“This bridge needs neither praise, eulogy nor encomium. It speaks for itself. We who have labored long are grateful. What Nature rent asunder long ago, man has joined today.” J. Strauss on Opening Day of the Golden Gate Bridge, 1937
‘Often the hands know how to solve a riddle which the intellect has wrestled in vain.’ Carl Jung 1969
If you have ever faced a dilemma or been riddled with anxiety about a decision, this article is for you. My symbolic choice of a bridge as a psychological symbol can first be looked at as we see it in ‘nature’ today. The Golden Gate Bridge is both a symbolic work of art, and a path connecting two pieces of land that by nature would not be easily linked. After a century of debate about whether the bridge could be built, it was completed in 1937 after four years of work. It is a marvel of design, considering its span, with its fiery color visible even in fog, its seismic survival, and its construction over the dangerous swirling currents of the not-so-Pacific Ocean and Bay. Thoughtful design and maintenance was necessary to be able to withstand and even sway with the elements, and materials had to be very carefully considered.
A good psychotherapy can be compared to building a bridge, because it involves joining together parts of ourselves that may have been lost, broken off, or never yet connected. And a bridge saves time. Take, for example, traveling to Sausalito from San Francisco: twenty minutes with the bridge and four hours without. Of course, it’s slow to build a bridge, but once completed, we make up the speed and then some—bridges connect. These metaphors are helpful when beginning a treatment because often we need ways to talk about what it is we might be doing together when the work is not yet clear.
Many times in psychotherapy we don’t know what we might be joining together, or if we’re gathering materials and testing them, or even if we need to tear down an old decrepit bridge. We might need to loosen up on fixed ideas or tighten down on values. And a good diagnosis, which literally translates ‘to know across,’ is also needed.
Looking at psychological dilemmas
A dilemma is a perplexing feeling of pressure to choose one side over the other in a decision before taking immediate action. It could include things like: 1) ‘Should we work to improve this relationship, could it be wonderful? vs. Should we end the relationship, is it hopeless?’ or 2) ‘This job is okay. I get paid well. I also know it’s not for me.’ or 3) ‘Should we raise the kids in the San Francisco or Marin?’ Many patients come into treatment asking what to do—people often crave immediate action and change. But at first we don’t know what to do. We must talk it over, think together, feel about it and access our creativity and intuition. What I propose in therapy is that we try and hold the tension of the dilemma— we’re often surprised at what we find. Dilemmas are difficult rites-of-passage and at times can take years to truly resolve, though often they hold the greatest opportunities for a person to mature and develop.
For a dilemma to be productive, it’s important to bear tension—for without tension we have no bridge. Thinking about tension is helpful when working through anxiety or depression as well. Too much tension and a person may have debilitating stress—too little and they may find themselves depressed or unmotivated. Holding tension is being patient and embracing both sides of your possible decision fully. I like to think about the origin of the word tension which comes from late 16th century Middle French, tension, meaning ‘a stretched condition’ and from the 16th century Latin tensionem meaning ‘a stretching’. Tension is also needed for a stringed instrument to make music. The adjacent adjectives in the dictionary are tensile (capable of being stretched) and tonic (of a muscular tension). Tension can be creative and it can psyche us up for meaningful growth and lasting change.
So dilemmas are kindling, and when the right tension is applied it can create a powerful fire of change inside of us. This is usually when people in therapy describe feeling alive or motivated after we patiently wait with the dilemma and see it transform. It’s a time when a person may emit a fiery color that can be seen through the fog.
Myth even has it that fire may be a symbolic reenactment of sex by the rubbing together of two substances. This is another metaphor for what a client is doing internally when they wrestle with a decision: conceiving and giving birth to a new idea. This metaphor can also help us sustain the paradox of inner conflict, and trust the process, without immediate gratification.
I encounter these tensions every day in my practice and they make up the bulk of my discussions with clients. When I first began to practice, I thought therapy entailed finding immediate solutions to these dilemmas (I don’t rule them out if they’re there). But now I see that what is often overlooked in therapy, rather than just symptom reduction, are the deeper findings. As we work through these dilemmas, patients describe to me that something begins to emerge from within them that feels solid—for some, this is the first time they get in touch with who they really are underneath the everyday self. Over time, I hear them describe the ways that they have now bridged a connection with their Integrity, True Self, Values, and Deeper Calling. Some of the symptoms have abated, but not by treating the symptoms alone, but by engaging the depths through holding great tension.
Often in therapy, there comes a time when a client experiences impatience for action and change. This is very understandable and important, however, I urge therapy clients to consider patience and self-compassion when faced with this difficult inner work. We have to ensure that the bridge is anchored in rock, the steel is solid, and the cables are strong enough to withstand salt water and much wear. When we imagine a bridge and work diligently toward building it, we uncover unforeseen solutions and give birth to things we couldn’t have imagined. This is the power of a good therapeutic relationship, it builds great flexible structures of power and connection inside of the client. The work is challenging, but if we stay with it, it offers very deep transformation. And the mighty Golden Gate Bridge changes the whole city, if not the world.