The Therapeutic Relationship: How Can It Help?

Relational Beings

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.”[1] While growing up, these relationships can support or hinder 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 very strict parents who, in doing their best job as parents, have a clear agenda of how they want us to be: sporty and ambitious; quiet and ‘good’; cute and girly; whatever! They set an agenda because they want the best for us. While their intentions seem to come from a caring place, in each case a set of criteria is imposed onto the child from the outside. 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. Even if not explicitly said, the child picks up on certain behaviours being acceptable and others not, certain emotions being acceptable and others not, certain parts of her personality being seen and encouraged, and others not. 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.”[2] 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 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’s true that change and healing take place in and through relationship. The therapeutic relationship offers more than just talking about problems. Instead, it is relating with someone who is really listening without judgement, who is empathising and understanding 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. Limiting beliefs can be put on the table, so to speak, and new ways of being can be tried out. You may also become more realistic and accepting of yourself as you explore the uniqueness of who you are, giving the potential for life to open up and choices to become more apparent.

[1] Barrett-Lennard, G, The Handbook of Person-Centred Psychotherapy and Counselling (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) p. 135


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