A couple of years ago, I was visiting some family members whose barge was moored on the canal near my home. It was a wet, rainy afternoon. The barge was tied up to a mooring post in the grass bank, and to get on and off, we had to walk across a gang plank, four inches wide, and very slippery. As we were leaving the boat to go home, my 4 year old niece slipped and fell into the canal head first. I was closest to her, but was frozen in shock, unable to think what to do. Her mother standing at the back of boat was too far away, and it fell to my sister to push past me, lean over, grab the child by the back of her jacket and haul her out of the water. No harm done. She was wet and shocked, but thankfully alive. We were all hugely grateful for my sister’s quick action.
I was reflecting afterwards how, since training as a therapist, that my ability to act quickly in a crisis had seemed to fall away, where my ability to be fully in the feeling experience had expanded.
In life we walk two journeys, the internal journey, and the external one. The external journey is what we do, and how we do it, the practical piece of turning ideas into action, of turning thoughts into reality. The internal journey is focussed on our experience of our lives, how we think and how we feel about it. We travel both of these roads at the same time, a bit like going both directions on a dual carriageway at once!
In our practices, there are the things we do as a therapist and counsellor, and then there’s how we feel and think about doing them. As therapists we are very familiar with the emotional or mind-set journey. We understand how our past experiences can colour our present. We understand how our beliefs and fears can support or undermine our ability to function in the world. We sit with clients as they explore these aspects of themselves. The therapy session may be the only opportunity in their week where they take time out to visit that interior journey.
Sometimes, though, the opposite applies. I know for me, coming from a background in accountancy (very much in the action lane!), my training as a therapist moved me strongly into that other lane, asking me to reflect at length on my feelings, my motives, and my underlying patterns and beliefs. This process is now so ingrained, that on occasion I can get stuck in the feelings and forget that I need to take action. And the situation on the canal was a great example of that.
At other times, the interior world has been an escape for me. Sometimes it is easier to reflect on how a situation has impacted me, rather than take the courage to act. In other words, I can use how I look at and feel about my life as an excuse not to change it. Speaking to colleagues I know that I am not alone in any of this. On the dual carriageway of working as a therapist, there is a danger that my default response becomes “And how do I feel about that?”
We always have a choice about how we meet the experience of our lives. Exploring how we feel may change our view, our beliefs, or our relationship with our circumstances, but at some stage in the process, life asks of us that we engage with it at a practical level. If we are hungry, we can explore our hunger, we can analyse its origins, we can understand our process around it, but we are unlikely to satisfy it unless we go to the fridge and eat something.
My niece was unlikely to get out of the canal safely without an adult taking quick action. There’s a time when we need to acknowledge our feelings, and there’s also a time to move into action. Both have their place.
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