Therapy as an Act of Love by Melissa Utz MA, LPCC
I would like to talk today about love. Specifically about the love I hold for my clients from my seat as a therapist. I remember vividly a day from my internship when I threw my hands in the air and said to my supervisor with more than a dash of defiance, “I love my clients, maybe I am not supposed to, but I just do.” His answer was simple, “Good. You have to love your clients. You simply have to.” I was so relieved to hear those words but more than that, his conviction set me at ease. I do not know how to do this work without my heart being open and present in the room. I do not know how I would make it through the sessions where my clients expose and embrace their deepest shame without loving them fiercely through it all. Therapist Christine Hutchison (2016) tells us, “the therapy room is a practice room, and the thing we practice most consistently is the feeling and the skills of loving.”
I found throughout my training that no one really named love explicitly as a core component of the work we do as therapists. There were a lot of other words used… unconditional positive regard, attachment, basic goodness, but I just kept getting the feeling that what we were really talking around was love. So I did some research and I found that people were talking about it in a way that feels important to explore.
Let’s start with why love is important and it’s pretty simple. We’re wired for it. John Bowlby and attachment researchers have proven that we are genetically predisposed to be dependent on other humans, specifically caregivers (Wallin, 2007, p. 12). The idea is that in prehistoric times those humans who were in close relationship with others were more likely to survive; essentially we have evolved to be in relationship. At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, researchers have found that babies without appropriate care and love will actually die (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000, p. 69). This need for relationship carries on from childhood into adulthood and on through old age. Wounds that we experience within our primary care relationships in childhood can follow us through our lives, often landing us in a therapist’s office.
The next question may be, how exactly do we use love to create a healing dynamic? The answer lies within the relationship. The therapeutic relationship is the co-arising relationship created and experienced between two people who have agreed that one will be the therapist and the other the client. Charura and Paul (2012) say, “The therapeutic relationship, however, is now generally accepted as being the most important factor in therapy within the therapist’s power” (p. 22). They are saying that what a therapist does from a theoretical intervention standpoint matters less than how a therapist engages and relates to the client. If you pair the findings from attachment research with the findings regarding the importance of the therapeutic relationship, it can be argued that successful therapy boils down to, in part, a therapist’s ability to love their client.
With all this talk of love, it might be important to define it a bit more. One therapeutic definition of love, from an article by Charura and Paul (2015), says “Hence we propose this concept of agape (love) as being non-possessive love, compassionate love, openness to work with the other as s/he is, as well as the potential of what s/he could be. This highlights the relational nature of the therapeutic relationship as one in which loving can take place” (p. 7). This form of love is framed by openness and a type of relating that does not require particular behavior or reciprocation in order to thrive. Within the frame of the therapeutic relationship, it means that our clients do not have to act in a certain way nor give us anything in order for our love for them to arise and inform the path of therapy.
It is important here to pause and think about what it means to love our clients. There are inherent challenges in loving clients and in continuously holding a loving environment. In all honesty, it would be impossible for a therapist to always show up in a loving way. Therapists are human too. To this end I think it is important to reflect on Winnicott’s theory of the good enough mother. He proposed that caregivers do not have to be perfect but simply good enough. His definition of a good enough mother was a caregiver who could acknowledge and repair their mistakes (Winnicott, 1982, pp. 10-11). The repair was deemed more important and the results longer lasting than the impact of the original mistake. The same frame must be held for therapists. One must work from a place of being a good enough therapist versus being a perfect therapist. One must know, and embrace, that one can still be human and make mistakes with clients. It is the wisdom of when and how to repair that allows one to show up authentically as a good enough caregiver and a healthy attachment figure.
I believe that the reason a therapist can bring a foundation of love into the therapeutic relationship is because there is a strong relational boundary in place. Ethical therapists set clear boundaries that the relationship will not carry on outside of therapeutic encounters. In holding this boundary, one can provide a safe container in which vulnerability, emotional intimacy, and love can be used as agents of change. Charura and Paul (2015) say, “… the love we are referring to is not unboundaried or unethical, but, rather, a dynamic living energy which can be safely experienced because it is therapeutically bound” (p. 7). I believe it is the boundary itself that creates a sense of safety so that a client’s nervous systems can relax. This relaxation and safety gives rise to connection, attachment, and love allowing difficult material to become workable. In fact, the therapeutic relationship, with it’s agreed upon boundaries, may be the first place that a client can experience a safe and welcoming environment for the parts of themselves that they would rather hide from the world. In welcoming difficult parts of themselves to arise, a client can learn to turn toward and eventually love these difficult or cut off parts of themselves.
I believe that now, more than ever, therapists need to provide a field of love for their clients. In a society that is suffering the effects of hate filled political rhetoric, a rising occurrence of hate crimes, and an increase in disconnect and disillusionment, it is important to cultivate love in all its forms. I know, as therapists, that we need to do the work of opening our hearts so that our clients can do the same. It is an act of service to open our hearts in this way to a world that is in such suffering and pain. In fact, it is necessary.
I am learning to meet my clients with love, and when that feels impossible, I know that it has something to teach me and I slow down and allow curiosity to arise. Viktor Frankl (2004) says, “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true” (p. 116).
I believe, as Frankl does, that my love for my clients is what allows me to step into the difficult work of healing. I believe it is the only way to practice this craft of therapy.
References available upon request.