Balaam and the Ass: A Metaphor for Psychotherapy

by James Leffert Thursday, December 16, 2010

James Leffert

James Leffert is a Licensed Psychologist with offices in Framingham and Cambridge Massachusetts. View his HelpPro profile here.

People looking for a psychotherapist often ask me about my philosophy or theoretical orientation. Typically, a few buzzwords roll off my tongue: "cognitive-behavioral", "developmental", "systems orientation". However, these words don’t convey what really happens when I collaborate with a client.

Let me share a story with you. Sometimes, metaphors speak more loudly than technical terms or psychological concepts.

The Story of Balaam and the Ass

The story of Balaam and the Ass is an ancient story from the Biblical book of Numbers. The main character is a wizard named Balaam who was known far and wide for his expertise. The king of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam knows he’s not supposed to curse the Israelites but because the king promises to pay him well and perhaps also because Balaam likes playing an important role in world affairs, he agrees to do this. He saddles up his ass and sets out to the place where he can look down upon the Israelites and curse them.

Balaam is riding along the road when all of a sudden the ass swerves off the road into a field. Balaam takes up his whip and starts to beat her to get her back on the road. They continue on as the road travels along a narrow space between two high walls, and the ass swerves again, this time over to the wall so that Balaam’s foot is squeezed against the wall. Again, Balaam beats her. Finally, where the area between the two walls is so narrow that there is no room to swerve, the ass goes no further, but simply comes to a complete stop and lies down on the ground. 

At this point, Balaam is furious and beats the ass with a stick. Suddenly, however, a miracle occurs—the ass is given the gift of speech. As if there is nothing at all unusual about it, the ass opens her mouth and says to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?...Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And Balaam answers, “No.” At this point, Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees that an angel is standing in the way, blocking their path, with a drawn sword in his hand.

Making Sense of the Metaphor

What does this story have to do with psychotherapy? The way I see it, we all pursue various objectives in life. Often, we try to move in a certain direction but like Balaam, we keep running into obstacles. We try different approaches, sometimes on our own, other times at the urging of others, but we don’t make progress. Often, this is what prompts people to seek help from a psychotherapist. At this point, we experience distress and pain. Others may be getting mad at us and we may get fed up with ourselves, and we (along with others) start beating up on ourselves, getting frustrated and self-critical because of our inability to make improvements. This is like Balaam flogging the ass, which represents that part of himself that is trying to propel him forward to where he wants to go.

The psychotherapist’s job is to help the client (and others around him or her) to stop the flogging and open their eyes and discern the angel standing in front of the person, blocking his or her path.

The angel represents whatever hidden reasons are blocking the way.

Each of us has our own unique obstacle that the angel with the sword symbolizes. The point is that when we stop flogging ourselves (and, at times, stop letting others flog us) and look at our situation in a new way to discern what is actually standing in the way, we can then figure out a way forward. Sometimes it involves a change in ourselves, sometimes it involves locating a detour that enables us to take an end run around the obstacle, and sometimes it involves reassessing and modifying our objective.

This story helps me convey, through metaphor, my view of psychotherapy as a paradigm-shifting experience that helps us identify, make sense of, and eventually overcome obstacles in our lives. 

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The 15 Minute Decision: Is This the Right Therapist for Me?

by Karen Wulfson Thursday, December 2, 2010

Karen WulfsonKaren Wulfson is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. Please visit her website for more information:

“What kind of therapy do you do?” This was the first hesitantly-voiced question I heard yesterday afternoon, from the man who eventually decided to schedule an appointment. What my caller really wanted to know was, “can you help me?”

In the 15-minute space between that question and his decision to actually make an appointment, something magical happened. At least that’s how I see each one of these “firsts.” That first phone call, first session, first time revealing some challenging personal history – for me these are magical gifts given to me by those reaching out for help.

I know it’s not easy to contact a therapist you’ve never met, as you search for someone to talk to, someone to help you manage those challenges life brings to us all. But yet, it usually takes no more than 10-15 minutes of conversation for most people to decide if they feel we’re a match and to decide if I might be able to help.

So – what’s that magic about? I’m always curious about what happens to quickly turn strangers into bonded pairs. What is it I do or say to let a caller know that I really do understand and that I have the knowledge to help him through those tough times? I can create some of that magic by paying attention, responding as directly as possible to questions, and by recognizing what I can and cannot do. I can help that bond by just being me – as honestly and ethically as possible. And sometimes, being honest and ethical might mean that I refer to someone else, when I don’t think I’m the right therapist for this person. And, I firmly believe that people feel more hopeful when they understand that I’m making an effort to learn about their needs and to see if we’d be a good match.

How can you decide if the magic is there? How will you know when it’s right to trust and when you should be wary? And, how will you know whether this person you’ve never met can be trusted to honor and understand your experiences? You are the one who knows yourself the best. And you do have the ability to figure this out.

Trust your instinct! That first call is a mutual interview, as you each decide if this will work. This call is an introduction to a therapist’s style. Pay attention to your inner voice. Do you feel welcomed and respected?  Starting to feel that magic? Feeling that this just might work out? Do you have a sense that this therapist is familiar with your challenges and can help? Not all of us can help every person. It’s the job of both the therapist and the client to pay attention and to bow out, when it’s clear this just doesn’t feel right. Pay close attention to that little voice and you’ll know when that magic bond seems likely. Then use the next session or two to find out if you were right!


Shopping for a Therapist?

by Peg Haust-Arliss Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Peg Haust-ArlissPeg Haust-Arliss is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Cognitive Therapist specializing in anxiety disorders. She has a private practice in Seneca Falls, NY. For more information about Peg and her services, visit her website at 

When it comes to choosing a therapist I look at it this way; finding the right therapist is like trying on new running shoes. Sometimes you find a pair that fit just right first try but, sometimes you have to try on a couple pair and compare the fit, or sometimes you have to run around the block a couple of times to be sure of the fit. 

I find it helpful to look at it this way especially if you have had therapists before that did not seem particularly helpful for you. Very likely, the therapist that was not right for you was just right for someone else! 

So, how do you begin? 

I suggest, before calling that first prospective therapist, prepare with a list of questions. Ask yourself: 

  • What do I hope to accomplish with sessions?
  • What are my expectations for therapy and for the therapist?
  • What I am hoping to gain; support? direction? tools? skills?

The more specific you are about what you want out of sessions the easier it will be to find the right therapist for you. 

Next, call prospective therapists. Don't be afraid to ask them questions pertaining to how they can help you; after all, they will have plenty of questions for you! You might ask: 

  • This is what I want to accomplish in sessions; have you had success helping others with this? 
  • Do you have a specialty? 
  • How often can I be seen? 

Don't forget to ask about payment and insurance too. And check out their website if they have one. 

If you are comfortable you can also ask your doctor, friends, and family who they might suggest in your area. 

Finally, assess how you feel after talking with a potential therapist or their office for the first time. Did they welcome your questions and answer confidently? 

Remember, finding the right therapist, like finding the right running shoe, is vital to comfort, performance AND results. So, if the shoe fits...



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