A Woodworker’s Perspective on the Journey of Therapy

Posted by Peter Allen, MS, LPCI on February 03, 2015

These days, when I’m not working with clients out in the field, I find myself spending more time in my home woodshop. It is a place where I feel free, creative, expansive, and courageous. Despite this, it is a place where I have made plenty of half-hearted attempts and experienced numerous failures. Recently, I have noticed several meaningful connections between the art of therapy and the art of woodwork, for both of which I have a profound love and admiration.

Allow me to further explain. I love working with reclaimed wood (wood that has been used before in another capacity). Reclaimed wood tends to be old, scarred, and is often discolored from weathering and from existing in the world for years. For this reason alone, so much of it ends up in the landfill. Words that people might use to describe reclaimed wood are “unworkable” or “not worth it” or “no good.” I have seen that people are like this reclaimed wood, too. Their years in the world and experiences often leave them marked, hardened, or scarred in certain ways. And as is sometimes the case, people come to think of themselves in exactly these terms; “I’m no good.” So the primary task in therapy is to see past this patina, this weathering and the scar tissue left by old traumas. Often with clients I can clearly see their potential, but they cannot… at first. So sometimes I need to hold their potential in my mind until they can see it.

Now, the first thing you need to know about any wood is that if it’s not rotten, then it has beauty and purpose left to offer to the world. Since my belief is that no people are ever truly rotten, I operate from the assumption that all people have beauty and purpose waiting to be discovered and expressed in their lives. This assumption is not born of unrealistic naïveté, but rather of my actual experience of clients in the profession of counseling. A big part of my task is simply to help my clients rediscover this beauty and purpose. The second thing you need to know about wood, especially battered and bruised wood, is that sanding can make a world of difference. Another way of saying this is that helping to smooth out the rough edges can work miracles, in and of itself. And let me tell you bluntly, if one doesn’t like sanding, then one won’t like woodworking. So it is with my profession: if one doesn’t like smoothing out rough edges, then one won’t like being a therapist. For me, the first way we take off a rough edge is learning better communication skills. This skill can transform yelling and curse words, or sullen withdrawal into “I feel” statements and assertive feedback.

Both therapy and woodwork require a remarkably similar approach. I have discovered over the years that I do my best work in the woodshop when I approach the art with humility, patience, and few if any judgments about what I “should” be doing. Thus, one hidden truth of the successful woodworker or therapist sometimes lies less in specific technique and more in how one shows up to each encounter. So I strive to live my life in such a way so I can show up for the clients and practice my craft with skill. Patience did not come naturally for me; I had to practice… a lot. And I have gotten better at it. In therapy or woodwork, the old saying holds value for both: one can either do it quickly, or one can do it well… but not both. So it holds true, again, that specific techniques in both disciplines are less important than the patience and awareness of my own emotional state I must observe in the process. And because this is evident, it leads to another noble truth about these pursuits: there is no substitute for the process of trial and error. There is no one-hour class that will lead students to mastery of woodwork when the hour has concluded. There is no silver bullet I can offer clients for them to get well. Practice makes the master, and this is the case in therapy. Developing skillful means in woodworking or in one’s life requires the same elements: desire, courage, and the proper tools, as well as tolerance for discomfort, diligence, and flexibility.

As a therapist, although I do provide skills training, I do not provide the client with much advice or missing information. I offer the client an experience in which he or she can experiment with new modes of thinking, feeling, and being. I provide a safe place to conduct these experiments and inquiries into the nature of self. This is what my shop is for me: a safe place to try and to fail, and to learn and grow. After such experimentation, much trial and error, frustration, and retooling, the client decides what works well and what doesn’t for his or her particular context and values. Whether working with humans or old wood, it becomes clear in time what works well and what doesn’t. So ideally, we will begin to apply the lessons of any given experience to the next experience coming up. And that’s called growth and change. Sometimes in session or in the woodshop, I find myself going back to old habits. After all, I am human. Each time I have this experience and become dissatisfied with the results, I am less likely to duplicate it in the future. To revisit a theme I mentioned earlier, my discipline becomes less about figuring out what is “wrong” with the client or how to “fix” it, and becomes more about caring for myself, so that I may be present with people when the time comes. I do my best woodwork when I am curious, patient, and attentive to conditions in real time. I always start with a vision and some idea of direction, but I remain flexible enough to take in new information and change course if that is indicated. Working with people is exactly the same. I never know what may come up, so I remain fluid in my approach.

In woodworking, people often mistake hard work for talent. In my case, I started off with very little talent for the art itself but my diligence and practice has paid off. I am proud to be a novice woodworker because it means I have so much wonderful learning ahead of me. In therapy, talent has little to do with success and results; hard work has everything to do with success and results. The first time I tried to make dados with a router, it was a miserable failure (forgive the shop talk). The tenth time I tried it, it went pretty well. If we are developing, for example, the skill of holding boundaries with other people, it is likely that initially we will have great difficulty doing so. However, it is highly unlikely that this will be difficult to do the hundredth time we attempt it, or the thousandth time. By the thousandth time, we do not try to hold boundaries anymore; we hold boundaries. After trying to route dados dozens of times, I no longer attempt it; I simply do it. It’s become a skill instead of a challenge.

I like to assemble simple furniture like coffee tables and farmhouse benches, and I also like to help my clients assemble new selves from all the various pieces they have been working on. A farmhouse bench is assembled one piece and one step at a time. Each piece requires a certain skill set to complete. And so a client may work on communication first, and then emotional awareness and literacy, and then distress tolerance or emotional regulation, and then boundaries, and so on and so forth… or this order could be completely different. Whatever path the client takes, once these pieces have been developed, they can be assembled and integrated into something, or someone, rather, that is greater than the sum of these parts… just as the bench is greater than the old, landfill-bound individual pieces of wood that comprise it. Having done this hard work, in no way has the fundamental character of the wood or the client been altered; we have simply cleared away the obstacles blocking a full realization of the inherent potential contained within. To paraphrase what Michelangelo famously said about his statue of David, the sculpture was inside the marble all along; he simply needed to clear away what was incongruous to David. A person’s beauty and purpose have been there all along; we simply work to clear away what prevents these elements from being realized and expressed.

To watch a video I made about this subject, please click here:



Dear Peter,

You are an old friend, so I am swayed by our 15+ year camaraderie. That being said, your wisdom, perspective and generosity is matched only by your wit, self-love and potential. My heart is warmed by such a beautiful piece of writing about challenges, growth and opportunity. It is surely a testament of your hard-work and dedication to your craft, your well-being and the well-being of all those that you encounter. I am privileged to call you a friend and I am honored to call you a mentor. Thank you.

Posted by Seth Morgen Long

Seth - thank you for your comments. I appreciate you taking the time to read the blog and watch the video. Your kind words have made me smile, and I am proud and honored to call you a friend.

Posted by Peter Allen

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