I curse in session too regularly, and should probably be more ashamed of my potty mouth than I am.

I can talk frankly about anything from money to masturbation without blinking an eye.

I can discuss the darkest sins, the deepest shames, give words to feeling states that are subtle, terrifying, violent, kinky, mystical and murderous. I can use and parse my counter-transferential, intersubjective, empathic and projectively identified responses through some pretty tricky co-created therapeutic enactments.

But there is a word that I have almost never used
Even, (actually, especially) when I am near bursting with it.

I’ll speak all around it. I will, when the time is right and the relational necessity emerges, talk about feeling protective, allude to our connection our history, our alliance and hard work together, admit that I am touched, or deeply moved. I will share about the ways that I trust our relationship, or have confidence in our partnership. I will on occasion, admit to feeling proud or impressed. I will offer up my experiences of admiration, and perhaps, in specific circumstances, confess to the obvious affection or highlight experiences of closeness my therapeutic partners have evoked in me.

I know as a patient, my attachment to my own therapist took many forms. Just twenty-one, lost in a huge city with an overwhelming and toxic emotional inheritance to sort through, he, (25 years old and just out of grad school) was the first still, consistent and stable entity I had stumbled upon. For the first several years, I needed him like I needed gravity to keep me oriented, like I needed oxygen to breathe (god bless him and his supervisors).

I didn’t need to think much about how he felt about me – because he was kind and patient, He was honest. He displayed consistent interest in understanding me. He didn’t recoil as my barely restrained mess poured out all over his office.

I didn’t think much about his subjective experience of connection to me, because I assumed that his behavior revealed how he felt for me. I could see that sometimes I annoyed the shit out of him, or could make him laugh, or unsettle him, or corner him into a tight spot when I demanded that he understand me exactly, leaving him little room for error. But, for me, the proof was in the pudding – I assumed that anyone putting up with all my crap must have some basic positive regard for me.

I had no need for him to say it or feel it.

He behaved it. He gave it.

To call further attention to it would detract from the giving of the gift.

In my own practice I know that big, silly, burps of affection rise in my heart at the most ridiculous and inopportune times. Right when some one is in the middle of an animated flip-out about their abrasive roommate, or while some complicated exposition about details at work unfurls. A turn of the head, their hands moving in the air, a creative, emphatic choice of words, a moment of courage, the track of a tear down their cheek, a scar, a freckle, a gesture I had never noticed before – some small bittersweet detail of a soul and a life completely unique, unlike any other human on the planet – fills me with awe, and adoration.

If I’m not careful, my appreciation can be disruptive:

“What? What did I say? Why are you smiling?”
“Hmm? I was just listening… I guess something about the way you said that just made me very glad you found my office – just made me feel happy to know you, – I didn’t mean to smile or interrupt, please go on…”

I sit, sometimes for years at a time, hiding unrequited affections, holding myself as still as possible. Any behavioral indication of the softer-spots in my heart could terrorize and
flood those who have been wounded in the minefield of distorted attachments.

For some, interpersonal emotional connection is completely entangled with abuse or abandonment. Closeness is only an opportunity for pain.

Some have used adoring words as a ruse to establish a claim to another’s soul and to take ownership of the beloved. Other times, heart-talk has disguised an empty belly: The beloved as a perfect meal about to be devoured.

Sexual arousal, attraction, infatuation, and lust are often and easily confused with emotional intimacy. All the more so when bodily and sexual boundaries have been violated in the client’s past.

No matter the form, charitable, universal empathic agape, friendly and familiar philia, or emotionally intimate eros, such powerful energies are not only the source of All that is Good: in the wrong hands, at the wrong time for the wrong reasons they can be a powerfully destructive force.

A force that can damage and burn.

For the most wounded, it take years to metabolize even the most generalized good-will.
The vaguest impersonalized empathy is sometimes all that can be withstood. Anything more personal would be too much to bear.

In my home life I don’t stop yammering about it. My family and my kids groan “I know, I know…” when I feel the impulse, to tell them, yet again, what I feel for them. It’s been ten whole minutes since I last said it, and my heart is near to bursting again.

We all mean something specific, something unique to ourselves when we speak of it.

This is what the word, when I use it in my personal life, means to me:

It means thank you. For putting up with me. For accepting me anyway. For forgiving and seeing more in me than my most incompetent, limited, wounded, hysterical, annoying, fallible bits. Thank you for surviving me.

It means I promise to do the same for you no matter what. It means I think you are amazing. It means you make me feel better. It means my life would feel shattered without you. It means I know you need me, and I need you too. It means we are connected to each other in such primal ways that we owe each other the truth and can demand very hard things from each other for the relationship’s sake. It means that I know that you see as deeply into and through me, as I can see into you. It means being in your presence feeds and sustains me, and I will do my best to feed and sustain you as well.

It means there is room in our relationship to be my whole self – sometimes powerful, sometimes smart, sometimes nurturing, sometimes hungry, sometimes broken, sometimes failed, sometimes sick, sometimes distractible, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous. And there is room for your whole self as well.

It means whatever shit hits the fan – we are safe with each other whether it feels safe or not.

But those are my hungers, my dependencies, my personal life. No one else on the planet may have the same definition.

Which is another reason why, even when I feel a giant pink wave swelling in my heart, that I don’t say it in the office.

For me, the personal use of the word invites all of my deepest needs into the room.

And the therapy office is simply not the place for a therapist to do that.

Theologian Thomas Jay Oord has defined agape as “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.” I certainly carry at least that, and usually much more on my heart with every client every single day.

But who on earth says “I feel agape for you?”

(“The Love Racket: Defining Love and Agape for the Love-And-Science Research Program” http://www.calvin.edu/~jks4/city/Oord~Defining%20Love.pdf)

That doesn’t mean that deep affection, empathy, attachment, appreciation, fondness, caring, closeness, connection, heart-break, pride, intimacy, adoration, attraction, gratitude, familiarity, warmth, tenderness, admiration, philia, and even eros are not part of the work.

Even these are words too diffuse, subjective and imprecise to cure, transform, or change anything at all, in and of themselves, no matter how we may yearn to hear or say them.

Althought It may not be enough, its presence is essential.

For me, it is usually (but not always) pointless, ineffective, selfish and unnecessary to speak of it.

Yet, without it, everything grinds to a halt.

Love, in all its forms, ineffable and undefinable, is the oil that suspends the wheels and surrounds the entire mechanism so that therapeutic work can take place at all.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

52 responses

  1. Once again you have completely blown me out of the water with your insight and perception. I often wonder in therapy how my Swami feels about me, about us, about our relationship. If I am lucky enough to have it be a zillionth of what you describe, I will consider myself very fortunate. How you write, what you say, these are gifts. Glorious words. Thank you.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. It moved me to tears and was exactly what I needed to hear today. My last therapist told me repeatedly that she liked me, that she enjoyed working with me, that I was delightful, and so on, but I could never hold on to it. They were just words to me, which did nothing to lessen the dread of her suddenly turning on me. In fact, I think they even made it worse.

    My current therapist, bless her heart, has never even hinted at liking me in the vaguest possible sense. I love her to death and try to simply hold on to the fact that whatever she feels about me at any given moment, she’s committed enough to see me through the work that needs to happen. That kind of commitment is a very powerful form of love in itself. ❤

  3. I soooooo get you. Beautifully written prose about this heart felt phenomenon.We are all connected in this web, that when someone goes deep in we feel it deeply, too. There is magic there.

  4. I don’t just think that good therapist hold their own experiences of love for their clients, I think that good therapy creates increasingly mature forms of love in both people.

    Thanks for reading, and your kind words.


  5. Yes – I agree. Part of our mandate, is to guard and portion out our capacity for empathic caring – through the course of treatment – how ever rocky. Empathy and consistency is a committed form of therapeutic love.

    Thanks for your comments. Glad it spoke to you.

  6. Thank you…just thank you. I needed to read this but it broke my heart. I deeply understand and accept the necessity of the boundaries, but have circled back around to where they are heart-breaking and painful, so this was…I’m sorry I just don’t have the words. Reassuring, because you are enough like my therapist for me to believe that if you feel this way, he also has feelings like this and I am struggling so hard to hang on to that. But you explained so well, and so eloquently, why you do not speak, and though I know that the words are not spoken out of love, it is still a grief to know I’ll never get to hear them from him. Being loved this way is incredibly healing, but it has its moments of terror.

    I know I don’t sound very cheery tonight, but thank you, your writing really is such a gift.

  7. I’ve enjoyed all of your posts but this one has brought me to tears. I think you have a wonderful way of expressing your feelings about your work. I think your clients are very lucky to work with you. I also found your post bittersweet because I wish I could believe my therapist felt even the smallest part of what you describe when working with me.

    Thank you for writing,

  8. I share “attached” sentiments. And the fact is I’m no big supporter or advocate for therapy in general because there is so much abuse and just plain ignorance coming from practitioners. I’ve seen it and experienced it from both sides of the couch, so to speak. I think that, unfortunately, really, Martha is an uncommon practitioner. A true healer.

