Slaying the dragon: Using metaphors for social justice

In this post Jeanine van Halteren discusses the way in which she uses metaphors to support clients career development and address social justice.

Jeanine van Halteren

Social justice is present when diversity is more than a celebration of exotic differences; when all members have responsibilities and opportunities to participate and contribute to society; when we respect human rights and universal needs, like the need to be loved and belong.

Career guidance practitioners can contribute to social justice in many ways. In this post I would like to share my personal story and use the metaphor of ‘slaying the dragon’ to illustrate how you can use coaching skills and discourse analysis to unveil injustice, and reflexive practice to co-create empowering narratives, and in doing so, restore social justice.

My story

I was born and raised, a middle-class girl in the Netherlands. Being youngest of three, I felt overprotected and rejected by my brothers who called me a ‘spoiled brat’ and a ‘fifth wheel on the wagon’. Alone and misunderstood, I found solace in drawing and writing stories. Every Saturday, my parents took me along to the library, a world of images and words from a different dimension. At age six I told mum ‘I will be a writer!’ My parents applauded. My brothers ridiculed me and told me to ‘Stop dreaming’. As a child, I created an imaginary world, as a teenager, I tried to save the world, as an adult, I studied art and social sciences, travelled the world to help others and ended up as an art teacher on top of the world in Norway.

I never intended to be a career counsellor, but I longed to live a life of meaning and purpose. After travelling, witnessing poverty, oppression and inequality, raising kids was challenging. I wanted them to be aware of injustice and never take democracy for granted, but also feel safe and loved. Bedtime stories about magical mysteries, trolls and dragons counterbalanced the misery presented by the media.

At work, expected to teach art techniques, I found myself listening to my students’ stories of love, friendship and accomplishment, and also of loneliness, suicide attempts and being raped or bullied. Society expected students to study effectively and qualify for employment, but they wanted to live and longed to be loved and belong. When a counselling position opened up, my students begged me to apply. I did apply, reluctantly, thinking I (a young female immigrant) was unqualified. I was shocked to hear that I got the job and accepted the position.

For more than fifteen years, I provided career guidance in a variety of educational contexts in Norway to people at all life stages. I established Spring Ahead which specialised in cross- and inter-cultural career counselling. Looking back, I realize I listened to thousands of students, unemployed, immigrants, NEETs, and people facing midlife crises. Different people, different challenges, but all longing to be loved, belong and contribute to society. Today I teach career counselling at OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University in Norway, and hope to inspire my students, using metaphors to illustrate how life and career unfold and develop inseparable and simultaneously.

Using metaphors to slay dragons

Imagine life and career as a journey, one road, winding through an unknown landscape. You might be adventurous, looking forward to explore new territory, or cautious, eager to plan and prepare. You may find lush meadows and taste delicious fruit or meet vicious dragons and gaping gorges that seem impossible to cross. You are unable to see the whole journey, but know you were born, live, and some day, will die (unless you believe in reincarnation or life after death).

The dragon represents condescending comments we hear or tell ourselves, about lack of skills, abilities or opportunities to succeed. These comments are dysfunctional, distort our self-efficacy and obstruct our career development. Once you start listening, you feed the dragon instead of slaying it, allowing it to grow stronger and manipulate you, to believe and make similar condescending comments about others. Instead of slaying the dragon, you breed a legion of dragons that block your road and quench your aspirations. You may loath yourself, lose hope and even give up. You need someone who can help slay the dragon and build a shield of truth against any future dragon attacks.

Career practitioners, trained to be empathetic, engage in dialogue and motivate people to shape their future, can help you ‘slay the dragon’ by identifying and analysing dysfunctional narratives that have distorted your self-efficacy and obstructed your career-development. Afterwards, you ‘build a shield of truth’ by co-creating empowering narratives based on your actual skills, abilities and opportunities to succeed. Coaching skills and reflexive practice help to reveal the injustice, inflicted upon you by cultural discourse or yourself and restore justice.

Building a shield of truth

Social justice does not exist in a vacuum, but is co-created socially inspired by a desire to share and care for others. The degree of willingness to make a sacrifice for others influences the choice of lifestyle, partner and career. A career practitioner can challenge people to reflect on consequences (for the environment or other people) of choices they are about to make.

As a caring career counsellor, you can contribute to social justice, but only if you keep in mind that to ‘Love your neighbour like you love yourself’ implies you need to love yourself to be able to love others similarly. You restore justice by loving yourself, by treating yourself and others as equally unique and equally valuable members of the same community. In other words, you need to use discourse analysis to identify and slay your own dragons, and use reflexive practice to build a shield of truth before you reach out to others.

5 comments

  1. I think that the recognition that we can build up our clients resilience and self-belief is an important part of social justice practice. But, we shouldn’t expect that just getting tough and thinking positive is enough. We also need to help clients to challenge the material circumstances in which they find themselves to open up more career possibilities.

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    • I totally agree Tristram. This is merely the beginning of a long process. Indeed, we need to help them understand the landscape (material circumstances) and their personal role. In addition we need to encourage them to think “outside the box” in order to discover opportunities for growth, and to bravely step out into the unknown.

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  2. This is a very beautiful and thought provoking article Jeanine. I think that you are very right to highlight how the words we use can reflect the thoughts we have about ourselves and others. So, using ‘discourse analysis’ in career guidance is really important. I love the metaphor you use ‘slaying the dragon’. And, yes we need to help clients ‘build a shield of truth’ about their distorted thinking and voices in our heads that tell us we are not worthy, or intelligent enough, or capable etc. You also talk about how most of your clients want to be loved and belong which is something that unifies us all no matter how different we are. I like your last comment too i.e. that it is important for us to ‘love our neighbor as our self’. If we did that the world would be a brighter and better place! It was lovely to read this article because it reflects what an empathetic, loving and humane person you are! Emmax

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    • Thank you for your kind words Emmax, I truly appreciate it! I am glad you enjoyed the article, and hope it inspires you to use metaphores for social justice and, indeed, to use your self to make the world a brighter and better place!

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      • You’re most, welcome Jeaninex! Yes, I enjoyed and it does inspire me to be more alert to metaphors and to use it to promote social justice in my practice. So, I thank you for this article and I will strive to make the world a brighter and better place too!

        Best wishes

        Emmaxx

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