Chesed and the Therapist as Enlightened (Empathic) Witness

First and foremost, I admit, I am not Jewish but for this blog I do want to talk about a concept that is familiar to Judaism. If I mess this up in anyway, please forgive me for my ignorance and feel free to educate me on my mistaken understanding.

I recently read of this idea, Chesed; it is essentially the love that God has toward us and the love that we are meant to have toward each other. But, it is an active love. It is a love that is meant to bear witness to pain, suffering, isolation. It is the type of love that brings God into closeness with us and brings us into closeness with others. It is the love that gives suffering meaning. According to myjewishlearning.com, “Acts of chesed are the active representation of a covenant among people, a social contract.”  It is for this reason– the engagement in a social contract– that I intend to draw a parallel between Chesed and the works of the ethical therapist.

The role of the therapist, undeniably, is to enter into an intimate, non-sexual relationship with his/her clients. This aligns well with the purpose of chesed as I understand it; “service [or chesed] is one important answer to the individual’s search for meaning and desire for true relationships.” There is a sort of symbiotic, reciprocal nature to the therapeutic relationship, to the relationship between sufferer and helper or witness, that I believe we far too often ignore. We deny the existence of this symbiosis because it threatens the ethics of the counseling profession. Counselors are meant to hold the needs of the client above their own needs. They aren’t mean to counsel as a way of having their own needs met but according to chesed, that very thing leads to true relationships. Are you seeing the problem here? I think this is part of what leads to so much hurt in the therapeutic relationship; the fact that we are denying reciprocity. It is okay that the therapist has certain needs met in the relationship. If they don’t, there is no way for that relationship to be true and to be healing.

The second part of this equation is in how the relationship is built between sufferer and healer. They are two equals, two people who have known suffering, but in times of need the other offers to bear witness to that person’s suffering so that they might both be transformed. This, to me, aligns well with Alice Miller’s notion of the enlightened witness, which she defines as “an understanding person who helps a victim of abuse “recognize the injustices they suffered” and “give vent to their feelings” about what happened to them.” That’s it, just give vent and offer understanding. It isn’t to change things. It is just to get down to the truth of what has happened. It is to acknowledge and accept that suffering is a part of the human condition. It doesn’t make sense. There are no easy answers. But, we are all in this thing together.

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My kids went on a field trip and brought a treat back for me because they knew I was sad I didn’t get to go with them. That’s love.

Without the enlightened witness our suffering can have no meaning, neither for the sufferer or the intended witness for “the meaning of suffering is in the opportunity for the other to respond to that suffering, to embrace the sufferer and, through doing so, bring God into the world. […] When we respond to the other at a time of need, we fulfill our humanity and can find existential meaning in life.” Again, mutually reciprocal. So, why do we pretend that the therapeutic relationship is one-sided? Why do we perpetuate this power differential between the well-therapist and the ill-client? Why, when we are all humans who suffer? This stance of false superiority denies the therapist, denies the enlightened witness the opportunity to be enlightened. It causes irreparable damage to the relationship.

I would like to posit an alternative to the current model. The therapist as enlightened witness needs to own up to their own hurts and how those hurts impact their ability to provide meaning to a person’s suffering. They need to allow their clients to see their vulnerability. They need to own when they make mistakes, when they have stopped acting out of love and have acted from some other place. It is okay to engage in acts of kindness and expect monetary return, that isn’t inherently wrong, but to make chesed about money seems like a bastardization of the true meaning of the term. In offering shelter to the suffering, in offering to listen, to embrace the person in pain, to accept them for who they are, to not make them feel like they are “too much” for what their suffering has turned them into, that, to me, seems like the true meaning of chesed. That, to me, feels like what brings God into the world.

If therapy were more like this, if it were based on service meant to build true relationships with people, how many people would still be walking away re-traumatized? How many people would still  be hurt by well-intentioned therapists who just don’t get how to build authentic relationships within the scope of their code of ethics? Is it a solution to the problem? Maybe not, but maybe it is a start.

