Monday, December 07, 2009

The Power of Connection: Existential Psychotherapy 7

Given what I said in the last post that we each inhabit a private world known only to ourselves. This, along with our alienation from ourselves and from others, makes up existential loneliness. In short, following Kant and others, especially Freud, Jung and certainly Sartre, we very much make or create our own world, shape and define ourselves, in other words, make our own meaning of it and in it. And then, yes then, we observe it crumble away as we die. This is the very heart of existentialism. What then does Yalom suggest in his psychotherapy? It is to that we now turn.

The Power of Touch:

While Yalom does not go into detail about the power of human touch, he illustrates it beautifully by referring to the wonderful film, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman called Cries and Whispers. It is a Swedish film, made in that language needless to say, which was made in 1972. This film is set in a mansion at the end of the 19th century and is about two sisters who watch over their third sister on her deathbed, torn between fearing she might die and hoping that she will. Here is how Yalom describes the power of this film:
In the film, Agnes, a woman dying in great pain and terror, pleads for some intimate human touch... but neither can bring herself to touch Agnes. Neither has the ability to be intimate with anyone, even themselves, and both shrink away in terror from their dying sister. Only Anna, the housemaid, is willing to hold Agnes, flesh to flesh. (Yalom, p. 123)
I have long believed in the healing power of human touch and of the importance of hugs in our lives. I have experienced, like so many of my fellow human animals its healing power in my own life and in those whom I know and love. It is Anna's embrace that enables Agnes to complete the journey into death. Yalom places this topic of the power of human touch under the heading of empathy. However, I'd prefer to place it under its own title or under the title of intimacy. Be that as it may, we will now turn to the topic of Empathy.


Having spent two years of my life studying psychotherapy, empathy is seen as one of the three central and important core conditions in good psychotherapeutic practice. Indeed, it was Carl Ransom Rogers who pioneered and promoted what he termed the three core conditions of counselling or therapy, viz.,congruence (realness), acceptance and empathy. Here is Rogers himself speaking on the nature of empathy and its centrality to the therapy process:
The third facilitative aspect of the relationship is empathic understanding. This means that the therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that the client is experiencing and communicates this understanding to the client. When functioning best, the therapist is so much inside the private world of the other that he or she can clarify not only the meanings of which the client is aware but even those just below the level of awareness. This kind of sensitive, active listening is exceedingly rare in our lives. We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know. from Carl R. Rogers, Way of Being, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980, p.115-116
Connecting with the anxiety of the Dying:

Through real and authentic human touch which holds, contains, but can never explain the mystery of human life in all its vicissitudes, in all its highs and lows; through the really human experience of empathy, with Yalom we can state that both these realities can heal the frightening gap between the desire for the fullness of life on the one hand and its inevitable extinction on the other. This is the task of both the therapist and the client, the healing or bridging of that frightening gap. During so is at the heart of existential therapy. Let me quote Yalom once again:
You can't connect or offer the dying what Anna does in this film unless you are willing to face your own equivalent fears and join with the other on common ground. To make that sacrifice for the other is the essence of a truly compassionate, empathic act. This willingness to experience one's own pain in concert with another has been a part of the healing traditions, both secular and religious for centuries. Yalom, p. 124
Hence, the power of family, friends and support groups cannot be underestimated.

The Power of Presence:

I have referred to the power of presence in the last post. To be present to and with another is a sacred and graced act, especially if that person is suffering or dying. A good teacher, professor, doctor, psychiatrist or counsellor is really present to his clients. He or she is there with the client, student, patient in the nowness of being, and is not distracted by one thing or another, and certainly is not elsewhere in mind or spirit. We instantly warm to those who are truly present to us. There is no substitute for real presence. We know it immediately we experience it. Let us listen to Yalom again:
One can offer no greater service to someone facing death... than to offer him or her your sheer presence. (Ibid., p. 125)
In all of this connection is paramount, connection with another suffering human being. This very connection is the healing factor. I return yet again to the powerful words of Yalom:
Whether you are a family member, a friend or a therapist, jump in. Get close in anyway that feels appropriate. Speak from your heart. Reveal your own fears. Improvise... Once, decades ago, I was saying goodbye to a patient near death, she asked me to lie next to her on her bed for a while. I did as she requested, and, I believe, offered her comfort. Sheer presence is the greatest gift you can offer anyone facing death (or a physically healthy person in a death panic. (Ibid., 130)

To be continued.

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