that they become known as "dead metaphors" as in "Time is running out." Fairy tales are an especially good source of metaphors and Bruno Bettelheim4 wrote the definitive work on this in The Uses of Enchantment-The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Fairy tales are important to most societies as they tell readers about the human condition in graphic ways. Fairy tales entertain and enlighten children about themselves, foster personality development, offer meaning on several levels, and give creative solutions in ways palatable to the child. The story of Cinderella, for instance, says something about the mistreatment of children, especially stepchildren, as well as addressing themes of sibling rivalry, long before it was fashionable1 (p. 10). Bettelheim points out that the figures in fairy tales are either good or bad, virtuous or vile, or clever or stupid. Such polarization, which is characteristic of the young child's thinking, permits him or her to understand the difference between the two extremes. The child can identify with the good person and act accordingly. In contemporary culture, the fairy tale is losing ground to TV programs and films. But, the same features that make fairy tales so appealing are often evident in their contemporary, technologically driven versions. The Star Wars movies or the TV series Star Trek, in its various incarnations, represent the same process, characters, emotions, and situations as those in fairy tales1 (p. 13).

Fairy tales and therapeutic metaphors differ, however, in that the former tend to make a specific point and teach lessons whereas therapeutic metaphors offer new choices and new ways of looking at things. According to Barker,1 metaphors tend to: (1) be more interesting than straight discussions of the points made; (2) be less threatening and confronting than direct statements; (3) allow people to use them in their own way and for their own purposes; (4) affect the unconscious mind and attitudes; (5) be valuable in establishing rapport with people, especially children; and (6) model a way of communicating (pp. …

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