After they split up, my time with my parents was divided as evenly as could be practically arranged, which was a relief for me because I could not bear to be without either of them. But in my heart, I was constantly torn. They were both emotionally wounded, desperate, and quite immature. Often, their pain and fear and outrage would bleed into their relationships with my two older sisters and me. Both my parents seemed intent on justifying their own sense of victimhood and criticizing the other, or making them wrong. My two hero’s had turned on each other, and out of my sense of loyalty to each of them, and driven by my own pain, I felt compelled to defend whom ever was the underdog. So for a few years, when I was with my dad, I would defend my mom to him. And when I was with my mom, I would defend my dad to her.
Looking back, I believe it was the depth of my love for my parents in the midst of such painfully irresolvable stories that pushed me to acknowledge that my love and appreciation for each of them was deeper and unrelated to the painful drama they both seemed to identify with at the time. Over the course of my own healing around this issue, I realized how virtually everyone creates their own narrative, in which lines are drawn and sides are taken. This discovery provided me with a perspective to see and relate to people beneath their perceptions of lines and sides. This perspective has informed my work with individuals and couples, and has evolved into a therapeutic approach that focuses on clients recognizing and getting beneath their egoic trances and interpersonal dramas to find authentic connection with their true self and to relate to their partner from that place.
There is no question in my mind that this early painful experience, and my subsequent journey of healing, set the stage for my interest in psychology in general. But beyond this, the nature of my own healing and personal investigation drew me to humanistic psychology in particular, because it emphasized the importance of two essential elements that emerge in a dynamic relationship to each other:
* The deep value of authentic relationship.
* Therapists’ commitment to their own emotional healing and personal growth
These two things aren’t merely theoretical constructs but have profound meaning for me as a person and a therapist. So I would like to delve into them a bit here to set the stage for an ongoing dialog with others who are working to skillfully integrate their own personal growth and healing into principals of professional humanistic practice.
One of the hallmarks of psychotherapy rooted in humanistic psychology is the central importance of the relationship between therapist and client. This is no ordinary or casual relationship, but one which is characterized by the therapist’s intent to embrace and model authentic existential encounter. The roles of client and therapist, as well as any particular therapeutic strategies or interventions may be quite useful in the course of therapy, but are considered to be of secondary importance.
From a humanistic perspective, roles and interventions are understood as pragmatic structures agreed upon between equals for the purpose of addressing specific issues and concerns for which the person (or couple or family) is seeking assistance. But it is the relationship itself, not any particular intervention, which provides the true vessel of healing. This orientation is in stark contrast to a doctor/patient model of therapy, which is hierarchical in both authority and credibility of knowledge, sees persons in terms of diagnostic categories, is narrowly focused upon the cessation of symptoms (and, if possible, their causes) and is inclined to set up a power differential that breads dependency.
Of course, we want to use our role as therapist as skillfully as possible. But in honoring the authentic encounter as essential, we cannot avoid our own vulnerability by using our role of psychotherapist as a mask of authority to hide behind. What this means to me is that to be truly present to another human being in the depth of their pain, I must be willing to be present to my own pain, which is the basis of true compassion. I am not talking about dumping my personal issues on the client or trying to get my ego needs met by my clients. That kind of blurring of boundaries is more about unacknowledged counter-transference, which, of course, confounds the therapeutic process rather than enhances it. What I am talking about, though, is the importance of staying present and vulnerable to my own emerging experience of being, when I am with my client.
In the broader sense, one’s own journey of growth and healing involves a willingness to honestly confront and embrace the grit as well as the grace of personal experiences as they arise. This includes the full range of one’s emotional wounds, relationship challenges, joys and sorrows, blind spots and areas of self-deception --- as well as any insights that are gleamed from these experiences. More specifically as a therapist, I must be at least committed to the same level of self-reflection and personal awareness that I would attempt to facilitate in my clients. And to live that commitment not just in retrospect, when it may feel safer or more comfortable, but in the present moment of my encounter with my client.
For this reason, being a humanistic therapist can feel personally risky, even treacherous at times because it means we have to really show up as an existentially naked being, essentially no different than the person seeking our assistance. But the risk is not without reward. It allows therapy to be a deeply authentic transformational experience, not just for my client but for myself, as well. In this way, it also provides an organic element to my on-going development as a therapist.