The Therapeutic Relationship - How can it help?
Whatever the circumstance, we are conceived through the joining of two people and of two cells. Forming a relationship with our caregiver when we’re a baby, and then extending this first relationship to include other significant people in our lives, we can safely say that we are formed in the crucible of relationship. While growing up, these relationships can support or hinder the development of our personality, our attitude to life and the degree to which we can trust others and feel safe to be fully ourselves.
When Early Relationships Don’t Help
Let’s take a simple example: imagine growing up with parents who, in doing their best job as parents, have an agenda of how they want you to be: sporty and ambitious; quiet and ‘good’; cute and girly; whatever! They might not be aware of the conditions they are scaffolding around you, or they might set this up because they want the best for you. While their intentions could seem to come from a caring place, in each case a set of criteria is imposed onto you from the outside, as opposed to nurturing your innate tendencies and characteristics. It’s a little like wanting an acorn to grow into an apple tree.
For the child who grows up in this environment, a lot of adjusting, twisting and moulding of herself will be necessary so she can adapt herself enough to be acceptable to her parents (another way of saying loved): so she can survive. Striving for contact with parents is what children do best, even if it means silencing or denying parts of themselves, or shouting loudly to demand they are seen. And even if not explicitly said, the child picks up that certain parts of her personality are seen and encouraged, and others not. This adjusting can also be applied to certain emotions which are deemed acceptable to the family and society, and others not: "In thousands of ways, both subtly and overtly, our parents gave us the message that they approved of only a part of us. In essence, we were told that we could not be whole and exist in this culture." (Hendrix, H, 1988) This is love based on conditions.
Understanding the Emerging Adult
It might be that the adult who grows out of this family is split inside and so swings “between hating themselves and pretending to be perfect.” The hating comes from The Despised Self, the part of the adult that thinks it’s not good enough, is stupid or lacking in some way and is hated by the world. On the other hand, the Idealised Self fills the adult with ‘shoulds’: that she ‘should be good’, ‘should be powerful’, or ‘should be perfect’ in order to gain love and be acceptable to others and herself. It’s a hangover from childhood, an impossible goal! And one that is not healthy to strive for.
Attaining a Healthy Self Through the Therapeutic Relationship
Since we are formed in relationship and can be damaged in relationship, it follows that change and healing take place in and through relationship. For the adult wishing to explore who he or she truly is, the therapeutic relationship offers more than just talking about problems. Instead, it is relating with someone who listens without judgement, who empathises and understands where you’re coming from, who ‘gets’ you. In this safe and trusting relationship you have the space to explore and deepen your self-awareness.
For example, the adult who is unknowingly carrying the message from childhood that he 'should be perfect,' might get stuck at some point in life because trying something new is too risky. For the inner child, failure would mean a loss of connection with parents, and that was deeply painful.
Within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, exploring and understanding such messages becomes possible. The pain of having to deny or adjust the uniqueness of who you really are can be felt and integrated. Support in trying out new ways of being is available, as well as acceptance as you become more fully you. You might begin to relinquish the impossible, idealised self, and engage more in the process of becoming who you really are. In this way, life has the potential to open up and choices become available. Like nurturing a sensitive plant, the therapeutic relationship can support you.