Most of the people who come to see me are expecting lots of homework between sessions. They have a problem that they want fixed. Obviously there is something wrong with them, and they think I’m in the self-improvement business.
When I tell them that there’s actually nothing wrong with them, nothing to fix, and that I don’t give homework it can be a bit unsettling.
This notion that there is something wrong with us is deeply embedded in our psyche as an unconscious belief. Preachers have capitalized on this belief for centuries. Their jobs are to deliver the solution by providing the flock with another set of beliefs: a) you, sir, are a sinner and have been from the get-go; b)Jesus is the Son of God; and c) believe this and your sin will be wiped away. You go from being a sinner to a saint by believing the right things, starting with the belief that your own nature is fallen and degraded. Jesus provides the upgrade.
There are many contemporary derivatives of this religious belief that don’t make any explicit reference to you being bad. But it’s implicit. Much of the coaching profession (not all) assumes that life is about improving yourself. The coach is there to deliver the homework or program and to hold you accountable. The woke movement, too, is religion by another name. The religion goes by the name of Inclusivity. Diversity. Equality. All solid values. But when they harden into dogma god help the sinner who uses the wrong pronoun. You’ll be cancelled, shamed, and attacked. When you hear environmentalists claim that Earth would be better off without evil humans, it’s a misanthropic derivative of the doctrine of original sin. All utopian visions, that involve centrally planned futures by an elite on behalf of the lost masses, are also religion by another name. Communism, fascism, cults, they all distrust individual freedom and sovereignty. The masses need to be controlled, for their own good, you understand.
Historically, the masses have acquiesced, even welcomed, their controllers. I will exchange my freedom for your promise of safety, security and salvation in the New Jerusalem that you are promising. I will give your administrative state and the experts who are in charge half of my money in the form of taxes as long as you do a good enough job at fostering the illusion of absolute security.
I have a daughter who is 16 months old. As far as I can tell, she wasn’t born bad. My job is to feed her, love her, and protect her. Life does pretty much the rest. I want to find a school that also trusts the intelligence of Life to come to full flower in her, through her and as her. The work is to love her (not an onerous task), pay attention to what lights her up and give her more of that, protect her for a time from harm; and make sure that she knows she deeply belongs here.
It is not to mold her, change her, or improve her in any way.
So, why would the therapeutic relationship be any different? Very few of us know what it feels like to be taken seriously, to have another emotionally attune to us and make room for all of our feelings to be expressed. Fewer have been truly delighted in, and trusted to find our own way with loving, mindful attention.
Sadly, most of us have been neglected, unseen, punished and frightened and taught that there is something wrong with us. Then we hear some preacher pontificate about original sin and it resonates with a deep self-loathing that was not of our making. We learn too early and too often that there must be something wrong with us or we wouldn’t be hurt by the people who are supposed to love us. And then the people who hurt us claim to love us, leaving us confused and bewildered and unable to trust ourselves to make sense of reality because we’ve been hoodwinked and gaslit.
The mystics of every religious lineage have experienced directly that they are a beautiful and radiant reflection of God/Creator. All the shame and guilt, and anger and contorting of this fundamental identity is caused by trauma.
I suspect that the doctrine of original sin describes what humans become when they are not adequately loved, when a mirror is not held up to them which reflects their divine image. We see ourselves through a cracked mirror that distorts who we really are. Because this lovelessness and violence toward babies and children goes back generations it can be mistaken for being “original”. It’s not. It’s created by humans who have been hurt, hurting their own children, generation after generation.
The upshot is that many of us spend a lifetime looking for the cure for what’s wrong with them.
I repeat, nothing.
Therapy is a process of learning to deeply relax in the presence of another who allows you to be who you are without trying to change you or having any particular ambition for you. The non-shaming container of the therapeutic relationship is a reset, a getting-to-know who you are when you are seen as the beautiful human that you are. In the context of this relationship you learn to let go of all of your strategies to be loved and to belong at the expense of the true you. When you learn that the true you is eminently loveable in all its quirkiness and variegated beauty, you can press the restart and curate a life that is aligned with your desire. Which is to say, you can start to live your own life.
Let nothing get in the way of that because whatever That is that gave us life wants to know itself through you, and can only do so if you are being true to yourself.
You can stop trying so hard to be the mysterious something or somebody that others want you to be. Just relax and be you.