Feeling Our Way

Turn in the direction of the skid.

Walking Is Graceful Stumbling

Aspire to the courage of girls at play.

To take a step, we must pitch ourselves forward, manage the panic at being airborne, hope the ground will hold, take comfort in knowing that the worst that can happen is we’ll fall, bump our foot against the terrain, search for a foothold, and catch ourselves. “In form and moving how express and admirable,” says Hamlet of us, but surely he meant after a great deal of practice. We make it look easy; we cover each near-tumble with a look that says, even to ourselves, that we did it on purpose; we learn, not to avoid tumbling, but to recover; we become experts at walking.

Girls on balance beams never achieve that sort of mastery. They are reckless. Even the best in the world leap up and never know, not with anything like the confidence of walking, that the footing will hold. They may risk less than the elderly, since they can likely recover from a broken hip, but they stare down broken arms, broken veins, and broken egos. I aspire, when talking—in class, in therapy, in supervision, in company, in love—to tap the courage of these girls at play. I want to start a sentence without being sure of how it will end. I want to fly, and fall, and take my lumps, because sometimes, then, I can fly and stick it.

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My current trainees, like so many others I’ve supervised, are all kickass women (I’ve also worked with courageous men). I reminded them the other day that the difference between psychotherapy on the one hand, and advice, comfort, and life engineering on the other, is that psychotherapy takes advantage of the fact that, given a power differential and sufficient ambiguity, the patient will screw up the therapy relationship in the same way he screws up his other relationships. The implication is that the action is in the room, not back at the proverbial ranch, and I wondered why so few first and second-year trainees are ever observed making use of this parallel. They said that many beginners are too unsure of themselves to take such risks, to talk about what was going on while it’s happening. I either snorted, scoffed, or stuck a finger down my throat and pretended to gag (they know me by now).

If you spend too much time studying the balance beam, too much time getting comfortable with it, or too much time minimizing (and therefore contemplating) the risks, you may never climb onto it, you’ll probably never jump, and you will definitely never backflip. Instead, you need to have a little faith in your spotter and derive some inspiration from the other girls you’ve seen in the Olympics (if they can do it, so perhaps can you). In supervision, I try to show trainees my best work, to show them that productive clinical thinking on the fly can actually be done; I communicate that they are good people to be in a relationship with (our program’s primary selection criterion) to address the fear that they will say something dreadful if they speak authentically; and I choose patients for them who are reasonably robust (treating suicidal or fragile patients is the equivalent of working on a trapeze without a net). I also give them a chance to practice making real-time comments to me and each other (analogous to starting with a padded beam on the floor).

Some students believe that talking in class and taking the lump of being wrong, or telling a patient what you see and taking the lump of being rejected, is too much like starting on a full-size balance beam and too little like starting off on a padded beam on the floor. Really? A bruised ego is as bad as a bruised shin? C’mon guys: girl up.

If you learn to do what looks like therapy without actually doing therapy, you are unlikely ever to introduce the elements that make it therapy. There’s an old joke about the rich lady whose limousine pulls up in front of the Ritz; the bellhops start unloading her many items of luggage until they come across an eight-year-old boy. “Well,” says the lady, “carry him up to the room.” “Can’t he walk?” says a bellhop. “Yes,” says the lady, “but God willing, he’ll never have to.” Don’t be that boy. You can’t make progress without stumbling.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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