Therapy as Poetry

Poetry can be a form of therapy. But have you ever thought about how psychotherapy itself is a lot like poetry? Yeah, me neither.

Until the other night in a dream, I was telling a group of other psychotherapists that “Therapy is like poetry?” I sounded as if I knew what I was talking about.

But truthfully, before my dream, I had never considered the analogy.

It’s not so unusual for dreams to reveal knowledge that seems like uncommon wisdom — similar to the kind of wisdom found in poetry. Once I had a dream in which I heard the distinct voice of a German woman, with a thick German accent, telling me, “Whatever you do that is not from a place of authenticity, will incur a debt!” She sounded like she meant business, so when I woke up, I wasted no time calling a woman whom I had been dating for a short time to say what I had been afraid to say before my dream: “I’m sorry, but it’s over.” It was the right decision, though awkward and sad.

Dreams and poetry can do this for us, can’t they? Images and metaphors clarify and penetrate us in a way like no other forms of communication. Images speak to us, disturb or enlighten us, and they can transform us. Through images, we are able to imagine what’s going on with our souls and what our souls actually desire — authenticity, for example, as in the dream of the German woman’s warning.

A long time ago, I was in a marriage that would eventually dissolve, and I had a dream in which a man who was suicidal split himself, right in front of me, into multiple clones of himself. If it had been a poem, it would clearly have been a poem of travesty and despair and deep internal conflict. But, at the time, I didn’t interpret the dream, nor did I present it to my therapist. Only two years after my wife left me, did I dare open my dream journal to review what had been going on inside of me prior to my marriage’s demise. When I finally looked into the frightening image, I saw the self in me I had been afraid to face at the time I had the dream. I saw that my sadness, fear, and anger had escaped my conscious awareness because I did not want to see it. I had been holding onto my marriage too tightly, ignoring problems that were festering underneath what seemed like an otherwise very good relationship.

“Therapy is like poetry,” then, in the sense that therapist and client listen to the spoken images and the unspoken ones. Often, for example, it is the image of the “inner child” who has been forgotten and ignored. He or she will show up in symptoms such as burn-out, or irrational anger or overwhelming anxiety because that part of the self has not been given a voice in the cadence of our lives. Just as poetry can stir up emotions and thoughts we didn’t know we had, so does good psychotherapy make space for spontaneous thoughts and emotions that lead to healing and hope. It’s as if we need to speak out loud in order to know ourselves in the presence of someone who cares to hear our deepest inner rhythms.

I recall these lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Man Watching”:

How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense;
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,—
we would become far-reaching and nameless.


What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.


Think of the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like steel,
he feels them under his fingers
as strings making deep melodies.


Whoever was overcome by this Angel
(who so often declined the fight),
he strides erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting,
nestled around him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be deeply defeated
by ever greater things.

Rilke is referencing the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God in the Old Testament; but even if you aren’t familiar with that story, you can probably feel it’s sense in the “sinews” of your body and soul — especially during those times when an illness or a relationship or a loss has wrestled with you all night, or for weeks, or years. Or you’ve wrestled against something, as in my marriage, that you wouldn’t or couldn’t face — until, if you were to move on with energy and desire and hope, you had to come to terms with your own dark Angels.

So if we listen deeply, as in therapy we try to do, we may hear the sounds, the images, the hidden rhythms of our lives seeking to sing songs of our souls. We may have to let go of something precious — like our egos, or a relationship that’s run it’s course, or a dead-end job — but what we find may be far greater than we could have ever imagined.

Becoming Empowered

Recently, I re-read the spiritual classic, Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castenada, a book that was wildly popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I didn’t understand it at all in 1984 the first time someone recommended it to me. But having to recover from COVID the last few days, I had plenty of time, and I devoured every word.

Castenada was later suspected of being a fraud, having borrowed from others and fabricating much of what he experienced with Don Juan, his mentor-shaman. But what made his work so relevant was his attention to the human need for myths to live by — at a time, when all myths of the establishment were being called into question and dismantled.

While counseling a young man with whom I had worked for over three years, discussing his thoughts about the kind of man he wanted to be, Journey to Ixtlan spontaneously popped into my mind. It was if I had suddenly time-traveled back to a period in my young adult life when I, too, was struggling to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. I had a shaman of sorts — a Chaplain supervisor — who often helped to put me back together after long days of tending to the sick and the dying. Young men and women need such shamans or mentors to model what a meaningful life as a man or woman looks like. They demonstrate what personal empowerment is and what a difference inner power makes.

Falling apart and putting oneself back together is not an uncommon experience — if you live long enough. Like Castenada following Don Juan into the pitch-dark night, you have no choice but to trust your instincts in the face of the terrors that befall us: broken relationships, lost jobs, depression and anxiety-filled traumas of all sorts and kinds, and near brushes with death. We’re left feeling disoriented and off-balance — not readily aware that these “brick walls” sometimes turn into welcome “detours.” I consider myself fortunate to have had several mentors along the way who had already built up a store of power from their own life experiences. I became an apprentice to how they had learned to manage ordeals of suffering. They spared me the gory details of their own experiences, but in essence, they taught me how to transform my own encounters with sorrow and suffering into personal power.

We pay it forward anytime we lend our emotional support to a young adult who is looking up to us. Our own experiences of transformation help them, not by giving them our power but by showing them how to develop their own internal resources.

A client may say to me in the middle of a counseling session, “I wish this wasn’t so hard!” I feel that, too. But then, reflexively, I think, “If it hadn’t been for the hard things I’ve dealt with, I might not be here, right now, today.” I may recall and even share a funny but poignant scene in the movie, A League of Their Own, when the coach, played by Tom Hanks, yells at his right fielder for dropping a fly ball. Right there on the baseball field, in front of all to see and hear, she melts in tears, crying out at her coach, “It’s too hard!” To which Tom Hanks replies, “Hard? Hard? It’s the ‘hard’ that makes baseball great!”

The most important, if not all, lessons that I’ve learned in life have come by using the storm force winds of life to steer me along the edges of apparent or real defeat towards some new perspective or some new awareness that I may have, otherwise, missed completely. The guiding stars of my life have only been noticed by embracing the darkest of times.

So when my clients sometimes comment that they wish they didn’t have it so hard, I’ve been known to quip, “Is it really harder to face this and challenge yourself than it is to continue doing what you’re doing? It may take as much energy to change as it does to maintain the status quo – but the payoff is a heck of a lot better.” It would not surprise me at all if, in response, I was told “Go to Hell!” But so far, that has never happened.

Our best friends, by far, are those who can tell us the truth in the face of our ordeals, while being kind about it, too. Personal power comes from these moments of truth that are like seeds that take time to germinate and grow. Later, we may laugh together when they tell us, “I’ll never forget the time when you told me…, fill in the blank.” What was hard to hear at the time became a lesson never forgotten, because it was exactly what we needed in order to move forward, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Light found in the midst of darkness becomes truth that empowers us to live fearlessly and with joy.

You can make an entire life worth living by mining the treasures buried in sorrows, frustration, and defeat. It probably won’t be easy, but each time we face our ordeals with the right kind of support and with courage, we experience a new burst of power, while becoming stronger, wiser, and more deeply in love with the mystery we call life.