When the Grass Becomes Greener By Sarah Stauffer, PhD on 7/25/19 - 11:32 AM

I feel fortunate to live in a climate where four seasons prevail. The first having passed for the year (ski season), we are on the precipice of entering the second: lawnmower season. Spring has sprung! And, with the recent rains we’ve had, our grass is taking off to new and varied heights! It’s about time to unearth the mower from way back in the back of our garage, get dressed in some comfortable work clothes, put on some old tennis shoes, and officially commence lawnmower season, week after week, one hour at a time.

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The usual routine involves noticing that the grass is starting to eclipse the stone borders around our blackberry and raspberry vines, and lamenting the development of dandelions and hard woody weeds that tend to shoot up above the rest. The latter of these are actually the persistent leftovers of a sour cherry tree that we used to have in our backyard, perennial manifestations of seeds haphazardly planted by the birds who used to steal the ripened berries straight off its branches.

After a long day of therapy, processing trauma with clients who have lived through the darker side of our shared humanity, I welcome the physical exercise that weeding and lawn mowing provides. With old volleyball kneepads pulled over my knees in homage to my favorite sport, I work at ground level, eye-to-eye with the garden nemeses that impede our barefoot backyard adventures. (If you’ve never stepped on a sprouted sour cherry tree root barefoot, it’s like traversing your living room and stepping on an errant Lego® block, randomly left behind, circle-side up! Ouch!)

While weeding, I enter the quiet space of a self-induced Eriksonian trance and process my day, thinking of clients’ stories, past and present, and their journeys to face the unimaginable to try to evolve beyond what they’ve experienced. I think of the importance of taking the time and putting forth the determination and commitment it takes to dig with my hand trowel to the bottom of those sometimes sprawling roots to carefully and tenderly lift them out of the ground so as not to leave a piece of them behind that can regrow and repopulate in their place. I meditate. If only the “errant” thought, belief, or behavior (their own or someone else’s) that caused or continues to cause them harm could be uprooted, whole and in its entirety, and cast away onto a compost pile to be transformed and recycled, seeped of its energy and sustenance and used to nurture a new thought, behavior, or self-affirming belief in its place. Perhaps the grass truly could be greener on the other side.

I continue my gardening from behind the lawnmower, upright and removed from the closeness of the weedy encounter, gear up to “rabbit” mode, and pull the cord until it sputters to a start. Although it sometimes takes a few tries to get our old mower going, once it is, we’re off and running steadily for about an hour together. I typically break a sweat as I push our mower back and forth, systematically turning around trees and our kids’ swing set, breaking down the task by completing small sections of the yard one at a time. Despite the heat of the day, I take comfort in the steady pace I can keep, guided by the mower’s propulsion system, and the constant hum of the engine in motion. I can more easily see the progress we make using the larger and more powerful tools of the trade. The tall and uneven blades of grass are trimmed for a fresher and more orderly appearance.

As I push the mower, it’s easy to set the direction. The machine, unthinking and unfeeling, willingly moves forward and turns under my guidance. Its ease of use allows me to enter the same unthinking and unfeeling space by the grace of our interaction, a welcome break after a hard day at work, providing therapy, then weeding. We only need to pause once or twice so I can empty the grass catcher and refill the gas tank, operations that are simple to complete and require no real brain power on my part. The wonderful part about mowing is how progress is steady and visible, and how it’s easy to estimate how far we’ve come and how much is left to go before it’s done.

As a therapist, I find it important to be able to do things in my personal life where the beginning and end are easily marked and where progress along the way is obvious and quantifiable. Systemic training has taught me to look for the smallest incremental measures of success, counting each little step as a victory, and celebrating each in turn. To have physical reminders of this progress and the success it implies is rare in the therapy room.

We need to concentrate and rely on our clients’ reports, drawing out the stories of their successes with our encouragement, questions, and genuine interest, because gardens invaded by weeds do not tend themselves. Neither do gardens of the mind invaded by psychological trauma. Left to fester, the deleterious effects that characterize what Judith Herman referred to as “the central dialectic of trauma”—simultaneously wishing to deny the existence of the events that underpin the trauma, and needing to uproot them from their nestled hiding places and expose them to the harsh light of day—require an experienced hand to contain and prune them until they can be thoroughly weeded. Gentle guidance, using the powerful tools of the trade and the established therapeutic relationship, can help our clients activate their own self-propelled encouragement engines, even if only for an hour a week, during a season that may be more—or less—long in their lives. I fervently guard the hope that with practice and over time, they will learn to operate at a higher gear, developing their own containment, pruning, and weeding skills, will recognize their own successes, and will notice the greener grass growing in their own backyards.


Herman, J. (2015). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Perseus. (Original published in 1992)

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections