Coughing in the dark
Perhaps one of the hardest things for clients to tolerate is the feeling that therapy isn’t getting them anywhere. They complain of a sense of ‘stuckness’ and inertia, and feel frustrated and depressed that despite all their efforts, their issues seem as unresolved as ever.
When things seem to have ground to a halt in the therapy room, the first thing I do is to stop trying so hard. Pace is important; therapy can’t be rushed and it is my job to hold the space and to trust the process when my client can’t. Only then can I be an anchored counterpoint to their thwarted desires. The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “the Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.” It is possible, then, that our inertia serves a purpose, that it is a place of protection and gestation, and is not directionless at all.
For those of us who conceive of our therapeutic journey as a spiritual one, being ‘stuck’ is akin to seeking God without success. We try to discern his presence but he is silent, elusive, non-existent, even. The counsellor’s advantage, however, is to not be as stuck as her client. I am able to look at my client’s predicament with a more detached bird’s eye view, surveying the whole landscape, not just the present crisis. The mystic Meister Eckhart said that God is like a person hiding in the dark who occasionally coughs and gives himself away. To use this analogy then, I can remind a client of all the coughs that in the past have signalled progress and movement. Sometimes, I may even hear the coughs when my client is too distressed or depressed to hear them.
Feeling mired in our own dark emotions can be desperately lonely. The counsellor can be a patient and loyal companion in this isolation and can hold the hope for her client, until the client can claim it for his own again. Emily Dickinson, as usual, expresses it far more beautifully. “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without words/And never stops, at all.”