It's not the river, it's your boat

Dateline, Portland, Oregon, June 4, 2019: “Life is like a river, and we are like a boat on the river.” Pritam

Many years ago, I saw a young woman in therapy who was having difficulty feeling it was okay to wrap up our work together. “How can I leave when things still happen?” she worried. “Of course things happen, you are a living, breathing human being. It is the nature of life—things happen all the time,” I replied. “It’s not that stuff happens, it’s how you respond that’s changed.”

This moment in time came back to me last semester in my classroom. I was talking with my students about resilience, and about how the task of therapy is not to create a patient, rather it is to help a person develop skills to take into their world.

And I recalled what I told my patient so many years ago: If you think of life as a river, then you might consider how rivers change. Rivers have beautiful and tranquil spots you may never want to leave, they have eddies you might feel you’ll never find your way out of. There are rapids and the occasional harrowing waterfall. And sometimes a big rain comes along and changes the course of your river entirely.

The fact is, while we don’t have control over every aspect of the river we navigate, we can alter the nature of the boat we are in. And I believe the skills gained in therapy are skills that help us build stronger, more water-worthy vessels. These skills—anxiety management tools, effective methods for distress tolerance, the development of our capacity to mindfully and compassionately observe ourselves in action and consider the choices we are making, to name a few—fundamentally alter how we navigate our personal rivers.

When we have new tools at our disposal, life challenges don’t melt away. We still have times of anxiety, periods of doubt and the occasional dark night of the soul. The difference is, we manage these things in new ways.

I wrapped up my talk in class by reminding students that if someone’s goal for going to therapy is to never feel anxious or sad or angry again, then they are bound to be disappointed. Our feelings are an evolutionary necessity. Each of them, the comfortable and the uncomfortable, serves a purpose in life, and room inside of us must be made for that purpose. In essence, we benefit from crafting vessels that can carry us through clear waters and support us as we navigate those time when the waters are rocky.

My patient finished the journey of therapy with a new understanding of herself and resiliency skills that helped her navigate inevitable life challenges in new ways. If you are considering how you might benefit from such a journey, feel free to call em at 503-490-5793.