Helping the Helpers: Parallel Lessons of Parenting and Therapy
When I decided to become a therapist, I was in my early 20’s. I thought I was beginning a career where I could put my skills to use to take away others’ pain. I was introduced to therapy early in life due to my many struggles in childhood and my mother’s instinct to seek guidance from child psychologists. I thought I had wisdom to offer—wisdom gleaned from the years of challenge and from the self-evaluation that therapy often offers. It wasn’t long into my career before I realized that I wasn’t in the business of helping people feel happy, but rather I was in the business of helping people feel everything. The ability to allow for the painful feelings of others is difficult as a therapist and almost intolerable as a parent. It also became clear early on that any wisdom I had was gleaned from my own struggles and mistakes and that offering advice to anyone was both arrogant and misguided. Trying to steer people in the direction I deemed best, removes the essential aspect that adds worth and depth to our human experience.
Some of my most valuable realizations came as I observed families navigate the challenges in raising children who struggled with addiction, depression and other serious mental health issues. More painful insights came as I embarked on the journey of raising my own children and experienced the monumental complexities of parenthood. Perhaps the most important lessons came as I realized that my childhood issues didn’t end after I became an adult or got married or experienced more career success and that these ghosts from my own childhood still had their way with me in my relationships. My traumas (anything less than nurturing) shaped my life and my brain in ways that created reactive responses to others, thus reducing my “response flexibility.” Siegel and Hartzell (2003) describe the necessity to explore the past events of our life in order to increase our ability to respond to others (children or clients) with intention and in relation to the current context.
Formal education provided me language and theory, but it was my own personal experiences and close observations of our client’s experiences that provided me the most important insights. I tell therapists we hire, “You can be a really good therapist if you study and read, but you will never be a great therapist unless you sit with your own therapist. You learn something by being in therapy that you can’t learn any other way—you learn what it feels like to be the client.”
Learning how to be a client allows us to see some of what our clients see. We learn what it feels like to be vulnerable. We learn what it feels like to say difficult things to someone and experience either their compassion or their judgment, often hidden in the form of advice or simple solutions. If we are paying attention, we learn that our resistance is often presented as “see, I am good.” We learn how much we want to be accepted and valued and how this often is a barrier to healthy parenting and effective therapy.
In the intersection between my own therapy and developing my model of parent education, I discovered that something was missing. Much of parent education ignores the parent. It often sees the parent as an obstacle to the treatment of the child. Most often when a therapist approaches me for a consultation they will describe the dilemma with the caveat, “I know what to do with the child, but it is the parent who is causing me the difficulty. If I could only get them to…” The problem with this line of thinking is the fact that it ignores the fact that the parent is a child too—older, more wrinkles and grey hair, but essentially a child. And it is only by connecting to the child in the parent, discovering the wounds in their original context that we begin to unpack the issues that are an important part of the family system. This compassionate view of the parents in our practice is necessary in order to invite them to traverse their own journey, rather than solely concentrating on their child’s journey.
Because the parent is so invested in being the “good parent,” their defenses are finely tuned to perceive any judgment coming from the therapist. Parents are keenly aware of the unconscious messages sent in statements like “If you would only do this or that, then your family would not be in this predicament.” This simple linear thinking, while it might recognize systemic contributions in behaviors, pushes the parent into the corner of blame and shame. It fails to discover that any problem behavior, rather it be an adult or a child, is developed in a context where it makes perfect sense. And shaming the individual into “right” behaviors will never work.
Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.
When a therapist assumes the role of “expert” in other’s lives, they lose the client. The unconscious message is “I know what you need to do. I have the answer. I will guide you and your child to success. Just follow me.” This kind of stance does not beckon the client (rather in the person of the parent or the child) to seek to discover the origins of the things that prevent them from experiencing serenity, creativity, and clarity. This kind of response most likely evokes the sort of hiding that shame induces and the individual retreats to a stance that cements the coping style. What is it that prevents the parent (in the case of a child) and the therapist (in the case of a client) from staying connected to the other? It is their own unexplored self. Therapists’ judgments are often masked beneath the letters that follow their name.
The therapist may cloak his disapproval and derision behind abstract terms like ‘borderline,’ ‘obsessive,’ ‘regression,’ ‘destructive,’ but unless he explores the three-year-old boy inside of himself, he will not see the parallel between these terms and garden variety contempt.
When we become frustrated, angry, disappointed or even exhausted with our clients or the parents of our clients, it is critical that we recognize the emotion as ours. Owning the emotion, we can become clearer about its origin. Does it emanate from our history? Is it evidence of transference, which might provide us insight into our client’s history? In any case, consultations and supervision may be necessary in order that we can wade through the noise and find the truth. Those who fail to seek therapy, supervision, or consultations on a regular basis are more apt to leak unchecked counter-transference onto the client reinforcing their former experiences in the world. This would prevent an essential healing component of the treatment process. As Gill (2014) states, “This is undertaken in the service of freeing people to be able to re-experience themselves in a safe but different context. The virtue of talking to an empathic and accepting person who has a different base is that it quickly illuminates one’s own. What was automatic and unconscious is noticed and discussed.”
I try to take the approach with parents, “I will not attack the ‘what’ of what you are doing, but I will explore with you the ‘why’ of what you are doing.” An understanding of the “why” of behaviors is a search for the clients’ context—a search for the sources of their pain. This approach does several critical things. It removes the right and wrong of the thing. Second, it helps to unravel old injuries and coping styles in dealing with the pain. And lastly, it honors the defenses instead of deriding them, thus inviting the client and her history into the healing light of consciousness.
Sometimes, in working with a parent (or any client) it is important to take a step back and to recognize that they have to do some more research before they are ready to try an alternative path. This need not be sarcastic, but rather an empathic response to an individual’s need to figure it out for themselves, recognizing that we don’t know what is best for others and we can’t predict success with perfect certainty. In the event they would like help after a subsequent snag, hopefully, they would feel safe to return for help without the proverbial “I told you so.”
Guaranteeing the success of a child by changing the parents’ behavior actually perpetuates the problem many parents are grappling with. The objectification of a child by suggesting that they are simply evidence of parents’ behavior is bound to miss the child. In other words, If a therapist says to the parent, “If you do ‘X’ then your child will do ‘Y’ ignores the unique and subjective world of the ‘other’ in the child.” And taking the responsibility for choices on the part of the provider is not only unethical but robs the client of his responsibility for such decisions.
Why is it that we, as helpers, don’t approach our role in the same way that we are encouraging in our clients and parents? The answer is simple: it is for the same reasons that our clients are struggling. We are afraid of what we will find. We are afraid that what we will find will be evidence that we are unacceptable. The answer is found in the same place and in the same way we are inviting it in our clients. It is found as we delve into our own personal lives to discover the original traumas and our response to them through the assisted process of self-evaluation.
Alice Miller (1974) said, “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.” This is as true for us as it is for our clients. For many therapists, the road of discovery in our childhoods will often reveal that it was our role to take care of others’ pain and self-esteem. We were trained and valued for our ability to deny aspects of ourselves in order to service the unique, painful aspects of our childhoods. “Who else,” Miller suggests, “without this previous history, would muster sufficient interest to spend the whole day trying to discover what is happening in other people’s unconscious?”
And in the end, we need to find a place where we can be held with love, without judgment, in order to have the courage to go into the dark places of our selves to address those ghosts who can still have their way with us—both in our personal lives and in our professional lives. And when we encounter such a process in our work, we will be much more likely to provide it for others. Ram Dass says it this way, “I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion–and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.”
This is our work. It might not be what we thought we signed up for, but it is the calling: to regard others with love, compassion and patience so they might discover where they have been hurt and how they have learned to cope with that pain. And when they discover that, they will be able to access their own wisdom in order to set themselves on a path of healing and hope.
The emphasis is not on behaviors but on rigorous thinking, not on constraints but on self-reflective emotional involvement, not on the application of general truths but on imaginative participation. This suggests a very different sort of technique. The discipline is not in the procedures, but in the sensibility through which the analyst participates…practicing psychoanalysis entails a special kind of experiencing and thinking…there is no generic solution or technique. There is a great deal of disciplined thought in the skilled practice of clinical psychoanalysis, and continual, complex choices.
In the end, more important than what we do is how we hold the other in our mind. Parenting tools or therapeutic techniques don’t change the “other” but rather they stretch us to develop virtues. This is because our unconscious speaks to the others’ unconscious and no amount of technique can provide the necessary container for others. This need to encounter an “other” who can hold us in their mind is necessary for all of us. And when therapists provide it for parents, parents are more likely to provide it for their children. And there is no greater healing power than the grace we experience when someone can hold our horrible, frightened selves in their mind.