The Therapeutic Journey and Our Problematic Concern with Destinations

We are an impatient race. Tasks don’t get done fast enough, the wait in line is too long, the computer too slow. Our destination looms like a slave-driver of our own creation, craving full speed to the end of our journey and the imagined prize awaiting us there.

What are we missing?

Many of those in long-term therapy are ambivalent about the inevitable end of the journey. They correctly recognize that accomplishment of one’s therapeutic goals means the terminus of the walk through the mine field of the psyche, the regular sessions, and the severing of the therapeutic relationship.

The mine field traipse is the only one they hope to dispense with. Indeed, most would say removal of unexploded emotional bombs caused their enlistment in treatment in the first place. By contrast, the absence of session-bound, intimate time with the therapist is dreaded, like ejection from a cocoon.

The story is even more complex, however; both for those who fear the loss of their road-trip, therapist-guide/companion and those who believe the journey’s end will bring nirvana, the permanent release from all suffering.

Consider: more than a relationship is forged in treatment. There is a process of struggle, self-reflection, honesty, learning. Perhaps nothing before — nothing the patient has tried or accomplished — has been so hard, but so rewarding. Each step in each session is enriching or intense — alive — even if fraught with portent and overlaid with tears. The furniture in the office stays the same, but the mental furniture gets rearranged, replaced, knocked-over, tested, taken apart, and put together. All this is “process,” not product. All this is overlooked when clients reflect on their ambivalence about the end of counseling and loss of the therapist.

In part, the problem is our instinctive goal-directedness. Often, however, the target — whatever it might be — is not as special as anticipated. Heaven does not exist on earth. We get used to even a transformed life, no matter how worthy. We become accustomed to our new, higher cruising altitude of emotional stability. The background activities — the daily maintenance of clothes, body, and living surroundings — still must be done. As the Zen proverb goes, “After enlightenment, the laundry.”

Therapy becomes a road traveled-well only if we try to notice everything, absorb everything along the way. It is not like pursuing a diploma: trudging through courses in philosophy or calculus that are endured, not enjoyed. The treatment isn’t like having an ice cream cone in its pleasure, but absorbs our entire being as a fount of learning. The engagement is total, the preoccupation remains in mind even after the session ends, the effort is important, the risks great. You are reaching for the next handhold on the mountain. Yes, you are doing so to reach the top, but you will be on summit for just a few minutes, a static place no one can live. You soon must move below. Life is in the movement. What you took away was the experience, the incremental achievement of all the concentration and self-surpassing courage you could muster.

Cervantes’s Don Quixote reminds us, “The road is always better than the inn.”

The post-war circumstances of military veterans add to the discussion. None of them want to relive the horror. Yet, some will say it was the most intense experience of their lives. Moreover, the intensity is missed, if not what created it. Thus, the therapy journey brings not only pain, but something of value in its dedicated, focused, life-on-the-line process. Not a deadened, dull, inert state of being.

Elite athletes, similarly, don’t enjoy every moment of their competition. The combination of actions and emotions includes strain, focus, effort, and fear of failure, as well as elation. We tend to think of goals and the pleasure associated with their achievement without full recognition of the other experiences they live while in motion, in process, and in the moment. Yet this is what any journey worth taking entails.

If you are currently in long-term treatment and agree with my description of the journey’s value, you might say: “Well, then. Now I’m not just fearful of losing my therapist, but the journey, too!”

Fear not.

If the treatment has been successful, a wider world has gradually opened to you outside the counselor’s consulting room. Many journeys beckon, inward and outward, outside your comfort zone, where all journeys live: more and different friendships, travel, new vocations and hobbies, increased openness to art or music, spiritual awakenings, returning to school; and, too, “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”*

You will embrace some of what once frightened you or found you closed off. Not all things, but some things. Even from the defacing hand of age, a man of thieving heart, will you wrest unexpected gifts.

You never become indestructible, but you can move along in life more confident in the ability to manage most of the hurts; accepting that, they too are a part of the human experience, the beautiful/terrible richness of life.

You will not become everything you could be. No one does. But you will be alive to the world.

You cannot ask for more.

* The last words of Wordsworth’s poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.

The top photo includes Remains of the Via Appia in Rome, ner Quarto Miglio, by Kleuske. The second image is called Roma, via Appia Antica: Arco di Druso e Porta San Sebastian by Lalupa. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

19 thoughts on “The Therapeutic Journey and Our Problematic Concern with Destinations

  1. Yes. A beloved poem. The line is “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45536
    Thank you … as always. TS

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  2. Awesome article! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very well described, having been with my T for 4 1/2 years and still going. I try not to be ambivalent about the prospect of termination somewhere in the future. But since Im still making lots of progress and finding therapy still very useful, not just for the sake of maintaining a relationship I dont want to give up, its still a way off. Contemplating that day its hard to know how or if I can do it. Ive tried several times before to let go of a therapist’s hand but the pain and grief and that lack of support has always lead me back into therapy. Each journey with a therapist has lead to more work with unresolved issues and improved strength and independence but I wonder if this is a life long journey or if one day I can let go finally and live my life free of therapy. Each time its so painful, with one previous therapist I tried for seven years to let go emotionally and the pain and hurt never deminished. I hope when that future day comes again I can succeed.

