Allowing Us To Be
I’d like to follow up with the idea expressed in my last post, that much of what we say, and how we act, is disguising an emotional need, or emotional request, that we desperately want fulfilled. And although we may go about getting our emotional needs met in a variety of ways, my opinion is that the emotional needs themselves vary little. We want to be heard, supported, held, loved, admired, respected. In my work with clients, I have been astounded by the similarity of their desires, and the variety of ways they try to acquire them.
Now, our culture has traditionally seen it as the individual’s responsibility to acquire his or her own needs, whether they are financial, practical, emotional, spiritual, or whatever. This is why our culture elevates the traits of independence, directness, honesty, perseverance, “grit,” and things of that nature—they all refer to an individual’s ability to get what he or she needs. But I think the field of psychology will soon be involving itself more and more with fields like ecology, which looks at the interaction between an organism and its environment. However much we want to pretend that something like honesty is a virtue, the reality is that honesty is only worthwhile in the right context, i.e., a context that values it. Likewise, we love stories about perseverance, but in the wrong context perseverance is just harmful—like someone who keeps returning to an abusive partner.
The idea that we cannot exist outside of a context that to some extent permits or denies our expression relates to therapy in two major ways. The first is that we cannot think of our clients as stand-alone agents: however a client acts in therapy, especially as the therapy progresses, depends on how the therapist acts, on what the therapist "allows." Likewise, our own behavior is dependent on how the client acts, on what the client “allows.” For example, does the client encourage humor by making jokes and laughing at mine? Or does the client refuse to find anything funny, moving on from a joke as if it never happened?
Secondly, it is important to recognize that while we cannot change a client’s micro or macrostructure (the environments in which they exist), we can be careful not to blame our clients for their misfortunes. History supplies us with ample evidence of people or groups of people whose lives were difficult through no fault of their own. To suggest that a person’s anxiety or depression is a result of some sort of personal defect is very dangerous and often not true. By and large, happy people are those who exist in a context that allows them to be happy—a context that hears, supports, holds, loves, encourages, admires, and respects them.
I mostly see my work as allowing the individual to find that context by holding and exploring all the emotional baggage that gets in their way.