It’s a no-brainer; in order to honor a client’s frame of reference for hurting and for healing, a therapist needs to attend to and accept the client’s metaphors that come up in verbal and visual material. Attending to these symbols is part of presence. We all learned about that in the first semester of grad school. But accepting a client’s images is another matter. Consider this cautionary tale:
When I was working toward registration through the Art Therapy Credentials Board, I was also going through a period of profound personal loss. I got myself into a group for this but still dealt with the task of bereavement 24/7. At the same time, I had a job at an adolescent residential treatment center in a mountain town just east of San Diego. Eventually the dynamics of one of the boys’ cottages became such that our group sessions were catalysts for their acting out, and I was the target. They began to refer to me as the “f-ing alien b__” and make snide comments about UFOs and Area 51.
I complained about this issue to Ellen, a formidable, compassionate, and quite knowledgeable art therapist who was supervising my hours. She implored me to accept the boys’ metaphor. “What is an alien?” she asked. “It’s something that doesn’t belong or doesn’t fit in. They’re telling you how they feel, how they see themselves. They’re in residential treatment, after all.” But I didn’t want to be the f-ing alien b__. I had my own pain, and I didn’t think I deserved that title on top of it.
Regardless, I was the f-ing alien b__ for the next six months. All the while Ellen encouraged me to accept this metaphor, but I resisted. And then came the day when I was ready to admit defeat. Noting that none of my other approaches had improved things, I asked the boys to create aliens with the art materials I’d provided. There were cheers and jeers. I braced for the worst. But much to my complete and utter amazement, none of the ten boys in group wound up making an alien. One boy did create a person from a foreign culture, but that was the closest thing to “alien” in the room by the end of that session.
I was never referred to as a f-ing alien b__ again, nor did I hear any more comments about UFOs and Area 51. Ellen was not at all surprised. Once I had finally accepted the boys’ metaphor—even though I didn’t like how it was being projected onto me—they were able to move on and engage in therapy during our group sessions. Accepting their metaphor meant accepting them. It was their symbol for hurting, and acknowledging it set them free to work toward healing. If only I’d trusted in the magic of metaphor six months earlier. Lesson learned.
Now I accept aliens, and I hope you will too.
With appreciation for the important work you do,
Megan August 2012