Emotional Sherpa, Part I: My Client Has a Secret

Three people hiking down mountain with backpacksMy client has a secret.

I’ve been working with a 30-year-old person, “Alex,” for over two years now. When Alex came into my office he struggled with a debilitating combination of panic attacks and depression. Alex was stuck on the mountain of his life, afraid of moving in any direction. He was paralyzed. So when he finally arrived in my office and sat down on the couch in front of me one evening, I started slowly. After making so many “wrong” choices in his life, Alex didn’t know how to proceed with his journey. He didn’t trust his instincts any longer and he questioned his existence. He was in the midst of an existential crisis and was losing rational thought. As I sat with Alex in my office that night I honored where he came from and moved patiently.

As a psychotherapist working in private practice in Los Angeles I’ve come to think of myself as a Sherpa for people in therapy with me—an emotional Sherpa. I carry the backpacks of their lives with them, sometimes for them, as we set out on their journeys of understanding and discovery. Hopefully, this results in a better sense of self and, therefore, a more fulfilling and meaningful life for them. I too have had to explore the depths of my own psyche.

On New Year’s Eve in 1994, I set out on a journey around the world. With no real road map and no thought of an end date or a city in mind for the culmination of my travels, I left my home in Los Angeles to explore the world with a 35 pound backpack strapped to my shoulders.  Filled to capacity without an ounce of room to spare, this backpack contained all that would be needed during my adventures. Clothes to accommodate cold and warm climates, essential toiletries, a journal to document the journey, a sleeping bag harnessed on top of the pack—this bag would come to represent my life; if it were to be lost, compromised, or damaged, I would become more vulnerable. It was important to recognize the significance and importance of this backpack and to treat it with the utmost respect and care. To not hold it in reverence would be foolish and costly.

As my trip progressed through Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia, to the tiny village of Pokhara in Nepal, I readied myself for a three week trek around Annapurna, the Himalayan range in the north central part of the country. I once again strapped my trusted, yet somewhat frayed, backpack to my shoulders and began what would be a monumental trek through the tough terrain of the Annapurna circuit.

There, I encountered the Tibetan Sherpa people, who live in the extreme altitudes of the Himalayas. Sherpas are known for their ability to navigate this terrain, and they often transport and guide mountaineers up and down the mountains. Having been raised in and around the region, they are experts at traveling in the extreme altitudes of Mount Everest, Annapurna, and Kangchenjunga, to name a few. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest, used the services of Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, because he knew Norgay understood the challenges ahead and shrewdly recognized the importance of and need for someone who knew how to climb effectively and prudently. Today many would-be mountaineers take advantage of the Sherpa’s services to make their climbing and trekking experiences more enjoyable and less taxing, both physically and emotionally.

I likened my experiences and my knowledge of the Sherpa people to my work with Alex. As Alex gave me bits and bits of information, bits and bits of his past, I stored them with me. He unfolded his fears, his questions, and his shame, and I allowed the room necessary for Alex to unburden himself and trust that I could hold onto his precious cargo. It had become too heavy and too toxic to hold any longer. The more he shared and the more we were able to process and make sense of his concerns, the calmer he became. Movement had begun.

After a few months of seeing me a couple times a week, Alex was stable and free of panic attacks. In many ways we sat at a certain elevation and allowed the time to acclimate to the extreme altitude and learn to breathe a new way. He needed to adjust to the unfamiliar air and wait for it to become more familiar and less feared. Then he was ready to resume his journey on his trail leading up the mountain with stronger lungs, less anxiety, and a trust in me. And up we went.

But the journey was not over, and Alex still had a secret.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Bret Hofstein, MFT

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Catherine

    April 3rd, 2013 at 4:20 AM

    That’s a pretty good analogy that you use for yourself there, and I think that it is probably a very vaid one. Therapists that I have met with over the years have always been a guide for me, and if not overtly telling me the things that I need to do, at east giving me a path to follow and navigate in my own way but one that will lead me toward a healthier destination than the one that I may have been on before. I can’t honestly think of a better term than “sherpa” that you have used.

  • Bill Roman, MA, LPC

    April 3rd, 2013 at 5:12 PM

    Bret….thanks for posting this metaphor. I wholeheartedly agree and, in fact, have regarded “Sherpa” as the most real to life metaphor which describes our work. There is courage, wisdom, experience and compassion there, and the connection to the raw weather and treacherous heights. But there is also victory and empowerment. And thank goodness for NorthFace packs. In your adventure you only take the necessities. Blessings on your work.

  • Nicole

    April 7th, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    Thank you.

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