I work a lot with metaphors and many of my clients are gay men and lesbians. The approach I use in counselling and psychotherapy is based on the principal that we interpret and make meaning of life through the stories we tell ourselves and others. These stories about the events and the experiences of our lives employ metaphors.
Familiar Therapy Metaphors
The journey metaphor (life as a journey) is very common in counselling work as are pedagogic metaphors (life as learning). But rather than come up with the metaphors myself, I am interested in the metaphors people bring to the counselling session. As a therapist I do not set about making interpretations but assist people to make their own interpretations.
For example, say I am meeting with a client who talks about not being able to find any satisfaction in life. He has been searching for satisfaction for a long time. He knows it exists because he knows some other gay men who seem to have found it, but he was always told when he was growing up that satisfaction came from having a family and finding a loving partner. He hasn’t been able to find satisfaction and has often thought about giving up (the giving up took the form of suicidal thoughts), but something leads him to keep pursuing it.
This story could be seen as a kind of a quest metaphor: the quest for satisfaction. In telling me the story of this search he uses words like ‘finding’, ‘searching’, ‘existence’, ‘giving up’ and ‘pursuing’.
Using Metaphors to Solve Problems
So I can pick up this metaphor and start using it with him, using his own language and interpretation of the events and experiences of his life to find new clues, signposts etc to explore the origins of this quest with him. Quest metaphors are not uncommon of course and we see them regularly in films such as The Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings etc.
Someone else might come to me with a problem of ‘not knowing how to make friends’. So there is a metaphor here in the ‘making’. This person has ‘almost given up’ because it requires ‘too much effort’ and he has ‘nothing to see for it’. When I ask about what he has heard about making friends he tells me that he understands it takes ‘Time, Trust and Effort’. And from his experience already he has decided that it is quite ‘hard to build on one night stands’ or ‘random hook ups’ because the whole thing is liable to ‘come crumbling down’ too easily.
This sounds to me like a construction metaphor. I can follow this up with him by asking about plans and dreams of what kinds of friendships he wants to build. Are they great edifices or cosy hideaways? If random hook ups don’t seem to work, what sort of foundations might work? What is the cement of friendship? What are the building blocks? Does he know of any ‘finished products’ or ‘works in progress’ he can get ideas from?
I find metaphors really stimulating. Firstly, I don’t come up with them, others do, but I can help develop the preferred story and plotlines. Metaphors also speak to the hopes, beliefs, commitments and values people have. And hearing about these is just as important as hearing the problem story.
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