Therapy is like … Mayonnaise!

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Mayonnaise is amazing stuff, don’t you think? A miraculous combination of egg yolks, oil and vinegar that is so much more than the sum of its parts. Whenever I have it (and I like mayo with pretty well everything) I wonder about the anonymous French housewife or possibly overworked royal chef in the dim distant past who decided to take precious, costly ingredients and experiment recklessly with them. And I wonder how they deduced that this amazing substance only comes about through a constant, lengthy, (exhausting!) whisking or beating, accompanied by the painfully patient adding of the oil, drop by drop. Add the oil any faster and you end up with a gelatinous curdled mess. How many eggs were broken and wasted over that particular experiment? And what enabled that distant cook/chemist to keep belief in the trying?

I made mayonnaise for the first time recently. I was on retreat, and my intention, as part of the ‘slowing down’ that is one of the gorgeous gifts of retreat time, was to make something each day that in the usual frantic pace of life I don’t have the time or inclination to make. So it came the turn of mayonnaise, and as I stood over the bowl of egg yolks, dripping the oil in at instructed slow pace, I pondered on the similarity to the process of therapy (bear with me) ….

In therapy, a client and therapist come together in a room and embark on a mysterious process (which Jung likened to alchemy), that requires great patience by both parties. Through the slow drip, drip of one session after another and the therapist’s careful listening and moment-by-moment gauging of a pace that the client can cope with and that will allow the building of a trusted ‘container’, something occurs that is much more than the sum of two people sitting in a rather plain room with one person telling their story while the other listens: indeed a whole world is created. The client’s world, which up until now has existed outside, enters the room and sits in the space between the therapist and client, and also in the developing relationship between them. Past and current hurts, joys, misunderstandings, sorrows, begin to be experienced in the room, to be explored, empathised with, understood, and gradually, hopefully, healed or accepted.

What is enabled is a gradual ‘re-forming’ of the client’s experience of themselves and the circumstances they find themselves in. With mayonnaise, the oil and egg yolk ‘hold’ each other in suspension: just so, therapy is a holding, ‘alchemical’ environment between an empathic therapist and a client willing to trust the process and open to the journey of self-exploration and transformation. In time, the ‘holding’ of the therapy internalises within the client as they learn to hold themselves.

It is at times an extremely uncomfortable process. Like the eggs subjected to the beating of a whisk, a client can feel tossed about and literally undone: it can feel endless, painful and without hope. But what is happening is a gradual breaking down of who they have thought themselves to be, and the world they have thought themselves to occupy, followed by a ‘reconstituting’ into a truer identity they hadn’t imagined possible.

Of course, as with mayonnaise, it sometimes goes horribly wrong. The pace was too fast, too slow, the temperature of the ingredients was wrong, the holding environment cracked or broke completely. There’s a choice then, to either abandon the attempt and begin again with new ingredients, or, with a fresh egg yolk, use the same ingredients to begin the whole slow process all over again, drop, by drop, by drop.

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