Working as an Ice Sculptor in Therapy

Some clients are complicated and challenging, for one reason or another.  Some have a long history of difficulties in life — and may take a while to address; some are complex and difficult with which to work.

Regardless of how or why a client presents the way that they do, the result of what is happening in the therapeutic process and relationship can be the same.  You may make slow progress.

I like to share a metaphor with my supervisees that has given me great perspective as a clinician when things are slow-going.  It is that of an ice sculpture.

Disclaimer: I don’t take credit for the creation of this metaphor.  A colleague of mine shared it with me more than 15 years ago.  He was well-known at our agency for working with some of the most difficult clients — and I loved chatting with him in-between appointments.  I have often reflected on past conversations with him – and I love metaphors regarding therapeutic processes.  I hope that my colleague is okay with the fact that I’ve embellished this one just a bit.

The ice sculpture metaphor goes something like this…

Therapy, sometimes, is like working on an ice sculpture.  You start with a large, rough block of ice.  The ice has just been plucked from a frozen tundra or some large deep-freezer — where it would have been isolated for an extended period of time and left to harden.  If the ice had feelings, it would be in shock regarding the change in environment.

The block is then plopped-down on a workbench for the sculptor or sculptress to start working on it.  The workbench is likely located in a fairly cool environment, so that the block of ice won’t melt while the artist works on it.  Turn up the heat too much, and the block may start to quickly melt.  This will make it difficult to work on the ice and create the sculpture.

Ice sculpting toolsThe sculptor or sculptress likely has multiple tools to work with which all involve shaping the ice in one way or another.  The likely tools are a hammer and different types of picks and chisels.  The artist selects one of the tools and starts to ‘tap-tap’ here and ‘tap-tap’ there.  Try to tap too hard, or tap in the wrong place a little too forcefully, and the block will fracture and crumble – creating something undesirable.  The artist needs to be patient.  Tap a little here and little there – all within the overall plan for the sculpture.  Chip away a little bit here where some of the ice needs to shaped….chip away a little bit there to remove a bulge in the ice.  Just don’t chip too hard or too fast.

Ice designKeep a plan for the sculpture in your mind as you work.  It might be a very clear plan for what you are trying to create — or it could be a little more of an abstract (or unknown) design for the sculpture that you will fine-tune and know it when you see it.  Some sculptors may not have a plan — and claim that they are working to uncover what the ice was “meant to be”.

You may need to turn up the heat just a little bit to make the ice a little easier to work with….or maybe make the environment in which you work a little more comfortable…but only just a little bit.  The ice can’t handle a high degree of heat.  It would melt into a puddle — again, something you don’t want to happen.


In therapy, sometimes you need to work slowly; chip away at some of the large issues a little bit at a time.  For some of our more difficult and challenging clients, some issues need to be approached slowly.  Move too fast, and they could “fracture” and move into a fairly dangerous area.  They may not be ready for that much change at one time, or you may be addressing past trauma that is a little too scary to deal with in a short amount of time.

Cold client in a chairTurn up the heat too soon in the therapeutic process, and they can “melt” a little faster than is healthy for them.  They can slip away from therapy.  You want your client to change over time into a more desirable behavior or cognitive place — but in some cases this needs to be in a very deliberate and intentional manner.   Direct your client in a productive direction (turn up the heat) to make it a comfortable environment with which to work and make progress in therapy…but don’t push them to go too far, too fast.

You might have a clear idea of the direction you are headed in therapy.  You might have an abstract, or general idea, of the direction you are headed.  You may feel that your client is leading the way.  To me, this depends on your foundation and training as a therapist.

It takes time for clients to process significant events in their lives (ones that may not have been processed before).  Work in ways that help to create change but allow time for your client to process what is happening and settle into a new equilibrium — before pushing them to change again.  You don’t want them to fracture and you don’t want them to melt.

Admittedly, I’ve never created or worked on an ice sculpture — I live in North Carolina.  I think the only chance that I might have of getting near an actual ice sculpture would be some type of fancy catered affair – and those types of events are ones that I like to avoid.

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