Neil reached out his hand and with a glowing smile said to his client in the waiting room, “It is so good to see you.” I FELT Neil’s love for this man. As a young psychologist I had just met with Neil Warren to discuss a case. But it was in that brief interaction with his client that I learned the most: that the most important part of being a therapist is how we relate to our clients. Over lunch one day Neil said, “I’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter what I do with my clients. My clients get better just from being with me.” This probably sounds like a narcissistic statement. But it was the opposite. Neil’s love for people was so consistent and so real that he wasn’t aware that that is what he “did.” I believe that what Neil did with his clients was very important, but that what he did was sensitive to their needs because he was so able to be present with them and to love them.
Irvin Yalom wrote in Love’s Executioner: Other Tales of Psychotherapy: “But over the years I’ve learned that the therapist’s venture is not to engage the patient in a joint archeological dig… No, a therapist helps a patient not by sifting through the past but by being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested; and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing.”
I do find it very helpful to clients to “understand their past.” In fact, I think it is very helpful to connect at an emotional level with our past experiences of relationships so we can understand our current emotional experiences of relationships. But understanding only lights the path ahead, it doesn’t get us further up the trail. I believe that it is corrective emotional experience that creates lasting change, whether that new experience is in a psychotherapy group, in a marital session, between a client and me, or for a client taking a risk of relating more deeply with a friend. And ultimately the corrective emotional experience that we all need is love. It is the experience of being seen and valued.