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The Healing Power of the Therapeutic Relationship

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Have you ever been in a relationship that challenged your assumptions and beliefs about yourself and the world around you? If so, then you know how powerful and life changing some relationships can be. Imagine then, forming a relationship with a professional who is trained to develop relationships that encourage self-exploration, insight and positive change. Carl Rogers, founder of person centered psychotherapy, outlined three essential ingredients of  a successful therapeutic relationship – unconditional positive regard, genuineness and empathy.

Therapy can be a difficult, and even painful, process, wherein clients explore the good, the bad and the ugly within themselves, perhaps for the very first time in their lives.  As clients explore, the therapist’s attitude towards them will either encourage them to continue the exploration, regardless of what comes up, or the therapist’s attitude will shame them into shutting down. Therapists who have unconditional positive regard for their clients accept them as they are without conditions or judgments. Unconditional positive regard is paramount in the therapeutic relationship; it not only allows, but encourages clients to explore parts of themselves that they have never been permitted to explore. Free from the fear of rejection, clients can fully and honestly explore themselves, past and present, and their desires for their future.

The concept of genuineness in the therapeutic relationship, simply put, calls for therapists to be themselves, and to interact authentically and sincerely with their clients. Genuineness requires therapists to have a high level of self awareness, coupled with a willingness to share the experiences of their clients in a way that is beneficial to the clients. For example, if a therapist is feeling disconnected from a client as he reports the events of his week, the therapist might say something like, “I’m feeling a little disconnected from you right now.  I hear the events you are reporting, but I’m not hearing anything about how you experienced them, how you felt about them, or how they impacted you.” Chances are if this is how the therapist experiences the client, this is also how other people in the client’s life experience him. However, people rarely provide such frank, insightful feedback to one another in everyday life. This genuine statement from his therapist may lead the client to develop some insight into why he feels a distance and lack of connection in his personal relationships.

Perhaps most central to the development and maintenance of the therapeutic relationship is the concept of empathy.  Empathy goes well beyond the more common notion of sympathy. Sympathy is simply feeling badly that someone is going through a difficult time. Empathy on the other hand is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, and to view, feel and experience the world as that person does. Imagine, for example, how powerful it is to have a therapist take the time to actively listen to a client who has lost her mother.  The empathic therapist, who has worked hard to fully understand her client might say something like, “It sounds like your mom was the only person who ever made you feel taken care of, and now that she is gone you’re feeling very alone and scared.”  Until this point, people have probably told the client that they are “sorry for her loss.”  Through empathy, however, the therapist has offered something much deeper– something that makes the client feel understood and solidly connected to the therapeutic relationship.

Beginning therapy can be a very difficult step to take. You may be concerned that your interaction with the therapist will be cold and clinical, or that the therapist will judge you harshly. These concerns are quite common, but also quite contrary to the Rogerian therapeutic relationship. If you are considering therapy and believe you would thrive in the kind of relationship described in this article, consider seeking out a person centered therapist near you.

© Copyright 2010 by Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC, therapist in Brooklyn, New York. All Rights Reserved.

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  • rae g October 15th, 2010 at 2:48 PM #1

    It’s official- this is what I want to have

  • Kayla October 16th, 2010 at 9:50 AM #2

    Yeah I can see how this development of a relationship like this could throw some people off. I am sure that there are many out there who would like to try therapy but who have gotten the overwhelming sense that maybe the therapist is just not all that into them, that they are faking the caring thing because that is what they have experienced over and over again in the past. I think that it is important to stress to them that therapy takes time to heal, that this is not something that happens overnight. And the building of a relationship with a good therapist is the same thing. You are typically not friends with someone immediately in real life and I think that for the most part the same thing is true when you are trying to find a counselor who can connect with you in a way that is going to beneficial and healing for you.

  • jonathan October 17th, 2010 at 8:53 AM #3

    Do you think that this kind of therapeutic relationship could also be grown with the online therapy programs that you can now find and participate in?

  • HENRY October 17th, 2010 at 12:29 PM #4

    Its important to know that the therapist is like an old friend who will not judge you and someone who will try and understand you and does the maximum possible to try and solve your problem.
    I have been to a therapist before and trust me there is nothing to be scared of or apprehensive about!

  • Jane October 18th, 2010 at 4:48 AM #5

    What is really sad is that for some the one thing that is going to hold them back from getting care like this is a lack of insurance or money.

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC October 18th, 2010 at 7:32 AM #6

    I appreciate all of the comments.
    Jonathon, I think that distance therapy might require a little more time for therapeutic relationship to develop, but I do still think it can develop. Technology, such as Skype allows for some visual interaction too.
    Jane, I agree that finances are often a barrier for people and that is tragic. However, many therapists do offer sliding scales and there are reduced fee referral services available in some areas. I would encourage people who are interested in seeking therapy, but concerned about cost to ask about reduced fees.

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