Before I ever became a therapist, I was a writer. Writing has always been transformative for me, offering a place to explore the complex emotions that often come with being alive. I’ve had a complicated and powerful relationship with writing ever since I discovered how I could use the written word to play with my associations to the world around me, and in the process, new words, meanings, and experiences can emerge. I have felt excited by the English language for is its capacity to elicit playfulness with its particular malleability.
The same feels true when it comes to human relationships. It’s been my experience that when we are given sweet time and attention, we can shift, grow, and change our relationships to each other and to parts of ourselves, and new meanings and experiences can emerge.
Born underdeveloped and immature, humans are flexible and malleable by nature. Being human is an experience of mastery, loss, and repair, and with time, love, and experience, we are destined to grow. It helps when we have been given opportunities to trust our caregivers, and develop a kind of faith that these early relationships won’t break apart if we test their edges. In order to grow, we have to test boundaries and ties - otherwise, how do we know where the "other" ends and we begin?
Growing becomes easier when we are offered experiences that prove our growth (mastery) won’t destroy our relationships permanently (loss); but that if one person or the other is not careful enough and wounding occurs, repair is possible (mourning and healing). Language and collective meaning-making can help in all these facets of developing relationships with ourselves and one another.
Language, like power, can be misused when there is meaning-making that is not collaborative. This can happen in therapy, too. Whether we like it or not, there can be a power differential in the clinical hour, and therapists hold a kind of authority in that space. I was talking with a therapist friend today about our complex personal relationships with authority, and the authority we hold as therapists that the non-therapist parts of ourselves might also rail against. But, as we talked, it became clear that authority does not have to be toxic, and can actually help create a container in which good-enough therapy can occur. Here’s how I think that can happen.
There is a way to hold one’s authority, whether as a parent, therapist, or in other power dynamics, like a large soap bubble. Imagine one of those life-sized soap bubbles as they float into the air, the membrane around the bubble flexing and shifting to accommodate the change in air pressure inside and outside the bubble. This is the kind of flexibility I aim for as a good-enough therapist: To preserve enough room inside the container that the membrane around our clinical work can shift when needed for growth, without breaking, and still keep its containing shape.
At times, therapists (including myself) might actually hold their containers more like a cardboard box. A cardboard box, being more rigid than a soap bubble, doesn’t allow much room for shifting positions and changing shape. If you are inside this box, and push up against its edges, you have two options: You can stay cramped and stuck inside it, or you can punch through its walls and destroy the container. Either way you are limited by its rigidity or its weakness, as it can be destroyed if you wish to move around or change positions as you grow.
In both cases, with the soap bubble and with the cardboard box, if the relationship or people inside are not careful to preserve the container, it can break. But in the case with the bubble, there is hopefully enough flexibility within that it can change shape enough for “the contained” to move around, readjust, and grow. Inside the cardboard box, however, there is both a fixed shape and fixed dimensions, and in order to preserve that kind of container you must not move lest you destroy the container altogether.
So how do I, as a therapist, support a container that’s more like a soap bubble than a cardboard box? This brings me back to language. Like a soap bubble, language can change its shape and its meaning, but only in a collaborative process. In order for you to understand what I mean when I write, we have to be “in on it” together. I have to come up with a way to communicate something to you that you can relate to, and vice versa. Otherwise, it’s just you or me, alone with our individual thoughts, speaking or writing something, the meaning of which fizzles out like a dud firecracker on a wet fourth of July.
The collaborative process of meaning-making is an essential element in language, relationships, and in good-enough therapy. But the kind of container I aim to create isn't up to you, or me, alone. It's built from a collaboration between the two of us as we create a "we." That "we" that we've created can give us some reason to want to create and protect that flexible container. When you-and-me become a "we," both "in on it" together, the therapeutic process can take both language and relationships to another level, because therapy is no longer just the two of us trying to communicate back and forth. Yes, it is that- we bring our own subjectivities to the work together- but in doing so, we are creating something else.
We create a “we” that is a result of our unconscious collisions and collaborations. This is where the work that is unlike any other work can happen. This is our soap bubble, our membrane. It is the “we” that we create, and protect, together. It's now up to both of us to take care of the container.
This kind of relationship involves consent, an ongoing checking in with both the therapist and the client/patient, and a willingness to develop faith in healing and repair over time. With time and experience together, we can build trust, which can lead to explorations into the deeper and more complex parts of your psyche and experience as a human in your life. This is a radical and marvelous process: To be fully human and witnessed in your humanity with another person. What can emerge is unexpected and magical. In that co-created space, we can make new meanings from old associations, and find our own language of playfulness, malleability, growth, and healing.