Sara’s pace is brisk and determined today. She’s talking enthusiastically about all that she hopes to accomplish before her cross-country move. She tells me about how she’s packed all the boxes, labeled them in permanent marker, and accepted that she will move on from the past, beginning a new chapter in her life. As we begin our final session of work together, I cannot help but think about our early walk and talk sessions, when she slowly ambled and hesitantly disclosed her inner thoughts. Through our year of walking and talking together, her pace has shifted in both her body and her mind.
As therapists, we rely on metaphors for building connections and strengthening the meaning in each therapeutic conversation. As an outdoor-based therapist, I feel that my metaphor vocabulary has multiplied exponentially over the years. Just like the autumn leaves scattered on the ground, or the raindrops falling, the “life is nature” analogies are endless.
Clients often express to me that the imagery in the natural world allows them to understand their situation better, find comfort, and hold onto these memorable lessons during the spacious time between weekly sessions. The more time I spend outdoors, the more I have allowed myself increased creative license to embrace even the most bizarre and far-stretching analogies.
Here are just a few examples:
- The hill: Struggles. Therapists are almost always recommending to clients that they feel their feelings. They must not discard, avoid, or tip-toe around difficult emotions. Much like the facing of difficult terrain, we take on the tough spots. My clients and I climb the hills together. We go over it, using all our strong muscles to get through it. To be honest, this can be tough, it can hurt, and it is tiring. Once we are over that hill, we can look back, notice our accomplishments, and feel proud of ourselves and the work it took to reach the other side.
- The path: Choices. While walking with a client who was struggling with making an important life decision, we came to a fork in the path. We used this time to pause and think about the pros and cons of each direction. She expressed feeling sad when she thought about what she might possibly lose by not choosing one way. She also acknowledged all that she looked forward to by selecting the other course. Eventually, she chose a path, and as we moved on our way, we admired the beauty of the nature around us. She began to forge ahead, talking about the enthusiasm she has for her personal growth and speaking with optimism about the new road she’ll travel.
- The boulder: Grief. Nature provides us with a plethora of metaphors about grief: changes in the seasons, the turnover of the clouds, and the daily setting of the sun. One symbol of grief that people often connect with is that of the large, gray boulder. There are a few of them in the creek that I often walk by during therapy sessions. Watching water flow around unmovable boulders has been a powerful force for understanding the permanence of loss. In contrast, the flow of water represents the life that continues to flow around a client’s grief. Walking with a client through their grief journey is not only a constant support for them but a chance to experience that strange and strong feeling—that life goes on even when there is a heaviness in their heart.
- Trees: Resilience. The old trees in my favorite park are incredibly strong, stable, and full of life. The trees in the forest I frequent are shelter, shade, and an intricate system. But all trees can be a metaphor for our own bodies and a way to understand the complexity of our hearts and minds. The bark is an outer shell that protects the tree’s insides and allows other parts of the tree to grow. Humans, like trees, have a tremendous sense of being resilient in times of adversity. We learn to protect ourselves and bend when we need to accommodate or modify to the changes around us.
- The trail: Our journey. The walking path itself is a metaphor for the therapeutic journey. When a client embarks on a walk and talk therapy session and begins the process of moving forward, they have made a choice to become an active participant in their lives. When a client shows up for therapy and reflects upon their life, they are making a choice to reflect upon their own emotional process. This person will experience all the complicated feelings that one goes through in order to understand themselves better and to move forward in an intentional way. The purposeful path they walk along represents the steps in their process.