When it comes to love, the stakes are always high. Love brings the potential for companionship and intimacy, but we must accept the risks of rejection, loss and heartbreak.
Many clients, if not all, arrive in therapy suffering from the effects of a ‘love wound’. These wounds could be picked up at any stage of our lives, but often stem from childhood.
Understanding how our ‘love history’ influences us in the here-and-now is a vital part of therapy. And while love can cause distress, it also has incredible healing powers. So how can therapists harness this power to help heal our clients’ wounds?
Irvin Yalom defined love as being ‘actively concerned for the life and growth of another’ – a generous, supportive loving which we desperately need from our caregivers when we are children.
The quality of early love we receive has a huge influence on how we perceive ourselves and others later in life. Jeremy Holmes explains in his book John Bowlby and Attachment Theory:
“A securely attached child will store an internal working model of a responsive, loving, reliable care-giver, and of a self that is worthy of love and attention, and will bring these assumptions to bear on all other relationships. Conversely, an insecurely attached child may view the world as a dangerous place in which other people are to be treated with great caution, and see himself as ineffective and unworthy of love.”
Love wounds can be caused as much by what didn’t happen as what did – if we were left alone to wipe away our own tears.
Neglect can be more subtle than other forms of emotional or physical abuse. We may even be unaware we had an absence of love in our early lives, which can leave us confused about why we struggle in relationships.
Children do not see the shortcomings of caregivers for what they are. Instead, they internalise the experience as evidence of their own lacking worth.
The neglected child draws the conclusion that they are too much for caregivers, or simply unlovable. They may even go on to discount their relevance in the world, possibly leading to depression.
Too much love?
At the other end of the scale, excessive love or pampering by caregivers comes with its own risks. A child who is constantly told they are special may go on to have an inflated sense of self and feel they are superior to others. This could even lead to Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
Narcissism is commonly associated with being stuck up, mean and exploitative. But these traits arise because people with NPD are compensating for a deep sense of emptiness and inadequacy.
Expert in NPD, Dr Frank Yeomans, told Mentalhealth.net: “A lot of narcissists can do really nicely for themselves financially, and can be successful in their careers, but underneath it all, they hate themselves. They constantly put themselves down, because they never feel good enough.”
These feelings originate in the loving relationship. People with NPD struggle to self-regulate their sense of worth after being excessively praised as children.
Love cannot be controlled or easily measured, and can therefore feel terrifying to some. In pursuit of fulfilment, people with NPD instead aim to become high achievers, seeking superficial admiration and praise.
This unquenchable need for achievement and recognition leads to inevitable frustration and anxiety – typically hand-in-hand with a difficulty to build meaningful relationships. This seems to be a contradiction: People with NPD want to feel special, and what truly makes people feel special is to be loved. But sadly, narcissists often don’t trust when they really are being loved.
Love’s healing power
The good news is that the love wound can be healed. In therapy, love itself has incredible restorative powers.
Dr Dean Ornish wrote in Love and Survival: “If love were a drug, it would be malpractice not to prescribe it.”
Similarly, Sigmund Freud wrote in a letter to Carl Jung that “psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love”.
Consider a client who was insufficiently loved as a child. They felt they couldn’t be themselves, as this was often met with rejection. These experiences led to a poor sense of identity and self-worth, and the child meandered through life fearing further rejection and avoiding intimacy.
They arrive in therapy, and gradually lay themselves bare. Instead of the anticipated rejection, the client is met with empathy, care and affection. With any luck, this process can aid healing, and support new beliefs about the self and others.
Risks of love
This process takes bravery. To build a strong relationship with a therapist, the client must take all the risks associated with love. Forming this new relationship may activate painful memories and feelings associated with:
Clients may avoid intimacy to protect themselves from a repeat of difficult feelings. By building defences to intimacy, the stakes stay low, even though deep down love may be what they need the most.
A client may have such strong defences, or a love filter, blocking affection from coming in. Breaking through the defences and showing a client that they are lovable is great progress, but love holds the most transformational power if it flows in both directions, and towards the self.
If the patient is able to hand out love to others, and can learn to love themselves, then this may be more easily transferred to their wider lives.
Self-love helps us move towards acceptance of ourselves, to feel comfortable in solitude and develop a stronger sense of self. It also enables us to be more comfortable sitting with both joyful and painful feelings.
Environment for love
So how do we create an environment which encourages love to flourish?
Carl Rogers’ core conditions of unconditional positive regard, empathy and congruence are a solid start.
Rogers compared a therapist’s love to the Greek concept of agape, which embraces a genuine, universal, charitable, affectionate love which transcends circumstance.
Helpful attitudes also include:
- Faith in the client’s ability to bring about change
- Patience with the process
- Openness to rupture and repair
- Compassion for a client’s back story and how it impacts them in the present
As therapists, we must have faith in the inherent good nature of each individual, and their capacity for change.
We must understand that people are born vulnerable, and develop weak spots and coping strategies which help them to navigate the world, particularly in early life.
These strategies are ingrained as belief systems about ourselves and others, which are often coupled with shame and anxiety. In Transactional Analysis psychotherapy, these beliefs about the self are known as a ‘life script’.
Love in therapy can help to reframe the belief systems, and dispel the shame. Rather than judging and persecuting a client for the beliefs they have about themselves and others, a therapist stands alongside them and tries to understand their origin.
Building a loving relationship takes patience. Therapists must be reliable and willing to explore any ruptures in the relationship, taking ownership of any shortcomings on their own part. For many people, this could be the first time they were honest about negative feelings without being shamed or rejected.
In this way, rupture and repair can build trust rapidly and build a client’s confidence to act with authenticity.
Reopen the wound
Once a strong bond is established, historic love wounds may be carefully and gradually reopened and explored – at the right pace for each client.
Inside each injury, there will be a pool of intense emotions ready to burst free – typically despair, rage and grief.
Therapists can consciously walk alongside these feelings with clients, and encourage them to be felt rather than suppressed. This can unlock a huge reservoir of emotional energy which can be harnessed for positive change, rather than lying in our unconscious as a destructive or inhibiting force.
We are all vulnerable to being hurt by others, particularly those we love and are loved by. Our families, cultures and work environments can also be hostile, and we form strategies and defence mechanisms which can lead us to live inauthentically, unhealthily, build our anxiety and even lead us into depression.
But if we can unpick the web which prevents us from living fully, we can remove the shame and recover authenticity.
Viktor Frankl, author of bestseller Man’s Search For Meaning, argued that ‘love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality’.
He believed by loving someone, we can see the true potential in a person.
“By his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true,” he wrote.
Research by Michael Lambert and Dean Barley (“Research summary on the therapeutic relationship and psychotherapy outcome”) strongly indicates that it is the relationship, rather than the modality or style of the therapist, that is the most important factor in therapy.
There is no such thing as ‘one approach suits all’ when it comes to therapy, as every individual is unique.
Techniques and theory are a starting point, but it is the love between client and therapist, and the therapist’s ability to appreciate the client for who they are, which is truly transformational.
Time and time again, research (link goes to http://societyforpsychotherapy.org/evidence-based-therapy-relationships/) has supported what many therapists intuitively feel – that the strength of the alliance is the true healer.
If you found this blogpost helpful please share it with your peers. You can also say something in the comments section below.
Our Guest Blogger:
Oli Hamilton is a qualified psychotherapeutic counsellor specialising in the field of Transactional Analysis psychotherapy. He is also in private practice at the Palmeira Practice in Hove, UK.
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