Our initial task as client and therapist – our work during the first few sessions - resembles cartography. I begin, like a map-maker, drawing a square or a rectangle, then sketching the outlines of landmarks visible from afar – the mountains, the sea, the rivers. In limning a life, the prominent features are obvious – where you were born, and when, where you grew up, what you do for a living, who your parents were and what they do, your siblings, if you have any, and your relationships with them, your partner, if you have one, and your relationship with him. I get the big stuff down, then step back, and try to make sense of it all – take “the lay of the land.” Later, I’ll add shading and nuance, and fill in the details – tiny inlets and hillocks, copses and rills.
I conjure a map from blank parchment. It returns the favor – conjuring a New World from my collected observations, and serving as a trusty guide. The expanse charted in shorthand on the map permits me to “rack focus” (as they say in film-making) – alter my gaze to take a fresh perspective, observe an unaccustomed vista. The map, as it develops, assumes a shape of its own. Disparate regions are drawn together by common threads – the length of a river’s course, a shared coastline or mountain range. My attention drifts to objects on the edges of boundaries, features I might have missed. The elusive “big picture” – awareness, the ultimate goal in psychotherapy – begins to coalesce.
The first step in the process comes as a question, from the therapist. The phrasing of that “first question” gets debated when therapists gather. I trained with a colleague who invariably asked the same thing at each first session: “So what brings you here today?” That feels twisty and indirect to me. I usually start with “So how are you?” or, depending on my mood, or yours, “So how’s it going?” Sometimes there’s serious upset taking place in the here and now, that needs attending to right away. Before I sketch the background – the mountains and the sea and the rivers – I need to know if there’s a battle occurring on that stony plain, a castle under siege, a forest caught fire.
This is an historical map. I am mapping a quest – an epic voyage. You are the hero. Ours will be the sort of map with crossed swords to mark battlefields and mythic beasts to guard those unexplored zones at the edges of awareness.
The first question doesn’t matter much, because your unconscious feelings function like a compass. Wherever you start, you’ll find yourself where you need to be.
I have a good sense of direction, too. If I sense we’re drifting off-course, I’ll lean my elbow on the tiller.
Your compass is guided by emotion, drawn to it as to a magnetic pole. If I detect an increase in feeling, I might grow cautious, slow our pace and sniff the breeze, comb the sky for a cynosure – fear, anger, sadness, hurt. Emotions guide our way.
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