Pluralistic Therapy Cards: Playing with Potential
Shirley Brennan, MSc Pluralistic Counselling
When I embarked on my pluralistic counselling training journey, I was not familiar with the word ‘pluralism’ and only a vague idea what it might mean in practice. The course was offering a unique and open approach to counselling with a progressive philosophy. I was immediately onboard with this as it aligned beautifully with my spiritual beliefs and professional practice as a complementary therapist of working collaboratively with humility offering client choice, agency, and a therapeutic relationship that recognised the client as expert. I was excited, inspired, and engaged. Until it came to explaining it to others! Then I got a bit stuck. And I was not alone.
I did not like or enjoy using the word ‘pluralism’ as it does not trip off the tongue easily. Maybe my Geordie tongue is not pre-disposed to its particular oral gymnastics. And I noticed an inner bracing whenever asked to explain exactly what it meant and how it differed to other counselling approaches. My answers would include varied, clunky explanations interspersed with pluralistic buzz words such as ‘metacommunication’, ‘collaboration’, ‘client preference’, and ‘cultural resources’–as if the words alone would reveal the magic behind this unique approach.
I soon realised I was not alone in my inability to articulate what I believed to be brilliant concepts, that were effective in practice but quite tricky to explain. Other students struggled too and, as the course progressed, clear articulation of its distinctive features remained challenging. So when a 3rd year counselling project presented an opportunity to create a pluralistic resource an idea was hatched.
The project brief was to create something related to our field of study that was supported theoretically and connected to pluralism. Honestly, I was ‘left-brain fatigued’ from multiple assignments and study. I wanted to play and be creative. How could I create something useful, informative, visually attractive, and simple that would engage my cultural resources and enjoy the process? I chose the shortest, clearest text I could find on Pluralistic Therapy to work with. Enter, stage left, John McLeod’s pocket-sized book on Pluralistic Therapy: Distinctive Features (Sage, 2017). Enter, stage right, my artistic vision and background in illustration.
The Rainbow Umbrella: Diversity and a Multi-Dimensional Approach
Creating a universal image that represents diversity, multi-dimensionality, and inclusivity was not difficult. The umbrella represents a universal approach: robust design, effectiveness when open, and an ability to embrace all other approaches. Rainbow colours are a universal symbol of diversity, enlightenment, and movements towards change. The core conditions are drawn into the handle that form the basis of any pluralistic approach. That it could be perceived as a wheel or an umbrella supports individual preferences and frames of reference. It can be either, or both. It is your choice! How pluralistic! A cover image was born.
Therapist Style: The Person of the Therapist
The person of this therapist has a ‘trying too hard’ tendency and can over-intellectualise under stress. With this self-awareness I shifted my usual pressured academic approach to just doing what makes my heart sing: drawing. I tapped into a neglected creative aspect of myself and quelled the inner critic that mocked a childishly simple idea. I patted my negative self-talk on the head and did what I do with my clients: resolutely believe that when I tap into their unacknowledged and unique skills, magic always happens. I left the accidental splodge of pink watercolour under the word ‘style’ because I wanted to reflect the new me that was embracing mistakes and having the courage to take risks. On reflection, as the mirror image also portrays, I think it worked!
Goals: A Multi-Dimensional Approach to Goals
My goal was to achieve a resource that would be accessible to all. Exceptional therapists are not necessarily academic. I wanted to create something that appeals to everyone from the ‘A+ student’ to those who struggle academically. I wanted to convey the essence of concepts visually and simply that included humour and took the basic features of pluralistic therapy into a format that others could absorb and recall with little effort. There were not many smiles when I wrestled with a literature review assignment so I wanted to offer a resource that would raise a smile and maybe a little delight for students. Learning should be fun! I love the pluralistic phrase ‘client-shaped goals’ and this image I hope encapsulates both fun and individuality of aligning with these.
Tasks: How Do We Get There?
Action and commitment were easy, my task was to continually challenge self-doubt and a critical inner voice that mocked my approach to an academic assignment by just playing about with image and design. The miracle question was: What would happen if you trusted enough to leap and allow the net to appear? I had to trust in the process while acknowledging the anxiety that said, ‘These drawings are not good enough and what if no-one likes them?’ My inner therapist said, ‘Just draw, you have a talent, use it!’ and so I trusted her and kept going. I hopped into our dual control vehicle and challenged the voices and just went for it. My sub-task was to just create an image a day. That is me, top left, bouncing on my space-hopper having fun creating!
Trying Things Out: The Prototype
I decided to take the chapter titles of the 15 distinctive aspect of pluralistic practice section of John’s book to inspire ideas for the images. I played around with collage, scribbled ideas, and sketches. I played about with format: mocking up a fold out map, folding timeline, booklet, leaflet, or even considered a game. I was trying out what works and what does not. Sitting with the intention for each image to be simple yet impactful I let my imagination do what it loves. Play.
Feedback: Yakety Yak..DO Talk Back!
In true pluralistic style I showed my prototypes to friends, student peers, and lecturers and I asked for feedback. Does this help you? What format works for you? Are there any images that do not work? Which cover image do you prefer: the rainbow umbrella or the tree? And I listened to this feedback and tweaked, adjusted, and then converted my prototype into finished artwork. Then into a design and eventually a product. There was an overwhelming preference for the format to be a set of A5 cards. I was happy as that was my preference too!
That weight on my back was a literature review in my final year! Although useful learning it consumed my head space and my creative project took a back seat while I focused on what felt like the proper work of an academic course. Persistence played a huge part in completing the review so I could get back to the pure joy of creating my visual resource. This image reflects the parallel between my painful academic challenges and the therapeutic process. I was awarded an ‘A’ by the way, so I am claiming the trophy at the top there! And my helper further up the academic ladder was my lecturer without whose words of continual encouragement I would not have reached that top step and trophy!
These illustrated cards have been a co-created effort. I shared my idea with John McLeod who kindly gave his permission to use his text. I chose the five key statements for each card that I think best represent each distinctive aspect on the card’s reverse. I hope I have successfully married my creative vision with his theoretical and practical knowledge and experience. Hearing him at the 2020 pluralistic conference encourage others to take what he, Mick Cooper, and many others have given birth to forward is endorsing. This generosity and humility reflects pluralism’s ethos. In sharing their vision in my own unique way I would like to think I have dressed their baby in a unique and colourful outfit to encourage others to appreciate its beauty. I want to share how delighted and proud I am to be able to be part of its journey and growth.
This final image represents the woven interconnectedness of client and therapist that has the potential to bloom into new growth combining with the threads of interventions, process, and relationship that weave the therapeutic material together. I wanted to capture a soft ‘tie’ that is easy to release and the circular movement of the change process and working together. The snake-like form suggests the transformative power of the therapeutic process in shedding old ways and the multi-colours: the many ways of approaching endings. The motivating force for taking my idea and creating a product was a pressing need for something unique and different and seeing things in a new way. After all, this was how pluralistic counselling was born, was it not?
And here is the end product! A set of 15 illustrated cards, complete with bullet -pointed pluralistic concepts on the reverse that you can use for study, a practical reminder for counsellors and to share with your supervisor and clients.
With great sadness to the pluralistic community and all who knew her, Shirley died in November 2021. Her obituary can be found here. If you would like to purchase a set of cards for your own study or practice please go to Shirley’s Etsy Shop Illustration and Design by ShirlBeeDesigns on Etsy