I have always found Greek and Roman mythology fascinating. Oh, the adventures the gods were having! Their unbridled humanness was shining through at every turn they took, and their passions, failures, strife, and plights were beautiful mirrors of how life was – and still is! – for mere earthlings.
In Roman mythology, the lesser-known god Janus has two faces: one looking to the front like a normal face, and one looking to the back. Janus is the god of gates, doors, transitions and change, simultaneously looking into the past and looking into the future. He carries a staff in his right hand, guiding travellers along, and a key in his left hand to open gates. Ever wondered where the name of the first month of the calendar year comes from? January refers to Janus, the embodiment of the passing of a threshold, a movement from one place to the other (physically and metaphorically).
I often think that psychotherapy can be summed up by the above image too. Both therapist and client – like Janus – look both backwards and forwards.
We look backwards when we put the puzzle pieces of life stories together, when we search for patterns, when we sleuth after the origins of dominant narratives, when we remember childhoods and when we unearth stories from long ago. We are indeed archaeologists – carefully examining past relics and gently blowing the dust off younger versions of ourselves. Often there is a lot of healing in having a compassionate witness to one’s life story, and for many clients the simple process of giving words to what they are feeling or what they have gone through is enough to bring on significant personal change. To be heard, to be seen, to be “felt”, to be understood – that is often the locus of the healing power of psychotherapy.
We also look forward into the future: who is it that the client wants to become? The answer to this question acts as our guiding light throughout therapy. In order to flesh out this future-orientated answer, I love using Russ Harris’s Choice Point diagram, specifically the following scenario that I’ll put to the client:
Imagine in a year or two’s time I bump into you in the supermarket, and we have the following conversation (jumping over those boundaries and fences I have written about earlier!)
Me: “Hello!! So lovely to see you! Tell me, how are you doing?”
You: “It makes me so happy to be able to say this: Ever so much better!”
Then, I would say, imagine me following you around your life with a camera for the next couple of days. Given that it is going so much better, what would I see, what would I record?
The reasoning behind this question is that we must not get lost in abstract and vague wishes like “I will be happier” or “I want my anxiety to go down”. We need to figure out what it is that the client would DO differently in a world where they are doing better. If they would give a round-about answer like “I will be less depressed” or “I will have more self-confidence”, I would knuckle down to the nitty gritty: What would that look like practically? Would you go out more? Would you say “yes” more? Would you say “no” more? Would you do sport? Would you have joined the library? Would you sleep more? Would you travel more? If you are a student, would you put up your hand in class more? Would you be able to do an oral presentation? Would you be able to use public transport on your own?
Once we have a clear picture of what “better” looks like, we can start working on “towards moves” to edge our way closer to this. Note that we are not talking future “ideal self” here – we are talking in very realistic terms about attainable goals. In other words, nothing like “I want to be a billionaire traveling in space all the time” – much rather a down-to-earth, fairly attainable, realistic vision of what my life would look like if things were looking better. Never do we strive for “the perfect life” or “the perfect me”. Such things do not exist, and we simply set ourselves up for failure if we try to reach for that.
Thus, in therapy, we find ourselves at the meeting point of the two faces of Janus. We discover and untangle old and current life stories, and we hopefully learn to hold these narratives lightly and flexibly, so that we can move forward without being defined by these stories. Here is an example: A client might see herself as unworthy of love and affection due to insecure attachments and lack of emotional care and support during her younger years. This plays out in her present situation by her having intense ups and downs in her friendships, by social anxiety, by isolating herself and by her “knowing” that people in certain groups “would be happier if I wasn’t here, so why bother at all?”. Her GP might put the diagnoses “major depression” and “general anxiety” on her referral form. This lady is certainly struggling – partly because of her past and partly by the way she scripts her own future by self-sabotaging her own attempts to get better. Janus’s “back face” helps us to do a bit of detective work to figure out the “why” of what is happening in her life. His “front face” helps us to look forward, and to see how changed perspectives, re-framed thoughts and new behaviours can take her towards the person she wants to be. This would be the person that she actually really is – when she is not as defined by her past beliefs about who she is and what the world is like.
Clients learn that therapy does not mean kicking a traumatic past under the carpet. It does not mean ripping out past chapters in your story. It does not mean forgetting. At the same time therapy also does not mean that we become so enthralled and sucked in by our past that that keeps defining our futures. We hold our past chapters… but we hold them gently. We keep the old chapters, but we write on. We learn to look on our childhoods with endearment and compassion, at the children we were, and also through past generations at the children our parents were. We learn not to forget, but to remember differently.
Take a moment and look back at the picture of Janus. The romantic in me is enchanted by the little extra detail of the staff and the key in his hands. At the coming together of looking into the past and looking into the future there is the crossing of a threshold. As therapists our job is partly to provide the guidance of the staff and the unlocking of the doors of possibility, but more importantly our job is to help our clients find their own staffs and keys, whichever way that may look in a messy, imperfect (but beautiful!) life. After all, we – therapists and clients – are all travellers, all part of a shared human journey, all looking forwards and backwards simultaneously.
All searching for and creating our staffs and our keys.
Felix & Sage Psychology