Falling In Love
Many years ago I read that the need to love is as important for human beings as the need to be loved. I remember crying when I read those words, because it explained something important about the way in which I contribute to the world that was heretofore unexplained. I am a love machine – not in the way that the Motown group The Miracles meant it, but in a human miracle way. I get a kick out of liking and loving people and I’ve always been good at it. And while I’m definitely a caring person, I’m not exactly a caretaker. I don’t have too much difficulty with giving folks some straight talk if that’s what I think is required, even if it means they experience discomfort as a result. I don’t shy away from people’s feelings. I like people to feel good, but I’m not invested in that outcome if feeling bad for a while will get them to a more whole place in their lives. My friends tell me that I’m very loving, thoughtful and caring, good at expressing my affection and nurturing feelings towards them. My partner thinks that I’m the bees knees in the loving-and-caring department. In fact, I’m so programmed to like folks that I think of myself as somebody who can like and see good in just about anybody. As I have been known to point out to disbelievers, “Even Hitler loved his dogs.” In other words, even delusional crazy folks have at least one good quality, and I have rarely, if ever, failed in finding one.
I like thinking about liking people and interestingly, I’ve come to realize that it’s a lot harder to consistently and freely like and love partners, friends and family than it is to for me to like and love my clients? Why? Because relationships between lovers and family members are complicated. Even people who love you reciprocally will get tired of you complaining about the same old thing and tell you so. They won’t always be sweetness and light first thing in the morning or last thing at night. You have fights and struggles over the top left off the toothpaste and have to find ways to deal with the complicated minutiae of life, like who walks the dog most, and who forgot to pay the car insurance. And we take these fights very personally and they can get extremely messy.
Therapeutic relationships, like all relationships, have rules attached and the rules around caring and love are pretty clear. In therapy, the relationship exists to promote and benefit the client’s life, not that of the therapist. While the eroticisation of the therapeutic relationship is necessarily prohibited and contraindicated, verbal expressions of caring and liking are not. Just about everybody understands that seeing yourself reflected positively through a therapist’s eyes has a beneficial therapeutic impact. And, while there is a fragility inherent in most relationships, if you play your cards right you can return again and again to the relationship you forge with a therapist whose job is to see through your imperfections and personal challenges and reach for the true person inside.
There have been times when clients have made comments about the fact that I “have” to like them because they pay me and there are times when the issue of therapy fees can complicate therapeutic relationships between therapist and client unless you are completely willing to talk about the issue of money. However, while it’s true that therapy ceases for the most part when the fee is consistently not paid, it’s also true that the therapist remains willing to resume that relationship if and when the client returns. (I’m fascinated by the exchange of money in therapy and am working on a blog about this which I hope to post in the next few weeks.) This is not much different from other caring relationships where money exchanges hands. For example early childhood workers and teachers are paid to teach and encourage young children, and they invariably love and care for the children in their care, which is not a condition of their salaried position; the same goes for nurses and their long-term patients, and school teachers and their students.
Most clients are surprised by my willingness to talk of my affection and caring of them. They are surprised that I think of them outside of their sessions and frequently are moved to tears by observations and thoughts I have about them that surface in between our appointments. But as a client in my own therapy, I have had the experience of finding faith in my ability to tackle frightening challenges, buoyed only by my therapist’s caring and love for me. They don’t have to use the “L” word for me to know that I am loved – but sometimes the therapist’s empathy and nurturing have been the only things I have been able to rely on to propel me towards bravery. I use this personal experience of therapy in my own work as a therapist.
So, I see part of my job being to show love towards my clients and to encourage them to use this experience of my caring for them as a tool in other parts of their lives. Many people haven’t had the best experience of being loved in their early lives and without this experience it becomes difficult to love and treat oneself well. Therapy, with its one-way focus on a client is an opportunity to feel that acceptance and affection, the one-way focus on an individual’s life that many of us did not get to have as children. Therapists are, or should be, unfailingly polite and respectful, attentive and caring, concerned and thoughtful about their clients. It’s a gift to have this non-stop outpouring of thoughtful attention lavished on you for one hour a week with somebody who remembers the most seemingly inconsequential details about your life and can pull them together and tie up loose ends. And while being loved and cared for by your therapist isn’t THE whole story in psychotherapy, it sometimes forms the solid ground under the client’s feet that makes change possible.