How to Be Truly Helpful: Doing Course-Based Psychotherapy?

by Robert Perry

The Psychotherapy supplement says that "everyone is both patient and therapist in every relationship in which he enters" (P-3.II.1:3). This means that the process of psychotherapy is going on all the time. People are asking us for help all the time and much of the help they are asking for is help for their minds. How, then, do we help them, according to the Course? The Psychotherapy supplement contains a picture of four selves, or four images of the self. I have come to believe that these are the key to understanding our function as unofficial therapists.

I. THE LITTLE SELF

The presenting problem of virtually everyone who asks for help could be characterized as the little self. This self is called little not only because it stands in opposition to our larger, true Self, but primarily because it is little in comparison to the forces of the world, forces it experiences as largely set against it. The little self is summarized in this passage from Psychotherapy:

This self he sees as being acted on, reacting to external forces as they demand, and helpless midst the power of the world. (P-1.IN.3:6)

The following passages express the essence of this little self:

[You feel] so vulnerable and open to attack that just a word, a little whisper that you do not like, a circumstance that suits you not, or an event that you did not anticipate upsets your world, and hurls it into chaos. (T-24.III.3:1)

[You view] the self as weak, vulnerable…and endangered, and thus in need of constant defense. (P-2.IV.6:1)

[We regard ourselves as] in a place of merciless pursuit, where we are badgered ceaselessly, and pushed about without a thought or care for us or for our future. (W-pI.195.9:3)

You…believe that you are helpless prey to forces far beyond your own control, and far more powerful than you. (T-21.V.2:5)

You [see] yourself as…under attack and highly vulnerable to it. (T-18.II.1:6)

You see yourself as vulnerable, frail and easily destroyed, and at the mercy of countless attackers more powerful than you. (T-22.VI.10:6)

The central dynamic of this little self is very simple. This self, being small, is far weaker than the huge forces of the world. And these forces are, for the most part, against it. The world is attacking it. Being weaker, this self loses. It does not fulfill its hopes and dreams. It cannot keep itself safe. It does not succeed in its goals. Its existence is always precarious. It is losing the war against the world, and this determines how it feels about itself. It feels like a loser. Its self-esteem is as little as it is. "The 'Hero' of the Dream" speaks of life as one in which "a tiny you" seems to be pitted against "an enormous world," one that has "different dreams" about you and your life (T-27.VII.11:3).

II. THE INFLATED SELF

The universal response of feeling like the little self is to try to become the inflated self. This means inflating the little self so that it becomes large enough to win its war against the world. The inflated self is like that frog in Aesop's fables who, in order to impress someone, puffs himself up so much that he finally explodes. The inflated self has the confidence we need to give us stability. It has the power and abilities we need to overcome the forces against us. And it has the sense of status and significance that our little self failed to deliver. In short, the world is still attacking us, but now, instead of losing, we can handle it. We are winning.

If becoming the inflated self is how we see salvation, then the task of the helper or therapist seems obvious. It seems to be our job to help the patient become the inflated self. That, says the Psychotherapy supplement, is what people generally are asking for when they enter therapy. They feel like a 98 lb. weakling and want to instead become Charles Atlas.

The patient hopes to learn how to get the changes he wants without changing his self-concept to any significant extent. He hopes, in fact, to stabilize it sufficiently to include within it the magical powers he seeks in psychotherapy. He wants to make the vulnerable invulnerable and the finite limitless. The self he sees is his god, and he seeks only to serve it better. (P-2.IN.3:3-6)

In other words, rather than really changing his sense of self, he simply wants to give it muscles.

[In the wake of the belief that on the way to truth lie endless mazes of complexity that one can never get through] comes the inevitable belief that, to be safe, one must control the unknown. This strange belief relies on certain steps which never reach to consciousness. First, it is ushered in by the belief that there are forces to be overcome to be alive at all. And next, it seems as if these forces can be held at bay only by an inflated sense of self that holds in darkness what is truly felt, and seeks to raise illusions to the light. (P-2.V.1:3-6)

This passage says it all:

1. We believe that there are forces arrayed against us, which we must defeat simply to survive.

2. However, we feel no real hope for doing this, since we believe we are the little self.

3. We therefore form an inflated sense of self to hold these forces at bay.

4. This inflated self is just a cover over the little self, which we still believe we are. Deep inside Charles Atlas there still exists that same 98 lb. weakling. All the muscles amount to an elaborate act of denial.

