Emotional Sherpa, Part II: Adjusting to New Altitudes of Self-Disclosure

Man climbing glacier with ice axePreviously in this series, I introduced a client of mine, Alex, who was seeking therapy for depression and panic. He indicated that he had a secret, and I had likened his emotional journey to that of climbers in the Himalayas, who enlist the aid of the Sherpa people to help them navigate the treacherous terrain.

Before Sherpas are hired to aid their clients up a mountain, they have to be sure they themselves are ready for the climb. If they were to fall victim to altitude sickness, they would be little use to their clients and would risk harming their clients in the voyage. Years and years of training, as well as years and years of self- exploration, are expected and necessary for Sherpas. The more time spent on the mountain, the better understanding the Sherpa would have later on when worked called. Any clients can trust that they are in the hands of a professional. They could assume correctly that the Sherpa had been there and back hundreds of times, and that if trouble did arise the Sherpa would know from his own experience what to do, how to navigate through it, and how to survive.

My clients should have the same expectations.  They should assume that I’ve traversed similar peaks and valleys; I’ve gone to the depths and back again. Perhaps I have not walked the same exact paths, but I know the topography. From years of my own work with similar guides, my own Emotional Sherpas, these kinds of journeys that I speak of are familiar ones. For me to simply pretend that I know pain, sorrow, stress, or tension would risk further trauma for my client. When lives are at stake, physically or emotionally, pretending to know is left back in the classroom. Empirical knowledge is the only thing that can be truly trusted out on the mountain.

My client Alex and I uncovered and discovered pounds and pounds of self-doubt, low self-esteem, and depression while rummaging through Alex’s emotional backpack. From years of emotional abuse and lack of parental attunement, Alex’s emotional toolkit was ill equipped to handle the vicissitudes of life’s peaks and valleys. So, we continued to pour out its contents. I held them with reverence, as they represented his inner struggle. To discard them and leave them on the side of the mountain and continue on would be akin to leaving trash behind for someone else to tend to. My job as his therapist was to bring it with us and find ways of using it later in a more meaningful, satisfactory way. I held his emotional life in my hands. From the benign to the malignant, all of it, every piece, told his story.

After many more months of discovery in his journey, Alex came in for his session one evening very depressed.  He expressed to me that he had a secret life that no one knew about. When I asked if he was doing anything illegal or hurting himself in some way, either physically with drugs or other means, or intending to hurt anyone else, he said he wasn’t, but he didn’t offer any other information regarding this secret part of him. And I didn’t press him for it.

So we sat in my office that night for the remaining 45 minutes or so of his session and Alex’s depression eased. He had gone higher on the mountain and needed time and patience to acclimate himself to the new altitude, lest he get sick and need to come down. Because I was allowing the space and time to sit with this new information about a “secret life” and not pressuring him to know the details, we could now resume the climb. He trusted me enough to give me more of himself, to unburden his emotional backpack and give it to me to hold for a while.

Perhaps his depression rested in this question about another’s strength to hold his things for awhile, without question, without judgment, and with reverence. In that moment he tested my strength. Would I buckle? Would I want more to prove how strong I thought I was? Or would I meet him where he was and be thankful for what he was giving me and not ask for more but instead allow the space and time for both of us to digest the moment, metabolize it, and sit with it for a time? This was the path that I chose.

Though my journey around Annapurna was met with certain physical challenges, aches and pains, and a hyperextended knee, I found out more about myself during that three week odyssey than any other time in my life. Yes there were times when I wished I had a Sherpa carrying my backpack for me. Thirty-five pounds for 21 days can and will take a toll on you physically, as well as emotionally. There were times when I hated that backpack. I cursed that backpack. I didn’t want to look at that backpack. But I had no choice. It was mine, it was necessary, and it went with me regardless of any other intentions. I couldn’t escape from it. Therefore, I had no choice but to embrace it.

As time went on and other sessions came and went, Alex and I did not discuss his “secret life.” He didn’t mention it, but he knew that I knew of it. That seemed to be enough for the time being. Instead we needed to be in this space for awhile. We had reached a new altitude and needed to be patient. I remember reading Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air” about the devastating events on Mount Everest in 1996, and how when they reached base camp during their climb to the summit, they needed time to adjust to the heights and thinning air. Each leg higher during their ascent required more time spent at each new phase of the journey to gain their strength, get the proper nourishment, breathe more thoughtfully, and respect and honor where they were. Alex and I were on the same emotional journey. To push ahead prematurely could result in a massive setback emotionally. Or, worse, it could result in complete abandonment of the move higher – which in turn would mean we would be stuck on the mountain, stuck in a depression, and too afraid to move again. Alex needed time to adjust, to sit and be patient, and then, with recognition by his Emotional Sherpa, we could both move higher.

