The Recovery of Wholeness

“Psychotherapy is an obstinate attempt of two people to recover the wholeness of being human through the relationship between them.”  — R. D. Laing (1967)

I recently came across this quotation and it seems to me to eloquently and succinctly capture what psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are all about.

It seems to me that the core of the sentence is found in the idea of recovery: that the experience of “the wholeness of being human” is something to be recovered. That experience, particularly in our busy modern age, has been lost. I suppose there are a number of explanations for this loss. Some might view it from a political perspective, what happens when materialism and money become a central focus for the culture. Other explanations may rest on psychological and developmental factors.

There is the Romantic idea, expressed by writers such as Keats, Wordsworth, and Blake, of this sense of inevitable loss. This view as it that we are born, in the imagery of Blake, in innocence and progress through life towards experience, with inevitable loss experienced along the way. These writers and thinkers suggest the loss of wholeness is intrinsic to human life.

From a psychological perspective, I am interested in the idea that something of the wholeness of being human is lost in the process of adapting to one’s surroundings. From the very beginning of life, the need to survive is connected to the ability to adapt to one’s circumstances. Psychologically speaking, much of this adaptation involves adhering to the expectations of one’s caregivers. If a child learns that what is expected of him is obedience, “being seen and not heard,” something of his self, his vitality, is lost in order to accommodate and comply. Or when someone learns that she is seen as having less value than other members of her family, something of her self-esteem, sense of worth, is lost.

There is also a loss of oneself in the defenses that one creates in order to survive. Perhaps a person, given unfathomable hurts and disappointments, constructs a defensive strategy of autonomy – he does not need others. While this strategy serves to protect him from ongoing disappointment, it also limits him and his ability to relate to others. Parts of that person, the ability to depend on others, trust others, are lost.

Another area that whittles away at a person’s sense of wholeness is trauma. Traumas, big and small, cause a person to lose aspects of him or herself. Often there is a loss of trust in others. Often a person’s vitality has been lost in the emotional retreat to protect oneself.

The essential endeavor of psychotherapy is to recover these parts of oneself, to strive towards wholeness. And as the quotation above suggests, this striving is done in the context of a human relationship. All human growth happens through relationship. Psychotherapy provides that relationship between client and therapist.

And finally I am drawn to one particular word in the above quotation: “obstinate.” I believe that that word speaks volumes. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are undertakings that requires obstinacy, a word synonymous with courage and sustained effort. These endeavors are not easy. They require time and often involve feeling many distressing and uncomfortable feelings, particularly loss and disappointment. It takes an obstinate approach by both client and therapist to see it through. I’m quite committed to the effort because I have seen that the result is worth it: a person who feels more vitality and more expansiveness. More wholeness.

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