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.
A primary goal is to map the kingdom in which you were born and raised, to appraise its sovereign, and the manner of his rule.
Who was the elusive Wizard in your childhood kingdom? How did one attain his Emerald City to beg an audience? Why were witches left free to wreak havoc in the land? When did you notice the man behind the curtain, operating levers and dials?
A good fantasy novel includes a map, preferably printed or folded behind the front and back covers. A superior work of fantasy transports you someplace new, a land that grows familiar as you explore and memorize the features printed on that geographical survey. It becomes, in time, an atlas to your imagination.
Children love maps and fantasy and the promise of magic, and they live within a world resembling the worlds depicted in those maps. Everything is new to a child – they are small, helpless voyagers, stumbling upon all that’s around them for the first time. A child comprehends there are vast reaches he has never explored – mysteries he has yet to fathom.
Your first kingdom may have encompassed, as mine did, half a dozen front- and backyards in a suburban enclave. One of your first acts may have been to map these surroundings in your imagination. Perhaps your private demesne included a series of trails through an empty lot where you played, or the path back to a dam you once constructed in a creek in the woods, or a mystifying secret passage around a wooden fence and under a hedge that magically linked two otherwise unrelated ball fields. A wonder and a mystery. Children start early with cartography – it is a in-born trait, an instinct innate to our species.
As you study a map, you wonder. What is that place like? What does it feel like to stand there and look around, to wake up in that city, to gaze from that prominence up at the nighttime sky?
In psychotherapy, I examine your personal map, pose those questions, and ask them of myself.
What was it like to live in your child-world? How did it shape your expectations? Do you rely still upon that map, even living elsewhere and in a different time? Do the traces of a lost world remain, like ruins beneath the dust you tread, a palimpsest, guiding your passage in unfelt ways?
We construct a map, together.
Familiarity dulls a map-maker’s art. You cannot accurately map your own backyard after too long a stay in the same house. You must stand outside and recall its outlines. You require a new perspective and fresh eyes or you’ll miss the details.
Imagine you are riding in a street car in a strange city, describing what you see into a cell phone. The person on the other end knows the city well – and he is trying to discern, from your naive descriptions, where you must be – the buildings and shops and corners and streetlights and signs enciphered by a foreign tongue that glide past – groping for a landmark to anchor his mental sketch of your surroundings.
Someone related that image to me as a metaphor for psychotherapy – I don’t remember who. He said it could be credited to Freud.
I don’t know if I agree with it entirely. Can I truly recognize the landscape of your human journey, sufficiently that, if you provide me a description of where you are, I can place you on a familiar map? Perhaps.
But the sense of dislocation rings true. The sense of being lost, struggling to find your way by discerning details around you and relating them to an outsider.
In psychotherapy, we grope in the dark, you and I, on a linked journey.
You have to get lost to arrive someplace new.
Keep talking. You’ll find your way.
If you’re interested in learning more about the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of psychotherapy, you might enjoy my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”
My second book takes a humorous look at the current state of the legal profession, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)
For information on my private practice, click here.