Nothing is more natural than the urge to be held and comforted by someone who understands our suffering. Whatever the painful situation (a relationship breakup, medical scare, financial disaster, the death of a loved one) we want to turn toward someone who will hold us and let us cry in loving arms.
Sometimes we need to seek that understanding from someone other than a lover, parent, or friend. These figures may be too close to your issues or otherwise unsuitable for receiving confidences and providing nurturance. Psychotherapy provides a safe, confidential, neutral relationship to explore what hurts.
Therapist and client sit together in a quiet space being present to whatever feelings come up. The noise of the outside world is put on hold for an hour: no ringing phones, text messages, TV, or other distractions. This environment invites opening up the parts of ourselves we keep shut down, secret, or tied up in knots. Tears are likely, but so is laughter and joy. Therapy is not only about pain but also learning to live well with the inevitable difficulties that life holds, and finding the laughter that lives alongside pain.
Good therapists with proper boundaries will not gossip about you, laugh at you, seduce you, or allow themselves to be seduced by you. At the same time, psychotherapy at its best gives room for love to be present. In fact, love is an important aspect of all good psychotherapy. In a letter to fellow psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Freud wrote that “Psychoanalysis is, in essence, a cure through love” (1906). In the client–therapist relationship, love, and gratitude are healthy human emotions just as they are in the world outside of the therapist’s office, although the client expresses his or her feelings while the therapist experiences them privately.
Many forms of love may be possible: that of a parent toward a child, of siblings, or adults with erotic feelings, or narcissistic self-love. Discussing such feelings is sometimes difficult—in part because love is fraught with vulnerability, in part because we have all been injured in our loving feelings. In therapy, it is helpful to both respect and be curious about this range of feelings for what it reveals. Much can be learned about how one loves, about how one contends with the fears and anxieties over love, about how one chooses a person to love, and about what it is that one loves (beauty, truth, kindness.)
Ultimately, the therapeutic process will lead to reclaiming the self that became lost, whether through years of living inauthentically, practicing unhealthy behavior or through emotions such as depression and fear that hold us back from living fully. Another way of putting it is that therapy is about putting life back together again based on a clearer understanding of ourselves.
Reconstructing identity is, as Plato wrote, a kind of remembering of what we’ve forgotten about ourselves; through therapeutic dialogue and listening to our intuition, we remember that self. Sometimes, for example, we lie about what our lives are because we need to create something to give us the comfort of that longed-for love.
When we live life that’s not in accordance with who we are, we are doomed to fall hard, cracking the veneer of the perfect life. If, like Humpty-Dumpty, we fall tumbling from perches too lofty (narcissistic) or too unstable (based on fantasy) all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put us back together again.
A successful outcome of therapy is to find comfort in your aloneness because we are never truly alone if we know ourselves. The self, or soul, is with us all along, walking beside us. Throughout life, we are given glimpses of this companion self.
As Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote in his poem “I Am Not I”:
I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently, when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die.
(Juan Ramón Jiménez, “‘I Am Not I’” from Lorca and Jiménez: Selected Poems. Translation copyright © 1973 by Robert Bly.)
Perhaps the therapist models this companion self for the client until the client can better become his/her own companion. The best psychotherapy creatively facilitates developing the disposition for happiness by encouraging self-transformation and self-integration. Ultimately, the therapeutic relationship ends and the client moves on in life with a strengthened sense of self that can better tolerate being alone with both good and painful feelings.