Love. That little four-letter word which apparently makes the world go ‘round.
When you think about love, what does it mean to you? Does it conjure up a warm fuzzy feeling or is it something which makes your top lip curl in cynicism? I often think about the potential links between psychotherapy and love, and wonder whether the crux of any therapeutic success is really down to the love that’s shared between the client and the counsellor.
I’m certainly not talking about an erotic love here – the special boundaried connection between a client and a therapist must never be sexualized, romanticized or even physical. Moreover I’m talking about the kind of love you might feel for a really close friend – deeply appropriate and platonic by nature.
When we look at some of the reasons people enter into therapy, for many it’s due to something going wrong with love. Perhaps they didn’t feel loved growing up, they’ve experienced a bad relationship, they’ve only ever received conditional love etc… When I meet clients who are struggling with issues relating to depression, anxiety, identity, loneliness or general unhappiness often we discover that the root issue is that they’re carrying some kind of love wound which needs to be healed.
There’s something incredibly profound to feel truly accepted at the core of your being by another person. All too often we limit ourselves – being too afraid to communicate our truth or needs in case we are ridiculed or rejected.
We hide behind a safe screen of what we consider to be ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of others.
Throughout my training I studied many psychotherapy models, techniques and approaches but fundamentally recognise that in essence they’re all just helpful theories. The mind is too complex a beast and there’s no such thing as a perfect therapy algorithm to resolve client problems in the way you might fix a broken car! Even manualised therapies with a vast range of empirical results cannot definitively prove which ‘bit’ of therapy ‘works’.
Carl Rogers, the father of person-centred therapy, talked about something called ‘unconditional positive regard’ in his approach. He suggests that therapists adopt this personal attribute when working with clients – that is, prizing the person by being genuine, warm, respectful and compassionate so that the client feels it (and doesn’t perceive it as a cosy fake façade).
Is this just science-speak for offering love?
For all the complexities of delivering therapy, I personally tend to see it as something far simpler and yet greater than it is possible to effectively quantify. For the person who comes into counselling feeling incongruent about some aspect of themselves (they dislike this or that part of their lives or personality) then I guess it could make sense that to bring it into the counselling space and have someone else accept that ‘un-acceptable’ part of themselves may just dilute and potentially eradicate those feeling of self-hatred (hey, this person accepts me warts and all – maybe I’m not so bad!).
As I was out shopping last week I noticed a little boy who looked extremely worried when mother told him he was, ‘a naughty boy and wouldn’t get any chocolate if he didn’t do as he was told.’ Fairly innocuous, right?
If you consider for a moment that everything we do is largely dependent on our conditioned responses (you’re only reading this from left to right because you once learned to…) it makes sense that some part of the little boy’s psyche will create a generalisation: if I am to gain approval from mother (be worthy), I must be compliant. And hey presto, here we have the foundations of conditional love!
But before all parents start to panic (!!) just remember that a caregiver who is mostly attuned to their child’s needs will help to create a healthy balanced emotional environment where the child can learn to express itself without fear of invalidation. Childhood is about curiosity and exploration – there is no right or wrong to a child. Worms in the garden aren’t ‘bad things to eat’ they are simply wriggling objects to be studied and stored in our memories as experience!
At my last clinical supervision my fantastic supervisor asked me what I ‘did’ with a particular client. I immediately felt a puzzled expression form on my face and noticed my silence fill the air. She let out a hearty warm laugh and said: Steph, it wasn’t meant to be a trick question! In that moment I had hit upon one of my own vulnerabilities and it reminded me of the time when my primary school teacher asked me to stand up and solve a maths question in front of the class! After I realised she wasn’t trying to trip me up (nor get me to recall every subject I had studied during six years of University!) I found my genuine answer:
I’m just me and I provide a space where my clients can just be.
It felt so simple and childish to say – but it’s the truth! Theoretically I could dissect a session into a list of offered interventions, core conditions, propositions, introjects, conditions of worth, examples of incongruence etc… (you get the picture) but really, didn’t I just offer love to someone, who in turn felt it, and started to feel better about themselves?
Did the process spontaneously help my client to learn how to love themselves because they’d never been taught how to do it?
So whatever you choose to call it – a therapeutic alliance, unconditional positive regard, intrapsychic or interpersonal connection, transference/ counter-transference… for me, it all boils down to that four-letter word. Love. And in a letter to Jung, Freud did once famously write:
“Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love”.