What is the most important factor that contributes to positive therapeutic outcomes? The type of therapy used? The amount of qualifications that the therapist has? The type of room where the therapy takes place? The amount of time a person spends in therapy? No, it is none of these. The most important factor for predicting positive therapeutic outcomes is, what is called, the ‘therapeutic alliance’. This is essentially the relationship that exists between the therapist and the person coming to see them. Numerous studies have shown that the therapeutic alliance is the most vital aspect of therapy. But what is this therapeutic alliance and what gives it such power?
Many psychotherapists and counsellors use the phrase coined by the counsellor, Carl Rogers, ‘unconditional positive regard’, to describe what is deemed essential for positive outcomes in therapy. Others speak of ‘genuine love’ or ‘genuine loving relationships’ as key to therapeutic success, e.g. psychiatrist and author of the book, ‘The Road Less Travelled’, Dr Scott Peck, and his followers. All recognize that charity and love play a central role in counselling and therapy. While many different therapies and therapists compete against each other in the marketplace to promote their particular type of therapy, there is nothing more powerful and effective than being helped and guided by someone who truly cares for you. We know this from our own experiences. When we are in trouble and the world seems to be crashing in on us, we naturally tend to look for help from those who are charitable, caring and kind. As we struggle through this life, we all need help and a bit of genuine love from time to time. The importance of the therapeutic alliance is also backed up by what the science tells us, with a comprehensive investigation concluding that ‘the quality of the client–therapist alliance is a reliable predictor of positive clinical outcome independent of the variety of psychotherapy approaches and outcome measures’ (Ardito & Rabellino, 2011). No matter what therapy is used, it will be useless without ‘genuine love’, ‘unconditional positive regard’, ‘therapeutic alliance’ (call it what you will) being at the heart of it. St Paul expresses this deep truth beautifully: ‘If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.’ (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). But how do we know if someone has charity in them? One piece of advice in making a decision about who to trust and open to is this:
It’s in the Eyes
The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be! (Matthew 6: 22-23)
Our Lord emphasises the importance of the eyes as ‘the light of the body’. Our eyes are the windows to the soul and offer a glimpse at the divine spark within us. In our modern society, sometimes we can become so disillusioned with the state of things that we fail to look for or fail to recognise the glimpses of goodness that can still be seen in others. This cynical attitude is exemplified by Bob Dylan in his song, ‘It’s Not Dark Yet (But It’s Getting There)’, where he sings about how he has almost given up completely on people, ‘I’ve been down on the bottom of the world full of lies, I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes, Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear, It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there’. Sometimes all we see is anger or darkness or danger in someone else’s eyes. This can be particular true if we have not received adequate care, love and attention from important figures in our own lives, e.g. our parents, or we are burnt out by our experiences of the world. Like Bob, we can stop even looking for the light in another’s eyes. When we do meet someone whose eyes are shining (or ‘smiling’ as the famous song, ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ tells us), and we recognise this light, it can give us a lift and help us to get through the toughest periods in our lives. We can see light in the world again through their eyes. Through someone’s eyes we can often tell if they really care for or love us and if we can trust them.
Before I lose myself in romantic notions about this life, I do want to give a note of caution. Don’t fall for cheap imitations of the therapeutic alliance. Don’t fall for the helping professionals who just nod their head and occasionally throw out a ‘that must be tough’ slogan and treat you like a commodity or a being without a unique soul. Marketers, advertisers, government spin doctors and businesses know the psychological tricks to convince you that they are kinder and more compassionate than they seem – they are skilled at this, e.g. they have even helped to create the notion that abortion is ‘compassionate’. Along with engaging your heart and senses in evaluating whether you see light and goodness in someone else, make sure to engage your mind as well. Without being cynical, be mindful in evaluating whether what certain people are selling is aligned with reality. Make sure that the people you decide to trust and open up to have a firm understanding of the reality of this life. Check out the actual fruits of the professional’s labour and if they have really helped people overcome their distress. Through reading, studying, prayer and reflection, come to know what the words ‘compassion’ and ‘love’ actually mean and do not fall for distortions of the truth of these words. While being humble, trust your common sense. Keep before your mind and heart, memories of someone who you knew really loved you. Focus on the divine and supernatural images, words and ideas associated with Love. In doing so you store in your heart and mind the true understanding of compassion, love and charity. You will then know them when you see them and it becomes less likely you will be duped by imitations, however clever they might appear.
Even when it’s getting dark all around you, keep searching for the shining and smiling eyes in the world, whether that be in the eyes of the professionals you meet, friends and family members you have, or the strangers you meet along this journey. While it is tempting to give up while we struggle through this valley of tears, this Easter period shows us that the darkness cannot master the Light. Have courage and keep looking for those sparks of goodness and light in others. Hopefully, in time, your eyes will shine and smile again too. Then you can be a light in the world for someone else and add goodness and joy to this world, which, in turn, can help others along the straight and narrow path. And as the song goes,
Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, ’tis like the morn in Spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter
You can hear the angels sing