Robert Frost’s lines are so well-known that it seems unfair to use them yet again. But they do sum up what I want to write about better than any other lines. So once again these lines will be used to talk about journeying. I was talking with one of my patients and we were going along familiar and comfortable ground, which is not to underrate its importance. One of the core ideas in therapy is that of working through. That process whereby we visit and revisit a theme or topic until there is a sense of resolution and understanding. But occasionally it becomes too easy to follow the familiar twists of known material and to miss something important. If I’m alert to my patient and listening properly to them I become aware of hints about other aspects of familiar material. My task then is to bring them to my patient’s attention and to invite them to explore this new place.
When my wife and I are on holiday in a new city, we often allow ourselves to get lost. We’ll see a side street and choose to go down it. Just to see where it goes. It’s fun with somebody else. I don’t enjoy doing it by myself. I panic about getting lost forever, although Google maps are surprisingly empowering! It is on these streets that one gets to see the hidden life of a city, the elements that are not on public display but are more private and intimate reflecting a real life rather than a sanitised one. Marrakech was particularly keen that tourists only go along prescribed routes sending us via the souks rather than a different set of streets. Other cities have been more welcoming.
The process of psychotherapy and counselling goes along a similar pattern. I want to take my therapist along known, familiar routes that are prepared for their arrival. I set out my market stalls of attractive goods, all carefully displayed. I do not invite them to look underneath my stall and see the rotting fruit, the rats, and other detritus lurking there. Yet the under stall is as important as the public display. Here is the stuff that is real and messy and has to be managed in some way. It is definitely not for public display! Nor do I expect that it should be. But therapy is different. It is about those less travelled roads. About the stuff under the stall.
A patient asked me about the meaning of a particular psychoanalytic term. Or rather, they couldn’t allow themselves to ask. They gave their understanding of the term and promptly dismissed what they said. “Oh! you probably know all about that, don’t you. You’re the counsellor. I don’t know stuff like that. I’ve probably got it all wrong, as usual.” I was quiet for a little while then commented on the way they had asked – or not asked – the question. This took us into a rich conversation about their envy of me; their reluctance to have to allow themselves to not know something; their difficulty in allowing me to share something with them. These were themes that ran through their life and had shaped much of what they had done. The conversation was rich and enjoyable as we began to reflect on that moment. It would have been easy to give a “correct” answer to the question. This would have missed so much. I had to risk taking us down a road less travelled. Hopefully we’ll continue to explore this road in future sessions.
The road more travelled is, usually, seen as much safer. Mostly it is better signposted and there is more traffic. The less travelled roads can feel more lonely. Less well signposted. This is why we invite our patients to walk with us. We do not simply give them a map and compass and tell them to meet us at the next trig point. We walk the road with them – and they with us. It is always a shared journey. It requires as much courage from the therapist as from the patient – something our patients don’t always see! Nor, of course, are they necessarily aware of how many of our own roads we have explored. Nor of what we have discovered going along them. (Perhaps it should be a rule when choosing a therapist. Don’t trust them if they haven’t got blistered feet!)