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    • I think you are succeeding, Claire, if I may say so. There is certainly no requirement to end what is clearly a beneficial process. And, from what I recall, you help others in your work in addition.

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  4. Perfectly timed for me…reading this article was so helpful to me. So with gratitude and a good deal of respect I say thank you.

    Warmly,
    A short-term psychodynamic therapy patient on the cusp of moving on from therapy and therapist.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Someone told me this and it stuck: “My father was always saving for a rainy day and he died before it rained.”

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  6. Yes, it is easy to get way ahead of ourselves and erect protective walls that keep all the world out, or so we think. The bad seems to find a way in, however, while we are actually pretty skilled at keeping the good out if we overprotect. My view, at least. Thanks for the reminder, Joan.

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  7. Thanks for another excellent article that also speaks to those of us who are not in therapeutic are. I especially liked your observation: “Therapy becomes a road traveled-well only if we try to notice everything, absorb everything along the way.” The same is true for life. It’s the journey that counts. Our destination depends upon the choices we make along the way.

    Your article also had another significance for me. For my next poetry corner, I’m considering featuring the poem “Destination” by a Guyanese-Canadian poet. It’s a complex poem yet I’ve yet to decipher. Your article throws light on the question raised by the poet: “Ponderous now. Will someone tell me / where the voyage ends? How will I know?”

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    • My answer? The voyage never ends unless we end it prematurely. Thanks, Rosaliene. I’ll look forward to reading your next poetry corner feature.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. My last session with my T is coming next week. I am very nervirous and sad about it. I want to keep seeing him but I know everything has an end, and next time will be that moment, the moment that makes my heartache and feel lost in the wild world. All of sudden i fell like i am on my own again and there won’t be that person there for me even thougth i am the one making all the decisions in my life, but he is there for me and his being is the comfort for me when i was devoured by stress, depression and confusion. The feeling of looking forward to see him, the motiviation to drive me forward, the inspiring conversations, points, and discussions, the attention, the “mental cocain” and the feeling of worthness, my milestone…. will be all gone. How could I take on that? I am sad already all over again.

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  9. I can only imagine what you feel like, Aimee, but many have stood where you now are. While I am sure it is scary, you might ask yourself what you learned in treatment and how you are different because of the work you’ve done; what past misfortunes you’ve survived and what qualities inside you enabled you to survive. Grieving is appropriate, for sure. I hope the new chapter is a good one. With a little luck and determination, I will keep my fingers crossed that you will make it so.

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  10. Dr. Stein,
    Thank you for another profoundly deep post. This one is providing a LOT of food for thought. I have been wandering in and out of therapy for the last year or so, supposedly going every two weeks, but between both our vacation schedules, it’s been highly erratic. I had taken a break but started seeing an ED specialist and between what that was invoking and some life stressors, went back. I am amazed at this point of how easily I tolerate separations, and the profound enduring sense of connection I carry (I’ve told BN I could remove him even if I wanted to, our journey together has impacted me too deeply.), two things I once thought were impossible. I also never contact BN between sessions with the exception of schedule changes, while at the same time being very aware it’s available if I need to and ok to do (something I did not feel comfortable with for YEARS even if I did do so.) All the life and death intensity of the relationship has bled off as I have integrated and processed my split off feelings and losses. My last session, we discussed my amazing experience of being triggered by a (minor) car accident but being able to stay present and aware of my reactions and what was moving through me. Years ago, my PTSD would have sidelined me for at least several very confusing days (“Why am I so weepy? “Why don’t I pay better attention?” “Why am I jumpy?” and my personal favorite “What the hell is wrong with me?”), but instead this was processed as it happened and only needed a couple of short supportive talks with my husband. This is all my long-winded way of saying that I am recognizing that I have internalized the relationship so that I carry it with me always. Which leads naturally to the thought that maybe it’s time to go. Ironically, I’m probably more comfortable with using therapy than I have ever been. I find a lot of value in it. But I have also been wondering if maybe it’s just hard to let go. I’ve been in therapy on and off for most of my adult life and in some ways I think it can be scary to think of not having it there. OTOH, there are times when I hit “pockets of woundedness” where I find the process very valuable for understanding myself.

    So this provided a lot of food for thought, which I appreciate, especially as your description of the journey continuing and our stepping out into a wider world very much resonated with my experience.

    AG

    PS. I have to laugh at myself as I realized while typing this that there is some anxiety of you thinking less of me if I decide to continue as I value your opinion of me. While knowing it’s my decision. Still room for growth. 🙂

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    • Thank you for this, AG. First, you needn’t worry about my opinion. I find you heroic and, a virtuous example of someone with the therapeutic integrity to stick with the process despite the pain. Therapists are in awe of people like you. Be well, AG.

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  11. Another paragraph typed and erased. An excellent article and one I definitely can relate to.

    Liked by 1 person

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