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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

Do you feel heavy, exhausted, depleted and weighed down?

Why our Mind-Metaphors Matter

Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today

I have always been fascinated by the metaphors we use to describe our inner lives. Often things of beauty, they are also very telling. Metaphors matter, especially our mind metaphors. Those metaphors are attempts to capture our feelings, experiences, and sensations by imagining them as something else that is similar in some ways. What exactly goes on inside us is often hard to describe in plain language. Metaphors allow us to share what we are thinking and feeling with others. Verbal imagery can also help us to recognize and to make sense of what happens in our inland empires. Mind metaphors illuminate the diffuse and shifting forces of dark and light within us.

But, in turn, the mind metaphors that are dominant in our culture can also shape our individual lived experiences. Think, for example, of the insidious mind as a computer metaphor. It encourages us to think of our inner life as being determined by hard-wiring, programming, glitches, overload, depleted batteries, on-and-off switches, and psychological malware. This metaphorical cluster is less than helpful because we are in no way like computers. And nor should we aspire to be. We are relational and creative, bio-psycho-spiritual creatures—embodied, embedded, encultured, constantly interacting with our environments. And neither are we machines, or clockworks, or automatons. We get tired and depleted and, if we are not careful, we might even burn out. We need regularly to stop and rest and replenish our energies, and this is also what makes us human.

In descriptions of what exhaustion feels like, we often come across imagery that revolves around empty batteries, overdrawn accounts, and depletion. They are based on the idea of our life force as a precious and limited resource that we need to manage with great care. The notion of burnout (itself a metaphor) indicates that we have used up a limited quantity of something too quickly because we were burning the candle at both ends. Again, these metaphors are not helpful, for they are fatalistic. When we are burnt out, when our batteries are empty, and when we have expended all our energy, we cannot replenish ourselves. We have foolishly squandered our limited allowance.

A much more helpful metaphor for states of exhaustion is the notion of heaviness. Heaviness imagery revolves around the sensation of being weighed down by the burden of our thoughts, bodies, tasks, and sorrows. Heaviness metaphors have always chimed with me and my innermost experience. When I am exhausted, which is often these days, all activity, including standing and walking, uses energy I don’t have. Walking is an effort, my legs feel as if glued to the ground. To move, I have to wage a battle against stickiness, invisible bubble-gum strings. Just being alive and human feels like work. My speech becomes slow, and my eyes turn to slits, wanting to close. Gravity’s laws are torture. It feels like the cosmos has conspired to pull me down.

There is a beautiful German word that fits well with this imagery cluster, Schwermut. We could translate it as the difficulty of conjuring up courage, or else as our spirit being weighed down or depressed by something. Schwermutdesignates a paralysing state of mind that is defined by sadness, hopelessness, and an inner emptiness. A profound heaviness of heart and soul.

The word “depression,” too, centres on the sensation of an inner heaviness. It comes from the Latin word deprimere, “to press down, depress.” The literal meaning of depression is intimately related to the more metaphorical psychological meaning of the term, “dejection, state of sadness, a sinking of the spirits,” which emerged in the fifteenth century.

We can also find links to this sensation of heaviness in the present-day diagnostic criteria of depression, for example in the form of the slowness of thoughts and movements, or “psychomotor retardation.” The DSM-5 lists a “slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down)” as one of depression’s core symptoms.

The poets and painters of the past, too, have clearly felt the relentless pull of gravity when they were in a state of exhaustion. Consider, for example, the description of Belacqua, a character in Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308–21). Belacqua is being punished for his laziness. Ironically, he is too weary to climb up Mount Purgatory, where he might find salvation. Belacqua spends his days lounging languidly in the shade behind a boulder at the foot of the mountain. He is listless and exhausted, “sitting with his arms around his knees, between his knees, he kept his head bent down.” Dante describes him as someone “who shows himself more languid than / he would have been were laziness his sister!” Dante notes the slowness of Belacqua’s movements, the brevity of his speech, and that he lifts his eyes just high enough to be able to see his visitors.

In Three Books on Life (1489), a self-help book for exhausted melancholics, the fifteenth-century Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) writes that exhaustion “beclouds the spirit” and can bring “sluggishness and torpor by its heavy frigidity.” “When we are in this state,” he writes, “We hope for nothing, we fear everything, and it is weariness to look at the dome of the sky.” Exhaustion “makes the spirits heavier and colder, afflicts the mind continually with weariness, dulls the sharpness of the intellect, and keeps the blood from leaping around the Arcadian’s heart.”

Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia I (1514) depicts the heavy energetic cost of thinking. His picture shows a despondent female figure, who, with her head in her hand, sits surrounded by the scattered paraphernalia of science and art. She stares gloomily into the distance. Listlessly, she holds a geometrical tool in her lap but is too weary to use it. An hourglass in the background signals that she is wasting time and that it is running out. A set of empty scales indicates that she may have lost her sense of balance; a scattering of tools suggests that she has probably worked too hard, and on too many different projects simultaneously. An emaciated sleeping dog and a limp, depressed-looking putto with a bowed head further reinforce the all-pervasive sense of exhaustion. Although the tools of critical reasoning are within touching distance, the woman is simply too weary to act, literally and metaphorically weighed down by the boundless possibilities. Her head has become too heavy for her to hold upright. Her thoughts and her very capacity to think and reason have become an intolerable burden.

In the film Melancholia (2011), the Danish director Lars von Trier provides another striking image of the tremendous effort it takes to drag our bodies across the earth when we are exhausted. The film’s main character, the melancholic Justine, sinks into a state of clinical depression after her wedding night. She is so exhausted that she cannot wash herself, and is barely able to leave her room. She describes her condition to her sister as akin to wading through a field of grey yarn, which is slowing her movements and pulling her to the ground. She drags herself around the house like a zombie. She can barely muster the energy to keep her eyes open; they are always half-closed, the lids, too, being pulled downwards.

In the poem, “For One Who Is Exhausted, a Blessing,” the Irish poet John O’Donohue describes exhaustion as something that befalls the mind “like an endless, increasing weight”:

Weariness invades your spirit. Gravity begins falling inside you, Dragging down every bone.

Why are heaviness and the tyranny of gravity such powerful images of what exhaustion feels like? In Metaphors We Live By (1980), the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson offer a possible answer. They argue that our metaphors are often rooted in embodied experiences and perceptions. There might, then, be a rather literal explanation for heaviness metaphors: exhaustion and sadness impact our posture. When we are depleted or dejected, we quite literally have no energy to hold ourselves upright. Instead, we bow our heads, curve our backs, and allow our shoulders to slump forward. We walk, sit, and stand as though we are carrying a sack full of stones on our back. And there is of course the idea of our thoughts becoming oppressive despots—dark forces that put pressure on our spirit and life force, urging us towards inactivity and collapse.

But here is the main reason why I like heaviness imagery. It is because heaviness can be a temporary state, rather than a permanent condition. Unlike being burnt out, or permanently depleted, like an empty battery or a drained reservoir, feeling heavy can be overcome. Heaviness’s clouds can lift. And when they do, we once again feel light. We have a spring in our steps, like young deer bounding gracefully across a clearing. We become bird-like, sailing the wind, seemingly without effort. Our bodies are no longer burdens. Our thoughts levitate. Our entire being aspires towards the sky. We are once again amongst the effortlessly upright, our necks tall, proud spires, and gravity can go hang.

Image: Albrecht Duerer, Melencolia 1. Wikimedia Commons.

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