I happened to run across two articles in the last few days that both had me thinking of how we perceive narratives in our lives.
Oftentimes when someone comes to therapy, they have at least some sort of goal for the future, even if it may not be well-defined. So once the client’s goal is clear to me, the therapist, the question for the client becomes relatively straight forward. Specifically, it becomes “how do you get there?” And based on these two articles, the obvious answer may be “make a map.”
The first article , from the very cool site Atlas Obscura, concerns Andrew DeGraff, a cartographer who makes maps of fictional places. In the example provided, this is a map of A Wrinkle In Time, the classic young adult novel. I was particularly impressed at how DeGraff navigated the problems of portraying the mechanics of the physics concepts that drive the story: he simply made up a way for the concepts to look.
The reason I like this, from a therapeutic perspective, is that it gets outside of the traditional narrative, which suggests that if something isn’t “real” it cannot be portrayed on something as fact-based as a map. DeGraff’s map of A Wrinkle In Time is “real” because we can all see it, and many who have read the book would likely agree that it is a representation of the world within.
I have worked with a number of young adults who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and, when asking them to map their world, have seen some interesting results. People with a spectrum disorder often have rich inner lives, so it came as no surprise to me that the maps they produced were very detailed, if not always “accurate” with the way others might view their world. But who’s to say, really? If we accept the idea that each person’s reality is their own “truth,” a map may provide some real insight for others who attempt to navigate this world.
This leads us to the second article, which more directly concerns emotions and may have direct applications to psychotherapy. I have encountered this type of tool before, though it was similar to a family tree rather than the map described above created by cartographer Dennis Wood. The common therapeutic tool I’m referring to is called a genogram, which can provide insight into how previous generations may have shaped us. The idea of making a map of emotions is much more free-form and can be easily tailored for an individual, which I find appealing. I also liked from this article the idea of “getting lost” which I believe might be an appropriate metaphor for therapy as well. A big part of success in mental health services is the willingness to do something different and getting out of your comfort zone, which is certainly accomplished by purposely getting lost!
If I was making a map of emotions with clients, I would want to know why they chose certain locations or feelings as well as why they chose particular symbols to represent them. I believe it would also be important to ask them to consider what was left off, as when considering a person’s narrative it is important to consider not just what was included, but what was not included. Is an emotion or location that is left off simply unimportant or is it something so unsettling or worrisome that the person may not want to include it? To me, that would become, in fact, an important item to include. I might suggest putting it off to the side or in a currently inaccessible location on the map. Then the question becomes similar to the one discussed above. “You can’t get to this place now. What can we collaborate on that will let you go to that place and stare down whatever is worrying you? What obstacles are there into visiting a challenging place, and how will you be better off when you have mastered these obstacles?"
The concept of maps of places that don’t exist gives us a lot to think about. If you could map your favorite book or movie, what would it look like? And how would you use those same symbols and techniques to map your own life and emotions?
Perhaps comedian Steven Wright summed it up best: “I have an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it.”
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in San Antonio, Tx.
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Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture