At The Heart of All Troubles

Many healthcare professionals have been dragged kicking and screaming to realising that what really is effective in helping individuals who are in distress is the relationship between the therapist and the person seeking help; that’s what does the work. Psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists have spent many years and money learning a particular approach to human misery and they are now devastated and even, ironically, disheartened by the research – established reality that what they learned is only the vehicle or means to create a relationship, which is where the real therapeutic work happens. The truth is that psychological and psychiatric practices, at root an interpersonal relationship between the professional helper and the person who is in turmoil.

What requires examination is that it had not been seen that from the moment of conception the individual is in relationship and it is the nature of the early relationships with mother, father, siblings, grandparents, childminders, pre-school teachers and other significant adults that will determine the emotional, social, physical, intellectual, sexual, creative and spiritual wellbeing of the child. It is important to realise that each child in a family – in a classroom – has a different mother, father, teacher, etc because when two individuals interact the relationship is always of a unique nature. Furthermore, the relationship that mother (or other) has with her child is determined by the mother’s own relationship with her own self. When mother is in any way disconnected from her real self, this will – unconsciously – affect how she relates to her child. For example, if a mother doubts her own inherent beauty she will unconsciously find it either difficult to affirm her child’s unique physicality or may be preoccupied with her child’s looks. Similarly, if a father has difficulty with emotional expression of love and tenderness, this unconscious repression of feelings will impact deeply on his offspring’s emotional wellbeing.

What is true for mother or father is also true for child-minder, teacher, therapist, priest, doctor and works manager. This reality is also challenging for psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers and other healthcare professionals who need to realise that their own level of personal maturity has a direct impact on the depth of relationship they create with individuals who are troubled and troubling.

Another challenge facing all care professionals is that much of how people relate is mediated by unconscious defences which powerfully mask what really needs to be seen to bring about resolution of human distress. Unconscious defences manifest in many ways, most notably through non-verbal behaviour. It now appears that if we want to know about unconscious process, then we need to become keen observers of another’s physiology and the associated bodily changes. Typical changes that point to unconscious issues are:

  • Change in body posture
  • Shift in eye contact
  • Eye closure
  • Rapid eye blink
  • Swallowing
  • Skin flush
  • Coughing/clearing throat
  • Tears that flow onto cheeks
  • Tears that well up but do not flow
  • Lip movements
  • Gestures
  • Voice inflection
  • Facial expression
  • Sequence, rhythm and pitch of the words uttered
  • Tone of voice

All of the above may point to underlying emotional issues that are calling for attention but in ways that are looking to others to notice what dare not be openly and consciously expressed. Much therapy sought to put emotion out of sight and out of mind, but it is these masked emotions that signal urgent hidden matters that require resolution. For too long there have been therapists who , in their practice, have painfully restrained their own emotions, believing they were doing what was best, but the reality is that their restraint reinforced their clients’ unconscious bottling up of emotions, thereby, blocking therapeutic progress.

Many therapists may need to re-learn that ancient emotional systems have a power that is quite independent of cognitive processes. It is in touching into these hidden feelings that deepen the relationship with the person and begins the healing process. After all, if it is defensive relating that interrupts a child’s emergence of self, surely it is an open, unconditional and empowering relationship that re-awakens the quest for conscious expression of all that one is.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker.  His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship: The Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s topic.