It’s not all about me, honest. However, if you happen to look at the ‘About Me’ page of my website, you’ll find this line: “An irrepressible humanist and optimist, I believe passionately in the power and beauty of the human spirit”. It’s true. One of the things that brought me to counselling in the first place was the work of the great humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, who believed that the human psyche has an innate capacity to heal itself. Rogers used the analogy of a broken bone. A doctor cannot mend your broken leg: all they can do is put a cast on it, creating a safe environment in which the leg mends itself. Similarly, the job of a counsellor is to create the optimum space in which psychic self-healing might take place, and he or she does this through the demonstration of three qualities: Empathy, Congruence (basically authenticity) and Unconditional Positive Regard. I prefer to think of that third quality as Unconditional Love; and to my mind (and to quote a famous line from Corinthians) the greatest of these is love.
Why? What does love have to do with healing? The answer is: everything.
Frequently, all we need in order to move forward, make appropriate changes, and heal our emotional scars is to tune back into our deepest truth, our highest authenticity. Once we stop second-guessing ourselves, the answers we spontaneously generate are more effective and come more easily because they are harmonious with our most genuine desires, needs and beliefs.
But often we have to dig deep to reach that place, because we’ve spent a lifetime behind a series of masks and disguises designed to please and appease others. From the moment we’re born, we humans experience pressure: pressure from parents, family, friends, schools, the media, our culture, maybe our religion; pressure to conform, to succeed, to obey, to consume, to live up to expectations. Our innate capacity to cope, weather changes, and deal with life’s harsh but inevitable challenges gets muddled because we’re confused about who we are, what we want, and what the right thing to do might be. Everyone we talk to has their own advice, opinions, and agendas, which only adds to the confusion.
We can only draw from the well of truth that resides in that place of personal authenticity when we are able to recognize and accept ourselves exactly as we are. As social herd animals, that frequently means receiving the message from others that we are intrinsically lovable and accepted. For Gabor Maté, Gordon Neufeld and other proponents of Attachment Theory, the very best thing a parent can do for their child is to offer them this kind of unconditional love: love with no strings attached, love that says ‘no matter what you do, I will continue to love you for who you are’. Such love gives a person permission to pursue their true self, which is their destiny. And, as Oscar Wilde says, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”
I believe that unhappiness and mental dis-ease are rampant these days precisely because the Culture of Narcissism makes it very difficult for people to offer any other human being – even their own child – the kind of love and acceptance that comes without conditions. Because, when it’s all about me, of course I will only accept you on my terms.
I remember an interview in which the famous French actor Gerard Dépardieu said, ‘My role is to love’. It took me a while to understand what he meant by that. Great acting involves allowing the character being portrayed to shine through unfiltered: to accept them completely on their own terms, without getting in the way. And that is a kind of love. I realize now that the same is true of counselling.
Alison asked me shortly before we got back from our trip what I believed to be my greatest asset as a counsellor. At first I answered (without a trace of conceitedness, honest) that it was my sharp mind: my ability to follow clients through the most complex and labyrinthine stories, and understand their situation deeply enough to ask just the right question at the right time. But later, after thinking about it, I changed my (maybe not so sharp after all) mind. My greatest asset, I suddenly understood, is the ability to love my clients unconditionally. And this involves seeing them for who they really are, even when they have lost sight of that person themselves. It is my sincere belief that, when you cut through the conditioning, the defences, the games, masks, pain and fear, everyone has a heart of gold, everyone is lovable. To paraphrase a slogan we used back at Woodwynn Farm, I am able to believe in people until they are ready to believe in themselves.
The answer for us as a society – I’ve said it before – is to create communities in which we embrace and celebrate others for their diversity and uniqueness. Then we will all be free to live out our truths, nurture our genuine individuality and pursue our personal and collective destiny. Until that day comes, the best answer I see for struggling individuals is counselling: the opportunity to co-create a relationship – perhaps for the first time – in which unconditional love encourages their authentic self to shine its light upon times of darkness.