Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that “Hell is other people.” While it may seem contradictory, even those of us who agree with this sentiment also recognize a strong desire to build close, meaningful relationships with other people.
This seeming contradiction lies at the heart of my approach to helping people develop meaningful relationships with other people in therapy. It begins with a serious acceptance that people are difficult. Do I mean to say that people are inherently (i.e. that we’ve biologically evolved that way) difficult? Probably not. I suspect that the ways people are difficult is a product of a long history of people doing a poor job of building with one another.
A bit of cultural commentary
Human beings can boast a long list of miraculous accomplishments. Most notably they are in the fields of science, medicine, exploration, the arts and literature, to name but a few. It is in contrast with these accomplishments that our lack of collective accomplishment in the areas of inter-personal relationships can seem staggeringly small. With some wonderful exceptions (all of which should be seen, shared and celebrated), we’re bad at being with one another. We’re not so good at building, giving, compromising and collaborating.
Getting better at building relationships in therapy
I’ve come to believe that most of the difficulties people come to me for help with (depression, anxiety, anger or loneliness) are seriously impacted by difficulties in relationships. If I can help people get better at building and sustaining relationships in therapy, this will go a long way towards helping them with the challenges that brought them into therapy to begin with.
So how does therapy help with difficulties in relationships? By building them. To start, the relationship that gets built is yours and mine. This isn’t because having a relationship with your therapist is the point of therapy, in-and-of itself–you’re coming to therapy to build relationships everywhere in your life. But what’s incredibly powerful about building a relationship with the therapist is that it provides a real-life opportunity to see, explore and (most importantly) develop how you build relationships right there, which is the best way to get better at doing it everywhere in life.
Group therapy is a terrific option for the same reason. In a diverse therapy group, you’ll have the privileged and the challenge of building relationships with different kinds of people. No doubt you’ll get along better or worse with some of them, or have an easier or harder time building with others. All of this means a bigger challenge that’s sure to help you get better at building relationships with everyone in your life.