  9. It is sometimes a heart-breaking and beautiful line to walk.
    I think that all whole, real things are probably beautiful and heart-breaking.
    I know therapy is, no matter which chair you are sitting in.

    thanks for reblogging. Very kind of you.

  10. I know there are theraeutic relationships that I have served well and honorably and with my best self – and I am proud of that work.

    and I also know that there are those I annoy, and have dissapointed -where I faiiled to forge a connection at all, or the connection failed to elicit any change or relief.

    I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, and I hope, and try to help those find clinicians whose model and style fill their needs.

    Some might experience me as a healer, and some might say I’m adequate, and others just might say I suck.

    And its all probably true of me, and of many of my colleagues.

    Thanks for the votes of confidence. I’ll enjoy the “good therapist” feeling while it lasts!



  11. yes. it’s true of everyone…though many do not recognize it. And our social service systems often demand that people see whoever comes to them whether they are a match or not and a good number of therapists treat their practices that way too…that is a disservice to everyone involved. We cannot be all things to all people.

  12. I have enjoyed all of your posts so far, but this one really spoke to me. My therapist has said many of the things you listed, but I still found myself frustrated with his reserve many times. I sit there agonizing over what he thinks and feels about me and so much want him to JUST SAY IT instead of talking around it. Can he see the worst things about me and still love me? I grew up with people who withheld love (and meted out abuse) when I looked at them wrong, so this is a huge issue for me. Your article helps me to see why he may not be willing to just say the words. Thank you.

  13. Its so impossible to know exactly what each other is speaking about when we speak about love.
    More over, many people never say they love you ever, and can convey it with every behavior -Others say it constantly and behave destructively.

    Perhaps Love is a behavior. An attuned behavior.

    I’d personally rather feel loved than have it said. Others feel just the opposiite. Or cant feel love at all if it not said. Snowflakes, fingerprints, and expressed love. No two alike.

  14. I loved this post. I joined your Blog when Jodi nominated you for the sunshine Award.
    I like the description you made about the connection between a therapist and the client. I have had over 3 years of therapy with the same person, but I didn’t feel any connection. Going there was kind of a torture to me.Sometimes I feel that if she only showed she cares at one point or another, I would have certainly liked it better

  15. Some therapeutic partnerships never strike the right fit. I’m sorry that was your experince.
    Thank you for reading –

    and thank you also to Jodi to referring you to my blog through the Sunshine nomination.


  16. Echoing many other comments: this is beautiful and so resonant to those of us who, over the course of a week, sit on both sides of the therapy room.

  17. I really enjoyed this post – as I enjoy most of your writing. I hadn’t really stopped to think about it, but I realized I don’t question that my therapist “loves” me — she behaves it so thoroughly that there’s no question in my mind. Having had many shrinks over the years, having a therapeutic relationship like that is both lucky and special and I think about that often. I’m also glad to hear it’s something therapists think about.
    I find it a given that therapists love (some of?) their patients. I think there are different kinds of love – parent/child, child/parent, student/teacher, teacher/student, grandparent/child, sibling, friend, etc etc. It doesn’t seem threatening or bizarre to me in the least that a therapist could feel love towards his patients.

  18. This really touches me. On many levels. First of all, because I relate to your experience as a client in therapy quite a lot (except for the fact that I’m very language-oriented so I do need to say things and hear things said). I relate to seeing that it’s there, though, and to having your therapist as a much needed, stable, positive entity in your life. As a client who deals with feelings of worthlessness and being unloved, I feel more secure with my own therapeutic relationship reading this. As a therapist-to-be who has only worked a tiny bit, I feel reassured reading that feelings like this may come; I do need the reminder that I will, indeed, care about my clients and about my work in the future. & I really appreciate what a warm person you sound – you sound like the kind of therapist I could work with and the kind of therapist I’d like to become. Thank you for sharing this article, it really has an impact on me.

  19. I think you are right – that therapst/client love is another relational form of love : like maternal love and filial love etc that has remained unnamed, unidentified – so that many doubt it exists because it has a different template than loves they have known.

    Thanks for your comments!

  20. Glad if it’s useful to you in imagining your nascent career!

    I do think that I identify more with work in the warm/hot relational zone- for many clients its important to be able to work in the cool/cold zone too.

    I find great satisfaction in being challenged at both ends of the spectrum.

    Best wishes for your training.


  21. Pingback: Weekly Psych Rounds 04-05-12 « Shrink Things

  22. Wonderful post. I am really enjoying reading your writing. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on adult attachment styles in therapy too if that is something you would consider writing about.

