The River Guide: A Metaphor for Therapy

Posted on February 25th, 2013

Your life is on a river. It’s where you’re meant to live, where everything you want and need will come your way. But something is not going right. You can sense it, even if you don’t know quite what is wrong. Either you have run aground; or you’re stuck in a shallow arm of the river or a swamp; or you are moving against the current, trying to get back upstream to what was; or you are lost on an island, not even seeing where the river is; or you’re racing along the river, too fast to actually notice what’s happening to you, too fast for safety.

You decide to consult a river guide.

The river guide is called a therapist. He or she has not been down your particular stretch of the river, you haven’t even met yet. But the guide you’re looking for is someone who knows rivers well. He’s an expert guide, comfortable with himself and able to be comfortable with you. He’s as interested as you are in what your particular situation is, maybe even more so. He is ready to help you learn how to ride the river more effectively, how you can glide along it, maneuver the rapids, keep yourself out of the shallows and whirlpools, how you can experience moving on the river with joy and fulfillment.

First you check him out. You’re very particular, and you should be—after all, it’s your life we’re talking about. So you spend 50 minutes together, talking about yourself and your situation, about the guide and how he works. You’re trying to get a feeling for how closely the guide is aware of you, how much he actually sees your situation and understands your difficulties within it.

If he passes that test, you decide to come back. The two of you meet, usually for 50 minutes a week. There are two overall goals. The first is that you need help navigating the particular stretch of the river you’re in. The second goal is to learn how to better navigate the river on your own. That way, you’ll come away from working with the guide better prepared for anything coming your way.

In addition to everything else going on during the first sessions, you are still checking the guide out. In order to do your most profound work, you have to be able to trust the guide very deeply. You don’t want him to turn away when you bring up your most challenging difficulties. You yourself might not even know what these are, because without that trust you might not feel safe enough to expose these depths. This trust can’t be made up, it has to be real. You want the guide to see you, not the public face you put on, but who you really are. See you, and accept you, and enjoy you, and even love you.

When that trust is in place, you’re free to learn, free to change, free to become more fully who you are. Fifty minutes at a time, every week, you work with the guide, coming to new understandings of how you function, acquiring new information and new skills, all of which you take out on the river yourself during the rest of the week. Step by step, you learn what you need to know about yourself and the river, until you’re flowing easily on the river, and you have the realistic confidence that you can guide yourself.

Then you say good-bye.

Posted in Individual Counseling

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.