Monday, November 12, 2012

Psychotherpists,Counselors,Life Coaches Can Be Soul Friends to Our Clients

   In the early stages of my evolution as a psychotherapist periodically patients would say that it felt like I was their "friend." Yet it didn't feel to them like any kind of friendship they had ever known. Some patients,as they were leaving my office, would say"See you next week my friend." Although I didn't express it to my patients, internally something about being their friend made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't quite know how to respond. Nothing in my training prepared me for it. Initially I thought that I had done something wrong- perhaps I had overstepped some boundary and done something unprofessional. Perhaps I had evoked some transference issue or was acting out some personal need for friendship. I was struggling because this notion of friend didn't fit into any category of friendship that I had ever experienced. In the beginning I pathologized it.
   Then I read a book by John O'Donohue entitled Anam Cara. It described the Celtic tradition of anam cara - soul friend. In Gaelic the word anam means soul and cara means friend. Since both of my grandparents were Irish immigrants the phrase had a strong resonance. His description of soul friend gave me a framework to understand what kind of unique friendship some of my patients were attempting to describe. It also added an additional layer of sacredness to how I viewed our work. My patients were entrusting their souls to me. For me this insight increased my sense of reverence for our roles as healers and a deeper sense of responsibility.
   It is not my intention to engage in an ontological discussion of the notion of soul. That conversation is well beyond the scope of this blog and my book. Suffice it to say that what I mean in this context is the essential nature of the person.
   The souls of most of my patients have been neglected, abused or wooded, treated with apathy or disrespect. Many of them have lived in soul-killing environments. I have felt that I need,by my presence and the ambience of my office, to provide the opposite - a sense of sanctuary, a safe refuge for their souls. When we initially meet our patients for the most part their souls are in hiding. From my perspective a primary goal of a more heart-centered approach is to invite the souls of our patients to come out again. From my experience the souls of our patients respond not to rational insights or cognitive techniques, but to welcoming warmth, compassionate presence and acts of loving kindness.
   I am advocating that psychotherapists, counselors and life coaches consider the notion that one of our cardinal roles is to be a soul friend to our clients. Being a soul friend is a particular kind of friendship that goes well beyond the ordinary definition of friend. He/she is the kind of friend who honors our essential nature, who wants to know our "deep within" and treats our souls with respectful reverence. He/she invites our soul to come out of hiding through nurturance, affection, celebration of growth and loving challenge. In myriad ways the soul friend says"You are valued. I am here to help you to become more fully the unique being who you can be."

   This is based on the Anam Cara chapter of my book Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy (Jason Aronson Publishing 2011). Take a look at my website ( for more information.