How do I learn to love myself? It’s a question that many, if not all of us would like the answer to. If you experienced the shame of chronic abuse of bullying, or the lack of a nurturing parental bond when you were young, then self-acceptance can be especially hard to develop. It can seem like something everyone else just ‘gets’; maybe you missed school the day they taught it, and you’ve been trying to catch up all your life.
The relationship between the client and the therapist has been recognised for decades as one of the key elements promoting growth and change in therapy. Yet when you’re coming to therapy for the first time, being asked to trust and commit to a relationship with someone you’ve never met is a difficult task. You might find it hard to trust yourself, let alone a distant professional that you are paying to see once a week.
In therapy, the relational depth approach encourages a deep connection between therapist and client where authenticity and acceptance can arise. Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper, the pioneers of this approach, advise therapists to get in touch with the deepest parts of themselves so that they can meet a client on a profoundly real level. It is hoped that this highly authentic interaction between therapist and client, taking place in an atmosphere of total acceptance, gives rise to greater self-acceptance on the client’s part.
If you are with a therapist who exudes honesty and who accepts every part of you, maybe you will find your barriers coming down and maybe self-acceptance will become easier.
Therapists who work at relational depth are transparent and self-aware, meaning they might sometimes bring their feelings into the room. It is not unknown for proponents of this approach to cry with their clients.
I haven’t cried with a client yet, but there are times when it’s been close! Moments when the professional veneer doesn’t matter as much as the humanity being shared. That moment – that connection – had allowed a truth to be shared that no one had ever heard before. Just saying it was a significant turning point in that person’s life. For them, the key wasn’t so much to do with answering the question; “how do I learn to love myself?” as it was to do with hearing the story of what had happened to them. There is no short answer to that question, it is much more of a process.
Isn’t there a technique to it?
Certainly, there is a sea of books, podcasts and youtube videos out there promoting a vast array of different methods that are meant to aid self-acceptance. Mindfulness, positive thinking, self-affirmations, gratitude lists etc. all contribute valuably to mental health and should not be sniffed at. Generally, these are ‘techniques’ to be practised daily, or as regularly as possible so that they have the maximum effect. Whilst waiting for the ‘deep connection’ described above to form in the therapy room, I’m happy to suggest techniques to any client who seeks them. However, I haven’t yet come across a technique that only needs to be practiced once. The desired effect always seems to emerge from ongoing practice and effort, whichever technique or approach you apply to the problem.
The self and its parts
Many schools of therapy recognise that early trauma can cause the ‘self’ to split into different parts as a way of protecting itself from the full horror of what’s happening. In my experience, this split happens far more commonly than people think – to an extent I believe we all have different ‘parts’ to ourselves. The job of the therapist who is trying to achieve relational depth with a client is to accept all of that client’s parts, including the difficult parts that they themselves don’t like. If you know you have a highly critical side to your personality, you might feel very resistant to letting that side of you show in therapy. It could be shaming to admit that this part of you even exists – why would you allow your therapist to interact with it?
If we remember that these different parts arose from difficult or traumatic experiences in childhood then we can start to feel compassion for them. Perhaps you have a critical side; not because you are a bad person, but because you were exposed to daily criticism at a young and impressionable age. If you can slowly work through that, recognising and accepting it, then maybe the answer to self-understanding and love will start to reveal itself.
It’s a process
Embarking on a bout of therapy, particularly if it’s long term, is going to be challenging and will require an appreciation of the process. The change you’re waiting for won’t happen overnight. The therapist who has carried out this work on him or herself will know all too well that it is a process, and should be able to reassure you that that’s ok. Whichever part of you is living in the pain of the past will need time to arrive in the room and trust that it’s safe.
Hopefully, your therapist embodies awareness, acceptance and authenticity from the start, and hopefully, you’ll be ready to receive their empathy. You’re about to go on a journey together. This is about establishing a human connection, something so fundamentally important to all of us.
This was originally published on Counselling Directory