Having one too many clients allude to the movie “Dear Zindagi” insisting that I watch it, finally got me in front of the screen, mostly curious about the perspective on psychotherapy that it promotes. A full two-and-a-half-hours later I realised that as much as movies like “Dear Zindagi” shed light on the social and interpersonal dimensions of an individual’s journey they fall short in exploring the length and breath of the personal and individual experience of therapy and healing.
Unlike what the movie portrays, all of our concerns cannot be dealt with that easily, sometimes it’s more than just one breakdown. The therapeutic relationship is not always beach walks and cycle rides, or story time! It’s a lot of work and a lot of investment in ourselves. Is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Most definitely, yes.
What do we mean by therapeutic work? And what happens within that time and space shared between therapist and client?
The process of caring for a plant provides a useful metaphor. As we watch the plant grow, we gauge its health by the colour and freshness of its leaves, how the plant holds itself up, etc. By merely observing the plant we can understand how it is interacting with its environment and what aspects of its environment are causing changes in the plant.
Is it looking too dry? Does it need more water? Is it getting enough sunlight?
We have an intuitive idea of what a plant requires and we support its natural growth by providing the appropriate environment.
Similarly, the psychotherapeutic space endeavours to provide such an environment to a human being. Empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard are the sunlight, water and good soil provided to therapists by Carl Rogers to nurture inner growth.
In empathising with an individual one tries to understand the whole gamut of feelings an individual experiences and merely be sensitive to the presence or absence and movement of the various emotions in context of the life events a person shares. It is an invisible feeling quality where the counselor feels their way into the experiences of the person.
Congruence is the quality of simply being present as one’s true self within the therapist-client relationship. That the counselor is genuine and does not put up a pretence, that they are really present as themselves.
Through Unconditional Positive Regard a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience is communicated. Ensuring an individual’s expression of “negative” feelings are felt as accepted as their expression of “positive” feelings. It is nurturing a space where one is acknowledged as a separate and distinct person.
By providing these three conditions, a safe space is created where judgement is suspended and an unspoken belief is expressed in the individual’s capacity for growth through the trust a counselor places in the inherent capacity of healing present within an individual.
You find yourself feeling heard, energised, relieved, assured, calm post a session. You may also find yourself feeling unsure, overwhelmed, drained and tired. Much as the space feels safe to explore and interact with aspects of your life and make sense of yourself, it also means that it is safe for various unsavoury parts of ourselves to make an appearance for examination.
In therapy we are lifting emotional weights, whether it is those of a lost relationship, a harsh self critic, the realisation of some of our dysfunctionalities and the role they play in our relationship, revisiting a difficult situation, working towards healing childhood wounds.
Eventually we may find ourselves wrestling with our own selves, our denial, resistance, fear of failure, avoidance of pain and challenge to our perception of our self and our situations. So don’t be too surprised to find that although you may enjoy the therapeutic process you may sometimes want to resist it too. Quite often we may face resistances when we are on the precipice of certain unpleasant discoveries that we make of ourselves.
For a person realising that her need to be there for her friends reflects her unexpressed need to be taken care of.
Or discovering that expressed anger is a more guarded way of expressing the pain of thwarted vulnerability.
Or realizing that the real reason we cannot stand a colleague or a loved one is because they accurately reflect certain aspects that we do not want to acknowledge in ourselves.
Therapy is a challenging endeavour as much as it is rewarding for the therapist and the client.
Just as we visit the gym to strengthen our bodies and increase endurance, stamina and strength. Therapy is akin to the mental gym that we participate in, where we work towards understanding ourselves, our emotional strengths and weaknesses, the reasons why we do what we do and what makes us who we are today.
In this process of exploration and confrontation we also build acceptance and resilience, thus in a small way imbibing those external conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard within us as we continue on our inward journeys of growth.