Anyone who engages in the practice of psychotherapy knows that it is oftentimes as much a learning experience for the therapist as for the client. Nearly thirty years ago, I conducted a therapy group in which there was a man, a few years younger than I, with whom I had great difficulty relating. He was passive to a degree I had rarely encountered; he seemed to have a soul I can only describe as "limp."
He showed up at the group meetings regularly and on time, and he answered questions if asked, but he rarely initiated anything. And for the life of me, I could not make contact with that spark every therapist has to count on—that thing within a person that wants to live, that wants to be happy, that wants to do more than simply lie down and surrender to uncontested pain.
On the infrequent occasions when he would ask to work on his problems, nothing we attempted ever seemed to lead anywhere. If we had what I felt was a productive session, by the following week it was as if it had never happened: He evidently had thought about nothing and retained nothing. I came to think of him as passivity incarnate. I thought of him as "the waif of the universe"—wistful, slack-lipped, helpless, and limp. As the weeks and then months passed, I grew more and more frustrated.
It's always been important to me to give every client I work with the experience of total and absolute respect. But one day with this man, I lost it—I exploded in exasperation and spoke as I had never spoken to a client before or ever would again. I said something like: "I need to tell you what I am experiencing right now.
I am feeling that I hate the profession I'm in—hate doing this kind of work. I feel totally incompetent and that our sessions are futile. Nothing I know is worth anything when I'm dealing with you."
Sure, I confined myself to "I" statements and avoided "you" statements, but what I said was devastating just the same. That night, telling my wife about the event, I was horrified by what I had done. It went against everything I believed. It was totally out of character. What was the matter with me?
I could not get the incident out of my mind, and a few days later at dinner with another couple, both of whom were therapists, I described what had happened and my mystified shock at
my behavior. The man, Hal Stone, said to me, "May I offer a psychological interpretation?" Of course, I invited him to proceed.
"I don't think," he said, "you have any trouble recognizing and owning most of your emotions: fear, anger, lust, or whatever. But I suspect there is one feeling you would never permit yourself and therefore would not recognize when it occurred. And yet all of us, simply by virtue of being human, would have to have that feeling once in a while. I'm talking about the feeling of passive helplessness. I suspect that the part of you that would experience such a feeling is disowned, split off from the rest of you, so that you're oblivious to it. And then—in the person of this client—fate sends you a caricature of this disowned piece of yourself. And I suspect that's why you reacted as you did."
Instantly I felt that what he was saying was true.
The next week with the group, I told everyone about what had been revealed to me. I apologized to my client. I said, "If I could not recognize and accept the part of me that sometimes feels as you do, if that part was denied and disowned by me, there is no way I would be able to work with you productively."
My client seemed to come to life in front of my eyes. He felt understood. He felt accepted. After that, therapy took off and we began to make progress. What I learned from this experience was that whatever I deny and disown within myself becomes a limitation on my effectiveness in working with others.
Today, in addition to practicing psychotherapy, I do corporate consulting, and the same principle is operative in that context. If, for example, I am working with a CEO or another executive who is resisting necessary change, I know that if I can make contact with the part of myself that sometimes resists necessary change, I will be more effective. If I am coaching a brilliant engineer who has difficulty working as a member of a team, I know that if I can connect with the part of myself that is attached to being the Lone Ranger, I will be more effective. If I am working with a manager who feels much more comfortable managing technology than managing people, I know that if I can connect with the part of me that can get impatient when people do not instantly grasp what I want them to grasp—and who sometimes hates to be bothered with "psychology"—I will be more effective.
I will be more effective because—being more empathetic—I will cause the person to feel psychologically visible. Feeling understood, he or she will be more open to new learnings and more willing to experiment with new ways of operating.
Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence and interpersonal competence.