The healing encounter
Some meetings feel different. They have a quality about them that touches us, renews us. They seem to heal or bind up something within.
Other meetings leave us feeling disjointed, dismissed, drained. They add to our general sense of loneliness.
What qualities define the former? What is it that ruins the potential of a meeting? How do we meet one another?
I like to think of it as a good handshake. Handshakes must start with a mutual unfurling. Hands must open to receive each other. Some meetings feel like our hands never open. We touch but with hands clenched, fist bumping or straightforward fighting. We cannot accept them as they are. We cannot tolerate them. So we remain closed and force them to close themselves off too.
It may not be obvious. Eric Berne, founder of Transactional Analysis, described the very common social games we play with each other that have predefined rules that we subscribe to. Perhaps its how we talk about the football, what we’re allowed to talk about at work, how we talk about kids or our ‘other halves’. In each case, the rules of the game close keep us safe, they prevent us from being awkward, but they close us off to the spontaneity and vulnerability of real encounters. They don’t feel like our fists are clenched, but our hearts are, defending against the attack of intimacy. We know that we could not reveal our true selves. We know that the other cannot. And the payoff of the polite smoothness of the safe status quo - particularly if this define all of our meetings - is that we add to our inner sense of loneliness.
If we can let our hands unclench a little, we open ourselves up to the other’s hand grasping ours. We are felt. We feel. We are heard. We hear. Perhaps many of us live our lives with an inner sense of being unwanted, perhaps of being incomprehensible or too much if we are truly known. When we experience being felt and the other’s hand, as it were, not recoiling, then our inner loneliness starts to be healed. When we experience someone else truly close to us, not like a weak half-hearted handshake when they sympathise, but the real deal of empathy, communicated by accurate words or a spontaneous tear, then the felt chasms between us are wonderfully bridged. You get me! I’m not too much or incomprehensible after all! Maybe I am part of this human race.
Of course, some people seem to open their hand up to receive ours but then retract it quickly as soon as touch is made. It’s like they say, ‘I want to receive you but not like that!’ This push and pull can trap us in a place of recurring rejection, a rejection all the more painful for having tried. No wonder we live most of our lives with our hands firmly clenched. It can be helpful at this point to see how the other is not so much rejecting contact with you, but rejecting contact with the parts of themselves that you are currently representing. Perhaps they want to get close to themselves, but they cannot bear it when they get too close.Perhaps you are just playing out an inner drama they replay day after day. Self-rejection is always the foundation of pushing someone else away.
Some handshakes seem to go on for a while. Some are crushing. Similarly, some meetings can be oppressive or overbearing. The other becomes too much. Maybe we feel we have to contort ourselves in order to fit their handshake. Maybe we sense that they are somehow still needing more, hungry, and we do not have a hand big enough. Like it’s never enough.
The act of releasing the other is a vital part of a nourishing encounter. We release the other to be as they are. We release the other to feel as they still do. We release the other to be without us, without our expectations or hopes. The freedom of the meeting is paramount. The freedom to enter and to leave, the freedom to be known or to hide, the freedom to be vulnerable or protected, the freedom to then have our own agency and not take the pressures of the relationship on with us determines, too, whether a meeting is empowering or crushing.
We probably have all experienced meetings that lack the welcoming, the knowing or the releasing. I hope we too have experienced meetings that contain something of these healing elements. The task I am left with - as a father and husband and friend and colleague as much as a therapist - is how much can I meet myself with these healing qualities. How much can I tread past the self-rejection I have learned or inherited, and come close to me so that I am able to get close to another. To the degree I can do that, to that degree I can touch, nourish, renew and heal another.