Love and Psychotherapy

A unique kind of love

Posted May 14, 2016

Our culture has reduced love to emoticons, yet love means so much more than a smiley face or a like button. Greek philosophers considered the emotion of love to be so complex it needed at least six variations to explain the extent of human experience. Their definitions ranged from Agape (love for everyone) to Eros (sexual passion) to Philautia (love of the self). In the spirit of the ancient Greeks, I would like to explore another type of love – that which is held by the therapist for their client within the therapeutic container. I would suggest that existential-humanistic psychotherapy, when it is successful, embodies this type of love.

I’m not speaking of romantic or sexual love between therapist and client. There are no circumstances where that is ethical or acceptable. It is a gross violation of the client’s trust in the therapist.

What I am referring to is the deep respect and caring a therapist can have for the client through the course of their therapy.

For the therapist, this love comes from a strong desire to help the person they are working with. The therapist understands that the client wants to improve their life, to stretch themselves in ways they didn’t know were possible, and to develop a stronger sense of self in order to have an optimal life.

For the therapist, this is a love that encompasses an acceptance of the client for who they are, in all their parts. Having unconditional positive regard (Carl Rogers), the therapist acknowledges and values the client’s emotions, thoughts, and perceptions, whether the therapist agrees with them or not. The therapist understands that the client’s experience is unique to them. One role of the therapist is to be a loving witness and to support the client as they explore their deepest secrets. The therapist’s hope is that by accepting all of who the client is, it will allow the client to start accepting themselves and healing can take place.

For the therapist, the love also includes challenging the client in their beliefs and perceptions when appropriate. The challenge comes from a concern how the client’s beliefs, emotions, and perceptions prohibit the client from living a fulfilled and actualized life.

For the therapist, the love must include taking ownership of the therapist’s experience and acknowledging that the client might disagree with them because it simply doesn’t resonate with the client. By the therapist making contact with the client in this way, (Maurice Friedman calls it Healing through Dialogue) the therapist’s experience and perceptions can shift. Through this open, honest dialogue, the therapy deepens.

For the therapist, this love also takes in the qualities that the client has that are touching (e.g. their vulnerability, curiosity, and the resilience they show by coming week after week to work on their issues). The therapist expresses their admiration of these qualities that are life affirming and self-affirming.

For the therapist, this love is helping the client discover how and why they sabotages themselves from living an optimal life. Such issues as needing to protect themselves from emotional pain or following parental injunctions can be strong inhibitors to a fully actualized life. The therapist wants to understand the context of how this has developed and ultimately to have the client understand themselves so they have a choice to modify their identity.

For the therapist, this love includes expressing to the client the vision they have of who the client can be in their life. This would include not only the concrete goals, but also their way of relating to themselves and the world to live a fulfilled life. For example, this vision could include the quieting of their inner critic and having the courage to take stands.

This love acknowledges that both the therapist and the client are all in the same soup called ‘being human’.  This means the therapist can be self-disclosing (when appropriate) about some of their struggles and successes, which would help the client in their growth because they would know they are not alone.

To sum up, I’d like to offer a personal example. When I was a beginning therapist, I worked in an agency setting that encouraged a limited number of sessions. I saw a client who came in with a range of concerns, including feeling lonely and misunderstood by others. I didn’t feel I had done much in our short time together other than listen with a genuinely caring attitude. In the sixth and final session, he came in with tears in his eyes and presented me with a framed quote artistically etched on construction paper. It read: Love is being with someone who cares. I teared up myself and, while this happened 39 years ago, it still touches me, for without realizing it at the time, I had demonstrated the love held by the therapist for their client within the therapeutic container. From the existential-humanistic perspective the therapist is always, first and foremost, a human being relating to another human being.