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The Center of Relational Psychology

Oftentimes, I am introduced by a friend to a new group of people with the titles, “friend”, “psychotherapist”, “nurse”, or “artist.” Frankly, I like all these descriptors, for no single word describes who I am. But of course, the one I enjoy the most is “friend”, for in that title denotes our connection to each other, and there are very few titles I could prize higher than that of friend. If I’ve been a friend to someone, I’m honored! Yet it says something else: to be a friend, I must have learned to be a friend to myself. This is the heart of the psychology of relationships: learning to be a friend to oneself, and then one can be a friend to nearly anyone.

photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.
photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.

We often joke in psychological circles that the traditional psychotherapeutic session starts with questions about the client’s family of origin, particularly about the client’s relationship with his mother and father. Was Mother a smothering presence that never let her son do anything for himself? Was Father a critical man, or worse — absent — from his daughter’s primary growing-up years? By all means, these are important pieces of data that influence the therapist’s understanding of her client’s world, but THIS is not the the start of the therapy session.

Are You My Friend?
I often have this thought about the client as s/he talks to me on the phone for the first time: “Does this client know how to help himself?” In other words, is this client able to be the kind of friend to himself that he often called upon to be to others? I listen to how the client thinks of himself, talks about himself, and makes arrangement for the first visit. I observe for the presence of kindness, cruel language, apologies, flat affect, listlessness, or impatience.

Most people seeking services from Seattle Direct Counseling are willing to admit that not all is well in this department. It doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. It can mean that you’ve forgotten how to really address your own needs, care for yourself, or be “in your own corner” as an advocate for your best interests. Sometimes, people are so caught up in trying to change someone else that they forget that the only person to be changed is the one seeking it — you! Changing oneself, then, can be true act of friendship, with long-term ramifications with the restructuring of deeply entrenched patterns of negative and hurtful behavior with others: children, spouse, lovers, friends, co-workers, bosses, and whole communities. I have literally watched the light go on for someone, and then that person’s household literally brighten with that person’s new understanding and changed attitude.

The Golden Rule in Modern Day Psychology

I am not a big fan of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In an age of great selfishness, poor introspection, narcissism, and heightened anxiety, many of us realize that the “others” out there might not treat you all that well as you could imagine.  Secondly, many of you have stumbled on a key ingredient that sounds as crazy as it is:

not everyone wants your kindness, and sometimes, neither do you. 

Depending on where you’re at, you may have discovered people around you who reject kindness, mistreat you after you’ve shown kindness, or act out of obligation or guilt when you’ve shown kindness. While I’m not asking you to stop being kind to others, it may be time to understand how you withhold it from yourself in ways that cause others to be aware of your resentment, your fatigue, or your poor time management skills.

An example may be the teacher who spends hours instructing children in English, only to recognize she is resentful of not having the time to read books, educate herself, or develop her own character. Arriving to school exhausted and haggard, in three year’s time she has gained weight, suffered several damaging bouts of upper respiratory infections that have damaged her immune system, and left her vulnerable to feelings of anger with depressive withdrawal. For this teacher to learn to be kind to herself, she may need to learn when to say yes and when to say no, and for this, she will lose the support of some. If she is not a strong friend to herself, she will cave into the demands of others; if she is a strong friend to herself, she can become a powerful model and change agent of a healthy person in the midst of chaotic people or an unsupportive environment.

Finding My “Other”

Many single people talk about wanting to find that special someone, and that search is a wonderful adventure. Yet I find that when the talk turns to wanting to find that someone who “completes” you, I cringe. If you’re religious, you might turn to quotes such as God being the only One who fills your God-shaped vacuum, and if that is the case, you won’t need to find a person to complete you. If you’re not religious, you may realize the futility of trying to find someone to complete you because you simply don’t need completing; that is, you are good, complete, and whole as you are. Whichever orientation, religious or not, the quest is not about finding someone to complete you, but to realize who you are already.

When you are ready to press into this reality — being all that you are without trying to stuff someone into your sense of completeness — you are simply magnificent. This is easier said than done! Over time, you’ve learned other stories, other falsehoods, other brilliant fabrications to keep you from growing, succeeding, and changing. You may need to do some reading, temporarily take some emotional space away from those who are choking your thinking, or hire a professional counselor, coach, or other kind of advisor to help you reconstruct a new pathway of relational health, starting with you.

Now, it’s your turn. Do you know the elements friendship? Do you extend them to yourself first? When you do, are you drained when you extend them to yourself? How about when your needs are taken care of? Do you feel drained when you extend friendship to others? To your co-workers? To your spouse? To your children? To your in-laws?

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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