Monday, October 8, 2012

Love Blocks: A Heart-Centered Approach to Psychotherapy and Counseling

   One of the primary goals of psychotherapy is to help our clients to let go of their barriers - love blocks - to easily receiving and giving love. My focus is upon the struggles we have in simply taking in love when it is offered. My over 38 years of private practice has taught me that when our clients become more receptive to love they naturally become more giving. Of course, it does not make rational sense that people block love. Yet we all do. Here are some everyday examples: many of us have trouble receiving praise; we struggle with letting people help us or asking for help; it's hard for many of us to easily accept physical affection or let someone in when they are trying to be emotionally close; how often do we internally say "If you really knew me you wouldn't say such nice things"; how frequently do we expect our partners to "read our minds' and know what our needs are- if we tell people what we want then what we get back is "not real love". All of these everyday instances, and more, are forms of blocking the love that is available to us. Notice that I am addressing the wide spectrum of ways that love is expressed, not just romantic or sexual love. Notice how pervasive and insidious these blocks are. We need to learn why we erect these barriers - often unconsciously - to letting love in.
   We need to take sufficient time with our clients to explore a central question, what are the wounds that block their receptivity to love? For most of us our patterns of blocking love were formed in childhood. If we observe infants and young children we are reminded that there exists a natural state of simply giving and receiving love. Within the limits of temperament(some children are slow to warm up,others are introverted), some genetic difficulties(autism, Aspergers syndrome) and considering the developmental stage(infants are more receptive to others when they are in their mother's arms), generally young children receive and take in love easily. By the time we are adults, most of us have experienced some significant degree of loss of the receptive self.
   Our primary therapeutic task is to uncover the reasons for that loss and to work through the blocks to receptivity. In that process often the initial most transformative moments are when our clients are able to take in our love. In the limited space of this blog I am unable to discuss in depth a number of blocks and how they get worked through. However, I will try to give a glimpse into the work using the example of three blocks.
                     I Don't Deserve Love  
   This is the most insidious block. For some people it is the core barrier; for others it is often present in addition to another block.The most common way it shows up in therapy is when I praise one of my patients. People with this block are usually unable to take in the compliment. This difficulty in receiving providrs an opportunity to explore how did this pattern develop. When this occurs I usually begin the exploration by saying in a warm non-judgmental tone,"Young children usually easily take in compliments and are not critical of themselves. What happened in your family that contributed to this moment when it was hard for you to take in my sincere praise? What has happened to make you feel so undeserving and critical of yourself?" This difficulty in receiving my praise repeatedly recurs. Often it leads to moments when my patient says,"My parents really knew me. If you really knew what I'm really like, you wouldn't think that I'm a good person". Then I inquire,"What do you mean if I really knew you?" The work with this block usually progresses slowly because it is so deeply rooted. The most transformative moments are when patients begin to take in my genuine caring for them as we get to know each other.
                   I Don't Need Anyone, I'm Strong  
   This is the block of those clients who are unable to ask for help from others or to take in help when it is offered. Therapy is difficult for them and filled with ambivalence because they are in the uncomfortable position of needing our help. Their childhood history is usually one of feeling emotionally alone, of psychological abuse - a toxic soul-killing environment.Their childhood experience is one of being in survival mode. "I'm on my own,how do I protect myself and get through this. I have to be strong." Their childhood homes were psychologically unsafe so they need to feel a sense of safety with us. Their sessions with us, our office space, becomes a refuge for their hearts and souls. The initial transformative moments occur when they are able to receive our simple acts of loving kindness such as my handing them a tissue when they are tearful instead of them taking one from a purse or my offering a cup of tea when they are in the waiting room or consoling touch after a tear-filled session.
                  Love Is Not in the Cards For Me  
   These patients feel like pariahs - perpetual outsiders - feeling that others find them repulsive and don't want them around. At the deepest level they feel like defective human beings. Love is available to others, but not to them because there is something wrong with them. Often their history is one of being unwanted by parents, their arrival on the planet being experienced as a burden, an unwelcome responsibility. As most sensitive children do, these clients interpreted their mother and fathers inability to nurture them to mean there's something wrong with me.
   One of the most healing aspects of their therapy is my welcoming attitude - I continually let them know that I am glad to see them. Of course, initially they don't believe that this is genuine saying/thinking, "It's your job to say those things, you don't really mean it." I remember one patient revealing with hesitation,"When you go into the bathroom after our sessions you probably throw up because you are so repulsed by me." The transformative moments of working through this block
usually occurred when my patients were able to take in my welcoming warmth and began to believe that I was glad to see them because I genuinely appreciated who they are.
   Our insights and clinical skills in uncovering these patterns are vital. However, it is our warm and compassionate presence and our acts of loving kindness that are essential in inviting the wounded receptive self out of hiding. Our clients begin to trust that, if they allow themselves to be open and receptive again, the outcome will be different this time. That process begins with our relationship with them.  

   This blog is based on the Love Blocks chapter in my book, Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy. My story of working through my love block and several patient stories are included in that chapter.