Discussion: Can we see our own attempt to become the inflated self, the self that can handle it all, that can win where before we were losing? In what ways have we tried to become the inflated self?

Discussion: As helpers, how do we try to move people from the little self to the inflated self? What do we try to give them so that they can stand on their own two feet and handle a big, nasty world?

III. THE GUILTY SELF

Thinking that the little self is to be solved by the inflated self is a major temptation. The real problem, the real source of our low self-esteem is guilt. This guilt is the outcome of both the little self and the inflated self:

  • The little self says to the world, "You destroyed my dreams! You turned me into a loser!" Imagine saying that to someone out loud. Wouldn't you feel guilty?
  • The inflated self says, "I'm the winner. I'm on top and you're on bottom. I'm better than you." Imagine saying that to someone. Wouldn't that too cause guilt?

This guilt over our attacking thoughts, and the (usually hidden) attacking content within our words and deeds is the real source of our suffering. Our problem is not the world's attack on us, but our attack on the world. Here is an amazing quote from A Course in Miracles:

Guilt is…the sole cause of pain in any form. (T-30.V.2:4)

This is a dramatic statement, totally different from how we normally think. Yet the logic is very simple. If you feel guilty, you believe that you deserve to suffer. So, with this belief in hand, your mind simply makes sure that suffer you do. Some interesting statements about guilt in the Course:

  • Whenever your mood is less than wholly joyous, it is because you have thought lovelessly about someone and feel guilty as a result. The guilt is the real cause of the dip in your mood (See T-4.IV.2,5 and T-5.VII.5).
  • When your day suddenly becomes less happy, it is because you have had attack thoughts about someone and feel guilty. Private guidance to Helen and Bill suggested that we spend a huge amount of our time trying to redeem ourselves by somehow pay off this guilt.
  • All illness is punishment your mind takes out on your body, as a way of punishing yourself for your sins. "Illness can be but guilt's shadow" (P-2.IV.2:6).
  • All those bad things that happen to you are the result of you dreaming punishment into your life, as your just deserts (see T-27.VII.1:3 and T-13.In.2).
  • Whenever you weep, you are really weeping for your own lost innocence: "And who could weep but for his innocence?" (P-2.IV.1:7)

Our job as therapists

Our job is, while the patient is telling us that her problem is how she has been attacked by the world, we have to mentally fill in something they will rarely do for us: that she is really hurting over her attack on the world. Psychotherapy says, "This is never apparent to the patient, and only rarely so to the therapist" (P-2.II.3:4).

Discussion: How can we see the patient's real pain as being from her own attack rather than from the world's attack on her? How would this look in our mind?

A thought offered in the class was this: Perhaps we have to first discover this within ourselves. Then we can see it in the patient. Perhaps we must first find out within us that, even when we think our pain is coming from the outside, it is really coming from our own failure to love. It is really the pain of guilt. For instance, I notice that when someone is attacking me, I might feel relatively peaceful for a while. But then I reach a point where I give in to anger. My experience is that it is only once I do that and return the anger that I feel really bad. At that point my pain in the situation seems to quadruple. I feel terribly guilty. And then I am highly motivated to increase the blame I am putting on the other person, because the more I can heap blame on them, the more justified my anger appears to be, which makes me more innocent in feeling it, or so I tell myself. My point is that I only feel really bad and get really blaming once I give into unlovingness towards the other person. Even while I am telling myself that they are causing my pain, the real fact is that my own guilt is the pain I am feeling. If I can discover that in myself, then surely that is the first step to seeing it in the patient.

