Photo by Fredrick Kearney Jr
There’s an art of knowing when. Never try to guess. Toast until it smokes and then twenty seconds less.
- Piet Hein (1905 – 1996)
I tripped over this poem last year and the sentiment has stuck with me, how can we time the un-timeable, how can we reduce the risk of burning out? I’ve been trying to work out why this mini-poem or Grook as it is known has resonated with me so strongly.
Ok I know that therapists are not cooks nor are our clients sliced bread, but bear with me a while I play with this metaphor. I’m an Art Psychotherapist, working in a variety of settings including; a hospice (with patients and their families), in a school for young people with communication and behavioural challenges and am co-founder of The Potting Shed delivering creative CPD and workshops, and playing with metaphor is at the heart of my creative thinking and therapeutic practice.
When working with our clients we try to hold the therapeutic space; creating a safe and supportive framework within which our clients can play, express and explore their inner world.
Within this frame we need to practice the ‘art of knowing when’…when to speak or stay silent, when to support, encourage or challenge? In many ways this is un-learnable and un-timeable. I can’t fix a definite process or timing for this, it can be hard to determine when we should or shouldn’t take a turn in the path of therapy.
The art is in the knowing and also in embracing the ‘not knowing’. Take a wrong turn, mis-time an interaction and perhaps we can ‘burn’ the process, our client or yourself, get the timing right and therapy can be transformed.
This Grook somehow captures the frustration of perfection, how to attain it and how to pin it down along with the wonder of hindsight. To look behind and imagine how things might have been if we’d had the ability to predict our future and plan accordingly. These notions of perfection and hindsight so often brought to therapy by our clients....‘I should have’....‘if only I were better’...‘if I knew then what I know now’. All good opportunities for that inner critical voice to chastise and correct us, for our imperfections, not knowing and toast burning.
I love cooking and in thinking about this Grook I have considered how I create and prepare food, at times with fun and a sense of adventure, but often with pragmatism a ‘what’s in the fridge that needs eating up’ meal plan.
I might look to a new recipe, or be inspired by a meal out into trying something new or find comfort in returning to the well tried and tested ‘old favourites’ that I know I can rely on. As my confidence and skills have grown I’ve felt able to veer off on new paths and perhaps just ‘have a go’ using some kind of foodie intuition, which may or may not pay off, but is generally edible.
When starting my training as an Art Psychotherapist there were times when I had the frustration of wanting a ‘recipe’, that feeling of “please can someone just tell me what to do”. Working through training therapy could, at times, feel like a magical art, something secret (we so rarely get to witness a real life therapy session), learning theory and practice models and eventually wobbling out into those early placement sessions like an inexperienced student in her first cookery class laboriously referencing and re-referencing the ingredients, oven temperature and expectations.
I find myself more often nowadays confident to play with the therapy process and frame, to stretch and explore and try out new methods and meanings, to go with my instincts and be brave enough to try something new.
I’m sitting here writing this after a particularly challenging day of therapy in which my toast timing was at times way-off and I mean this not as another expression of my inner critic, but as a healthy exploration of the lack of perfection and prediction in this work we do.
A new client referred due to a long and complex abuse history finds themselves too aroused by the thought of therapy to even speak to me. How could I better time that toast, which feels as if it were set aflame and charred long ago and no amount of careful planning on my part can erase that history. So I look for ways to meet this pre-burnt space and feeling, to offer something different, to hopefully and potentially build a frame within which they can look to their inner world, to find beneath that charcoal outer layer a way to be and express and process.
My timing might be off, my toast might be smoking and I might never find a way to truly ‘know when’, but my trust in the process holds and my creative exploration continues as I endeavour to be forever Good Enough.
The Potting Shed offers creative weekend workshops and CPD days for therapists, counsellors and mental health professionals in Derbyshire UK, facilitated by Sharon Herriot & Bethan Baëz-Devine.
The next event ‘Stepping Out of the Frame’ 17 & 18 November - a space to explore our therapy frame, using creative and playful tools to look at all we hold as therapists and how we manage our self-care.
You can also make contact with Sharon & Bethan directly via their website.