Visual Flight Rules

When I was 18, I made a misguided attempt to get my private pilot’s license. Misguided primarily because of my complete and utter lack of navigation skills. I took about a dozen flying lessons, during which I soon learned that my internal compass isn’t necessarily calibrated to the earth’s magnetic field. It’s a good thing I always had an instructor sitting in the right seat, otherwise I might not have made it back to the airport. Actually, I might not have even left the airport, because taxiing also required me to know north from south.

Beginning pilots are only allowed to fly under certain conditions – Visual Flight Rules, or VFR. Among other restrictions, under VFR, weather conditions need to be such that pilots can see where the plane is going. If the weather conditions do not meet VFR minimums, pilots must use Instrument Flight Rules, or IFR. Under these rules, pilots use their plane’s instruments to navigate the sky.

Sometimes in our lives we have the awareness and wherewithal to operate under a kind of VFR. We can see all around clearly, without obstruction, and choose our paths accordingly. Often, though, obstacles – internal or external – interfere with our ability to see clearly. There are low, dark clouds scudding by. They make it difficult to know what is up and what is down.The obstacles can run the gamut from dysfunctional relationships, to faulty beliefs, to dammed up feelings.

When people first enter therapy, they are often needing to navigate under IFR. There are times as a therapist when I feel as if I am a sort of instrument. I provide feedback to clients about parameters like their bearing (which way they’re going), pitch (whether they’re headed up or down), and atmospheric pressure (environmental stress), that have become in some way obscured.

Part of good therapy is building a solid therapeutic relationship in which clients trust that as an instrument, my feedback is accurate, or accurate enough. That in my appraisals of them and their situations, I have their best interests in mind. That I am helping them to head off a crash by providing data that has become difficult to see.

Even though I only slipped the surly bonds of earth a handful of times, I still think back to what it was like to sit in a cockpit from time to time. It’s exhilarating and mildly terrifying, if you’re wondering. Not unlike sitting in the client’s, or some days the therapist’s, seat.

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