Love in Therapy

“Psychoanalysis is, in essence, a cure through love.” -Sigmund Freud in a letter to Carl Jung

In a poignant and eloquent presentation, Dr. Skye Cleary summarized various philosophical conceptions of what it means to love. She explored understandings ranging from that of Plato, and the ancient Greeks, to the promiscuous Existentialists. And there was one which stood out because it so profoundly embodied my own conception, not only of love, but of psychotherapy. Dr. Cleary described Bertrand Russell’s elucidation of love as follows:

According to the Nobel-Prize winning British philosopher, Bertrand Russell… our fear of the cold, cruel world tempts us to build hard shells to protect and isolate ourselves. Love’s delight, intimacy, and warmth help us overcome our fear of the world, escape our lonely shells, and engage more abundantly in life. Love enriches our whole being…

When I initially listened to her explanation, I thought to myself, “Wow! This perfectly describes the process, and relationship, of therapy!” I considered how amazing it was that love was so inextricably linked to therapy, and how significant it was. Most of you will likely know that, in popular culture, therapists are presented as cold and aloof, rational analysts who resemble Mr. Spok from Star Trek. And in our collective understanding, love holds no place in the formal, and seemingly detached, world of psychological treatment. But, few things are further from the truth, as  love is not only a part of psychotherapy, it embodies its essential foundation.

Most of my clients initially arrive to treatment in a similar state to the one described by Russell; they’re hardened by the worlds around them, and incapable of forming sustaining bonds with others. They present with this or that problem: some anxiety, some depression, and sometimes, with a more debilitating condition, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. But, what all of them have in common are their core perceptions of themselves as unlovable, unacceptable, and worthless; those are their real burdens. As they begin to take greater risks in session, and we begin to uncover deeper truths, some of those of whom I work with start to perceive themselves in a different light, one which radiates with an unrecognizable brilliance; finally, they feel seen, they feel heard, and most importantly, they feel significant. To me, this represents, and is, the ultimate embodiment of love.

When we think about love, most of us think of romantic or familial love; but, in truth, love can take on multiple forms, maybe even more than we can name. Loving your neighbor is one, loving your children is another; loving your spouse, your parents, your students, and even yourself are all elements of this great thing we call love. And, so is loving your patients, without which they cannot heal. For those of us who’ve had difficult upbringings, letting love in is a Sisyphean endeavor, one which seems impossible to initiate. Love, then, becomes a mere deception, an illusory trick which we dare not be taken in by lest we become naive fools, like those who’ve wittingly fallen under its malevolent spell. Thus, we trudge through the harrowing world in the way in which Russell described: isolated and alone, with only our hard shells to keep us company.  While protected from external harm, we’re suffocated in their grasp, as the barriers from pain invariably transform into obstacles to love.

To end the story here would imply a life bereft of meaning, and one devoid of spirit. And this is where therapy becomes a bridge, one which leads to life. Freud knew what Russell knew; he conceptualized treatment as the core upon which life was built, a place of safety and concern, from which one could leap into the world. As children, we need that safe-haven in order to develop self-respect and self-importance, without which we come to believe that we don’t matter, that the world will never love us. And Freud, like Russell, knew how to alter it; in essence, he knew how to re-direct destiny. In the care of the loving therapist, the client comes to experience herself in her potential form; she learns to consider her needs, her thoughts, and the reactions of her actions. In therapy, she learns of her significance, and accepts her parents’ inability to love; she learns of her self-made barriers and slowly begins to let love in, shifting her Sisyphean perspective to one which encompasses a much more manageable endeavor. Perspective, belief, is everything, and love is the force which fosters true perception.

In my work, I’ve taught my clients various Cognitive-Behavioral skills, but each of them was superseded by connection. When the time arrives for treatment’s end, my clients (usually) inform me that its most significant aspect was my concern, rather than any acquired tool. For them, simply having been heard was life-altering, as it afforded them the ability to go forth into a now seemingly less-dangerous world, knowing their value. That was my experience as a patient, and I’m glad that it was theirs. Love, this almost indescribable and mysterious feature of life, will continue to remain the focal point of treatment; although it can’t be taught, one’s inner light can always find a way to express it, and to infuse it with a voice. Love may not conquer all, but its necessity to a well-lived life is all but guaranteed.

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