THE TRUSTING ALLIANCE
The particular ‘relationship’ negotiated between a therapist and a client is always unique. I encourage a trusting alliance or partnership in therapy which is guided by the client’s needs, feelings, values and their identified outcomes for therapy.
The therapist works with a client to identify suitable ways of dealing with their problem/s and to understand why a behaviour exists in the first place, what its function is and then how to ‘unlearn’ the behaviour which creates difficulty for the client. New alternative behaviour/s are identified to satisfy the same underlying need, yet in ways which leave a client feeling good about themselves and empowered. This process increases the choices available to a client, as well as opening possibilities for them to see themselves as ‘part of the solution’ rather than ‘the problem’. Together, therapy achieves the change and personal growth a client may wish for themselves, which also forms part of their identity in the long term – how they would like to know themselves and be known by others.
Trust is foundational to the trusting alliance and complete confidentiality is guaranteed concerning whatever a person discusses in therapy. To ensure safety and trust within the relationship, the therapist encourages mutually respectful interactions between their client and themselves. A client’s feelings and needs are affirmed as real and appropriate, rather than denied or ‘talked right’ or ‘punished’.
A person can discover the value and benefit of those emotions that may otherwise cause them fear, such as anger or shame. Clients may sometimes experience relief at sharing emotions, behaviours and thoughts which they could fear experiencing on their own. Both beneficial and disadvantageous ways of responding to such feelings and thoughts can be discussed without fear of judgment. Therapists can offer perspectives about emotions, behaviour and experiences which a client may perhaps otherwise not consider. Opening possibilities up for discussion, can increase a client’s choices for decision-making and future management strategies.
A client may decide, in hindsight, that certain decisions made in the past were ‘mistakes’. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by feelings of failure, shame and avoiding similar situations in the future, therapy can assist a client explore how they can learn from past behaviour or ‘unlearn’ ways of behaving which have proved unhelpful.
PSYCHODYNAMIC MODEL AND AN INTERSUBJECTIVE FRAMEWORK
My research and practice suggests that a psychodynamic model and intersubjective theoretical framework are particularly helpful in fostering healthy therapeutic relationships and personal wellbeing. Using a psychodynamic model means that I try to trace distressing reactions or emotions to how and when they originated in childhood, and have evolved over time, and in particular contexts. If a client understands the logic and reasons underlying the emergence of certain behaviour/s or feelings that upset them, this knowledge usually helps to reduce fear and increases their ability to better manage these feelings.
Using an ‘intersubjective framework’ means I do not view any person, emotion, behaviour, perception as ‘wrong’ or as ‘a pathology’. Instead, I consider what people do, say, or how they feel and define themselves as naturally arising (intentionally or not) out of their relationships, life circumstances and how they experience others, life and themselves.
There are no ‘wrong’ emotions, as such. Emotions are bursts of energy which are released, to which we attach ‘names’ depending on the context which triggered that release. An entire range of emotions is universal to human beings, although how emotions are released and treated is influenced by social and cultural learning. The way in which we use our feelings may cause us, or others, distress. Every single emotion has advantages and disadvantages, depending on how we ‘use’ that emotion. Feelings which most often cause discomfort are those that are feared.
Given that human beings are social in nature, fear usually emerges out of the possibility of our feelings causing us to e.g. feel vulnerable, alienated or rejected or not accepted or viewed as a failure. These emotions are the energy necessary to learn how to manage adversity and difficulty. Perceiving and dealing with emotions as resources, instead of being afraid and overwhelmed by them, can increase our ability to use our emotions in a way which empowers us. This leads us to experiencing a well-earned achievement and justified pride, just as we do when we pass a test for which we have worked hard.
The logical reason for an emotion may be less easily understood when a feeling causes a long-standing behaviour, such as feeling insecure, jealous, becoming angry or acting explosively towards others, eating too much, drinking too much, abusing drugs, constantly needing sex or constantly avoiding sex, always being afraid of illness, death or crime, never being able to meet deadlines, passive-aggressive behaviour where we feel ‘negative emotions’ but try to appear ‘positive’ or ‘good’, feeling resentful, angry or afraid, often fighting with people we love the most, and acting unpredictably or being accused of being ‘moody’, et cetera. Any such behaviour may leave us feeling confused or awful afterwards. Yet the importance of understanding and working with the reasons underlying our emotions, and their crucial role in our identity, is seldom understood or resolved.
THE CLIENT’S EXPERTISE
I work in a way that identifies and affirms a person’s potential to be the expert on their own life. In time, and with practice, a client’s confidence increases in being able to identify and acknowledge an ever-increasing amount of personal talent, ability and their right to make choices about the way they want to engage with life. Initially clients may mistakenly consider a therapist to be ‘the expert’. Clients always have more understanding of their own emotions, thoughts, ideas, physical integrity and how they are unique in the world. In other words, clients are the only possible ‘experts’ on their knowledge of themselves. Therapists do not determine a client’s problems, this is a client’s contribution to therapy. Therapists are trained to help a client break overwhelming problems into bite sized pieces, and to help consider various possible options in dealing with difficult situations. Therapists have access to their personal and professional experience and learning through study and practice.
