In Pursuit of Surprise

Often clients come to a session with something to talk about, some idea or topic to discuss. And, of course, that is fine, though not a requirement. Sometimes clients begin a session by saying “I don’t know where to begin” or “I don’t know what to talk about.” And that’s fine too. In fact, at such times I’m often tempted to exclaim: “Great!” In both situations, starting out with something in mind or not, what we are after is the experience of surprise. It is in surprise, I believe, where the real benefits of psychotherapy can be experienced.

I agree with Theodor Reik (1936) who wrote that “the most important pieces of insight are of the nature of surprises.” Whereas Freud (1899) at the end of the 19th Century said that dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious” (to the discovery of what was previous hidden and unknown), Reik amended that some 36 years later to say that it was surprise. (There is still a great deal of benefit in talking about dreams; they are full of surprises.)

Of course, not every moment of the therapeutic conversation brings surprise. Quite often, we are talking about everyday situations. However, even during those moments, there is the possibility of experiencing surprise. Surprise in a session occurs when there is a new insight, something not thought before, not known. Surprise occurs when the client feels some emotion about an experience in the present or in the past, perhaps an emotion not fully felt or recognized before. Surprises come in big shapes and small; in epiphanies (the proverbial “ah ha” moments) and quiet moments. Regardless of the size, it is, I believe, often surprises that bring the most poignant moments of the work.

Freud, S. (1899). The Interpretation of Dreams, Third Edition. Trans. by A. A. Brill. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913

Reik, T. (1936). Surprise and the psychoanalyst. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner.

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