Maps and mapmaking in psychotherapy

book cover

After two years, Psychogeography and Psychotherapy: connecting pathways is published, dramatically reducing my ‘to do’ list. It is still reverberating though, with a blog on the importance of place for Psychotherapy Excellence, and the makings of another one here.

There are various ideas that emerged in the process of writing and editing that are still bubbling away, and one of those concerns maps and mapmaking.  I wrote a chapter on that subject for the book, and this blog is in part taken from there.

It’s an enormous and fascinating area but for now I am thinking about internal maps – the ones we navigate our lives by. The comfort zones, no –go areas, familiar pathways and threatening routes that guide us day to day through our experiences of self and other.

For many people, maps provide helpful metaphors in understanding and thinking about how they feel and behave – perhaps because they can provide both a cognitive, ‘practical’ way of understanding their situation and the possibility of imagining alternative choices. The map can function in a way like the teddy bear, the transitional object; it is real in the sense that it is a tangible object but, like the bear, it encompasses other layers of function and possibility, straddling the boundaries of ‘common sense’ and ‘hidden meanings’.


In therapy, for many clients, it turns out that the map is the problem. They are travelling up and down, forwards and backwards across a tightly defined and very familiar set of streets and landmarks. There are major avenues: ‘I’m too much for people’,‘ If I start crying I would never stop’, ‘Keep your distance’, ‘Relationships never work’, ‘I’m a terrible person’, ‘Why do people always leave me?’ There are lots of well-trodden streets, such as ‘Nobody really cares’, ‘Everyone takes and no one gives me anything’, ‘I’m only trying to help’, ‘It’s not my problem’ or ‘It’s all my fault’. We are cycling or walking around an estate, visiting every street in turn, spending hours in the rather run-down and desolate playground or scrap of parkland, before turning back once more to walk the same old streets.

We need a new map with bigger horizons and new perspectives, and sometimes the old map just needs to be folded up and put away. The more we insist that somewhere in its streets we will find ‘the answer’ or the ‘solution’, the more we deceive ourselves. Under the guise of working hard, we can remain in this uncomfortable – yet profoundly comfortable – impasse forever. The map has become the attachment object and weaning the client onto a more complex and more open version can be a difficult task for all concerned. The task of therapy is always to expand the map, for both client and therapist.

We may find our way out of the estate and onto the open road, but the exhilaration may be short lived. Instead of walking through the streets we know by heart, we can end up driving up and down the motorway network. At some point, our responses become so predictable and habitual that they carve a highway on our map of the situation. We are continually driving up and down the same piece of territory until we create what is in effect an internal motorway. Motorways are very efficient for certain sorts of travel in some situations, but they are bland and monotonous and pay little regard to the subtleties of the landscape they cut through. Finding other, less well-known routes, smaller and more interesting roads that open up different views of the towns and countryside and cause us to look around, and not get caught up in our routine emotions – this is hopefully what therapy can offer.

In most long-term therapy, there is a point where the client tells me that I must be bored, listening to the same old things repeating week after week. ‘Going round in circles’ is another travelling metaphor that can be opened out, with the help of a map, into something less despondent and negative. It needs a map that pays attention to the details, for these are the signs of change and life in what otherwise appears to be a repetitive trudge along a well-worn track. Those internalised routes through life that have eventually brought people into therapy are powerful and persistent. Despite our best conscious efforts, we are seemingly glued to them, tenaciously attached. Lasting changes come about through incremental shifts; recognising that this week’s walk has pushed further into the undergrowth, stopping to admire the bluebells, noticing a small track leading uphill, taking the path around the bramble patch rather than insisting on walking through it.

Mapmaking always involves abstraction. It protects us from being overwhelmed by the complexity of life, and is a necessary, valuable process. . But there are points where its simplicity or rigidity is suffocating, and in order to breathe we have to look again more closely and creatively. We need our own maps, but we also need the flexibility to modify and redraw them. 


5 thoughts on “Maps and mapmaking in psychotherapy

  1. Pam Lunn

    Chris wonders if the north of Scotland would tug at me in the way that the Arctic does . . . I haven’t been to the very north of the Scottish mainland (although Sutherland and the Flow Country are on my to-go-to list); I didn’t feel the same pull in Orkney or Shetland, much as I enjoyed them, although I began to in the Faeroe Islands.


  2. Chris Post author

    I think maybe we do have ‘wired in ‘ landscapes from our tribal/geographical heritage. I can certainly resonate with your attraction to Norway and Iceland, and wonder if northern Scotland would have the same pull? There’s something about the quality of light that I think is an important ingredient also. Thanks, Pam for your thoughts on this.

  3. plunn66

    I’m recently back from a trip, catching up on emails, just read this blog post and the other that it links to . . . and ordered the book! It’s all set me thinking about two things.

    First, there’s a walk that I do often from my house that takes me across an area of open grass(land), up a hill to a point overlooking trees and a lake. There’s something very deeply attractive about this viewpoint, and not just in a conventional visual landscape way – it’s quite ordinary in that sense. In my imagination it’s a miniature version of humanity’s ancestral homeland – a hunter-gatherer’s vantage-point, watching while unseen for animals to come to the lake to drink. I know that this is fanciful, and simultaneously am captured by it.

    Second, the trip I’ve just returned from was to Greenland. Six and a half years ago, when I retired, I went to Arctic Norway in winter to see the Northern Lights and came back utterly entranced by the Arctic. I’ve since been to Svalbard, Iceland twice, and now Greenland. There’s something about the remoteness, the wilderness, the bleakness, the ice, that I long for as if a kind of homesickness. I don’t understand it at all – I couldn’t live there, as the long dark winters would not be bearable. But its power to draw me back is undeniable. I joke that it’s my Viking ancestry coming out, but in truth it puzzles me. And the tragedy is that the ice is melting and I grieve for that.

  4. Chris Post author

    Thanks Claudia. The whole, enormous subject of our relationship to place is fascinating – and how we try turn it into something visual is just so intriguing. That’s also why I wanted the book to have illustrations and the urban sketchers have produced some great work. Pleased it caught your eye! Chris

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