The gentler way: exploring the client’s journey
Many of my clients want to climb a mountain, that is to say, they want to achieve immediate, permanent change and do so as quickly as possible. This is an entirely understandable desire and response from a person in pain or an unmanageable situation. However, it puts them under pressure to act swiftly and decisively, often at a time when that is hardest because their inner resources are depleted.
Stress, loss and anxiety are not good motivating forces, and the situations that cause them can rarely be solved or removed by fast action.
This situation is often accompanied by two thought processes: "I can’t do it" and "I must do it faster". These thought processes contradict each other, forming what can feel like an argument inside the mind. The end result may be a desire to run away and not face the mountain at all, or to remain in fear and stillness at the bottom. Alternatively, you may scrabble, again and again, unable to get a purchase and pull yourself up, frustrated and angry at your inability to climb perfectly first time.
I recognise this process as I have seen it in myself too. I have stood at the bottom of the mountain, fearing the climb and criticising myself for not just climbing it, feeling pressures from inside and out to be moving and doing. But I have learned and helped my clients to learn, that those fears and criticisms are a clue.
If you want to go on the client journey, you need to stop trying to climb the mountain quickly. You need to find a gentler way
So let’s look again at the mountain. The sheerest face seems to bring the destination, freedom from what troubles you, closest to you. From this perspective, any point between the start and destination counts for nothing. There is no progress, only completion or failure. And as the destination cannot be reached within a day, even though every day you commit to reaching it, every day ends in the same failure.
For many clients, this is a repeating process and creates a bleak prospect. This could be the trigger for entering therapy. I meet many clients at the bottom of their mountain, and they ask me to teach them to climb it. Or better yet, give them the key to the hidden lift which will zoom them to the top. But I’ve never climbed their mountain, and there are no hidden lifts. However, I do know something about mountain climbing, and the shapes of mountains. I have learned that they all have different sides.
A change of perspective
In therapy, I would encourage the client to consider looking for a different way up their mountain, a gentler slope beginning from another starting point. The journey from there looks longer, and at times it can be harder to see where you are in relation to the finish because the path winds a bit. But there are places to rest and reflect, viewpoints for the changing perspectives, and the opportunity to turn around and see how far you have come without losing your footing and crashing back down.
From the beginning, you are aware it will take more than one day’s effort to complete the journey, and that it will require more than just an initial push. But you don’t make the journey alone. The steep ascent can’t be made by more than one person, a winding path is safe enough for two to walk together.
On the gentler way, you will have no choice but to become very familiar with your mountain and its terrain and spend more time on it in order to complete the climb. This awareness and acceptance bring benefits though, you may only have to complete the climb once rather than start again every day. The negative thoughts about your ability and need to climb (the "I can’t do it" and "I must do it faster") will eventually shift, as you acknowledge that you really are climbing and really are moving towards the end.
During the climb, it may even be possible to see that the peak of the mountain isn’t the only place you want to go. You begin to measure your achievement by how far you’ve come, counting the small steps – every last one. There is time to learn about you on the gentler way, and the pace may pick up towards the end as you get better at moving and begin to value how well you are doing.
Where to begin
What message would I want you to take away from this exploration? Learn the shape of your mountain, and give yourself the time to climb it well. If you only want to get to the top, now, it may never happen. If you only measure success in therapy as getting over everything as quickly as possible, you may never succeed.
The problem is that with low self-esteem, you would recognise that lack of success as inevitable. But if you could count every step of the journey as a success, then not only the last step would count. If you accept that your mountain is yours to climb, at your own pace, you will get there and have conquered it, not merely climbed.
It may be that, for a while, every day starts at the bottom of the mountain. The key is to remember that there may be more than one way to climb it. Go the gentler way, meet me there, I’ll bring a picnic.
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