Although I once brushed it off as trite and unrealistic, I’ve come to realize that Fromm was right: there is an art to loving.
I first read Erich Fromm’s landmark work, The Art of Loving, when I was studying elementary philosophy and psychology in college. I must confess that at the time, being both a naive and yet somewhat presumptuous young man, I didn’t fully appreciate its content or principle message. In fact, at the time, I found parts of it seemingly trite and misguidedly idealistic. I read it again in graduate school not once, but twice, to satisfy the demands of two different professors, each promoting a slightly different perspective on helping people change, but both still attesting to the important role a wholesome relationship can play in guiding someone toward greater emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. But only after years of work with some of the most difficult and problematic characters did I fully “get it” with respect to the power of skilled, artful loving, and the vital role it can play in the amelioration of human suffering.
One of the main points I make in my book, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), is that genuine regard for a person’s well-being can’t be just a matter of sentiment. Fromm emphasizes this same point. And although it’s certainly important for a therapist to have a deep sense of empathy and to “care” about those with whom they work, when intervening with those of significantly impaired character, both positive and negative sentiments can at times be serious impediments to fostering therapeutic change and personal growth. As Fromm so eloquently made the case, really loving — especially loving the disturbed character — requires incredible discipline, patience, interaction skill, artful technique, and most importantly, the courage to confront. And as I have learned after many years of doing some of the most difficult work, confronting an individual on their distorted thinking and problematic behavior patterns in a fully honest, forthright — yet non-hostile, non-resentful, and truly benign — way requires a most demanding skill set, and when done tactfully, arguably rises to the level of a genuine art.
There are many practical benefits to honest but benign confrontation. For one, confrontation based upon principles of pro-social conduct bespeak at least to some degree one’s own level of integrity. For another, displaying an unwavering commitment to one’s principles and displaying the courage of one’s convictions during benign confrontations lays the foundation for the most essential element of any potentially therapeutic relationship: trust. And focusing like a laser beam on the destructive aspects of someone’s modes of thinking and behavior while demonstrating an unwavering commitment to respecting their worth as a person provides an extremely attractive avenue to greater interpersonal communion.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from Fromm and carried into my work is the importance of proper self-love. And keeping a commitment to myself not to “engage” with folks in any manner that ultimately abuses, denigrates, or exploits them empowered me to establish the boundaries and enforce the limits necessary to foster here-and-now change within the therapeutic relationship. Only when principle trumps desire in any one-on-one encounter can the opportunity for safe, secure union be created.
It’s been many years since I first encountered The Art of Loving. And as much as I learned from Fromm’s musings on the topic, my awareness has also been heightened by the hundreds of individuals with whom I’ve worked. And whereas I once thought it not only a trite but also perhaps an unrealistic thing to assert, I now humbly accept that there indeed is an art to loving. My aspiration today is to continue becoming a more accomplished artist.
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