The Desire Line: Going Where the Client Is Going


"Part of the early work of therapy is figuring out how to truly begin. It’s the client’s second decision to start therapy, after the first one (which is calling and showing up in the office). And this process of observing and following the client’s interest makes me think of the desire line." - Elizabeth Sullivan


The Desire Line: Going Where the Client Is Going
by Elizabeth Sullivan, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern

There’s a client in my office who does not want to talk about his childhood, his feelings, sex, food, relationships or much of anything. We sit with a lot of silence. I know he is coming to see me because he is having trouble with relationships, with intimacy, but he is not at the point yet where he can plunge in and say what’s really going on. We have not created real safety together.

So we talk about his work. He tells me about things I can barely understand--the ways he invents and re-invents things all day long. He is an engineer, and spends his days thinking about problems of form and function, trying to make ideas produce results in the real world. And over time, in this way, we come to have a metaphor we can use to delve into his inner life and feelings. We begin to speak of his self, his soul, as a machine with a flaw in it--a tear or a mis-fire. Something’s been hurt and is not running smoothly. In other cases I might feel more uncomfortable with the idea that someone is “broken,” but this client seems to relate to the idea that his “program” for closeness with other people has been written in a faulty way and needs “re-programming”. We use it to move into the emotional content of a kid who was mis-understood and ignored, a man ashamed of his sexuality, a person who is defended against a vast loneliness.

Talking this over with my Supervisor, I see how my client’s extreme example really just highlights how every client must find their system of meaning or their particular safety with me. For although the key to change in therapy is the willingness to be vulnerable, t is wise to have protections, to be thoughtful about opening up and examining hurts and wounds. Part of the early work of therapy is figuring out how to truly begin. It’s the client’s second decision to start therapy, after the first one (which is calling and showing up in the office). And this process of observing and following the client’s interest makes me think of the desire line.

My partner is an urban planner: he thinks about how to design and arrange cities in order to save us from environmental Armageddon. Succinctly put: we have to make cities more and more awesome so we can use fewer resources. 

The Desire Line is a term urban planners use to describe the path that people make by walking where they really want to go. We can often see it only after the campus or park is designed and built and begins to be used. Flowers are blooming and benches are placed by the designers, but gradually a foot-worn path appears in the dirt between bushes. And it is not where the pavement suggests people walk, but where people tend to cut through, walking in the way that makes the most sense. It might be the quickest path to the gym, it may be a little detour by the sunny stone steps where cute guys hang out, it may be a little jog past the frozen yogurt stand, but it shows the space the way we really use it. The way we really walk. If a designer is wise, she might go back after the space has been used and altar it a bit to reflect how people want to use it. Although this is not always possible in urban design.

With therapy, the desire line is the way the client wants to go in order to create safety, to make it ok to be vulnerable in relationship and to reveal what needs healing. Although a therapist can do a great deal to offer themselves as trustworthy, mainly by being present and understanding much of their own inner life, the desire line is the path client and therapist follow together to get to the good stuff--the heart of vulnerability that leads to healing and positive change. 


Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is in a 2012-2013 Fellowship at the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center, a program of SFCP. She practices in San Francisco.  
www.elizabethceceliasullivan.com 
@NurtureMoms  
415.508.7086

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