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Stephen van Beek MA (Tripos), Dip CTP, Member CAPT, Member TPS


Stephen van Beek

Jigsaw Puzzle

A few months ago a client challenged me with the remark that what therapy was all about was solving puzzles, and that I was a puzzler in masquerade.

This remark revived memories of my boyhood. My English aunts believed no child could enjoy Christmas without a jigsaw puzzle. From age six through ten I faced one or two sadly beautiful landscapes of cloudy sky and a ploughman alone in the foreground, or a bloody patriotic naval battle. Never a red racing car, or anything 1850, but nonetheless the puzzle must be done for form’s sake.

I knew I was to learn patience, a declared family virtue not easily observed. Does deliberate self-frustration really build character? I admit to a mild suspicion of people who love jigsaws.

Well, my client’s remark got me thinking more broadly about the notion of our personal psychic jigsaw puzzle. Life and living are complex puzzles, their parts randomized, many given to us without our choosing, often obscure, incomplete and demanding our serious attention. 

A great deal of my frustration with jigsaw puzzles derived from the picture on the box, which rarely seemed the colour or shape of what was emerging as I fitted the actual pieces together. And while looking at the illustration of an actual jigsaw puzzle helps a little, there is in reality no illustration of who we can be, unless we are content to be clones of our family tradition and cultural context. There’s little individuality there.

In puzzle terms, if all we have to do is to piece together an old MacDonald’s farm scene, with a bright red tractor, hay wagon and livestock, the solutions are obvious. But we are not so simple as adults.

Usually once one has blithely put in a part that fits, one finds that a part a few inches away just won’t fit and the whole pattern has to be broken down and painfully rebuilt in a different permutation. Therapy can be like this, a game of trying out different explanations pieced out of known memories and events that may call forth other memories and events. Leftover bits are a particular sore point. When several explanations seem plausible but none is quite right, what should we do?

Sometimes no progress is possible unless we knowingly accept the risk of frustration. We find ourselves having to dare, and to re-arrange our world view. We have to decide something must be done about the way in which we live, even though we cannot tell in advance what the result will be; there is no picture on the box of our existence to which we can refer ourselves.

We may experience stretches of time when our best hopes are dashed, only to realize later that this was not a sufficiently deep resolution to our challenges. Frustration with the process may create despair, but those who hang in learn that most deep learning is a substitutive and trial-and-error hunting of the right bit.

As the whole puzzle emerges, the remaining gaps become a source of excitement and frustration. Most of my physical puzzles were left undone at this juncture; in my psychic life the same challenge persists but I have come to understand the necessity of unrelenting effort to grow my self.

It is difficult to imagine that the person we are meant to be may be unique and without a previous pattern that we can discover without actually growing into ourselves. But who we are is what emerges from our struggle with the chaos and bewilderment arising from feelings of not fitting in, not measuring up, of unease at having to match up with others who restrict us, and the strange recognition that who we are in this puzzle of life cannot be seen from the two-dimensional perspective, but only from a perspective that is difficult to attain and merely our self-perspective.

Life and living are complex puzzles, their parts randomized, many given to us without our choosing, often obscure, incomplete and demanding our serious attention. If the work of therapy enables us to sort through and select our final version, so much the better and a worthwhile payoff for the effort therapy demands of us.


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