Metaphors to Sleep With

In a Traffic Jam in the Middle of the Night?

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Just the other night at 2:00 in the morning, I found myself worrying about a valued colleague who had been given a pink slip just as she was leaving work the day before.  Caught off guard, she had been in tears on the phone with me.   Awake in the middle of the night, in a half-dream state, I tossed and turned, a ship in a roiling sea. Each newly imagined consequence of being laid off washed over me, awakening me.  Then I acted in a Shakespearean tragedy trying to set aright the injustice done to my friend by her employer. 

The bed too easily becomes a place for worry, our minds unable to shut off the drama.  And it feels in the moment as if we are genuinely caring for the other person, empathizing with them, trying out different responses to their situations.  But as Shakespeare reminds us, it’s “sleep that knits the ravell’ed sleeve of care.”  We need abundant and natural sleep to care effectively for those we love.

Cognitive behavior therapy—the first line of response for insomnia and sleeplessness—asks us to pay attention to what we are thinking and feeling in the middle of the night, as a hyperactive mind can prevent us from getting the natural and abundant sleep that we need to be healthy and alert.  In my book Stories for Getting Back to Sleep (, I suggest that the stories we tell ourselves when we are trying to get back to sleep affect our ability to do so.  Within stories, one finds metaphors, which can have a power of their own.

As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson illustrate in Metaphors We Live By, metaphors, like the ship and actor ones above, are powerful cognitive structures, not one off comparisons.  They are experienced bodily and have entailments, extensions of thought that are frequently invisible.  Take the ones about the ship tossing at sea:  “I am at the helm of this troubled ship, the trouble no fault of my own.”  “I’d better hold tight to the the ship’s wheel.”  “If I lose control, the ship can go down with its cargo, and people can drown, including me.”   These invisible inferences strengthen the metaphor’s hold on our thinking, keeping us wide-eyed and awake.  When fueled by anxiety, the entailments become entangled or repetitive.

Luckily metaphors can be transformed.  But one needs to be intentional about it. There are several steps to turning a metaphor around–from the pitching ship in roiling waters to one that is slipping smoothly into a calm harbor during a glorious sunset.

The first step involves preparing for sleep.  In Stories for Getting Back to Sleep, in one of the tips for using the stories, I suggest that the bed itself might need to be seen as metaphorical.  Rather than a repository for others’ concerns, where worries can fly in like mosquitoes, buzzing in our ears, the bed becomes a sanctuary for self-care.  That shift involves creating boundaries around the bed.  For example, think about a mosquito net, which hangs on the ceiling above the bed and is tied up during the day.  One can mentally untie the mosquito net and drape it around the bed, or if one is a camper, think about snuggling into a warm sleeping bag in a small tent.  In both cases, outside pesky thoughts face a barrier and stay outside the protective shield while one’s relaxed and calmed self stays in.  All of us have the right to a safe space for self-care.  We can establish it through intentional, mindful practice, reminding ourselves that our beds are spaces for comfort, restoration and nourishment.

If one acknowledges that the day’s events might stir up anxiety and feed entangled metaphors during the night, then, before bed, write down one action you can take the next day and place it on a table close by so that you can relax, assured that you have a positive response at the ready.

The second step is to explore the metaphors behind our thinking when we experience sleeplesseness.  Are you a pilot in an out-of-control plane? Driving along a very bumpy road with lots of potholes?  Directing traffic at the chaotic scene of an accident?  Identify the images, the entailments and the feelings, as those must all be revised and replaced.  One has to recognize them to be able to work with them.

The third step involves the transformation of those metaphors or their replacement altogether.  One can linger on the ship, now reframed as calmly floating and gently rocking in the harbor as the setting sun creates vibrant colors across the water.  Panicked pilots can safely land the plane at an airport that allows them to retire to sleeping pods.  Or one can replace such metaphors of worry with soothing stories such as those in Stories for Getting Back to Sleep

No matter the strategy, it’s worth one’s while to approach sleep through reflective practices.  Then the morning’s care will arise not from bleary-eyed exhaustion but from an empathy and compassion regenerated by abundant and restorative sleep.

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