Saturday, September 7, 2013

How does a psychotherapist help?

How does a psychotherapist help people?  What does “help” mean?  Over the past two decades I’ve come to see myself as a helping person.  Occasionally a little narcissism seeps in (before it disappears) and I’m possessed of the absurd feeling that my mere presence in the room – and in attenuated fashion, via email – is healing.  That feeling is absurd, but not completely.

There is the question, What is help?  And the assumption that things go really wrong with people, that they suffer existence damage.  As this blog begins, something of my own existence damage sneaks in.  I notice that in my feeling I am conjuring up a straw man, or straw men and women, who would disrespect me through my way of seeing myself and other people, and this causes me to assert the unimpeachableness of my vision: My approach is right!  Later blog entries will address more of my own, as well as my clients', psycho-existential errors.

People are damaged when childhood injury is not healed.  Adults can of course be damaged, too.  But in a very real and meaningful way, if your roots have been cut and your heart scarred over in childhood, you don’t really become an adult – but that you think you do.

What damages children?  All the various ways that love doesn’t happen.  We need certain kinds of contact – loving eyes and touch, loving words and tone, respect and even valuing of our individuality.  But love is a terribly misused word.  It’s not when you need your child.  It’s not when you see her as your project.  If the air is clear between you and her, that is love.  If instead the air is permeated by you – your pain and pain-filled ideas which can materialize as assumptions and ambitions and your underground continent of triggerable feelings and a “need to be respected” – that’s not love.  I see parenting-by-unconscious-revenge every day.

A good therapist sees the unloved child (within the child, the adolescent and the adult) and offers some strands of love.  This can be wonderful – life-giving – but often it can’t be accepted.  For many people, accepting the therapist’s love would be like living an entire lifetime of sadness, aloneness and poverty then winning the lottery on your deathbed at age 93.  Later on, I’ll talk about why many clients run from the offer of deep visibility (love).

So, on to the pessimism of my title.  I believe that when the roots are injured the tree is damaged.  It may be quite beautifully gnarled and bent, and we appreciate it.  And Edvard Munch can paint The Scream.  What psychotherapists and good friends – all the same – can do is touch as touch was once needed; listen as being heard was once needed; maybe even hold as holding was once needed.  The typical difference between the friend and the counselor is that I can frequently offer to and sometimes touch, hear and hold the past – the child.  And since that’s who we adults still are, well, that’s pretty good.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.