How can we begin to grow?

How our relationship with our therapist leads to change

Most research that compares different types of therapy, to see which is more effective, reaches the same conclusion: the quality of the relationship between the client and the therapist is more important than the style of psychotherapy.

Putting yourself into a good relationship with a therapist is one of the most powerful ways to encourage change and growth.

Carl Rogers talked about three core conditions that enable personal growth. If the therapist can embody these qualities, he suggested, the client will naturally become more at ease, more satisfied with life, more able to take positive action. What are these three conditions?

Unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence.

No therapist embodies these perfectly, but the simple act of being in relationship with someone who is aiming to embody these, and mostly managing it, begins our process of transformation.

In my experience as a client, and as a therapist, as we begin to trust the therapist, and the space created in the therapy room, we begin to relax. This process of relaxation means that whatever we have been holding onto, or in denial about, begins to bubble up to the surface. This process is a natural unfolding. Often we experience all sorts of feelings during the process of letting go; sometimes this can even feel like grief. But in the safe environment of the therapy room, we move towards acceptance.

Professor Gisho Saiko took Rogers’ understanding of this growth-promoting relationship and added a new layer of meaning to it.

Gisho Saiko was a psychotherapist, and a Pureland Buddhist priest. He was an inspiration to my own teacher, also a psychotherapist and priest, and as I now have both of those roles, I feel some affinity with him and his ideas.

He suggested that there is some underlying existential truth, or reality, which supports the growth of each of us.

He wasn’t just talking about the space in the therapy room, but in our whole lives.

Saiko expressed this in Pureland Buddhist terms, but we could describe it as the understanding that each of us has access to some benign process that supports us and encourages us to grow.

Rogers used to use the image of a potato sending out shoots towards the light, as a metaphor for the innate potential for people to grow towards the light themselves.

Saiko encourages us to remember that the conditions for growth are present all the time.  However, there is some act of forgetting (or perhaps simply a ‘not-knowing’) which means we feel cast aside, and without hope.

So the therapist’s job is not so much to embody Rogers’ core conditions, but rather to simply remember, on behalf of the client, that the conditions for growth are already here.

In time, the therapists trust in this begins to rub off on the client. Initially the therapy room becomes the place that vulnerability, and letting go, and growth, is possible, but ultimately the client begins to understand that this movement towards the light is possible anywhere – inside or outside the therapy space.

Sometimes we forget again, of course, and then it’s helpful to have good friends, or a therapist, to remind us of this basic truth.


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