Writing our life story

January is a month when people are often attempting to re-write (at least part of) their life story: resolutions to change habits, a chance to re-boot and try new attitudes and approaches to life. In the past week, I have sat with many of my clients expressing their wish that 2018 is different, that their life will be different, that they can be different.

But how DO we change when there is so much momentum behind continuing to act in the ways we always have done?

One of my favourite poems is Portia Nelson’s “Autobiography in Five Chapters”. For me, this encapsulates the journey from living unconsciously to one with more awareness. And in the view of Gestalt psychotherapy, the type of therapy I work with, awareness is the vital ingredient for change and well-being.



I often share this poem with clients; to provide them something of a map when they are despairing about having spent years trying to change and always falling short; to motivate them when they are beginning to try things differently but come across obstacles that cause them to stutter; and to celebrate the progress they are making as they realise not only are they changing, but so are relationships and others around them. I’d like to share this poem with you today, adding a little bit of commentary along the way…


Chapter I: I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost…
I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

This first chapter speaks to what often brings clients to my therapy room: the hopelessness of the situation they are in. There is also a confusion and desperation – a real not knowing what to do, and how to do it. They share they have “tried everything”, yet nothing seems to help. The early stages of therapy allow them to tell their life story and explain to me the main characters in the plot: both past and present.

Chapter II: I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

As I listen to my client’s story, I am struck by how the client’s present predicament is a repeat of their past predicaments – the “again-ness” that features in this stanza of the poem. They tell their story as if life is doing this to them; that they don’t see things coming – but there is repetition, there is often a pattern – the classic example of this is finding themselves in the same type of relationship over and over again. Very often the story takes on the flavour of others being to blame. We work together: they tell their stories, and I notice the patterns I see and hear. It might even be a pattern that I sense developing in our relationship together. As I point out the similarities in what I hear and experience, the client is given a sense in their part of the repeating pattern.

Chapter III: I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit
My eyes are open; I know where I am;
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

With time, clients come back to the therapy room week by week sharing how they have seen the pattern developing – at first, they “still fall in”…this is a time of great frustration. “I know what is happening, so why do I keep on doing it?”. Sharing there stories with me has allowed them to gain insight, an intellectual knowing of their situation and the responsibility they take in the repeating pattern. What must come, if change is to be long term, is for the client to take insight and convert that to a deeper held wisdom. This requires connecting with the pain: the pain of the fall, and also the pain of how they re-trigger the pattern. I find this is where the interplay of awareness and compassion become vital. The client becomes more aware of their actions and the consequences; and compassion is needed to forgive themselves for the repeating. We talk about how the pattern was probably developed as a protective strategy when they were young – sometimes very young. And whilst the Adult version of them can see the protective strategy is limiting, the Child version of them was pretty clever and brave to come up with what they did so young. My main role becomes the compassionate role model – to offer the reminder that the little Child did they best they could; we simply need to find a way to help that Child feel safe enough to let go now, to allow the Adult to step forth and do things differently.

Chapter IV: I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

With awareness comes choice. It is as soon as we open our eyes, the alternative paths and streets appear. At first, alternative paths are scary, and sometimes it takes time to look at the fork in the road and decide which one to take. I talk with clients about all choices having consequences: and some sessions might take that very structure – the client brings a dilemma, we bring that dilemma fully in to awareness and we talk through how it would be to take each path, exploring that on multiple levels. Awareness is a capacity across all of our experience: intellectually, emotionally, physically, and also intersubjectively in the relational space between them and me in the room. The client may be walking around the hole, but they continue to see the hole in their life. For me, seeing the hole in this poem is recognising that we have given something up – the hole doesn’t just disappear: after all, we have often used these habits to keep us safe for many, many years.

Chapter V: I walk down another street.

So much of the therapeutic path is about surrender. Seeing the hole, seeing an alternative, and surrendering to this practice over and over again. Surrendering to the process, trusting that this process IS life. Because as I have discovered on my own life path, to notice one hole is one thing, to chose another street is one thing….but that street might have a different “trap” lying in wait – so it might be that we get the opportunity to practice again…and again….and again. Surrendering again and again: to realise we can never find a solution to the pains of life; just simply learn a more open, compassionate dance.

Whilst we cannot control the circumstances of life, we can control how we respond to what happens to us.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post: in your experience, as client or as therapist, does Portia Nelson’s poem speak to your journey and process through change?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *