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The Heart Speaks: Does love have a role in psychotherapy?

By: Patrick Dougherty

Q: I feel something is missing from my work with my clients—some level of deep connection. How can I engage myself more fully with clients while maintaining professional boundaries?

A: Many years ago, the Chinese qigong master I study with was thinking about becoming a psychotherapist so he could help people here in the United States. But when someone told him that it was considered inappropriate for therapists to love their clients, he was incredulous. “Patrick, how can you help your clients if you don’t love them? Don’t you know that love is the most powerful healing force in the universe?”

I thought his comment sweet and slightly odd; perhaps it had something to do with the difficulty of a nonnative speaker’s struggle with our language. Mostly, I wrote it off as naïve. As I spent more time as his student, however, I gradually learned that what he was talking about wasn’t the personal love we feel for a spouse or our children, but love as a heart energy within all of us that’s far more spacious, selfless, and unqualified. Understanding and experiencing this kind of love has fundamentally changed the way I practice psychotherapy.

Naomi came to therapy not knowing exactly what was wrong with her. In fact, her life was apparently going well: her marriage was basically happy, her career was humming along, though it wasn’t very exciting, and her last child was about to graduate from college, allowing her a coveted sense of freedom she hadn’t known for almost 30 years. But she felt at loose ends, apathetic, generally unenthusiastic, and lacking emotional energy. She told me she didn’t feel particularly depressed, but was unable to engage fully with life.

We had a nice connection; she and I were the same age and shared an educational background, social interests, and political leanings. What’s more, we liked each other. A few weeks into the therapy, she came in and began to tell me of a little fight she’d had with her husband about how they were spending their evenings. She liked to take some quiet time alone after dinner and read, or pay bills, or catch up on e-mails to friends and the kids. He liked to talk after dinner over a cup of tea. Later, he enjoyed watching TV, and that was when she liked to talk. They’d had a polite argument that had ended with her walking out of the family room in frustration. This was a long-standing issue, and their conversations about it often ended on a negative note, as it had that night. Naomi was quite distressed and wondered whether it was she or her husband who had the problem. She also wondered whether she was blocking her emotions and needed to get in touch with something.

I asked her to breathe and relax into her body. We’d done some of this mind-body work before; she’d come to me because she knew I used a holistic approach to therapy and healing. Then I asked her to sink her consciousness into her heart. She’d already learned how easy this is—that all you need to do is imagine a light, a candle, or the sun, any image that helps you get in touch with the goodness that’s always present in the center of your heart. She closed her eyes, her face relaxed, and after a few breaths, some tears came. A couple of minutes later she opened her eyes, looked down, and said almost in a whisper, “I don’t know if I can.”

I asked her to breathe into those words and to try and stay in her heart. More tears came. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she said. More quiet tears flowed, and then she was struggling not to cry and seemed to be trying to pull back and shut down.

“Naomi, I want you to stay focused in your heart,” I said. “I want you to try and see whether you can stay connected to me, to feel my care, to feel my affection for you. I want you to see whether you can let me be with you so you don’t feel so alone, and whether you can also stay connected to what’s happening in your heart.” She broke down and wept. I still didn’t know why she was crying, but I felt it really wasn’t important that I do.

When she was done crying and able to compose herself, she slowly lifted her head to look at me. She saw my face, a whimper escaped, and she broke into deep sobbing. After a couple of minutes of this, she forced herself to stop and asked with some dismay, “Why do you look at me that way?” and sobbed some more. Once more, after a few minutes, she stopped sobbing, lifted her eyes to my face, and said brokenly, “Why do you look at me with such, such kindness?” She wept again.

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