I’m not sure if every therapist has a collection like mine, but I’m pretty sure we all do. It is a collection of little stories or metaphors or pithy sayings that illustrate some rule for healthy living.

One that comes to mind today is one I would use with codependent clients. When they had trouble detaching from an unhealthy situation or person, the session might go like this:

“I just can’t stop loving him. But he stole money from my purse again yesterday, and sure enough, by that evening he was high as a kite, and punched a hole in his bedroom wall. The next morning he was hung over, and remorseful, and promised he would never do that again, that he was going to get a job and move in with friends… but I’ve heard all that before.”

“Last week you mentioned that you had considered simply dropping him off at a homeless shelter, since he is refusing to go into rehab.”

“Yeah, I have that fantasy sometimes when I’m angry, but I told you, I just can’t stop loving him. He’s my child, my baby.”

(And so here comes my little metaphor.) “So it’s like you and your adult son are on a lake in two canoes, tied together by a rope. His canoe is taking on water, badly. You’ve told him how to plug the hole, but he doesn’t seem to hear you. You think that maybe, somehow, you can keep his canoe afloat by the sheer strength of the rope… but the fact is that, if his canoe goes under, it will drag yours under too, and you will both drown.

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“I’m not sure my rope story is a perfect metaphor for your situation – you have to decide that, and decide what to do next. I’m just trying to give you a new perspective on a situation that is clearly filling you with anguish.”

A Metaphor for Your Practice

That is a story I have told many times…. but why am I telling it to you? Because there is a chance that, somewhere in your therapy practice, there is a rope that you should consider untying.

Perhaps it is a therapist you hired for your practice who is driving clients away with horrible techniques, and giving your practice a bad name. Perhaps it is a hyper-dependent client who repeatedly wakes you up at 3:00 a.m. with desperate phone calls that leave you too exhausted to be helpful to your other clients. Perhaps it is a set of slow-pay clients who are threatening the economic viability of your practice.

We therapists tend to be givers. We are “helping professionals” and can justifiably have a bit of pride in that fact. But this asset is also a potential liability. We are more susceptible to codependency than the population at large.

A Tough Choice

Untying the rope should never be done capriciously. It is OK to have a pro-bono case or two, and sometimes an unskilled employee can improve over time. An occasional 3:00 a.m. phone call is acceptable for a client in danger of self-harm: this is what we signed up for.

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But, don’t kid yourself. If the other canoe is taking on more and more water, and the other boater is ignoring your good advice about plugging the hole, it is time for action.

You may think “I’ll do it when it feels right.” But it will never feel right. By its nature, it is a decision rife with anguish.

I have a theory that television sitcoms have convinced us that most of life’s problems will be solved neatly within 30 minutes, and everyone will be happy again. That is a lie. Often, the real-life plot involves a choice between having one person drown… or two.

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