AUTHOR: RUSSELL JENSEN, LMFT
Every relationship requires a specific set of boundaries and connections necessary for that relationship to function in a healing and supportive way. The parameters necessary for a healthy parent/child relationship are going to be different than the parameters necessary for a healthy romantic couple. These are two relationship types we readily acknowledge as a place for love to exist. Though less talked about, love does show up in the therapist/client relationship. And with parameters appropriate to that relationship, it can be healing for the client and therapist alike. Now let’s talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.
Scientists, mystics, poets, scholars, songwriters, and even pscyhologists site evidence and instinct to suggest that love is a powerful healer. Many times, our client’s come to us with such shame and fear, they cannot tolerate opening themselves up to be loved in a less-structured relationship. When a therapist lays out a relationship contract that provides a client with a level of security that previous relationships did not provide, then offers them a (clinically-informed) open heart, that client begins to develop new relationship styles that let love in. We are often the first in a person’s life to offer them loving-kindness, and if we are successful, we will not be the last.
We all agree that therapists need to be dedicated to meeting our clients with unconditional positive regard, commitment to dialogue, trust maintenance, and compassion. All of these qualities dance around the word ‘love’. In a clinical discussion, ‘love’ can be too hard to define, making these other words safer to use. Because love is such a loaded and undefined word, it’s typically clinically problematic to tell a client, “I love you.”
Unless you have the most ideal relationship-development history, boundaries can be much harder to set when you love your client. When an energy/emotion as big as love is present, the stakes often feel higher and our old ‘stuff’ is more likely to rear its ugly head and fetter our abilities to stay centered in the relationship.
If a therapist doesn’t have self-love, concrete ethical standards, commitment to ongoing education, sufficient therapy and supervision, it will likely be a disaster to open their hearts too widely in their therapist/client relationships. Love can go from campfire to forest fire without the right care and respect. But in those forest fire cases, it’s not the love that is the problem, but the containment. Our contract and ethical standards are not created to snuff out the fire, but to hold it for our clients like a candle in a storm.
We don’t have to love our clients. The intention of this article is not to add another “should” to your plate, but to give therapists license to talk about this in supervision, and to give ourselves credit for the heartfelt work we do. If we don’t love our clients there is probably a very important reason on one or both sides of the fence that deserves respect and careful exploration.
Sometimes we can’t find love for a client, other times our heart breaks so much for a client that our clinical lens becomes fogged and internal supports can collapse. In many cases we often come home from work filled with love, heartbreak, joy, sadness, and all those emotions in between.
The road to professional development is not always pretty and not always easy. It is often much easier to approach the therapist/client relationship acting as the distant professor, the judge, the problem solver, the expert. To sit with a client with an open heart through their pain and suffering, is an act of love that some people will only experience from their therapist. Long gone are the days we consider ourselves blank slates. We dive into deep emotional experiences with an ethical commitment to maintain a grasp on solid ground. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we can’t go deep enough, and sometimes we lose ground
The Moral of the Story
The history of psychotherapy is checkered with the best and worst of humanity. Measurable outcome studies continue to have trouble collecting data to evidence positive behavior change as a result of therapy. All over the world, therapists are doing sometimes great and sometimes terrible jobs supporting their clients through some of the most difficult circumstances known to man.
And amidst all the successes and failures, there are a large group of people offering their love in the form of a highly outlined relationship, so that others may feel safe enough to expose the moments in their lives and parts of themselves that need love the most. I hope we continue to evolve the profession so that our love may become our legacy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: RUSSELL JENSEN, LMFT
Russell Jensen, LMFT operates a private practice and also works with students at CUSD. He has a deep passion for improving Fresno and local communities through a clinically-informed movement: bringing a greater level of mindfulness, social justice, love, and respect to the client/therapist relationship. Read more about Russell Jensen, LMFT HERE and HERE.