Why connection matters, and how pleasure fosters connectionLast month I wrote about how connection to the therapist helps us connect with our own darkest places, and become better able to tolerate them. This month's entry is about therapy's other task: fostering connection to people.
I've always disliked the saying, 'you can't expect someone else to love you if you don't love yourself'. Firstly, it strikes me as unhelpful – so what are you supposed to do if you don't love yourself? Start?
Aside from that, I've never been sure exactly what comprises self love: I've certainly never experienced it, and it sounds rather smug, so I will deliberately abandon that term for now and refer instead to the less grandiose 'self acceptance'.
But the most important reason I dislike it is that not only is it unhelpful, it's untrue. Connection and self acceptance start with the experience of being loved – long before we are able to do it for ourselves. Babies don't start out loving themselves – feelings towards themselves are shaped by the feelings of their primary caregiver towards them. At times in our lives when we find it very difficult to accept ourselves or feel very hurt by events, the love and esteem of partners, families, friends, colleagues – can help us to repair our relationship with ourselves and with our world. Of course self acceptance shouldn't end with other people's acceptance – but it can be a very useful place to begin.
Connection is important because while pain is inevitable in life, despair is founded on dislocation. Connection with other human beings lifts us up – can keep us from falling, or when we have fallen, can help us climb back up. Through teaching an increased capacity and desire for, and a facility to seek out and maintain connection, our clients become less likely to fall so hard, or so fast, or so long into pain, or hurting others.
The extraordinary alchemy of human connection is such that sometimes, we don't even need to talk about our problems in order to feel lifted up by one another, because connection shapes us all the time. For example, we can feel lifted by someone smiling at us on the bus, on a day when we are feeling grumpy and lonely. We smile back, and suddenly we are transformed. We feel witty, friendly, or sociable. We walk straighter. We notice the sunshine. (In the couples I work with, although one partner may feel very resentful towards the other for leaning on them heavily, it does not take long to discover that the payoff for being seen as 'the strong one' is the experience of oneself as strong.)
Connection shapes our social learning, and is its precondition.Sue Gerhardt in Why Love Matters (Gerhardt, 2004) says,
The human... has to be invited to participate in human culture. The first step in the process is to get the baby hooked on interaction by making it highly pleasurable.
[Gerhardt, 39, 2004.]
The invitation to connect is made through a mutually beneficial experience of connection. I think of this sometimes, when I am dressing my daughter, and I am delighted by her every toe, because at these times, she unfurls and luxuriates in my enjoyment like a cat in the sun. Pleasure invites connection.
This isn't just true for babies: pleasure – or a mutually positive experience of connection- is the vital ingredient in all invitations to social learning. Apart from the pleasure of bearing witness to human beings unfurling and growing in therapy, one of the reasons I give therapy is because no matter what I'm feeling like when I walk into the room with my client, being with my client opens me back up, helps me experience the world, myself and another person, in new ways. My clients lift me. Not by talking about my problems, but by being themselves, by challenging me with new ideas, perspectives and experiences, and by engaging with me in the struggle to relate honestly and closely.
Sometimes it seems the more expert we profess to be, and the more 'challenging' our client group – (for example, people who commit crimes, people in regular contact with statutory mental health services, or people with certain kinds of disorders, such as disorders of the personality -) the more suspiciously we treat the concept of the therapist's pleasure in the person they are encountering, and in the encounter itself. The trickier the client, it seems, the greater the emphasis on relating objectively to our clients, of not being led by our feelings towards them.
In fact, intervening with our clients from a state of scientific objectivity is not necessarily possible or helpful. The absence of warm emotion towards another human being is not objectivity. We can't be objective towards human beings because human beings are not the same as cups, tables, or bacteria in a jar. To feel nothing for another human being is to be indifferent, and if I feel indifferent towards another human being, then I don't have the right to ask them to be open with me. And just as I walk straighter after a stranger smiles at me on the bus, when therapists believe clients are interesting, worthwhile and resilient, that's transformative too.
The more troubled, defensive or 'tricky' a client is, the more important and powerful a tool is the practitioner's great liking and curiosity, our pleasure in connection: because the more defended the client, the more threatening genuine social interaction appears to them, and the more important the task of incentivising and practising connection.
Denying that we like our clients does not stop us liking them, being moved by them, or being manipulated. It just drives these things underground and increases their capacity for getting twisted. Challenging each other is of course possible when we like each other – in fact, challenging each other works best when it is predicated on liking. If I suspect that I am not liked by the person who criticises me, my first instinct is to defend myself, to retrench. If I feel secure that I am held in their esteem, I feel able to take on board their thoughts and grow, even when they are telling me things I'd rather not hear.
My pleasure as a therapist in the experience of talking together is vital in teaching my clients the pleasure of connection. It shows the client they are not unloveable, and models how social interaction can be pleasurable at a time when it may be experienced as otherwise, mainly painful. Affection allows a mode of being in the therapy room best described as welcoming, in which aspects of the client - joy, pain, anger, creativity - are explored in a welcoming way. If we are doing our job right, our clients may come first to experience, and then to understand and reflect, that it is possible to experience honesty and openness not only as transformative of one's sense of self but also as a basis for closeness.
Let's celebrate the affection we have for our clients as we come to understand them, seeing it as a vital and under-investigated factor in therapeutic assessment and intervention. In my experience, clients don't complain about being liked. The complaints I hear are from clients who have not felt liked enough – who have feared or experienced judgement or rejection. The therapist's drive to connect is fuelled by the massive payback we get for connecting, and that's the single greatest tool we have in effecting therapeutic change.