Look for the Holes

To discover what you need, go where you are not

Posted Dec 28, 2010

In the world of art there is the concept of negative space; it is the space around an image. If, for example, you are painting a picture of a vase, the space around the vase - the darker background perhaps - would be this negative space.

In the world of family, couple, and individual therapy there is a similar useful idea. Rather than only focusing on what is being talked about or expressed, look for the holes, what is not in the room: The family that talks about Joe, who is always getting in trouble, but never talks about their quiet, good daughter, Ellen; the couple who so easily gets angry but can never turn the corner and express sadness or joy; the man who seems perpetually stuck in regrets from the past, and never ventures forth into the present or future. The daughter, the sadness and joy, the present and future are the negative space, the holes, what's missing. You look for these, and move towards them so that the family, couple, or individual can hopefully do the same.

Why? Not because you believe that there is some valuable psychological nugget to be mined, some deep secret to be revealed. No, it's usually not about content at all. It's about changing the process - shaking up the system, pushing everyone out from their comfort zones. The family knows how to talk about Joe and can do so forever; the couple is familiar with anger and has essentially been carrying on the same argument for years; the man has used his regrets like a worry stone, holding onto them and mentally rubbing them smooth. What's needed is a change - in the conversation, the story. New problems to replace the old, worn-out ones that are stuck in the psychological mud. Outside the familiar and into the new and uncomfortable is where creativity and change ultimately lie.

So what are the holes in your own life? What don't you want to talk about? What relationships do you ignore? What emotions are you reluctant to feel? In the balancing of body, emotions, reason, and spirit, what is most left out? By approaching what you resist, dormant aspects of yourself come alive; energy that has been used to hold these back is released.

No big leaps or plunges are needed. Start slow. Change the topic of conversation at dinner with your family, approach someone at work that you normally don't talk to, pay attention to the wisps of emotions that you usually ignore and see what information they hold. Look at it as an experiment, or a way of stretching and increasing your psychological flexibility and range. It's not about the what that you are doing, but the fact that you are changing the how by going against your grain.

Go where you are not and see what you find.