By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
“Professionalism has embedded in service a sense of difference, a certain
distance. But on the deepest level, service is an experience of belonging,
an experience of connection to others and to the world around us. It is this
connection that gives us the power to bless the life in others. Without it the
life in them would not respond to us.”
Rachel Naomi Remen from My Grandfather’s Blessings
Moments of Belonging as the “Soul” of Psychotherapy
For psychotherapy to have soul, it must feel alive; as Remen points out, the “life” in our clients must respond to us. To understand how this aliveness or real connection plays a role in psychotherapy, I have chosen to explore what connection feels like as therapist and client are sitting across from each other during the psychotherapy hour.
Brother David Steindl-Rast’s definition of love as “an unqualified ‘yes’ to belonging” gives us a good way to recognize when love shows up in our process. Love is a feeling of belonging together, along with a “wholehearted acceptance of that belonging with all its implications.” This is an interpersonal experience, but it is not just limited to moments where the relationship is the primary focus. Moments of belonging can also include occasions when fresh new insights emerge, when vulnerability is expressed, when a conversation achieves a special flow, or any other dynamic where the moment between therapist and client takes on a special grace and both are shifted into the dimension of the “I” and the “Thou.”
As much as therapists might strive to maintain an “I-Thou” interaction on an ongoing basis, special moments of connection tend to come sporadically and often unexpectedly; there is a limit to how much control we can exert. By following the attitudes that Carl Rogers outlined, therapists can create an environment of unconditional love, or what we might call an ideal holding environment, which is an excellent beginning. Yet real moments of belonging require more than just a diligent commitment to the attitudes of acceptance and empathic understanding.
Loving feelings cannot flourish when we are safely or rigidly positioned in a professional role. Experiencing real connection requires that we be willing to reveal the person (or at least some of that person) behind our roles. And in longer term therapy we often do not have much choice. The therapy process captures so much of who we are as people, with our unique personalities, styles, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. How and when we smile, how we show our appreciations of our clients or react to their appreciation of us, how we handle ourselves when we are not feeling their appreciation of us–so much of this is outside of our conscious awareness, yet these spontaneous moments can determine whether or how a feeling of belonging takes place. This may explain why increasingly we are hearing in our field that the success of therapy is more about who the therapist is than what the therapist does.
Soul and the Spiritual Dimension
“What we know at the end of our quest is the meaning of belonging.
And the driving force of our spiritual quest is our longing to belong.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast from “The Great Circle-Dance of the Religions”
One major advantage of using the word “belonging” is that it connects us with the whole dimension of spirituality. Adding the spiritual perspective helps to clarify what is actually happening in moments of belonging in psychotherapy or in any context, for that matter. These moments are not just about the feeling of belonging between therapist and client but can also include the feeling at the same time of belonging with the self and belonging with the broader world or universe.
If the spiritual quest is about finally coming to know the meaning of belonging, then creating moments of belonging and expanding who and what we love is an excellent pathway to get there—the way we undertake the journey. Psychotherapy, with its many opportunities for pure love and connection, offers a vehicle for traveling on a spiritual path. So when we think of what is healing for the client, we might include the growth that comes from participating in the many moments of belonging that therapy can provide. Of course there are still all the ways that we have traditionally seen psychotherapy as healing, and adding the spiritual dimension does not negate these: for example, how listening to our clients with deep acceptance and understanding helps them to overcome negative self-concepts and have the courage to explore and know themselves better, and how we as therapists re-parent by providing what might have been missing in their relationships with their parents (such as “the gleam in the mother’s eye”).
But it is fair to say that sharing feelings of belonging in therapy offers another dimension of experience that is not quite captured in these traditional concepts. The uplifting feelings that result from our moments of belonging in psychotherapy are a big part of what makes the process come alive and feel hopeful, productive and rewarding—both for the therapist and the client. And this uplifting quality has nothing to do with whether a client (or therapist for that matter) would consider themselves “spiritual” and everything to do with the experience itself.
Serving at the Soul Level: The Therapist’s Journey
Psychotherapy also offers therapists a vehicle for a spiritual journey. In fact, our entire careers are devoted to putting aside our own needs and agendas and learning to appreciate, understand and connect with a wide range of people, many of whom we never would have befriended in the normal course of our lives. In expanding our ability to love and feel a sense of belonging with a wide circle of people, we ourselves are forced to grow and change at the same time that we are helping our clients to grow.
Ideally, over the course of our careers, we come to understand the meaning of belonging, and this brings us closer to being able to serve at the level that Rachel Naomi Remen describes. When we as therapists are engaged in serving at this deep level, it is our sense of belonging (this connection to others and to the larger world) “that gives us the power to bless the life in others.” We need this connection and the power that it conveys. Otherwise, as she says, the life in our clients would not respond to us.
I have introduced the concept of “navigating from the heart” to describe the sense of using our hearts as therapists to guide us in so many of the decisions that we make—from the expressions on our faces when we are listening, to what we respond to, to when we smile, or joke, or make any type of intervention. Knowing Brother David’s views on the role of the heart helps me to understand why it feels this way. The heart is that core of our being where we experience our belonging, with ourselves and with all. But the heart is also “the organ of meaning,” the place inside of us that perceives meaning—that responds when something becomes meaningful. As Brother David says, there are two key words for understanding the heart: “belonging” and “meaning.” Always on the lookout for moments of belonging and moments of meaning, our hearts join with our minds to help us learn how to truly serve.