ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Oct 26, 2011

Three Metaphors All Counselors Use...The Second Metaphor—The Counselor as Artisan

My last blog explored the first metaphor that is used by counselors—counseling as a legal process. It is my least favorite and my hunch is that it is the least favorite of most counselors since it takes the power away from the counselor and places it in the authority that makes the rules and that disciplines those who do not follow them. Under the legal metaphor, there are only two stances: you obey or you do not—and you get no kudos for obeying.

I find the second metaphor, the artisan, to be the most ubiquitous metaphor in counseling. This metaphor uses the human activity of building or creating something. A cabinet maker has a vision what he or she wants to build, draws up plans for a set of cabinets, gathers the materials the plans call for and then, guided by those plans, he or she uses their skills to build those cabinets which, more or less, agree with the original image. Likewise a sculptor may acquire a block of marble and as he or she contemplates that stone, they get a picture of what it might be able to become. They then go about ‘freeing’ that image from that marble. Unlike the legal metaphor in which goodness is decided by whether one obeys or not, goodness here is a discernment of how close the actual product is to the ideal—one can be closer than another to the ideal.

This metaphor guided my experience in graduate school. Thinking back on that experience, I realized that most of the courses I took were being guided by this metaphor. The ‘image’ of an educated counselor includes knowledge about psychological development, multicultural issues, ethics, different counseling theories, etc. The ‘picture’ that was ‘painted’ was certified as accurate by CACREP and tested by the CCE. The activity of educating good counselors was the activity of the artisans—mainly the instructors but also the administrators before a degree would be granted.

This metaphor also guides many counselors as they work with clients—from the very first encounter through the treatment until termination. Many counseling services as well as individuals have developed extensive intake forms which the client is to fill out. Besides just the needed identification and contact information, these forms ask all kinds of questions about the client—anything about the client which may affect the process of trying to form the client into the ideal. I have seen such forms being 10-11 pages long—the idea being that the more you know about the block of marble before beginning chiseling on it, the more effective you can be as a sculptor and the less likely you are to make a mistake.

The treatment plan then is written basically describing the ideal—the goal—of the counseling process. And the counseling process becomes a matter of ‘making progress’ toward the ideal. One of the difficulties in this process is knowing when to terminate—the client can never become exactly like the ideal but he or she can be close enough. Other terms often used in counseling also get their meaning from this metaphor—working through resistance, aspects of the client which provide ‘material’ to be discussed or dealt with in the counseling session. If you use this metaphor to guide you as a counselor, I’m sure you can identify other terms which get their meaning in the context of this metaphor.

Note that a common expectation (in fact requirement in some places) of a counselor is that they must conduct 50 minute sessions, with 10 minutes to record that session and prepare for the next. This schedule is driven by the metaphor of an artisan—like a portrait painter: one client comes in and the painter paints on the portrait for 50 minutes. That client leaves. The painter puts that canvas away, gets out the next canvas and the next client comes in.

It is not surprising that almost all psychological theories, whether they describe psychological development or psychological conditions—almost all of these hypothetical constructs—follow the metaphor of the artisan. An ideal development or a dysfunctional state are ‘pictured’ along with how they are created. Note that the idea of ‘creation’ itself gets its meaning from this metaphor.

The DSM itself adopts this metaphor as its guide—each diagnosis gives those characteristics which, if present, identifies a particular aspect of your client—it paints a picture. The counselor is supposed to observe his or her client and ‘see’ whether any of these characteristics are present and if enough are present then the client corresponds to that picture and that condition must be present and consequently must be dealt with as the counselor-artisan works to create the ideal.

Note that this process is significantly different from a medical doctor who also gathers information about the client. But in this case, one particular test can definitely rule in or out a particular condition: an x-ray shows whether the bone is broken or not; a single blood test can rule in or out HIV infection. Sure there are situations which are ambiguous for a while (and medical shows on TV get their material from these, ‘zebras that seem at first to be horses’) but even there one test usually proves to be the one that identifies the condition. They are guided by a different metaphor. One of the main objections concerning the DSM 5 revision is that it seems to be moving toward the metaphor a doctor uses rather than one that counselors use.

Much of the current emphasis on ‘multicultural awareness’ is guided by this metaphor. A counselor must know about other religions or faiths or cultures or sexual orientations etc. and becoming a competent counselor is to continually educate oneself concerning all of these different social, political, religious, sexual and other dimensions so that they can be used in formulating the ideal as well as in the process of working with a client to reach that ideal.

Finally, most of the ACA ethical code is guided by this metaphor. They paint the picture of an ideal counselor. Note that almost all paragraphs add some aspect of this ideal. In fact the word ‘counselor’ is usually the subject of the first sentence of each item—‘Counselors . . .’ Most of these are not legal ‘rules’ but descriptive statements of what constitutes an ideal counselor.

In summary, the process assumed by the metaphor of the counselor as an artisan includes the ideal itself as well as the authority counselors agree to accept as the creator of that ideal; discernment as to how close to or far from that ideal any individual client (or counselor) is so that ‘making progress’ can be identified; this metaphor is used for both describing the counselor as well as the client.

I must end mentioning a couple of difficulties I have with this metaphor and its consequences for counseling:

First and most important of all, if I have dutifully studied the aspects of populations different from me, whether they be Muslims, gays or lesbians, or black teenagers, or CEOs, or any group I am not a part of, I cannot help but bring those pictures into the counseling room with me, whether the client brings them in or not. Even though consciously I feel like I am open, my subconscious does not so quickly set aside these images. These images and my feelings about them come in with me. In such a case I can’t help but respond to a older homeless black man differently from a mid-thirties white business woman who got her PhD from Harvard—especially if I am ‘culturally sensitive’. I have problems with that because I am bringing with me expectations which can limit what I expect from that client and thus limit my client’s expectations of themselves. Karpman’s Triangle can easily be present without my awareness. These all are consequences of being guided by the metaphor of a counselor as an artisan formulating an ideal for my client.

But as an emeritus professor of psychiatry and former chairman of the psychiatric department at Johns Hopkins once told a psychiatric Grand Rounds, the most important aspect of any of the psychological or counseling theories is that ‘they keep the psychiatrist interested enough while the patient cures himself or herself.’ That perhaps is the best use of the metaphor of counselor as artisan.
As I see it, the fatal flaw in this metaphor is it defines an individual as an independent individual.

This was the error Descartes made when he thought, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ He didn’t realize that by the very act of thinking and writing, he was assuming at least on other human being existed! Language assumes at least 2 independent minds which are related, at least, through that language—and counseling always assumes at least two individual human beings in relationship. And that suggests a third metaphor which a few famous psychotherapists have used. That will be my next blog.



Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.

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