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Malcolm Welland  MA, Dip CTP, Member CAPT, Clinical Member OSP


Malcolm Welland, psychodynamic therapist Toronto, Canada

Self-Acceptance in Therapy

I am trained as a psychodynamic therapist. What that means is primarily focusing on what the client is unaware of, or unconscious of, in order to alleviate psychic conflicts. What this entails is a definite approach to the psychotherapeutic endeavour which differs from many current approaches that have been developed. Here are three principles summed up by C.G. Jung which I feel are important:

1. [Therapy is] not a method of putting something into the patient that was not there before. … Working to [a] programme, on a preconceived system, we spoil the best effects of [therapy].

2. … the tasks of [therapy are not so much] a question of getting rid of troublesome pathological symptoms, but of the [person] learning to know himself completely – not just his anxiety experiences – and on the basis of this knowledge building up and shaping his life anew. But he himself must be the builder; …

3. What direction the patient's life should take in the future is not ours to judge. We must not imagine that we know better than his own nature.

What follows are some reflections on these principles and how they inform some aspects of psychodynamic therapy.

#1 [Therapy is] not a method of putting something into the patient that were not there before. … Working to [a] programme, on a preconceived system, we spoil the best effects of [therapy].

A therapist is not going to work from an agenda. If I feel that the person needs to do something or address a particular aspect of their experience in order to get through a painful issue I might nudge them with that suggestion but it cannot be tied to that idea otherwise I will miss something else that the person needs to address presently. To have an agenda limits my perspective. Therapy and certainly with all life changing processes there is no such thing as a one size fits all. " Therapy comes from a Greek word which means "to wait, to attend upon" the way a midwife waits expectantly. I must wait patiently to see what the person presents to us.

#2 … the tasks of [therapy are not so much] a question of getting rid of troublesome pathological symptoms, but of the [person] learning to know himself completely – not just his anxiety experiences – and on the basis of this knowledge building up and shaping his life anew. But he himself must be the builder; …

This is the most important aspect of any school of therapy and it is this that I see as being the critical element for working with conflicts, tensions, confusions that a client brings into a therapeutic setting: it is the task of self knowledge, admitting and accepting that there are some unpleasant, nasty and maybe dark things about me and that these may definitely be getting in the way of me living a good happy life.

Conversely it also involves accepting all those things which may be fine and splendid about us, those good virtues that possibily we see in others but not ourselves. This is the task of working with the "shadow", as Jung referred to it; all those aspects good and bad about ourselves we don't want to acknowledge.

The more we dig in our own garden, so to speak, the more we are bound to uncover things we not only didn't expect but more significantly we don't like and would like to bury again. William Blake the English, poet and printmaker once wrote: with the seeing comes the judging.

This is what part of the process of psychodynamic therapy involves, this subtle weaving of understanding more about ourselves while at the same time wrestling with the acceptance of what we find and this acceptance is something hard won and essential to our psychotherapeutic endeavour. Nothing is more awful than seeing a person eaten up with self-hatred and being unable to accept and ultimately forgive themselves for being human.

C. G. Jung expressed the difficulty of this task this way:

"The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ -- all these are undoubtedly great virtues. …But what if I should discover that the least among them all,… the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself -- that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness -- that I myself am the enemy who must be loved -- what then? … [T]here is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we … condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves."

Why is self knowledge important and fundamentally at the root of the whole process? Self knowledge leads to a profound self acceptance which does open the door to self forgiveness. Self forgiveness can become a major project in therapy often more so than someone trying to work through whether so and so should be forgiven for what they've done to me!

With respect to dealing with someone who has wronged us this self acceptance lends itself to empathy and the capacity to have a sense of what the other is feeling is a way to cross the distance between me and other. Based on our familiarity with our own faults we can see others in a different light. This enlarges the context of who the offender is. They become more human and more like us!

But the other factor is that learning to be familiar with how we really are at times, leads to an increased capacity to hold the tension within us between what is good and what is not. If we can master this tension long enough we find that there is a resolution in some form which might lead to a profound sense of acceptance.

W. B. Yeats expresses beautifully in the following lines the power and the hard work in self forgiveness and self- acceptance. These are from a much longer poem: "A Dialogue of Self and Soul":

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

#3 What direction the patient's life should take in the future is not ours to judge. We must not imagine that we know better than his [or her] own nature.

This last statement of Jung's highlights the fundamental dynamic of the psychodynamic process. The self-knowledge we gain in therapy comes with a price; the cost of which is with an increase in our awareness we can come to an acceptance of what that entails or we can refuse what we find and thereby experience a diminishment of our capacity to be open to what life presents.

He postulates that there is a certain "organic" quality at work in therapy and we subvert a much deeper natural process if we impose too conscious or rational or prescribed idea as to what should emerge in the therapy.

Therapy becomes a lens through which our attention towards things, people and experiences in our life is focused. We might normally be confused or over look such events amidst the rush of our day to day life but wrestling with who we are as opposed to who we think we are, this continual struggle between consciousness and unconsciousness, the continual attempt of trying to master what life presents us with in terms of existential realities is the dynamic of our psychic life. In therapy we are presented with the opportunity to learn not only a sense of self-acceptance but we also learn to trust ourselves more and discern better and clearer what we need to do in order to live a better life.

© Malcolm Welland 2013 May not be duplicated or distributed without permission of the author.

I have two locations. My office in Guelph is an easy drive from Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Orangeville and many other locations in south-western Ontario. Here's a map to my Guelph location. In response to many client enquiries I am now opening an office in central Toronto here at 258 Dupont at Spadina near the Dupont TTC subway.

My other articles on therapy are available at my subdomain.