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

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Millicent

    April 5th, 2013 at 1:54 PM

    I respect what you do so much because it takes far more patience than what I possess to do your job and do it right! I would want someone to immediately disclose why they are coming to me, because after all, they have sought out therapy, so why shouldn’t they be ready to spill the beans so that we can get to work? So I really do see that I made a wise career choice not going into counseling like I once thought that I may, but respect so much those of you who know that this is the right path for you.

  • Russell V

    April 5th, 2013 at 8:30 PM

    A good analogy. although a therapist is someone who helps us in our as net I never saw it this way. and what you said about knowing the topography. is just so important.

    all of us approach a therapist hoping and even assuming they know the topography. and it is very important that the therapist is sure he does. because one problem may not be like another it becomes so very important that he knows exactly what he is doing be because a Sherpa who gets his client lost on the mountain is doing no good.

  • steven

    April 6th, 2013 at 7:09 AM

    I guess that making sure that you are ready for that journey too is a big part of what you do.
    Clients will know from the start if you are someone to whom they can relate because I think that it would be evident in your behavior and your words if you are ready to go there with them.
    I guess that there can be a lot of fear in disclosing your darkest secrets to someone you don’t really know, so you have to help someone gain your trust, help them know that you are in it for the long haul and guide them to an emotionally safe place.
    Yep, sounds just like the sherpas who help the climbers.

  • Olinda

    April 6th, 2013 at 11:30 PM

    Youre only gonna get lost if your guide does not know the way…no different in therapy!

  • NAN

    April 7th, 2013 at 6:10 AM

    Therapy is all about a journey from the very bottom to the very top, hopefully you will make that journey safe and sound. It is the rare person who can do that alone, we all need that emotional guide to help is along as we determine the things in life that haunt us, the things we need to deal with and then the things that like any good traveler, needs to let go.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    April 7th, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    The writing, the metaphor, the work- all excellent. Thank you!

  • blake

    April 8th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    Just like the climbing of the mountain, the trip through therapy is taken one step, one phase at a time.
    You can’t go directly to the top, there will always be small obstacles along the way to trip you up.
    But eventually, after putting one foot in front of the other, having one conversation at a time, you will eventually reach that pinnacle that you have been aiming for.

  • Marilyn Blackman

    April 13th, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    When it comes to seizures here is what you should know. Seizures come in different types and all have different symptoms. There are many types of seizures such as the seizure; we are going to talk about in this article, which is Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES). There are thousands of individuals living with psychogenic non-epileptic seizures; many go undiagnosed, untreated, and misdiagnosed.
    Seizure disorders such as Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures (PNES) are different from epileptic seizures, whereas epileptic has to do with neurons in the brain while non-epileptic have to do with the mind and one’s emotions. Psychogenic means originating in the mind or in mental or emotional processes; having a psychological rather than a physiological origin. Individuals with epilepsy can also have both Epilepsy and Non-Epileptic Seizures, which makes diagnosis close to impossible to diagnose.
    Here’s what you should know about non- epileptic seizures. Non-epileptic seizures do not just target any certain race, or age group. Anyone can get NES/PNES, not just trauma victims, post traumatic stress syndrome (PTS) victims, or victims of sexual assault, or domestic assault. NES is not hereditary, nor is it something faked by the individual with seizures. Countless individuals with non-epileptic seizures do not have a history of violence; there is no known cause to why different people suffer from this illness. The estimated number of individuals affected by PNES/NES are in the thousands, and many go untreated, because there is no cure or medication for these types of seizures as there is with Epileptic seizures.
    Studies and research show that non-epileptic seizures are due to trauma, sexual abuse, and violent abuse. Stress is the main leading cause of NES and to reduce the seizures one must find their personal triggers to be able to handle their seizures more carefully. Although they cannot be prevented, or controlled one can take possible steps to reduce the stressors in their lives to help with their NES/PNES.

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