IDENTITY AND UNDERSTANDING ONESELF
We often believe we are the person we are raised to be, without questioning whether this is truly the identity we choose. Sometimes, this identity works well and there is no reason to change it. However, if tension arises it may be appropriate to reconsider our identity, who we actually are and whether the identity we own and accept for ourselves is similar to the one we use to engage with the world. A crisis could arise when we realise or feel that we are not able to ‘fit into’ the identity our family or an institutional culture pressurizes us to have. In therapy a person can distinguish what is ‘imposed’ and that which is ‘owned’.
We can critically question how our physical, emotional, creative and intellectual abilities can fit into our context. We can explore the importance of each place in which we do, or want to, belong. We can explore in a conscious way how we are part of humanity, as well as how we are unique and can make our own unique mark to make in the world. We can investigate the advantages, disadvantages and implications of making different choices. In essence, we can proactively explore and build our identity.
As a person learns to identify, recognize, accept and value aspects of their identity, they begin to develop personal agency and make more proactive choices about why they feel the way they do and how they want to behave when they express their emotions. This increases a person’s choices for behaving and living in ways, in which they feel less a victim of their situation and more true to themselves and in charge of their lives. A person can experience the fulfillment and sense of achievement which accompanies respectfully using their voice and feelings, and asserting their chosen identity in the world.
People are social by nature, we need relationships and often cannot do without them.
Yet when life teaches us that relationships open us up to hurt and pain, we may no longer trust relationships and other people, and sometimes find we run away from others and try to escape relationships. Intimacy or being open and exposed in relationships may seem to carry too much risk of being hurt or rejected. On the other hand, being in the world without a defensive mask may seem to be too risky as well. The fear of not wearing the ‘correct’ mask may be equally scary. Feeling confident and liking one’s self enough for others’ judgments not to matter too much, may seem like something that only ‘other’, ‘normal’, people can do.
In a relationship, a tension or conflict situation could feel unresolved, be ongoing, have become worse, may feel overwhelming or even terrifying. At times, the only alternative to experiencing unhappiness, difficulty or betrayal by someone we love may appear to be to break off the relationship. Yet there may be other ways of responding to the situation and therapy can help explore all possibilities before a final decision is made.
A life crisis refers to any situation which is experienced as being ‘overwhelming’ or too much to bear. A crisis can be a traumatic situation such as a serious illness, grief or loss, a death in the family, divorce, unplanned pregnancy, mid-life transition, separation, relationship breakdown, children leaving home, living with the shame of having been betrayed or humiliated by someone, and many others. Life crises invariably occur to everyone at some point in their lives, and can differ between people. Even if it seems on the surface that two people are in a similar situation, each person may have a different way of responding at it. One could see it as a crisis, the other as a challenge.
TRAUMA AND FEAR
Any trauma can tempt us to seek escape, but the fear attached to it will remain until it is confronted. Turning toward the fear and other emotions the trauma triggers, and working with these feelings, helps a person understand the powerful ways in which their emotions are personal resources for coping with adversity. A person may feel that telling their friends or relatives about this, carries the risk of being rejected by them or them not fully understanding or that it could be a burden to them. Therapy can provide a safe place to talk about these emotions in a way which helps the person confront them and relieves the burden of carrying these emotions alone. Confronting and working with trauma can also allow a person to take back any personal power they may have lost due to that experience.
DECISION MAKING AND EMPOWERMENT
Therapists, like anyone else, are unique as people and in the way they work, and I particularly enjoy working towards empowerment. Therapy can help a person move from feelings such as isolation, feeling unheard, unworthy or victimized, toward proactively building more respectful and empowering ways of managing their life. This process demonstrates that feelings of alienation can be transformed into fulfilling ways of engaging with the world.
Difficult circumstances in a person’s life may increase the feeling that they are trapped and cannot make certain changes in it. Yet, we are almost all more powerful in our lives than we realize and it is only the client who can make the final decision and commitment that determines whether they are ready to take the risk of becoming empowered. Clients may be unaware that they have the right, or the ability, to try to be interdependent, rather than dependent in the world or independent from it. Where a person believes this, they may be unsure if they have the competence or self-confidence to carry out their choices or they may fear the repercussions of doing so. In essence, an empowered and proactive life where decisions are consciously thought out and made, takes courage usually developed in therapy, through discussion and practices which test the validity of new ways of relating in life.
A person’s ability to choose in a conscious way will enable them to experience different ways of relating, which may feel more real. This is likely to increase their ability to have closer and more authentic relationships with others and those who are important to them. In turn, when this happens, people usually feel more true to themselves and who they want to be, along with a personally earned sense of achievement, more self-knowledge and confidence. The self-confidence emerging out of experiencing one’s own achievement, makes it easier to risk being real and feel personally empowered in other situations and relationships. The risk of practicing any new behaviour or taking a new path in the world, is taken by the client. In this way, healing and the credit for it rightfully belongs to the client.