So, You Want to Be a Therapist?

Many students from around the world have e-mailed me about becoming a therapist. "What do I need to learn?" they ask. One of the most important tasks of "insight" therapists is to understand and appreciate subtext. What is subtext? It is between-the-lines communication that convey powerful messages indirectly. Subtext affects all relationships, and is especially critical in child-rearing. Do you have an aptitude for subtext? Does the concept interest you? Here's a simple exercise.

Consider the well-known and beloved Robert Frost poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening":

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

(from Immortal Poems of the English Language, Washington Square Press, 1969)

Now, take a minute and re-read the poem, this time looking for subtext (between-the-lines meaning).

What did you find?

On the surface the story is simple: a man stops by the woods, is enticed by the beauty and peace of his environs, and then moves on. A therapist, however, hears something entirely different. In subtext, the poem is much darker: a man stops by the woods, thinks about whether to commit suicide, but ultimately decides to move on.


What are the subtextual clues? There are many:

  • The man knows he is not being watched.
  • The horse is confused why the man would stop in such a out of the way place.
  • The "darkest" evening of the year has a double meaning: lack of light and blackest mood.
  • The woods are "lovely, dark, and deep" suggesting the thought of ending his life is enticing.
  • "And miles to go before I sleep" is repeated twice. A poet of Frost's skill would not simply repeat a line to fill space and maintain rhythm. The lines have two different meanings: he is a long way from home, and, he has decided his life's journey is not yet over.

Any one clue, by itself, would not justify an interpretation, but together they form compelling subtext. Once understood, the poem literally snaps into focus. Indeed, Frost suffered from serious depression his whole adult life, so it is not surprising that he would write poetry about suicidal feelings. Of course, unlike Frost, clients are often unaware of the subtext of their own stories; therapists have to help them discover it.

Does this kind of reading (listening) intrigue you? People often present the same kind of puzzle as Frost's poem. Their words tell one story, but underneath, another tale, often darker and more compelling, lies in wait. If you are interested in discovering the subtext of people's lives, you would probably enjoy the work of a therapist.

(Thanks to Walter Lundahl, my 12th grade English teacher in Huntington, N.Y., who introduced me to this poem and its interpretation.)

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

next: Therapy on the High Seas: A Search for Self

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, November 30). So, You Want to Be a Therapist?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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