  23. Thanks for reading and for the suggestion –
    Although I think the literaure on attachment styles is revealing and important – I find that when I am sitting with a client – that although I try to remain loosely mindful of broader diagnostic categories, syndromes, styles, and lables – I excert most of my energy trying to understand how the client experiences themselves – tells, understands and lives their own narrative.

    I don’t hear many people “experiencing” insecure attachment – per se – they experince a rush of hopefulness, and then a sudden paralysing anxiety and despair of pending loss etc etc… and each person, seems, to me, even if they are riding the same rolller-coaster, experiences the rollercoaster in unique ways…

    But I will think about attachment, and put it on my list of potentialy bloggy-things….

    Thank you for reading..


  24. Actually- it just occurs to me that I have started and stopped a piece which might be about this… Thanks very much for bringing it up- you’ve generated some interconnecting ideas in my head. Sure I will pop it out in the next few months.

    Thanks again!

  25. Once again, thank u for a master piece – need I say u write beautifully and can put feelings into words in a fabulous way … I love the 3 paragraphs:

    ” … – I assumed that anyone putting up with all my crap must have some basic positive regard for me.

    I had no need for him to say it or feel it.

    He behaved it. He gave it.

    To call further attention to it would detract from the giving of the gift.”

    I used to think that because of their training & professionalism, shrinks just “act” that way, but I have come to believe in the authenticity of their giving a positive regard, despite ….

  26. Thanks very much.

    And thanks by the way, for the nudge and reminding me of the promise I’d made to write about love in the first place.

    You sent me right where I needed to go.

    Much appreciated.

  27. Toni, one of our mutual Twitter friends, sent me to you. This post is beautifully written about a difficult subject to describe. It applies equally well to teachers. I recently had the opportunity to thank a high school teacher. The conversation went like this:

    Tea yesterday at the Tomato Pie Cafe with Miss Riehl, former guidance counselor at Warwick High School. I had not seen her in 46 years. I was able to thank her for seeing more in me than I could see in my teenage self. I told her she had given me courage with her eyes and her voice. We both got a little misty-eyed and then laughed at ourselves.
    “I’m a teacher too,” I said.
    “Then you know,” she murmured.

  28. Pingback: Mokita – Therapy Tales #314 « Therapy Tales

  29. My therapist mentioned the world love yesterday in relation to us, to our relationship. The problem is that I know how easily a therapist can walk away from a client. I’m not a part of her life and of all the people in her life I’m not very important and it wouldn’t hurt her much to leave me. The relationship is supposed to help heal but that only works when I’m buying into the illusion that I really mean something to her.Then something happens and reality sinks in again. and I pull away. I don’t understand how therapy is supposed to help at all once the illusions are broken.

  30. Over the past year, I’ve received many distressed comments from people who want/need to believe or argue for their certainty that their therapists feel nothing for them. And want to tell me that I am either deluding myself, lying about my own experience, or that I am cynically making something up to sell something or to “pretend I care when I dont”.

    Frankly, I am not interested enough in being a good person to pretend much. I’m more interested in being a whole person

    I don’t usually respond because it feels fruitless to argue with a belief that another person is attached to, for probably very legitimate reasons personal to them.

    But, there was just enough space in your comment, which I appreciate, to make me want to respond to your very honest question:

    I can’t speak for any other therapist, or about any clients other than what my own experience permits.

    It is important for therapists to keep their feelings for clients out of the way for clients sake.

    Healthy therapists generally are not dependent on their clients. But there are many forms of affection, connection, investment, and attachment that don’t involve dependance. We all affect each other.

    If it feels less agitating not to think at all about your therapists feelings – and keep the focus on your own healing for now – that is perfectly legitimate and important. Maybe sometimes it is easier to think of therapists as big, and solid and entirely objective and unaffectable. Like a rock. People need us to be solid as rocks sometimes, and so we try to be for the 50 minute hour – and take care of our feelings on our own time. Sometimes clients need to trust us not to impinge on them above all else.

    I needed that myself for many many years.

    But sometimes in our healing, when/if we are ready, we may need to learn and understand how we do affect people, how to trust, how to be in fluid, fluctuating connections with people who care but who also have their own limits, wounds and subjective internal experience. At that point, when the client feels it is time for mutuality, and time for a new and different kind of trust to emerge – it begins what is often a long process of taking in and spitting out, of approach and avoid, cycles of trust and suspicion, of cynicim and faith – as the therapist moves back and forth in our line of vision from All Good to All Bad. I passed through that dark valley too.

