Although common lore likens the process of psychotherapy to peeling an onion, the image that more often comes to my mind is that of untangling a long chain of jewelry. Many of us have had the experience of picking up a favorite chain necklace or bracelet, only to find that it has one or more tightly bound knots in its length. Simply pulling on the chain does nothing to relieve the tangle, and in fact often strengthens and tightens it all the more.
To untangle a jewelry knot requires patient, sequential and delicate application of tension to various points on the chain. One might need to use one’s fingers, or fingernails, or perhaps a small implement such as tweezers or a straightened paper clip. It often is not quite clear where to start. You cannot see the inner part of the knot, so you don’t whether teasing out one part of the chain will loosen or tighten another part elsewhere.
Even after making your best guess as to the right starting point, not infrequently you loosen one part only to find yourself stopped by a bind in another. You must work loose the other before resuming work on the original part. Care must be taken, for if too much force is applied at the wrong time, the chain may break. Sometime you must even unclasp the chain, and thread one end out through the knot while the other dangles free.
And so the process progresses, hopefully resulting in longer and larger sections of the chain gradually being loosened and freed. If you’re patient, eventually the entire knot is released, and the chain is free, loose and ready to wear.
I’m not sure that psychotherapy is always quite as complicated as untangling jewelry (although it can be, and even more so). But when I sit with clients whose bodies and minds are knotted in old patterns of pain and tension I recall the many others that I’ve seen freed from knots over the years. So I point to the nearest part of the “knot”, and say, “Have you thought of tugging a bit here?”