Potential Space

by Mark McKinley, Psy.D., Impulse Staff Writer


Certain metaphors are particularly apt in psychotherapy and home is certainly one of the richer ones.  Home is not simply the place where one lives, not just the location of one's abode. It is also an affectively imbued space that reflects how one inhabits one's life.  In its ideal sense, home is suggestive of what is familiar and comfortable.  It provides shelter, warmth, and safety.  Home is a place where one can settle in, let one's guard down, and be who one is, all the while feeling a sense of belonging.  To feel "at home" is therefore to feel at ease with one's self and one's experience.

Many patients seek psychotherapy precisely because they are not "at home" in their lives.  Such patients feel internally conflicted, estranged from others, and alienated from their experiences.  These distressing states of mind induce feelings of uneasiness and disconnection that are indicative of feeling homeless -- that is, without a place, rootless, set adrift, lost, and without belonging.  Therapy is an experiential means to return home, where coming home is a return to inhabiting one's own experience and thus dwelling more integrally in one's life.

Therapy provides a sturdy foundation in building a space to think and hold one's experiences.  It is a space that allows patients to reside in their psychic life as they are.  This is achieved by upholding a stance of neutrality, which shelters patients from harsh judgments and invites patients to reclaim disavowed parts of themselves in the service of settling into their experience.  Through the process of psychotherapy, the sense of home can become internalized as a secure base, a tacit marker in orienting how one physically and psychically inhabits life.  It becomes a touchstone for knowing when life is moving astray.

Accordingly, psychotherapy can be seen as a process of coming home after being lost and finding one's way again.  It facilitates dwelling nearer to that which matters most and thus living in a more purposeful, connected, and enlivened place.  Lasting change from psychotherapy results from opening new spaces in which one can inhabit one's life in more adaptive and meaningful ways and from supporting one to be more "at home" in how one thinks about, engages with, and handles life's affairs.