Friend: How would you respond if I told you I was afraid I was having a heart attack?
Me: I would ask if you would feel relieved to go the hospital to find out whether your heart was ok. If you said “yes,” I would take you to the hospital.
Friend: Even if you knew that this was just a worry of mine and that there was probably nothing wrong?
Me: Absolutely; while I don’t know about the “reality” of your heart health, I do know that you are really frightened. Your feelings, your experiences, are what matter to me. I would process the whole experience with you—the fear, questioning the fear, wanting to be relieved by going to the hospital, even feeling embarrassed afterwards should that occur. I imagine I would learn a lot more about your fear and anxiety by not trying to convince you it wasn’t real and that in the process we would also become closer friends.
Friend: Why would you do that?
Me: Because I love you.
Many people and therapists would make statements like, “It sounds like a case of hypochondria,” or “It sounds like an anxiety disorder.” Or they might say, “Won’t your approach reinforce the fear by acting as if the concern is real? Don’t you want to help him see the truth about his feelings and his heart? Doesn’t he have some kind of psychological problem, not a physical problem?” These questions represent the perspective of mainstream psychology. Mainstream psychology views disturbing feelings, behaviors, or experiences as an indication that something is wrong with us—an attitude that often shames people.
Mainstream thinking is simply inadequate to take on the power of the challenges we face whether its depression, suicide, addiction, conflict, war, abuse, chronic physical and psychological symptoms, poverty, or issues of social justice. The paradigm is worn out—it has done the best it can. Trying to fix, change, even “heal” people to “make them better” is an attitude that has limited results and leaves much shame in its wake.
Love-based psychology begins with a different assumption—that something is “right” with us. Love-based psychology is based on three “truths” about psychological growth and healing that I have been consistently reminded of over the last twenty years of counseling individuals, couples, and organizations. First, people are more likely to get to the root of their difficulties if their experiences are taken seriously regardless of their seeming logic or illogic. That doesn’t mean we have to honor every impulse with an action; it means that trying to talk a person out of their experience is usually short-lived in its effectiveness. In fact, trying to convince someone that something is wrong with their thinking or that their current practices are not working for them has taught me one sure thing—the psyche has the incredible power and resiliency to maintain its course against the dictates of all logic and reason.
Second, when the goal of eliminating psychological symptoms dominates people’s agenda—whether the symptoms are painful feelings, habits, or relationship patterns—the capacity to truly see, understand, and care for their actual experience is diminished. Further, psychological symptoms often have an incredible way of shielding themselves (what some therapists call a “defense mechanism” or “resistance”) from this kind of “change” agenda.
Finally, I have learned that the changes people make over time are often quite different from the ones they seek when they first come to therapy. Specifically, at the beginning of their therapeutic work people almost always hope to get rid of what they find disturbing about themselves. However, later on in their growth process many people find that the most significant change that occurred was not in the difficulties themselves but in their relationship to them—they became more accepting and compassionate towards themselves, more aware of their gifts and their authentic selves, and less focused on overcoming what they saw as their weaknesses and hindrances. Ironically, under the light and care of this new relationship to themselves, their symptoms often begin to change as well, flowering into something that is the source of their greatest gifts.
Steps you can take
This exercise will help you begin practicing a love-based psychology. I’ll help by describing one client’s answers in parentheses below.
Identify something about yourself that you find difficult, disturbing, or upsetting. (I get really anxious when I meet new people.)
Notice what judgments you have about this part of yourself. Write them down. (I should relax more; I dwell too much on the anxiety and blow situations out of proportion and over react.)
Now state the judgments out loud. Listen carefully for the tone of those judgments. Who do you know or have known who might make those judgments? (I think of my boss who would say, “Don’t be a wimp; it’s just talking to people. It shouldn’t be so difficult. You have no reason to worry.” The tone of voice suggests that I am being ridiculous.)
Now bring your attention to the difficult feeling itself. What is the feeling like? How do you experience it in your body and how does it makes you move? (I get jittery inside and sweaty all over. It makes me shake.)
Lastly, bring to mind a wise and compassionate elder you know, have read of, or imagined. How would that person relate to your experience? If they could see something unique about you—a special gift or sensitivity—what would that be? What advice would that person have for you? (I consider Yoko Ono to be a wise elder. She would dance around in a funny anxious dance with me. She would say, “That’s my sweet, anxious, sensitive friend!” and she would like that about me. She would also give me sunglasses so I that could remain more anonymous in the world.)