    It is a painful and trying process for both people as alliance and connection and mutual trust is lost and reagained and lost again.

    But, for me, its how I began to integrate all the opposites, and paradoxes that exist in myself, and in the people I love and in the world at large. Perhaps I have very loveable and hard to love or even unlovable bits at my core and my therapist could see that and accept all of it. Perhaps he has loveable and unloveable bits too, and I came to accept that as well.

    Where ever you are in this process is legitimate, and I’m not sure I believe these “stages” are linear or progressive or even that they are epigenetic.

    And if you need your therapist to keep their experiences of you out of your way, you have a right to ask for that, in my opinion. I am appreciatively humbled when a client corrects my course, and teaches me how to be a better therapist for them.

    For what it is worth.

    I wish you all the best.


  31. “People need us to be solid as rocks sometimes, and so we try to be for the 50 minute hour – and to take care of our feelings on our own time. Sometimes clients need to trust us not to impinge on them. I needed that myself for many many years.”

    This reply helped me, too. I’m definitely still in that place for now!

  32. Thank you for replying. I appreciate it. I don’t think you’re lying or pretending at all. I believe my therapist when she says she cares (although I didn’t always) but I suppose I think of it more as a generic caring – caring for all humans. And I’m not saying I believe this about your or any other therapist, just my own. I think she can care, maybe even love me in whatever her definition of love is, and find it relatively easy to leave me. I know this is influenced by a past therapist who walked away very easily – or at least appeared to. I think I’m finding it hard to come to terms with the differentness of the relationship. If she became very ill for a long period of time I wouldn’t be able to see her during that time like I would with anyone else in my life. I find it hard to believe that her feelings are real and about me when there are these walls that I’m not allowed past. The relationship is so different to others it feels like the feelings can’t be the same as they are in more ‘normal’ relationships. I guess I want it to be more real, for her to want me in a real way. It’s agony to be near her because I want things I can never have and I’m trying to get my head around it all but it makes no sense to me. I think I may not be able to tolerate a therapy relationship. It brings up too much pain and neediness in me I think. I’ll always want more than I can have.

  33. Just for myself, and my own path: this is where mourning comes in and creates an opportunity for healing – we can keep reaching for corrective experiences to fill up spaces left empty or abandoned long ago- or we can grieve the reality that some parts of our earliest needs may never be able to be met by the right people at the right time- while remembering that many other needs can be met and responded to in the present – sorting it through takes time and is very painful. We lose opportunities and different ones remain.

    I really appreciate this dialogue, its given me a chance to clarfy and write out my thoughts that I didn’t have a chance to share with others.

    Wishing you some rest and ease along the way.


  34. Thank you for your reply. Does the mourning ever really end? I feel like I’m always going to want someone to meet those unmet needs. I’m always going to be striving for something or someone who will ‘make up’ for the things I missed. I have times when I guess you would say I am mourning, when I see that I’m not going to get what I want/need, but the hope and the striving is always there. I don’t see myself ever really accepting that I won’t get those needs met or not wishing for that. I worry that the mourning will be a lifelong process and that I may be making it worse by seeing a therapist who I like so much and who I’m so attached to. Maybe I would be better off with someone who can help me with past traumas but who I don’t feel such a strong connection with. I don’t know how much longer I can stay in this therapy relationship – it’s like dying of hunger and living right outside a restaurant. What I want is so close but I’m not allowed to have it. I want to quit after every session because it’s so painful.

  35. I hope you are talking about that in your therapy itself. Hopefully you can decide together.

    All I can say is it often takes longer than we think we can stand.


  36. I don’t know about all professions. But I know for sure all of us should be required to sit on both sides. You have a way with words that captures the process completely. The healing comes when the container is bounded with love, but sometimes in order to hold, it has to remain unspoken.

  37. Frankly, I can’t understand why anyone would want to enter this field without having had their own treatment. If I hadn’t been immersed in a process of my own – its nothing I would have ever considered.

    Maybe I’d have been an astronomer. Oh wait, I can’t do math. I’d have figured something out- but I would never have considered this.

    Thanks for reading. Glad it speaks to your experience as well.


  38. I wanted more than basic, positive regard from my therapist.
    I envy you that that was enough for you.
    My therapist’s behavior made me feel that he personally loved me; my self.
    And it turns out that he doesn’t, he cares in a limited way, but he doesn’t love me.
    Discovering that, as a person who grew up without any love, has been very painful.

  39. I can’t speak to the specifics of your situation.
    I hear that it is painful for you and am sorry that is so. I would encourage you to continue to speak about the grief and pain this is bringing up for you in therapy.


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