One of the most influential debates I remember from school was, “Is it okay to love your clients?” I am going to let that sit there for a bit….
Sounds like a pretty loaded question, huh? At first blush, we might feel like that’s too messy of a feeling to be able to allow and would lead to significant concerns with boundaries. Maybe it is first important to clarify what love is. (Cue Haddaway and Night at the Roxbury)
Love as an action and a feeling is complex, but these are some descriptions that I am hoping have some universal applicability:
Webster’s Dictionary’s first definition for love is very apt, “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” The verb definition “to thrive in,” is also equally apt.
While I could get kind of clinical with what love is, I prefer to stick with some quotes that speak to love. Keep in mind this isn’t an exhaustive or diverse list, but rather quotes that captured the general love I refer to in this specific context. I will likely revisit love in a different way later and capture more diversity and depth with those quotes. Without further ado:
“Love is the ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves without any insistence that they satisfy you.”
This quote really speaks to me as I think of my love for my clients as their therapist. Reminding myself of this definition helps keep in context that I am focused on my client’s definition for wellbeing. I also love the application of this quote because when we consider transference within the therapeutic relationship, a lot of it, I would argue comes from the unconscious insistence that our client satisfies us, or that they look to us to satisfy them.
“Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”
Being a psychotherapist himself, it makes sense that his definition of love would have good application to our field. I greatly appreciate how this captures a dynamic in many professional relationships where power can be an issue. While I wouldn’t necessarily say that love can conquer all power differentials, I would argue that truly letting yourself love your client would go a long way to balancing the power differential out.
“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.
This really resonates with me. I find that I am in my spiritual sanctuary every time I step foot into the counseling space. It is precisely because I know that with some dedication and being open to feeling love for my client, I will be joined in an experience where we get to continue to discover the meaning of life together. This is what makes therapy such an intimate and sacred space.
So by now you can probably see where my argument is going.
It is not only okay to love your client, it’s necessary to do effective therapy. To know someone is to love someone, right? Our clients share their most vulnerable parts with us and allow us to know them in a way that no one else does. If it helps to understand why loving our clients is important, let’s continue to speak to love as being an action rather than just a feeling. Every time we step foot into the therapy room we act as helping, healing, loving agents. How do we do ethical, effective, good therapy? Don’t be afraid to love your client, flaws, strengths, and all.
Below is an acronym I follow to allow myself to love my clients.
L- Listen and Locate
Listen to hear, not to respond. Locate the pain, suffering, joy, or growth that your client is communicating to you. Allow yourself to explore these experiences more and not just assess, diagnose, or intervene with them. Get curious about these experiences with your client.
O- Open Up and Observe
Open up to your clients experiences and create a therapeutic “holding environment” for their emotions, narratives, and being. Cultivate a willingness to be with your client no matter their state or narrative content. Observe the space you take up in the room and how you and your client co-create this space.
V- Validate and Value
A huge part of our job in therapy is to validate the experiences we are hearing, normalize them, and find the humanity within these experiences. In doing so, we value our client, their experiences, and what they hold to be true. Affirming our clients in this way is to love who they are, not just who they want to be.
E- Empathize and Energize
Allow yourself to feel your client’s pain, passion, joy, successes, and losses. Join in this experience and show your empathy to energize your therapeutic connection and relationship. This constitutes the therapeutic alliance and partnership that is needed to seek and work towards a better quality of life for your client. Empathy is the basis of all therapy and love.