• Isabelle Morley, PsyD

The Best Analogy for Therapy

I've heard many people try to describe the sometimes amorphous process of therapy, and here is the absolute best analogy for what therapy is like.




If this picture of a messy suitcase stresses you out, you're not alone.


It's totally disorganized and gives me anxiety just to imagine all the creases forming in the clothes, the inability to find what you're looking for, and the extra work it will take to unpack.


This stressful picture, however, is the beginning of what I consider the best therapy analogy I've ever heard.



Its Origin


I can't take credit for this analogy. A client used it many, many years ago when trying to define the vague nature of her therapeutic journey.


During her last few sessions, we talked about how neither of us could have predicted what each session would cover, but that even without an exact roadmap, we managed to explore all the important things and she felt healed, and ready to say goodbye to therapy for the time being. We also talked about how, looking back over our work together, it's still hard to define exactly how we got to this place of resolution, self-awareness, and peace.


She explained her therapy felt like unpacking a suitcase.


So without further ado, here is the best analogy for therapy that I have ever heard.



The Suitcase


We all bring a suitcase into therapy. It carries baggage (ha-ha) from our entire life, emotional baggage in the form of clothes, toiletries, electronics, you name it. This suitcase is poorly packed. As each new event happened in your life, you rolled it up and jammed it into the suitcase before quickly shutting the suitcase and snapping the lock. There, you thought to yourself, it's in the bag and all taken care of. I don't need to worry about it anymore.


Everything has been shoved into this suitcase and because it's such a mess you don't even want to open it.


If you open it, everything will come pouring out and it will be a disaster. You'll have to face the disorganization and do all this work to try to get it stuffed back in the suitcase.


However, eventually this suitcase gets heavy and you notice that shirt sleeves are sticking out the sides. People might even start noticing how your suitcase seems to be bulging at the seems, how unfolded clothes and loose cords are escaping, and how difficult it is for you to keep carrying it. Maybe the suitcase starts causing you other problems, making it impossible to do things that you love or get close to people you care about.


This is when you decide to do something about this suitcase situation.



Taking the Suitcase to Therapy


You know that opening this suitcase will be anxiety provoking, depressing, overwhelming, or some other painful and challenging feeling that you don't feel ready to take on by yourself. You want the joy of having the suitcase put right, but you don't think you can do it alone. So you take your suitcase to therapy, where you therapist (a professional suitcase packer) will help you.


For the first few sessions you might just talk about the suitcase in vague, general terms. Yes, this is what it looks like and here are some categories of items that are in it, and this is why I'm nervous to actually open this suitcase. Your therapist will talk you through this, knowing that only you can open the suitcase, and only when you're ready.


Then, one day, you open the suitcase.


Maybe you just crack the suitcase and pull out a pair of wrinkly pants to talk about. Maybe you throw the bag open and let everything be seen. Whichever way you do it, at some point the suitcase will be open and your therapist will see what needs to be done.



So you take your suitcase to therapy, where you therapist (a professional suitcase packer) will help you... the suitcase will be open and your therapist will see what needs to be done.


The Hard Part


This is when it gets tough. After meeting for a few weeks you'll suddenly look around during session and see that your stuff is absolutely everywhere. It's a disaster. Underwear is hanging from the lamp, crumpled up pants are covering the floor, your hairbrush is nestled amongst the pens, your face wash is lying on the side table with the cap open - it's a mess.


It's worse than before you opened the suitcase.


At least before everything was contained. It might not have been a perfect system, but all this stuff had been in one place and it was hidden away and you didn't have another person looking through all your baggage with you.


You might feel overwhelmed, or anxious, or distraught, or scared, or hopeless. You might want to jam everything back in the suitcase and leave.



During one session you'll look around and see that your stuff is absolutely everywhere... It's worse than before you opened the suitcase. At least before everything was contained.


But don't worry, because you have your professional packer who is guiding the way. Let the therapist take the lead for a bit. They'll pick which item to focus on, and you can ignore the others for now. Why don't we start to untangle of all these cables that are intertwined, they might say, and let's start with this blue one since it looks important.




The Packing Process


Your therapist guides you as you pick up each item, supports you as you look at where it came from and where it belongs, and then helps you fold it up nicely before placing it back in the suitcase.


You put all the sweaters together in one corner of the suitcase, and the toiletries go in a back so that they don't leak into your suitcase. Your shoes are paired and placed together. If you needed to find your sunglasses, you'd know exactly where to look.


And when are ready to close the suitcase and snap the lock shut, it happens with ease.



Your therapist guides you as you pick up each item, supports you as you look at where it came from and where it belongs, and then helps you fold it up nicely before placing it back in the suitcase.



The Outcome


When you pick up the suitcase, it feels lighter. Sure, it's all the same stuff that you had before, but now it's organized; it all fits and makes sense. You won't be nervous to travel with it now, and you won't be anxious to open up the suitcase if you need to grab something. It would be okay if someone else saw inside it, which makes it easier to get closer to people.



When you pick up the suitcase, it feels lighter. Sure, it's all the same stuff that you had before, but now it's organized; it all fits and makes sense.


Your suitcase is yours to carry in life. You'll want to make sure you keep up with folding and organizing each new item, and if you realize you've let things get into a state of some disarray, you can go pack to the professional packer and tidy it all up again.


The baggage isn't heavy because you know you can manage it. Things may not be perfect (perhaps you matched your socks wrong, but hey, at least they're paired up), and you can live with a few lingering imperfections. The majority of the items are in order, you understand them, you know where to find each memory and what it means, and that is truly freeing.




How is Your Suitcase?


Now you know the best analogy for therapy, and the time has come to ask yourself: is your suitcase in good shape? Are clothes tumbling out the sides, or is everything folded and in order? Do you think it would be helpful to pop it open and explore some of the contents, or are you not ready for that yet?


It's your suitcase. No one can force you to reorganize, and no one can make you open it up if you're not ready to. You'll know when it's too heavy to keep carrying and you need some help lightening the load. If you're ready to find a professional packer, here's some advice to start you on that journey.

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