I am a new, somewhat bleary-eyed parent, and my 9-month old is crawling around and taking delight in the seemingly smallest things—the change in texture from the rug to the tile floor, the tiny tag hanging from his bouncy chair, the way my face looks different when I put on my glasses. Without fail, each of these new experiences causes him to slow down, really take notice, and use all of his senses to touch, see, smell, hear and taste it (especially tasting!!). As he follows his natural curiosity, he often moves his whole body in an outward expression of delight. While he is discovering each thing in his world for the very first time ever (pretty trippy if you actually stop to think about it), I am aware of how much of my own curiosity and desire to discover new things is buried under the many mental concepts, historical patterns, and survival strategies that I have learned over the past four decades of my life.
Curiosity is one of the core principles that draws me to practice Gestalt psychotherapy.
There is something so deeply liberating about being able to work with my clients from a place of curiosity and mutual discovery. First off, I don’t have to know everything or be the expert. I do this enough in other parts of my life (just ask my partner!), and it takes a lot of work. Secondly, while there is undoubtedly something very satisfying about being “right,” or knowing the “answer,” (I am having an image of myself in second grade, arm extended upwards, body straining, saying ‘I know…I know’ to answer the teacher’s question), it makes the world a very boring place. After all, the more we think we “know,” the fewer surprises there are. Sure, some surprises are unwelcome—and this is the evolutionary function of our desire to know— but the more we try to factor the unknown out of life, the less room there is for beauty, joy and delight.
There is less room to quiver with the excitement of a child.
When I have initial sessions with clients, I often encounter their expectation that I will know more than they do about what is causing their difficulty. Is it because of their mother? Their brain chemistry? Their past trauma? I don’t answer them because I don’t know—oh sure, I have my theories and frameworks and some guideposts to help us along. I might even have some hypotheses. But on a core level, I do not believe that I know more than the client about their experience…and how presumptuous of me if I claimed that I did! This can make some clients a little nervous—after all, aren’t they paying me to be the “expert” on their mental health? There is something very reassuring about the idea that someone knows more than we do about what is wrong, so that they can fix it. Our own fear and pain often leaves us vulnerable to looking for answers in this way. But, I have never been satisfied by this way of approaching healing—especially not when it comes to something as multi-faceted and mysterious as one’s inner world.
I believe that my main task as a Gestalt trained psychotherapist is to get really curious about this unique human being. And, my next task is to get my client really curious about their own experience in the world. Once we are both in a place of genuine curiosity and discovery, the most unexpected and delightful experiences emerge. Just like my 9-month old, we slow down and use all of our senses to explore the contours of the client’s here-and-now experience. We sit together in the vulnerability of the unknown and open our hearts and minds to an intuitive, sensory exploration of what arises. It is far less predictable, but the delight in uncovering new experiences of oneself is palpable. Even if the discovery comes with deep grief, I often find there is also a sense of relief, surprise and even lightness in the midst of the pain. We are encountering something that we had lost…our authentic, innate curiosity and our own inner knowing.
Let’s savor it together!
Zak Sinclair is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #MFC 53943