The Foundations of the Therapeutic Relationship
Updated: Feb 14, 2019
What foundations should a therapist create to establish a relationship with its clients?
I will address four pillars that, in my opinion, are fundamental properties and constituents of the therapeutic relationship.
Considering John Pierrako’s perspective that Core Energetics is fundamentally an Evolutionary Process (for both Client and Therapist), some elements must be present in the relationship since the first moment. The initial resonance will determine the continuation or not of the relationship itself as it will establish the quality tone of the relationship defining how it may develop from that initial moment onwards.
Martin Buber, the philosopher of the Encounter, names the pure and genuine relationship between human beings as an I-Thou connection. As a therapist, I must be aware that I am relating to another human being, in all its richness and uniqueness. I’m not relating to an Object (in Buber’s perspective), meaning I am not relating to a character structure, a psychological disorder or to someone who is helpless. So, even before the relationship begins, we as therapists already have to start the process ourselves by being available for a real Encounter and willing to connect at a deeper and, simultaneously, higher level with our clients.
These four pillars will be discussed separately but they are in fact very much intertwined. Each pillar relates directly and deeply to any other pillar and, during therapist-client interaction, these elements come all together, simultaneously, flowing alongside. There is no hierarchy between them and there is no sequence either.
All four of them form, in my view, the ground for the evolutionary process that this therapeutical relationship embodies.
. Presence - The quality of Presence is connected to my ability to be grounded in my body, in the Here and Now, integrating all my internal aspects that are with me at any given time. Accepting who I am and how I am (emotionally/physically/ psychologically) at that moment will enable me to achieve a receptive state which I find important and useful when with a client. This state will bring a higher Active Listening which is the most important element in this first pillar. By Active Listening I’m not referring only to listening to what the client is saying. I’m talking about how we can attune ourselves to use all our sensorial capability to transform our being in to a big antenna that can capture all the different information that the client is expressing. Every word, every vocal trait and/or variation, posture, movements, breathing, pauses, eye movement, hesitations, and so on. All these elements are precious information that is being expressed and, as big radio antennas, we need to be receptive and open to consciously and unconsciously receive them. Not only with our senses but also with our intuition, we can start to perceive the other in all its dimensions. Here and at all times, my body is my ally and a powerful source of information. I can trust its knowledge and wisdom to stay connected with me and with my client.
. Empathic Resonance - If we Actively Listen to our client and, step by step, start to establish a Real Encounter with the Other (I-Thou Relationship), we arrive at the second pillar which is related to our ability to resonate with whom we are connecting with. On that moment, there is an Identification element that enables me to see and feel where my client stands in his life at this present moment and emotionally experience what that moment means to me (and, perhaps, what it means to him as well). This experience brings me to a position of Openness and Receptivity. I open myself to my client subjectivity and that gives me access to conscious and unconscious material both mine and from my client. I am a human being and standing before me is another human being willing to start a journey of self-discovery and personal growth. I need to take that journey along with him/her. It’s not only mirroring his/her experience, it is going (as much as possible) through the same experience as him/her. My Emotional Memory, my empathic resources and my openness to feel play a huge role in this moment and, once again, I need to be connected with my body. It’s not only how I relate the client’s inputs and how I relate it to my own personal experience in order to be empathic towards the client but it is also, trying to understand how my body responds and reacts to this interaction. How it relaxes or contracts, how I breathe or not breathe, how I feel whether it’s light, heavy, present, absent, scared or sleepy. All these reactions are truthful responses that give me a lot of information and enable me to be more responsive and resonant with my client.
. Authentic Feedback - If I place myself in an open and receptive state, if I allow myself to emotionally connect with the client, then a self-involvement starts to develop that will affect my inner being. This involvement puts me in a place of vulnerability that I must accept as natural and part of the interaction. If I consider the therapeutical relationship to be a journey of two (both client and therapist) then the two of us need to be in a place of vulnerability and of unknown territory. As Junguians put it, everyone is going through their Individuation Process, including therapists. The only difference is that the therapist, when compared to its clients, should be a few steps ahead in that process. So, this pillar is representative of who the therapist is and how he/she should place him/herself in the relationship. I believe that we must be authentic, we must be vulnerable human beings, equipped with technical and theoretical knowledge but, nevertheless, human beings ready to chart new territory alongside with our clients. Recalling my sessions with my clients when I first finished my Psychology Course, I remember how unconfident I felt, how lost I sometimes was and how I covered it up with mask attitudes of being in control of the situation and pretending to know what to do. It was these experiences that made me stop seeing clients and made me start a training to become a psychotherapist. So, the challenge is how can we embody this role which is technical and representative of a certain knowledge and safety but, at the same time, remain truthful to ourselves, our vulnerability and our core impulses.
. Space/Time Frame(and)Work - If the first three pillars relate to the content of the relationship, this last pillar concerns both content and formal issues of the relationship. One of the main aspects of this pillar is Safety. When someone decides to start a therapeutic process, normally it already means that the person is in a particularly vulnerable time of his/her life so, the start of a therapeutic relationship needs to be based on trust and safety both on a conscious and unconscious level. From a formal standpoint, aspects as the Rights and Obligations of both the therapist and the client need to be clear. Factors such as respecting the schedules and appointments, payment issues, confidentiality and so forth. Respect yourself, Respect others, Respect the room are main principles that help to create boundaries which can and should be addressed not only at the beginning of the relationship but at any time the client or the therapist feels the need to address it. These are the formal aspects, the boundaries let’s say of this pillar. The content of the pillar is related to the ritualistic or sacred aspects of our work. The daily world is the ordinary reality, where we have our relationships and our experiences. However, inside the session room we call upon the extraordinary reality. We separate from the daily life, profane reality and step into a sacred realm where the "as if" is not only possible but recommended. The separation between these two worlds is marked by a few actions that may have a ritualistic or symbolic meaning. Taking off our shoes, lighting a candle, giving hands and attuning at the beginning of the session enable this transition to another world, a world of transference and countertransference movements, a world of unconscious and supraconscious elements, a world of transpersonal and transgenerational aspects and a world of guided Knowledge and Love from higher dimensions. All these formal and ritualistic elements of this pillar bring a notion of safety and a willingness to discover and unravel hidden parts of ourselves.
These are the four pillars that, in my view, make the foundations of the therapeutic relationship and, as a therapist, I try to apply it in every session. When this foundation is achieved, then Trust can slowly start to be built which, in time, will give space to an Attachment relationship between Therapist and Client. When that qualitative attachment is obtained, then the transference and countertransference elements will start to arise and enrich the relationship. But these four pillars are the guidelines for the start of the journey. Through them, the relationship will be able to grow and be transformative for both client and therapist. With time and in that safe space an Evolutionary Process will take place.