People come to psychotherapy because they want to feel better. A big part of a therapist’s ability to help a person feel better lies in their taking a loving stance toward that person. This stance starts with a therapist’s understanding that it takes courage for another person to come to them and their sense of feeling privileged by the trust that person invests in them. The rest of this article describes the other core ways in which therapy involves love and why this matters.
Faith and Compassion
Having faith in a person’s inherent goodness, as well as compassion for how that person’s life experiences have influenced them, is integral to helping them. This love stems in part from a therapist’s appreciation of the vulnerability inherent in being human. People are vulnerable to being hurt by others. When they are in contact with individuals, families, work environments, or even cultures that are filled with anger, criticism, premature loss, or emotional distance, it is almost inevitable they will start to internalize these experiences and develop corresponding psychological symptoms.
Children are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon due to their limited power to assert themselves, and they often have no recourse but to accept messages that are hurtful. When people have been hurt, they start to believe negative things about themselves (e.g. “I’m hopeless,” “I’m a failure”) as well as negative things about others (e.g., “People will hurt me if I trust them,” “No one will ever care about me”). Not surprisingly, they also experience feelings such as anxiety, anger, and shame that accompany these beliefs and tend to act reflexively on these emotions. These reflexive actions make it harder to connect with others and reinforce their negative beliefs about themselves and others.
Therapy helps people to break out of these negative cycles by allowing them to have a new kind of experience with their therapist that feels more positive and empowering. When a therapist approaches a person with a basic belief in their goodness, over time a person can feel a therapist’s faith in them and internalize it, which starts to shift what they believe about themselves. A therapist’s compassion for the person they work with also contributes to this change.
An internalized sense of being loved by one’s therapist can vastly change how a person experiences the world.
People are understandably concerned about being judged when they come to therapy. They may be afraid that a therapist is going to try to force them to change, or that a therapist will condemn them for some of the choices they make. Rather than criticizing or blaming a person for how they feel and behave, a compassionate therapist helps a person to understand how they are doing the best they can given what their experiences have taught them. They also help the person to think about new approaches to addressing their challenges that may help them feel better in the long run. This compassion is also internalized and helps people make sense of their lives in ways that are less focused on blaming themselves or others and leave more room for them to take positive steps toward change.
Patience and Humility
Therapy is inherently challenging. It is common in the course of many long-term therapies for there to be moments where a person feels stuck as well as moments where they feel disappointed or angry with their therapist. If a therapist tries to force a person to change before they are ready, or if they handle a person’s disappointment defensively, these impasses can be destructive.
Rather than blaming a person for feeling stuck or disappointed, a therapist coming from a place of love recognizes their own fallibility and tries to take ownership for any contributions they may be making to a person’s discontent. They also try to help that person see the role they may be playing in it. These moments become opportunities to build trust and for the person to gain greater self-understanding, rather than being harmful moments that reenact earlier painful experiences the person has had. Many people have been traumatically shamed and/or abandoned when expressing negative feelings toward others, and it can be a profound experience to have a therapist who does neither of these things and instead tries to patiently help them understand their pain and continues to care for them.
Just as people can be hurt in their relationships, they can also heal in them. Therapy is not just a set of techniques, it is a special type of relationship that is oriented toward helping people to heal from past experiences.
An internalized sense of being loved by one’s therapist can vastly change how a person experiences the world. In addition to symptoms diminishing, other people who once seemed threatening may become sources of connection and the future may seem more hopeful. Generosity and compassion flourish in those who have felt loved, leading them to touch the lives of others. Fittingly, many therapists have been touched by another person’s love in their own therapy and find it to be a deep privilege to be trusted and to pass on the gift.
- Harrist, R. S., Quintana, S. M., Strupp, H. H., & Henry, W. P. (1994). Internalization of interpersonal process in time-limited dynamic psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 31(1), 49.
- McAdams, D. P., Reynolds, J., Lewis, M., Patten, A. H., & Bowman, P. J. (2001). When bad things turn good and good things turn bad: Sequences of redemption and contamination in life narrative and their relation to psychosocial adaptation in midlife adults and in students. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(4), 474-485.
- Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101.
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