Therapy: the key to your emotional lock?
Clients often arrive in the therapy room feeling overwhelmed and confused. The strategies they have employed to contain and conceal their emotions simply aren't working any more. Could the therapeutic relationship be just what is needed to unlock your emotional freedom?
Whilst enjoying a walk along the river the other day, I sat for a moment to rest my feet and watched a narrow boat navigate expertly through a lock. As the vessel lowered with the controlled flow of the water and then slid away noiselessly down the calm river, it struck me how the process is a beautiful analogy for our emotional lives.
Every single one of us will encounter emotional difficulty, regardless of our tolerance to stressful events, our financial or marital status, our educative background or our social support network. At some point in our lives, we will 'struggle' - whether it's for an obvious reason (perhaps the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship) or the reason is less obvious (episodes of depression or anxiety or a midlife crisis, perhaps). You might be drifting down the river of life and then BANG. Something upsets the flow. You appear to be stuck.
For a while you might be able to ignore the issue, carrying on with your daily life and hoping this nagging, unsettled feeling will go away. But as that water builds up behind the lock gates, it becomes harder and harder to avoid the rising tension inside of you. You become distracted, irritable, stressed and emotional. Your energy levels reach crisis point, as you become exhausted and yet can't seem to sleep. Hopefully, it is at this point that you do some searching and find someone like me.
So, how can therapy keep your 'emotional river' running smoothly?
Looking closely at this picture of a lock, you will notice a few important details. Firstly, the water behind the gates is much higher than the water on the other side. Secondly, the gates are unable to fully contain the water behind them and, as such, there is water leaking through various joins and seals at a very high pressure. Finally, you will see that the water around the gates seems turbulent in comparison to the river as a whole. This is what pressure does- it creates a sense of chaos and turbulence.
Now picture the water as your emotions (perhaps sadness or anger) and the gates as a period of your life where, for whatever reason, things just aren't going smoothly.
Your emotions are building up inside of you and leaking out, sometimes inappropriately, without your control. You might find yourself suddenly crying during an important meeting; perhaps you experience a panic attack while driving the school run- you may have an angry outburst at a stranger in a shop or lose your temper with your children over minor events that would never have bothered you before now.
At this point, hopefully you have decided to enlist the professional help of a counsellor or psychotherapist (confused about which to use? Read my article on the difference between the two here); as I see it, this is how someone like me can help you.
Through therapy you discover that you already hold your own lock key- it isn't your therapist that is the lock-keeper, but you. As you begin to turn the key though, you might be shocked and disappointed that your emotional turbulence not only doesn't improve, but actually seems to increase: the higher the water level before the gates, the greater the pressure. A good therapist will help you turn that key just enough each week so that you don't become overwhelmed by the release; he/she will hold your ropes safely in the therapeutic relationship so that your boat doesn't capsize in the process.
After the initial rush, the water levels will begin to even out. You have a sense of greater control over the flow of your emotions and you are finally able to feel movement when you push against the gates. The lock isn't fully open at this stage, yet you become aware that you feel less turbulent and you are able to see the calm stretch of river that lies ahead. It is important that the work doesn't end here, however tempting it may be to quit while you're ahead. There will be more locks along your river, you see, and sometimes they appear in close, quick succession. You and your therapist have opened the gate paddles and evened out the water levels on either side, but until you have the experience of pushing the gates wide open without resistance and moved your boat through- until you have become familiar with your lock key and are able to retrieve it easily when required, then the work has not yet finished. You see, your key is your resilience- it belongs to you and you alone- yet if you are not given time to practice key retrieval or opening and closing those gates a couple of extra times so that you have a feel for the process, you might find that you reach the next lock and become stuck again.
Once inside that lock, a therapist can also help you to identify further obstacles to free movement (those bicycles and shopping trolleys, thrown in by people who were determined to make your journey a little harder) and move them aside so that your path becomes clear and safe.
The therapeutic process isn't about removing all of the lock gates along your river; no one can predict what obstacles your future holds. Rather, through therapy you can find your key (your resilience) and so when you next recognise that familiar feeling of emotional 'stuckness,' you will not only know what you need to do to relieve yourself of the pressure but you will be able to put that knowledge in to practice quicker and more smoothly each time. You are the key to your own emotional freedom- the captain of your own lifeboat; sometimes you just need the right crew to support you along your way.