Becoming Naturally Therapeutic: A Return To The True Essence of Helping
By Jacquelyn Small
You may never have thought of yourself as a therapist, having reserved that title for people who have professional counselor roles. Yet research has made clear that the most therapeutic responses to people in trouble often come from "ordinary people" who don't think of themselves as experts, teachers, judges, counselors, or ministers. They're just people who have experienced life and who have understanding, nonjudgrnental hearts - a mother, an older brother, a friend at the office, a cab driver, a bartender. Or they may be professional therapists who have stayed in touch with their hearts without becoming lost in the dogma or formality of professional training. In any case they are people who do not hide behind roles and who can just be themselves.
Untrained people who listen with their hearts as opposed to their brains often have a much more healing effect on others than those who have trained themselves to be "helpful." Over the past fifteen years those of us who've worked in the area of counselor training have found that people with the highest college degrees, or with the most degrees, have often lost their inherent therapeutic abilities. It's as though these natural human responses were trained right out of them.
Distancing oneself from others' pain and trying to act like an expert are two ways professional psychotherapists frequently get into trouble - not only with their clients but with themselves. Sometimes this professional hazard is simply a result of the therapist's own ignorance about how real therapeutic healing happens. Professional counselors have been trained to remain professionally aloof, to stay neatly and appropriately clad in counselor "uniforms," sitting efficiently behind their desks. But even worse, sometimes we professionals fall into the category of "the codependent helper"; we may throw our own ego weaknesses and unfinished psychological business at our client or use the client's problems as a way to avoid looking at our own issues.
Codependent counselor behaviors take many forms, such as the need for approval from the client, or the need to come across as having it all together. Some professionals consistently control situations with their clients or merge with clients and vicariously work on themselves at the client's expense. Therapists may have too much invested in being right - while thinking the whole time their conviction will help the client! All these examples illustrate how a therapist's own process can become activated and get in the way of the therapeutic relationship.
But lecturers, preachers, saviors, and judges come in all sorts of packages, not just in that of the professional psychotherapist. We are all in danger of hiding behind roles that block the essence of helping. And unfortunately some of us get attached to these roles as ways to make ourselves feel important or needed. We may even find a way to put seekers down or to punish them if they do not do what we say. (I will discuss how we let our lower-self needs get in the way of counseling in "Toxic Relating.")
When people in need are in the presence of this kind of "toxic helper," they begin to feel uncomfortable and contused; their hearts become constricted instead of free and easy. And they feel themselves shrinking instead of expanding into more self-love or confidence, or into forgiveness of others who've harmed them. At some point they will no longer feel safe discussing their problems with this person, as they have experienced nonacceptance and a lack of true understanding; they have not been heard.
All of us know intuitively when we are being subjected to someone laying his "trip" on us. It's the heart that knows. For the heart is a built-in "truth detector," although we sometimes ignore it and allow others to take advantage of us.
Counseling others can be a two-edged sword: It can enable us to hide from ourselves while ostensibly aiding another. Or if we are the one seeking help, it can keep us in a dependent (codependent) relationship, habitually giving our power and our heart away to someone we've decided to make into an expert on us. Claiming our own power and right to be is how we heal. Learning to believe in ourselves is how we grow. When we need help, we want to feel there is someone there who is a real person, someone we can bounce ideas off of who is open and receptive, someone we can risk telling our mistakes and perceived weaknesses to. We need to feel safe as we reveal our worst fears and expose our darkest secrets.
I believe that something within all of us is beginning to rise up in dissatisfaction with those who insist on calling us sick and crazy and who don't seem to remember how to come from the heart. As clients of professional therapists we are changing, reclaiming our right to be human and to expect a human response. And we are learning to expect the same from our relationships in general.
In my work with others in counselor training, I've discovered that the true healer and authority is within the person who is hurting and reaching out for help - not in the one who is listening! The very best "people-helpers" know this and see themselves as guides and fellow travelers, not as experts on another's situation. They are learning to struggle themselves and to accept life's disappointments and crises with grace. And they therefore have no emotional investment in making judgments or offering quick, easy advice. They are relaxed but caring and are not intensely involved in other people's problems - with no real ego investment in others' choices. These are the therapeutic helpers in the world. Sometimes they are professionals who have kept their hearts open - often in spite of their training - and who continue to work on themselves. But mostly these "helpers" are nonprofessionals; they are people who are busy loving and sharing in each other's difficult times, moments of bliss, and visions of the future.
