Monday, April 8, 2013


   Whatever struggles or suffering that they are experiencing in their outer world, our patients need to feel that, once our office door closes, that they are in a place of temporary retreat from that world. Even though they may not be able to articulate that they need this, at some level of consciousness their wounded psyches are seeking that safe person, that place of refuge - a sanctuary.  

   So many of our patients come from unsafe family backgrounds where they were subjected to psychological or physical abuse. Or deprived of essential emotional nurturance. With these patients it is especially important that we move away from the model of the emotionally distant professional. Their wounded or neglected psyches are in hiding. They need to feel from us a welcoming warmth and a compassionate caring. Then we are offering them an invitation to come out from that self-protective hiding space. By our open-hearted warmth and acts of loving kindness we are saying,"This is a safe place no harm will come to you. You will be treated with respect and genuine caring."  

   For this reason it is also important to pay attention to the physical ambience of our office space. So much of what we communicate to our patients is transmitted non-verbally and at non-rational levels of consciousness. Some practitioners have offices that are cold and impersonal. The lighting is harsh, the furniture uncomfortable, the artwork is neutral and there are few personal objects reflecting the personality of the therapist or counsellor. The office may look professional - it may even be well decorated - but something is missing. It is important to ask ourselves: Does my office communicate to patients that they are entering a safe space in which they will be treated with warmth, kindness and dignity? Of course how we answer that question will be unique, fitted to our individual personalities and the limitations of the physical space.  

   There is another meaning of the word sanctuary that is applicable to our work. Derived from the Latin word sanctus - holy - a sanctuary is a place that has been dedicated to a holy or sacred purpose. How that connects to psychotherapy and counseling I discussed in an earlier blog wherein I encouraged us to consider a possible additional aspect of our work - being a soul friend. In this limited space I will not engage in an ontological discussion of "soul." Suffice to say what I am referring to is the "essential nature" of our patients. If you observe young children - in my case, grandchildren - you can witness certain unique qualities that are present from very early in their lives. For many of our patients their essential nature has not been treated well throughout their lives. By our offering ourselves as soul friend  we are saying that we will value, respect, nourish, celebrate and lovingly challenge their essential nature. That is a deep sacred pledge, a "holy" purpose. By consciously creating an atmosphere of compassionate caring we are saying, This is a safe, loving place in which your wounded, neglected soul can come out of hiding and become more whole.  

This blog entry is based on the Sanctuary chapter of my book, Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy