Potential Space

by Jane Reingold, MFT, Impulse Staff Writer


On some level we can all relate to the terror of the sea, of the unknown, of impending death, of loss. The immensity of the great expansive ocean, no land in sight, and a leaky vessel barely providing shelter is viscerally terrifying, daunting -- the threat of annihilation palpable. This metaphor is profoundly evocative for therapists in and out of the consulting room. An invitation is extended to plummet to the depths, to think together about what is terrifying, troubling, and to bear together the experiences that cannot yet be spoken to or made sense of.

All Is Lost, a film by J.C Chandor, starring Robert Redford, is an incredibly intimate, raw portrayal of a man's attempt to survive while lost at sea. We witness (there is virtually no dialogue) repeated attempts to pragmatically and steadily overcome each new disaster that threatens his survival. Why he is alone at sea is unknown. As things worsen, he seems to give up. Eventually we see him let go and give in to the sea as he begins to sink, his body limp. When all is indeed lost, we see an outreached hand and watch as he musters the strength to resurface.

The film is strongly evocative of a weightless, anchorless, submerged experience resembling the terror of what we and our clients try to hold at bay, what emerges with regression, or tremendous loss/illness that challenges our defenses and causes them to break down. Often what is required of us is to feel into those places in ourselves in service of the work, but it is terrifying. We hope to join our clients in these experiences/states but with an anchor within ourselves to offer.

Perhaps we fear being drowned by the weight of the client's regression, neither of us to emerge intact. As Searles (1976) aptly put it, "A typical dilemma for the analyst is how to achieve ways of functioning, during the session, which will make it possible for his own personal suffering to become less than that of the patient" (p. 387). We persevere through the rattling depths, without a map but with an internal sense that traversing the rough seas of psyche will lead to the shore, or a metabolized knowing of another aspect of ourselves.

Searles, H.F. (1976). Psychoanalytic Therapy with Schizophrenic Patients in a Private-Practice Context. Contemp. Psychoanaly., 12:387-406.