The Therapeutic Relationship

If you were given a newborn infant with all his or her amazing potential and were instructed to turn that baby into a violent teenager or a self-harmer or a drug or alcohol addict or a perfectionist or people-pleaser or paranoid that people wanted him or her dead, how would you accomplish any of those developments? Even though the question is disturbing, at some level we know how to bring about such defensive and compensatory behaviours.

Though we may not acknowledge it we also know that human development is powerfully influenced by emotional traumatic life experiences. Certainly, poets, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists have been in the forefront of such explorations and have been more recently joined by epidemiologists and neurobiologists. These quests have definitely called into question the biological-determinist hypotheses of the DSM V and the Clinical Psychologist and author John Welwood’s comment “that this diagnostic manual might as well begin: ‘Herein are described all the wretched ways people feel and behave when they do not know they are loved’ strongly supports the emotional aetiology of human suffering. Indeed, human suffering is not pathology but a path to consciousness of one’s lovability, individuality and unrepeatable potentiality.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, captures this evolving understanding of human suffering when he penned the following lines: “What is unconscious in the parent, no matter how well intentioned the parent, is transmitted to the child and may remain a continuing block to a fuller life”. Jung could also have added that what is unconscious (unresolved childhood traumas) in child-minders, pre-school teachers, primary and secondary school teachers, grandparent, sports coaches, etc. is also transmitted to a child. After all, it takes the world to raise a child and all adults who interact with a child have an effect on his or her sense of wellbeing. Furthermore, what Jung could have emphasised more was how the unresolved conflicts in parents and these other significant adults blocked their deserving of a fuller life. Even Freud in a letter to Jung affirmed that “we cure people with love”. Jung himself agreed that unconditional love corresponds to the deepest longing, not only of every child, but every adult as well. All relationships – where children and adults live, learn, play, work and pray – need to be of an unconditional nature, not only for person but for behaviour as well. The reality is that when behaviour is truly understood there is nothing to pardon or to forgive, but a ‘for-giving’ response needs to emerge in the presence of what was the absence of love and understanding. Only when such ‘for-giving’ is present is conscious responsibility a possibility and the nature of the relationship within and between people gradually becomes unconditional.

Certainly, parents (a role of immense power) can be the backbone of a conscious society when they get the therapeutic opportunities to bring to consciousness their own childhood traumas that have long lain hidden. The reality is that there appears to be little conscious recognition of this priority due to unconscious factors in leaders of political, educational, health, religious and economic systems and there is an urgent need to target these leaders for a raising of their consciousness. Gross national consciousness (GNC), rather than gross national productivity (GNP), would benefit people far more across all spheres of human functioning – familial, social, educational, occupational, creative, political and spiritual. Somehow the social taboos against exploring painful life experiences that underpin human suffering requires unblocking for the benefit of all.

A second question that flows from the opening one at the start of this article is: ‘If you are instructed to turn around the tragic life of a young or older person, how would you do that?’ Which of the two questions is easier to answer? The most frequent question I am asked is: ‘How do I love myself?’ The reality is that when we do not have a consciousness of how to love ourselves we cannot truly love another! Answering the question with labels and medication (the latter may give symptomatic relief) does not create the consciousness that is required for resolution of childhood traumas and a solid interiority. Of course, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts are daily faced with this second question, and in my own clinical practice, long years of self-reflection and the privileged experience of creating relationships with those individuals who bring their suffering to me, has, I hope, brought a knowing (ever evolving) of how best to be with those who seek my help. Unconditional love, emotional attunement and genuineness are essential but also a lot more – belief and communicating to the person of how creative he or she has been in surviving all the emotional, physical, sexual, behavioural, social and intellectual threats encountered and how together as co-creators he or she can begin to emerge from hiding behind his or her amazing defensive walls. In my view, how the therapist views human suffering is critical to the therapeutic relationship, as any hint that the person is insane, irrational, maladaptive, conditioned, dysfunctional, chemically imbalanced or genetically defective is counter-therapeutic.

Furthermore, literalism is the greatest block to understanding human suffering. Given that people’s defensive responses are created unconsciously, then a metaphorical understanding is essential, along with the therapist’s realisation that the person seeking therapy is the expert. Patience is also paramount and Donald Winnicott’s wonderful statement of “I will wait patiently, for an eternity, for you to become present to your life” powerfully echoes the therapeutic value of patience.

The reality is that the psychotherapist can only sit with the individual seeking help to the extent he or she can sit with Self. Put in another way, the therapist’s degree of consciousness is a determinant of how much he or she can create the physical, emotional, social, behavioural, intellectual, sexual, creative and spiritual holdings for the client’s raising of consciousness.

Like the parent, the therapist too can, unwittingly, transmit what is unconscious in him or her onto the client and this will create a block to a fuller life for both of them. It follows that the therapist is as much on a journey of consciousness (hopefully, further down the road) as is the person who is being therapeutically held and realisation of that two-person dimension to psychotherapy is equalising and empowering for both travellers.

Focusing on emotion rather than cognition, and a reliance on relationship rather than technique are also important components of psychotherapy. Ultimately, it is the depth of relationship holding – manifested in awe, love, empathy, wonder, belief, interest, celebration of difference, honesty, patience, mutual admiration of creativity and intelligence, openness, sharing - is the strongest determinant of the degree of consciousness achieved.

About the author: 

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Author and National and International Speaker. He began his career as a Clinical Psychologist in State Psychiatric and Psychological Services in England and Ireland and since 1990 has been working in private practice in Ireland. He works with individuals, couples, families, schools, local communities and the business community. He is the Director of three National University of Ireland courses which are run in University College Cork and in an outreach centre in Dublin.

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