A Love-Based Approach to Therapy

A perfect love casts out fear. 1 John 4:18 I believe that every single event in life happens as an opportunity to choose love over fear. Oprah Winfrey There are two basic emotions, love and fear. We either operate out of fear, or we operate out of love. Love and fear cannot occupy the same space at the same time. So the best way to manage fear is to supplant it with love. It is said that love is the space that occurs naturally between every human being, but fear stops it from being expressed. The challenge is to get everyone to operate out of love. This might sound idealistic, but if you think of love being these qualities: compassion, understanding, tolerance, forgiveness, empowerment, and cooperation, then a love-based approach to therapy seems realistic and desirable. Love means you are focused on the other person, you are giving to them, and the best love is unconditional. You love them not because they did anything to earn it… you love them just for being. Likewise, you do not withhold love because of something they said or did to offend you. Does that mean you have to love all your clients? No, but it does mean to adopt a loving, accepting, and supportive attitude even in the midst of some significant pathology. To the extent you are unable or unwilling to do this, you compromise your potential effectiveness. On a Christmas day, I was called to the Emergency Room to interview a person who had just murdered his neighbor and was now suicidal. My immediate reaction was to be repulsed by and even fearful of such a person. However, as I interviewed him, it became apparent that he was appalled by what he had done. He and his neighbor had been drinking and had become quite intoxicated. While playing cards an argument ensued after one accused the other of cheating. Tempers flared, a blow was struck, the neighbor fell, hit his head on the corner of the wood stove and died as a result. The man barely remembered what had happened, and as he sobered up and realized the tragic consequences of his actions, he was overwhelmed with guilt, grief, and despair. While the sheriff and some of the ER staff treated him with disdain, it quickly became apparent that this poor chap needed someone to understand and console him. My goal was to help him come to terms with what had happened and not to judge him or punish him with my attitude. While there was obviously little I could do to help him in his predicament, he was very grateful that I had been so understanding and concerned for his well-being. If you operate out of fear, you are thinking only of yourself. This is not effective because your purpose is to benefit the client, not promote your own ego or sense of accomplishment. It's normal for some judgmental thoughts about certain people to creep into your mind, but don't focus on them. Be aware of how you are in a session. This is meta-cognition. It is like you are watching a movie in which you are playing the role of a therapist. How are you coming across? What is your demeanor? How concerned and sincere do you appear? How loving are you? It is sometimes difficult to maintain the perspective that a client is operating out of fear, because there are a number of other emotions that seem basic. Take anger, for example, which seems like a basic emotion, but in reality it is a secondary emotion. Upon closer inspection we see that fear is fueling the anger. For example, a mother is angry at her son for coming home late, but under the anger is the fear that something has happened to him. A boss is angry because the project is not proceeding on schedule; he is afraid he will look bad to his superiors. A child is mad because he has to do his homework, but underlying the anger is the fear he won’t have time to play his video game. Given this perspective one can easily see other emotions like jealousy, resentment, and hate are also based in fear. Fear begets fear. If you are in fear mode, the client will sense that, and it will influence his trust and belief in you. It is said that the most effective therapy is right-brain to right brain, meaning it is not so much the facts and information that are important, but rather the connection that is created. If the client learns emotional regulation from the responses or lack of reaction mirrored by the therapist, this may be the true value of the therapy. If the client learns how to ask salient questions in order to process situations, this may be the true value of therapy. If the client learns the pathway out of painful memories, this may be the true value of therapy. We cannot underestimate the power of love in healing:   Barry, a 14 year-old, had what I call a love affair with every drug he encountered. He loved pot, and he loved acid, and he loved cocaine. While he was quite open about his drug use with me, and I appreciated his trust, nevertheless he scared me with his tales of drug bravado. I felt like I had little impact on changing his attitude. I did tell him that if he continued to do drugs in a dangerous way, I would have to tell his parents.      Meanwhile, I was a co-facilitator of a domestic violence group and unbeknownst to me, Barry’s father had been referred to group. He told of a situation in which he had a son who was into drugs, and how grounding or enforcing other consequences was not having the desired effect. The father had even gone so far as to nail Barry’s window shut, so that he could not sneak out at night. One day his son was getting ready to go out, and the father told him he could not leave. His son challenged him saying he could not stop him. They got into a pushing match, and the boy fell down some stairs. Totally exasperated, the mom called the police, and the father was arrested for assaulting his son. By the end of the group, I began to figure out the boy was my client. (I had always dealt with his mom and never the dad.)      In the next group the father expressed fear for his son and an inability to communicate with him. He also disclosed that he had a drinking problem, which his son would throw that up in his face anytime he tried to talk to him about drug use. The group advised him that he was losing his son and his credibility, and he needed to decide what battles he wanted to fight.      He came back the next week saying things had calmed down some. He had told his son that obviously he had no power to stop him from getting high, and that if his son decided to continue to use, it was all on him. He told his son he would not give him money, nor bail him out if he got arrested, and would not come to see him if he was hospitalized. And he disclosed to the group that he was making a serious attempt to stop drinking realizing he was asking his son to do something he himself was not willing to do.      Several weeks later he indicated that the situation at home had improved dramatically. His son had gotten arrested with some buddies smoking pot at a concert. Barry had cut back on his drug use as a result and was also staying at home more. He was very concerned that he would be drug tested when he went to court. His attendance at school and his grades had also improved significantly.      While this trend continued, there was an incident that seemed like a major setback. The mother received a call from the school saying that Barry had skipped out of school after first period seemingly to get high with his best friend. This had been his old pattern. The father said that when his wife told him what had happened that evening, he responded differently that he would have normally when Barry came home. In the past he would have been irate and “tore into him.” Barry came home around 7:00 and zipped through the living room saying, “Hi, I’m home,” and immediately went to his room. The father went to his room and knocked on the door. Barry responded very nastily, “What do ya want?” The father told him in a calm voice that he wanted to talk to him.      “What about?” Barry asked.      “I just want to talk to you about today,” the father said. Finally, Barry opened the door and let him in. They sat on the bed together and the father shared that the school had called and told his mother that he had skipped out after first period. “What happened?” the father asked. “You were doing so well. I was so proud of you and now I am so disappointed,” As he said that, tears started rolling down the father’s cheek.      Barry, seeing this, said “I’m sorry, dad. I screwed up,” and then he started crying. They ended up hugging each other, and the father told the group, “That hug had more influence on him than months and months of yelling, cussing, and fighting him.” There was not a dry eye in the group either. And that is an example of the power of love to change people.   This article is excerpted from the book, Getting Unstuck: Guidance for Counselors: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do, by Jon Winder, Licensed Professional Counselor, available on Amazon.com