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  • Writer's picturesarahfishburnrober

Getting in the boat, together

Hokusai’s famous painting, The Great Wave, has symbolized for me this week how very difficult it is for most people to enter counselling. If you look closely, you can see tiny figures cowering in these fragile boats that could be dashed to pieces by the waves at any moment. The fishermen are not in control of their fate.

In the type of therapy which I practice, the client is always in control. I am led by them and work in a person-centred way. At the start of counselling, however, it is hard for a new client to know what this means. I have had potential clients who admit, “I’m too scared. I don’t want to go there.” Then there are clients who book an initial appointment but don’t turn up and I never hear from them again. And then there are clients who come to that first appointment and commit to starting work, only to cancel the day before therapy starts in earnest, citing an array of obstacles: work, finances, timings, location, health problems…

Of course, these are real issues. I, too, have to contend with them all on a daily basis. Yet oddly perhaps, this process of to-ing and fro-ing reminds me of how children run up to a retreating wave on the beach, chasing it as it recedes, and then run away back up the beach, shrieking, when the next wave rolls in. They want to jump in the water, but the reality of getting their feet wet is unappealing. The water will be cold, it will be uncomfortable, it’ll take ages to get dry. Even worse, they might fall in.

St John of the Cross, the 15th century Spanish mystic and priest, knew how frightening personal growth can be. He wrote, “God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness because if we fully knew what was happening, and what mystery, transformation, God and grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process.”

Clients do that too. When the session contents get too painful and they find themselves in deep water, they take charge of the therapy and move themselves onto safer ground. I follow them there, attentively, as attuned as I can be, feeling around the edges of pain. Clients also simply stop therapy because it’s become too much. They’ve had enough, although interestingly, they usually return after a breather.

So we face a paradox. To gain more control over our lives, we first have to relinquish it. To find peace and security, we first must tolerate unrest and the threat of a deluge. To know ourselves and others better, we have to submit to mystery and doubt so that transformation can take place.

Perhaps I should just show new clients Hokusai’s painting and say, “therapy is me getting in that boat with you.”

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