If you were to tabulate the time you spent obtaining your graduate degree, license, continuing education, and specialty training, it would be measured in years or, for some, decades. That’s an enormous amount of time thinking counselor thoughts, speaking counselor words, and problem-solving from a counseling perspective. Certainly, these are the requisite building blocks of a professional career. We wouldn’t want a counselor thinking engineer thoughts, using plumber words, and problem-solving from a chemist perspective. Even so, there is a danger in becoming so enmeshed in our counseling worldview that we lose perspective.

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I must continually maintain awareness that my clients are coming from a different frame of reference. If I’m not mindful, I may use jargon, aka “counselorese,” which could run the risk that my interventions won’t connect with my clients. I may also disenfranchise and come off as irrelevant to my clients. This is the opposite of what I want. I want my clients to get excited by the ideas discussed in counseling and enthusiastically think about new patterns of behavior.
What are some ways of circumnavigating the counselorese problem? In discussion with colleagues about this problem, a number of ideas usually get thrown around, such as matching your language with the client’s, understanding and utilizing the client’s frame of reference, or using movie or sports analogies to explain a concept. All these are great ideas, but it is only on the rare occasion that I hear someone comment about metaphors. Which I think is unfortunate, because I find metaphors especially useful and powerful, and, most importantly, an effective way to mitigate the counselorese problem.

When done right, a metaphor relevantly connects with the client’s lived experience. Let’s say you are explaining to your client, who happens to be an auto mechanic, the benefits of self-care and the client just isn’t getting the concept. So you switch gears (did you pick that up?) and compare the client’s implementing a consistent routine of self-care to a car owner’s bringing their vehicle into the shop every six months for routine maintenance. The mechanic will certainly pick up on the logic and urgency of the metaphor. And with your help, they can connect the dots to their life.

Specifically as they relate to language, metaphors get you away from using technical jargon. This is important because counselorese can, in the worst-case scenario, disenfranchise the client, and at best, undermine the effectiveness of interventions. For example, with the auto mechanic client, using phrases like “check-up,” “regular maintenance,” or “run diagnostic” relates to the client while achieving a clinical purpose.

Finally, metaphors paint a vivid mental picture that allows the client to explore their experience. In other words, a metaphor is a mental picture that you can walk into in order to examine parts of your life that you have never looked at. The auto mechanic client may have never considered self-care as a part of his life, but once considering that his mind and body are kind of like a car, and self-care is kind of like doing maintenance, maybe there’s something else within the metaphor that will help him to examine his relationships, beliefs, or goals.

However, metaphors are not perfect and may not work for everyone. You may be working with a client who is very concrete, on whom any kind of imaginative, thought-experiment-type of exercise could be lost. So be sensitive to who your client is and their needs. You will also want to be cautious about over-using or over-relying on metaphors. Furthermore, mixing your metaphors can diminish the power of any one metaphor. Be wary of stretching your metaphor too far—adding more and more to the metaphor could eventually decrease the effectiveness of the technique. Best to keep your metaphors uncomplicated and straightforward.

I recall working with a client who had a hard time understanding my conceptualization of their presenting issue. They couldn’t understand how I saw their problem, and therefore, my recommendation on how to treat the issue was going nowhere. I had to try something different. Fortunately, I knew that my client was a runner. So I used a metaphor of a marathon to help the client understand her relationship to her daughter. I shared how she was getting fatigued by sprinting when she had miles and miles before the finish line. It would be better if she conceived of her relationship as a marathon. The client really connected with this idea. She realized had to pace herself when running long-distance, and she needed to “pace” her expectations. We then discussed how the client could make her expectations realistic, how change takes time and patience, and the need for regulating emotion when things get challenging. The metaphor powerfully connected with the client and enhanced our clinical work.

As you can see in the example above, I was stuck. Certainly, there were a number of options I could have tried to get things moving in the right direction, but using a metaphor worked for me, and thankfully, it worked for the client. The metaphor provided a story in which the client could evaluate herself and envision new alternatives. It helped her see where she was making mistakes and allowed her to self-correct. It grounded her daily experience where she felt unsure and confused in a narrative where she was confident and knowledgeable. The medium was the metaphor, and the message was changed.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy