Bret Hofstein, MA/MFT


Emotional Sherpa, Part II

Bret HofsteinComment

Adjusting to New Altitudes of Self-Disclosure

Previously 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.