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Self-relations describes how psychotherapy might be used to cultivate the courage and freedom to love. First described in Stephen Gilligan's article: The relational self: the expanding of love beyond desire (1996), and expanded on in his book: The Courage to Love (1997), it has become a major new approach in psychotherapy and healing. It refers to a form of support, help, and assistance, usually found in psychotherapy and other therapeutic contexts, but also found in executive coaching, community building, and other forms of healing.
It takes as its starting point, that 'symptoms' are most often the sign of something trying to "wake up" within a person, causing both visible and hidden conflict. It views symptoms such as violence and withdrawal, as born of a "skill-less" attempt to awaken oneself. Self-relations asserts that therapeutic work should always be centered on supporting this awakening process, allowing and helping it to grow, rather than immediately practicing specific 'techniques' to 'fix' or eradicate symptoms.
Accordingly, although self-relations draws upon many distinct schools and traditions of therapy and healing, it works primarily with the flow of life, to awaken 'soul' and love in a person's experience of themselves and others. It draws upon other traditions of guidance and awakening so that powerful human experiences can be used to guide someone's process of self-awakening, which can often be painful and confused.
Self-relations is based on the ideas of Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D., who has spent many years exploring and building on the legacy of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., the father of American clinical hypnosis. Erickson viewed symptoms as "naturalistic trance states" or communications from the unconscious, that could be deciphered and used to promote healthy change and healing. He developed under the umbrella of hypnotherapy numerous communication techniques to enter into dialog with a person's deepest self and consciousness.
Self-relations has extended Erickson's legacy. In brief, the path of self-relations suggests that working with the inner self-relational process within a person is not only important, but is critical and often primary. Thus the therapeutic or helping relationship is devoted to opening up and expanding the depth and fluidity of self-relational processes, and helping a person to experience these for themself.
A key concept in self-relations is sponsorship. Sponsorship is an attempt to support this process by holding a space open for a person to enter, explore, and test out their feelings, thoughts, and intentions, and feel trusted and safe to do so. Self-relations psychotherapy is a powerful and expanding set of ideas and practices to support such explorations.
Perspectives on self-relations and sponsorshipEdit
Stephen Gilligan's description of self-relationsEdit
- (From an Erickson Foundation review of Stephen Gilligan's audiobook "The Sponsorship of Soul".  )
Gilligan defines 'symptoms' as an awakening of the soul, the leaking of life from a person who has in some way been wounded or scarred in the process of living. This perspective acknowledges that the purpose of a symptom, such as depression, or panic, might be to call a person to seriously reexamine their life, to begin a process of reanimating their life with new found purpose and intensity. It goes deeper than what therapists would normally call reframing. Gilligan sees violence as a skill-less form of love. He describes it as a means by which somebody is trying to awaken the center within them, the soulfulness within them, but does not really have a clear idea about how to do that. The therapist's job is to be there as "sponsor," to touch with love whatever a person brings. If there is not a mature human presence to be able to touch it, connect with it, to bring it into traditions, that awakening will be seen to have no human value.
There are three key aspects to sponsorship:
- The intent is to awaken in a person the awareness of the goodness and the gifts of who they are,
- It awakens one to the goodness and to the gifts and to the possibilities that are in the world, and
- It fosters traditions that connect and bring these things into something that has human value.
In his work, Gilligan provides many examples of the various forms that positive sponsorship may take. He illustrates the significance of sponsorship in human relationships and soulfulness not only between individuals but also on a community level, exploring the way Anne Sullivan served as a sponsor for Helen Keller's process of awakening, and using stories from his own parenting experiences, together with examples from African tribal rituals, Aikido, and Tibetan philosophy. All these serve to highlight the importance of sponsorship in every human circumstance.
Self relations vs supportEdit
Self relations and sponsorship need to be carefully distinguished from other forms of support, exploration and validation, as seeking to encompass a different quality of approach. The emphasis is less upon a technique or a way to talk to people, and more upon feeling that which is trying to awaken within, and making it safe to do so. Its aim is less the "solving" of problems, and more the re-humanising of individuals, who may be weary, cynical, lost or hurt inside, and who have lost (or forgotten) some or all of their ability to self-relate in this sense. As such it is a gentle, yet powerful, form of re-establishing balance and connectedness in a person.
Intimacy (in its true sense) and a slower more felt approach based upon re-establishing a connection with oneself, is seen by Gilligan as profoundly important in reaching out to others, as are a willingness to engage as necessary with:
- fierceness — the will to reach decisions, and act if needed,
- tenderness — the will to care utterly, and
- mischievousness — the will to playfully explore, have fun, and wonder "what if?"
Gilligan observes that each of these is essential to balanced sponsorship, or indeed to help of most kinds, and that imbalance of these can lead to problems or harm in any relationship.
Working with third partiesEdit
This approach can also be extended to work with people or groups on their external relationships. Each partner in a relationship is supported in a way that allows an exploration of the internal relational dynamics in each person, and a growing understanding of how these dynamics are played out in the relationship. This work allows partners to develop more depth and intimacy in their relationship.
- Gilligan, S. (1996). “The relational self: The expanding of love beyond desire”. In M. Hoyt (Ed.) Constructive Therapies 2 (pp. 211-237). New York: Guilford
- Gilligan, S.G., (1997). The courage to love: Principles and practices of self-relations psychotherapy. New York: Norton
- Stephen Gilligan
- The principle of sponsorship in psychotherapy
- The sponsorship of soul
- Basic Information and Articles on Self Relations Psychotherapy
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