What's love got to do with counselling, anyway?
Surprise fact – your therapist loves you! Not that kind of love. That would be yucky and frankly unethical. So, what do I mean when I say love is an important part of therapy?
Why don’t counsellors talk about love?
Counselling pages don’t talk about love much. Maybe we are a bit embarrassed by it or we think it doesn’t sound very professional. I’m talking from a British perspective and it’s that old joke that we only show affection to small children and animals!
Nobody would want to even hint that there was any kind of sexual or romantic connection with a client. So, we shy away from the word love and talk about unconditional positive regard and the therapeutic relationship instead. But I think there needs to be love in the therapy room, and I am going to have a go at explaining why.
The Greeks had it right
To start with, there are lots of types of love. The ancient Greeks recognised this and had lots of different words for love, depending on the type of love they meant.
There is agape love, a generous outpouring of altruistic love. I think this is what Carl Rogers talked about when he described unconditional positive regards, more of that later.
Storge is a parental love, at its best it shows attachment and connection. Philia is empathy, the Greek word for friendship and companionship love. Eros is passionate love, which in its simplest form is really not appropriate in the therapy room!
Types of love
Carl Rogers, the father of Humanistic Therapy talked a lot about Unconditional Positive Regard or UPR. It’s one of the first things they teach counsellors when we train. UPR is about accepting the other person exactly as they are without judgement. Rogers explains that it means caring for someone as a separate person with permission to have his own feelings and experiences. This complete acceptance allows people to feel safe and to grow. This is the agape form of love, which accepts and asks for nothing in return
Storge love is parental and is all about connection. Many people come to therapy feeling disconnected from themselves and from others. The therapy room is often where we can start to practice making those kinds of connections. For those of us with difficult childhoods and painful relationships with our parents, our therapist is the first person who models this kind of parental type of care for us
- Philia love
Empathy, care, and compassion. Who doesn’t want a counsellor who is empathic? A good counsellor should be walking alongside us and always have our backs
Erotic or romantic love. Nope, no place for that in therapy, although it is quite common to fall in love with our therapists. I think that’s a whole other blog on its own though. That said there should be passion in the therapy room. That passion to see our clients succeed, to become all they want to be.
How does love show up in therapy?
So, we have looked at the various kinds of love and how they might appear, but how does this actually work in therapy?
BACP Fellow Professor Brian Thorne wrote, “There can be few professions where loving and being loved and the experience of intimacy are part of daily life.” For him, love and intimacy are to be expected in therapy.
When our therapist truly treats us with unconditional positive regard, (love) it is so much easier to start to see ourselves as worthwhile and lovable. Sometimes therapy is a journey towards love and acceptance of ourselves. This is so much easier when we can see our therapist already holds us in high regard, when we are valued for exactly who we are.
Speaking the unspeakable
There are moments in therapy when we tell our therapist our deepest darkest secret. The thing we have kept hidden in the shadows, clouded in shame. That moment is frankly bloody terrifying. What if they hate us? What if they reject us, or tell us to leave? What if they are so disgusted that they won’t see us anymore?
We share this really vulnerable, scared part of ourselves then we sit there, waiting for the sky to fall in. Only it doesn’t. Our therapist hears our fear and shame and holds it. They don’t run screaming and they don’t tell us to leave. The sky does not fall in, and the healing begins. If this isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.
I didn’t learn this at university. I learnt this in my own therapy. There is a counsellor in a town near here who knows me better than I know myself some days. I told her the worst; most scary stuff, the things I felt shame around and she still loved me. She showed that love by having my back, by challenging my faulty thinking, by occasionally kicking my arse, (in a kind and respectful way, in case she reads this!). She showed me love by modelling what a healthy parent figure could look like. She was my greatest cheerleader when I decided to do my training. That looks like love to me.
Sometimes love in the therapy room needs to be tough and brave. It needs to be brave enough to gently challenge false assumptions and beliefs. We may grow up thinking we are stupid or clumsy or not good enough. Those beliefs that we just accepted as kids carry over into our adult lives and we accept them as truths without questioning them. A good counsellor will help us to identify these faulty assumptions and help us to challenge them. From this, we become free to grow into the people we were always supposed to be. That is love
Change in therapy takes courage and can be so tough. We need someone who loves us to walk alongside as we do it.
So, love in therapy is many things and can show up in many different ways. Call it UPR, call it the therapeutic relationship, call it anything you like but for me, it comes down to care, and that embarrassing notion of love in therapy.