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Putting Our National Politics on the Therapy Couch

How curiosity and compassion can change our national discourse.

As an Existential-Humanistic therapist, I look for ways my clients keep themselves from connecting with their authentic self. I look how clients get stuck in negating aspects of their identity. They are afraid of discovering the truth – toxic messages they received or interpreted in childhood are wrong and that they aren’t bad human beings. As a child, believing these messages served to protect them because they were dependent upon their parents, family, and community for survival. Most, if not all, of this type of protection, continues to operate at an unconscious level.

A Humanistic belief is that the discovery of disowned aspects of ourselves moves us to connect to our authentic self. When we face what we have been avoiding, we naturally move towards health and wholeness.

An aim I have is to support the client to develop a trusting relationship with me. I want the client to feel safe enough to share what is going on internally, how they feel about themselves and their world. I want to support them to become as curious as I am about their experience of living. Their curiosity will allow them to discover more of their hidden self.

In our society, one powerful protection most of us use is an unhealthy inner critic. This voice isn’t about constructive criticism of our behaviors, but is instead a self-hating expression of who we believe we are, based on our life experience. We’ve taken in toxic messages from our families, schools, community, and the media. This toxicity isn’t the whole picture as we have also taken in affirming messages. However, the toxic messages can be so prevalent that we come to believe them.

A strong example in our culture is the belief that we are never enough. We are not smart enough, we are not beautiful enough, we are not competent enough. Each of us can name the ‘not enoughs’ for ourselves. There is also a fear that even if we achieve the elusive enoughness, someone will invalidate it. While the messages are painful and fear ridden, they also give us a fixed identity that is secure. We believe we know who we are and what we have to do. We don’t need to deal with the anxiety of challenging our paradigm.

As I work with a client, an antidote to their internal critic is for me to access my genuine curiosity and compassion for my client, for this human being in their struggles and in their victories. I will gently point out when their critic is in the room, how often it occurs, and what the critic believes. I keep doing this until they become curious and compassionate towards themselves and question if what the critical voice claims is actually true. It becomes a dance of peeling back the critic and an openness to discovering the richness of who they are that has been hidden by the inner critic. They discover who they are is so much more than the toxic identity the inner critic has re-enforced. It takes courage for the client to be compassionate towards themselves. It is not what they are familiar with. It is rewarding to see where the client’s curiosity and compassion leads – to an identity that ultimately is more vital and life affirming.

This brings me to what is happening in our current political discourse. I wonder if the spewing of hate, the rise of negativity, and the lack of respect and civility is an indication that our national identity is being over-run by an inner critic. There is a lack of curiosity about any opposing view and a lack of compassion for why the opposition holds that view. I wonder if this is revealing a national wound. I wouldn’t presume to know what the wound is, however I would engage with the national wound as I would with a client that is wounded: with curiosity and compassion. As Carl Rogers has written, “When the other person is hurting, confused, troubled, anxious, alienated, terrified; or when he or she is doubtful of self-worth, uncertain as to identity, then understanding is called for . . . In such situations deep understanding is, I believe, the most precious gift one can give to another.”

Now we have an opportunity for citizens of this country to recognize that the hatred being expressed in our national dialogue is a representation of part of our own inner dialogue. We can use this awareness to move into compassion not only towards ourselves but toward our country and the world. We can use this awareness to be curious about who we can become as a country that is not about hate and a toxic identity.

Source: gustavofrazao/fotolia

This is not an easy task. It is a tough challenge. We need to each peel back the inner critic and discover the richness of who we are as a country that is hidden by the vitriolic dialogue. We can remind ourselves that the person we are talking to is human, too. There is nothing they can say that we ultimately can’t understand on some level, because we are all on the same human journey. Who of us hasn’t experienced hate towards someone else? Who of us hasn’t been wounded in some way? Who of us doesn’t want to be heard? In order to heal this national wound, we must engage in the dialogue not with toxic criticism, but with curiosity and compassion.