I have recently started designing and facilitating psychotherapy groups for people with chronic/acute mental health diagnoses. When I initially took this position, I decided to ask my clients what issues they need help with the most, and their answer was relationships. Now, I think one of the main tasks in working with people who are in deep pain is to accompany them on the path back to their core self. However, I also hold the belief that we come to know ourselves through relationships. We explore our similarities and differences. We seek to be seen and understood, and we gain self knowledge when we see and understand other people. Most importantly, we develop empathy, which is the root of self compassion.
Because of this belief that I hold, I decided to design a relationship group that entails psychoeducation on Erikson’s eight stages in human development. In 1992, Harville Hendrix, PhD, published the New York Times Bestseller Keeping the Love You Find. In this book for couples, Hendrix explores Erikson’s stages of human development and how they impact our unconscious relationship patterns. The goal is to have a conscious relationship that acknowledges partnership as a means to healing and self growth. Hendrix also lists existential aspects of each stage, such as simply existing, becoming, being, caring, etc.
I embarked upon my teaching journey, and I discovered yet another facet of Erikson’s eight stages and selfhood/relationship. We are born into relationship, and yet as we grow, our circle of self and other widens. We explore what it means to relate to our primary caregivers, then peers, lovers, our own children or people we mentor/things we care for, and then we return to ourselves one last time before we reach the widest circle, that being re-absorption with the universe. Our ego develops and eventually incorporates a desire to keep more than the self safe. We don’t just grow in selfhood: we grow beyond ourselves and incorporate other into our sense of being in the world. This is learning love.
I didn’t know what to expect from my clients in relation to this topic, and yet they responded with great enthusiasm and resonance. It seems that some acknowledgement that they were impacted by others was crucial to them, but even more important was their desire to be impactful. Many of my clients were in mental institutions, homeless, or lost contact with family and friends due to their pathos. They felt tremendous loss and uselessness over their plight. I felt great pain for them. We felt pain together. I was so moved and impressed by the ability of my clients to sit with that pain in dignity, direct contact, and emotion that I don’t often see so visibly as I did teaching/facilitating this group. It reminded me that no matter what the condition, relating well and seeing people is the most primary treatment. Everything else is secondary.
I invite people to share their own stories, ask questions, and challenge my views. I hope it leads to dialogue about how we are in relationship with our clients, particularly those whose symptoms are classified as beyond neurotic, the isolation they feel as a result, and how we can create enough safety to bring people out of isolation and into the safety of acknowledging and feeling pain together in a way that strengthens selfhood and sense of community. How can we help people widen their circle?
Perhaps we can undo the lesson some of us have learned long ago to ineffectively assuage our hurts over rejection, exploitation, and loss, as echoed in the last line of this Indigo Girls song Love Will Come to You: “Learn to pretend there’s more than love that matters.” – Emily Saliers.
— Candice Hershman