Whether you are a professional or nonprofessional counselor, it is important to remember that people in crisis need to see if their way of expressing their problems and their reactions to these problems are making sense. They need to release the pent-up energies of rage and hurt that block clear thinking. And they need some reminders about who they really are beyond the current melodrama, grief, or fear they've gotten caught up in. They also need to be reminded of their strengths, as well as empathized with about the ways they've gotten hurt or off track. Sometimes you can offer a creative solution just by being there completely and sharing from your heart your own experiences - self-disclosures that make others feel a kind of kinship with you. Isn't this what you need when you are in trouble, feeling alone or lost?
Becoming Naturally Therapeutic describes the true therapeutic qualities that each of us has within our own hearts, our own essence, that serve as "therapeutic change agents" for people seeking help. This book can help you "straight-talk" beyond your own codependent ways of helping others; it will teach you to offer clear and loving guidance directly from the heart. And it will help you create a more natural response to life, getting you past the barriers of too much advice or too much therapeutic technique. It is for all of you who find yourselves in counseling roles, whether you wear an actual counselor's hat or not. It will teach you to have the courage to "come from the heart" - a phrase you will fully understand after reading this book - and will give you an understanding of certain basics that are good, true, and helpful, which many therapists may have learned from their professional training.
Being naturally therapeutic heals not only the one asking for help; it also allows helpers to become more integrated and comfortable with themselves, leading them to more creative roles in their own lives. This book points us toward relationships in which we can be our real selves, in which we can feel safe and can truly communicate.
In 1975 Becoming Naturally Therapeutic began circulating within the alcoholism treatment community as a guidebook for alcoholism counselors seeking ways to become more confident and professional in their work with alcoholic clients and their families. It achieved instant popularity, soon becoming a prerequisite for counselors at many governmental, agency, and academic programs that deal with counseling addicts or members of dysfunctional families who have trouble with issues of codependence. And the response from people throughout the country wanting help in their relationships was tremendous. I was rather amazed. To me the book was so simple and easy to write, I couldn't imagine why it was making such an impact.
Since it was first published, I've received feedback that has helped me discover the answer: Becoming Naturally Therapeutic is based on the universal law of love. And this Law is totally transforming; it is the driving force behind our essence. Love is truth. And when truth happens between two people, there is a noticeable exchange of energy. And conversely, when untruth prevails, no energy is exchanged - nothing happens.
In other words, the human self is an instrument designed specifically to concretize the law of love in the world. And this universal law can operate only within the context of relationship - otherwise it remains an abstract, formless concept, nonexistent. You will notice from your own experience that it is only through touching one another (not just physically) and observing what we reflect for each other that we are able to know ourselves. We remind each other of who we are. This is our purpose.
I've learned something that I wish to share with all of you - it is what motivated me to write this book. When therapeutic relating occurs, both parties have dissolved the boundary between the one needing help and the other offering it; they are simply two beings bouncing off each other in truth. Light enters when truth happens. Truth is not a concept; it is a power - the power to be real, or realized. It is the power to be.
Becoming Naturally Therapeutic is a study of the human qualities inherent within the personality structure that manifest practically and simply as the law of love. These qualities are our essence. They are broken down into distinct elements in this book, so that we can absorb each "flavor" of our self one at a time and thereby gain an understanding of how each one manifests itself through our ways of relating. As you go through the book, studying and practicing the traits of the self, you will see that they all bring about the absolute truth of a situation - pointing each person to himself, honestly and simply. Therapeutic relationship is no accident, nor is it a game: It is following the natural laws of human nature, bringing us closer and closer to the authenticity of our being. We all just need clear people to bounce off of so we can see our own light. Then we are capable of living from the heart, our true self.
Therapeutic relating can be recognized in operation, defined, taught, practiced, and mastered. It is no mystery! It is truth happening through a magnetic exchange of energy that makes dynamic contact with another person, heals, and then transforms. We don't do it; truth does! We are merely its instrument. This book shows what therapeutic relating looks like in the here and now, day-to-day life of a person placed in the role of helper to one in trouble - as we all are from time to time.
I have used the counselor-client relationship as an example throughout the book, both for the benefit of the professional counselor and as a metaphor for readers involved in relationships of all kinds. It will be beneficial for nonprofessional helpers to see the high-functioning therapist in action. There are also nonprofessional examples from everyday life (interactions between family members and friends) to remind us that therapeutic relating takes place not only in the counselor's office or in group therapy sessions. It happens in all aspects of life, whenever the heart is open and speaking its truth. This type of communication is our human heritage, for we all have hearts, and God knows, we've all had troubles.
The principles described throughout are universal in their application. This book is for all of you seeking knowledge and wisdom about the self and how it works to help others. I offer this to you from my experience, with love.