 

15 Thoughts

  1. This is a difficult subject to approach. For one the similarities between us all are abundant as are the differences, meaning that there will never be one model that works for us all. If the therapist were to show vulnerability what would be the point in the therapist position? For those who are natural caregivers would set aside their needs for seeking therapy to console the therapist. That sounds more like a friendship verses a therapy session. As with everything there is red tape because someone somewhere overstepped boundaries causing more harm than healing. I totally understand where you are coming from with this post but religion and business generally do not mix well. It’s all in the politics. Ethics have to be put in place because like you said therapist are human too. Those guidelines are in place more so for them, for accountability. Unfortunately, the criminal minded seeking a monetary forever solution to their problems, holding others responsible for their own lack of ethics. (if that makes sense) People now days take others to court for minor “human” characteristics and that is why the business part is implicated. (insurance fraud etc) Great post. Got me thinking, for sure.

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    1. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the humanity (which is what religion gives us) is being taken out of the equation. It is just pure ethics and then we get arguments about is it okay or not okay to touch clients. Then the argument leads to strict no-touch rules which harm clients who would benefit. Or, is it okay to accept gifts from clients. Again, strict boundaries get enforced around that. To not accept a gift in some cases would crush the client. So on and so forth. There are countless examples of where boundaries and ethics are getting in the way of the relationship and hurting the relationship. If we (therapists and future therapists) were to look at the client as a person, to see our own vulnerability and to respond from a place that knows vulnerability, then these things would be non-issues. Practice would become more client-centered and maintain its ethical framework.

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  2. Thinking about my own therapeutic relationships with my clients, where I’ve chosen to draw the line in the sand, so to speak, is the question of whose needs are being met. I sometimes choose to touch clients and to disclose information about my own illness to clients when I believe there is very likely to be a therapeutic benefit to them and my actions are meeting some sort of need for them. If the primary purpose is to serve my needs then I don’t feel like it’s appropriate for me to be bringing that into the therapeutic interaction. My most difficult decision around disclosure was with a suicidal client who was very reluctant to talk about her suicidal thinking because she was worried about losing custody of her daughter. I thought that if disclosed that I have a history of suicide attempts she would probably be more willing to open up about it and then I’d be in a better position to judge her level of risk. It actually worked well and she spoke very openly to me about suicide from that point on. I know many mental health professionals wouldn’t agree with it, but it was what worked out best for the client.

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    1. There is definitely a place for well drawn lines but what I think is being denied in therapy as it is, is that in a relationship both people, by the very nature of relationships, are gaining and having needs met. It is problematic to assume that the needs of the therapist never come into play. I think that’s what lands us in trouble. It puts everything on the client, creates an us/them dichotomy. One which you’re doing a good job of dissolving to a certain extent by skillfully using self-disclosure.

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      1. Although the argument could be made that the very nature of the therapeutic relationship is that the client isn’t responsible for meeting the therapist’s needs. I get where you’re coming from, but it’s something that would probably be very difficult to find a good balance with.

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        1. I definitely don’t think it is something that happens in the realm of the conscious. And I don’t think it should be the same as in a friendship. There definitely is a balance that has to be struck.

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  3. Dyou have a blog email you use at all? I have loads of thoughts about this topic if you’re interested but not keen to put it all in the public domain. Also – would you mind if I shared this post with my therapist? I think we would really enjoy it. Great post x

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  4. I think that the very best therapists do own up to mistakes that they make and also assume that their patients know how they suffer, as all human beings do.

    The problem, in my opinion, is that therapists often are vulnerable with their supervisors instead of their patients. There is this hidden other who helps the therapist with countertransference when some of that material, when it can be of use for healing, should be shared with the patient. That makes the covenant between the therapist and supervisor instead of the therapist and patient.

    I will also say that some of the most healing moments in my own work have come from self-disclosure on the part of my therapist. Whether in the form of a deep apology, acknowledgement of reciprocal feelings, etc.

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  5. The willingness of my T to be shrinky with me sometimes and real/human at others has been the glue of our relationships. Thus said there have been many ruptures along the way (we’ve been working together almost 8 years). Just after Christmas she asserted new boundaries, change in out of session contact, change in that the timing of our sessions became rigid and bang on 50 minutes. I shut down. Thought it was me, thought I’d ruined her/ us. Thought I’d lost her, thought I’d manifested the abandonment I’d been fearing. Turns out she was trying to protect me, us. I think this is a quote from my mad fat diary “people who are broken don’t want you to be a professional they need you to be real”.
    I’ve recently stumbled across your blog and have just finished reading all your posts. I’m sorry you have had your share of trauma but I’m grateful that you have found a voice in your blog. Sending love and light

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