The Presence Cure

You can also read this article in Psychology Today here

The greatest lesson I learned at a conference I facilitated for over fifty nonprofit leaders in Amsterdam earlier this month dates back to a troubled American teenager named Mark.

Don’t Give Up on Me

At sixteen years old, Mark had been expelled from a public school in the US and was attending a makeshift alternative school. Mark had a history of neglect and trauma. His parents didn’t care much about his education and even supported his entering a local street gang.

In order to graduate, it was mandatory that Mark, against his wishes, meet with a psychologist once per week in a dirty trailer on the school campus. The psychologist, Jessica Stone, noted that Mark didn’t want to talk about his family or life history, or about much of anything for that matter. Yet she had been hired to meet with him for an hour every week for the entire academic year.

Jessica decided that she would ask Mark to choose a game he would like to play. He selected MasterMind, a game of strategy (that I also played as a kid and my children love). She played MasterMind with Mark “each week, without fail,” for the entire schoolyear.

Jessica wondered if her role as a psychologist-cum-game-partner was making any difference whatsoever. “At times I didn’t know what we were really doing,” she admitted. “I didn’t know how our time was therapeutic.”

At the end of eight months, something amazing happened: Mark completely turned his life around. He improved his class participation, grades and behavior so dramatically that he was transferred back to a regular public school and was soon on track to graduate with his class.

Just. Be. Here.

I once listened to Thich Nhat Hanh speak at the Warner Theater in Washington, DC. “What is the greatest gift you can give to the person you love?” he asked the audience about halfway through his talk. Over ten thousand people went silent.

“To be fully present,” he shared.

Mark’s “connection to me … and his self-worth all strengthened as we continued to meet,” shared Stone. “This generalized to other parts of his life … his view of his own life possibilities blossomed.”

Mark turned his life around despite the fact that “we just played MasterMind week after week for eight full months.”

In her eyes, Jessica merely played this game with Mark each week after walking with him from their meeting point to the dirty trailer where she worked. Yet by offering Mark what no one else had ever offered him before in his life—presence—she did much, much more. “He was important. I showed up for him,” Jessica shared.

“It was my job to attend, be present, be open to him and what he needed to show me, and follow through with what I learned about him through the interactions,” Stone recounts. “His ability, willingness, and desire to trust another person grew as the months went by.”

The Talking Cure 2.0

As Stone demonstrated, Freud may have made a semantic error when he called psychotherapy “the talking cure.” The father of psychoanalysis coined this term based on the famous case of Bertha Pappenheim (aka “Anna O”) in his 1895 book Studies on Hysteria.

I propose that a better term for psychotherapy in our current era of social disconnection might be “the presence cure.”

When we offer another person presence, we help them move just a few steps forward on their journey to discover happiness, success and meaning in their life. How? All of these desirable, graceful life states are contingent on one simple yet elusive variable: compassionate, meaningful social relationships.

When we help another person believe either for the first time in their life or once again after various disappointments that their interpersonal relationships can be filled with compassion and meaning, we enable them to open the door to a world filled with opportunities to give and receive love. There is no other world that holds any meaning or attraction for any of us.

Further, what keeps us returning to and benefiting from a psychologist is not merely that we talk and they listen. Rather, it’s that they hold us in high regard (as Stone did Mark), listen with empathy, and also express themselves with authenticity.

Even the founder of client-centered therapy and the former president of the American Psychological Association did more than just listen as a clinical therapist; Carl Rogers was also known to express his genuine feelings about how his patients’ confronted their life challenges.

Your Offer to Others

As we can learn from Jessica Stone, in our increasingly disconnected world a human being willing to just be present may be all we need to believe again in the potential joy and transformative power of human relationships. Whether you are a parent, sibling, friend, psychologist or educator, make the transformative decision to offer a gift to other people that’s never been in such short supply and high demand as it is today: unmitigated presence.

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