We may want to skip this step—of seeing the patient's real problem as guilt—and go straight to seeing the truth in the patient. However, I think that would be an error. This step is crucial. It is not the solution, but it does set up the solution. In any healing process, the perception of what the problem is dictates the whole thing. Whatever you think the problem is, you will aim your healing efforts at it, and tailor your healing efforts to it. If the problem was a broken bone, you wouldn't spend your time trying to cure the patient's athlete's foot. You would obviously aim your efforts at the broken bone. That is what the Course would have us do here. If you see the problem not as woundedness over the world's attack on the patient, but guilt over the patient's attack on the world, then I think the solution becomes something like the following two-strand approach that the Course takes:

1. You, the therapist, see the person as forgiven, as absolved, as sinless. That only makes sense as the solution if the problem is the patient's guilt. We'll discuss this next under the heading of the true Self.

2. You guide the patient to first see his guilt (to hear the dirge he constantly sings to himself, the chant of "God may not enter here") and then to realize that the solution is for him to learn to forgive. Since his attack thoughts are what convinced him that he must be an evil, guilty self, only his forgiving thoughts will convince him that he is an innocent self.

IV. THE TRUE SELF

The core of the patient's pain is his belief that he has sinned and therefore corrupted his nature. His salvation lies in the realization that his true nature is totally undefiled, uncorrupted, untainted. He is still as God created him. He is still God's Son. His true Self is beyond all change, all stain. Your job as the therapist is to see beyond his belief in being defiled and truly believe he is still as God created him. You must see the guilty self, but then see beyond it. One of the most common errors of the therapist is to see past the patient's belief in being attacked by the world to his own attack on the world, accept that attacking self as who he really is, and then hope to change him, clean him up, and turn him into a good self.

Discussion: Do you find yourself falling into the above trap—seeing the patient as the guilty self and then hoping you can change him or her into a cleaned up, good self? How does that make you feel? How do you think it makes the other person feel?

Healing comes as the therapist sees past the patient's false problem to the real problem, and then sees past that to the patient's true Self, Which never sinned. The Course says, for example, that the spiritual healer overlooks the false problem (the body), realizing it is the mind's errors (or "sins") that caused the body's ailment. But realizing this is not healing. The healer must take one more step:

Nor is it at this level that the teacher of God calls forth the miracle of healing. He overlooks the mind and body, seeing only the face of Christ shining in front of him, correcting all mistakes and healing all perception. Healing is the result of the recognition, by God's teacher, of Who it is that is in need of healing. This recognition has no special reference. It is true of all things that God created. (M-22.4:4-8)

A passage from Psychotherapy captures this same process in different words:

The process that takes place in this relationship is actually one in which the therapist in his heart tells the patient that all his sins have been forgiven him, along with his own. (P-2.VII.3:1)

The patient's mental stance Your response
"The world is attacking me and I'm losing." Help him question the cause and effect relationships involved in his experience of the world: Does the world really cause him to have the experience he does? Empower him not by giving him assertiveness training, but by showing him that his mind, not the world, is cause. Also, see past his account of the problem to what the problem really is (guilt).
"The world is attacking me. Commiserate with me and help me win." Understand how the patient sees things, but do not believe in it yourself. Give coping tools, but only as a placebo.
"I have attacked the world. I have defiled myself." See this underlying mental stance, but see past it to the truth. Say silently to the patient, "You never defiled yourself. You are still as God created you."

Discussion: Can you remember a transformative moment in which someone saw past your outer appearance and your supposed flaws and sins, and saw something deeper in you, something pure, something more enduring than all the crap?

The two strands that I mentioned above, at the end of the section on the guilty self, definitely interact with each other. You see past the patient's guilt to the holiness of Who he really is (strand #1). This makes him feel safe in looking on his own darkness. You then help the patient hear the dirge of guilt he sings to himself. You help him uncover the darkness within him (strand #2). Then, when this darkness is exposed to both of you, you shine the light of your forgiveness onto it (strand #1). And you help him to forgive the world he thought attacked him, for only by doing that will he come to believe that maybe he isn't the demon he thinks he is (strand #2).

It is quite striking to me just how often people get themselves into the situation where one person is exposing his sins to another, or to a group, and that other is then offering him forgiveness, absolution. The fact that these situations so naturally and frequently come about, and are even institutionalized, is testimony, I believe, to the fact that this represents the real problem and the real solution. The real problem is not what the world did to me, but the guilt that comes from what I think I did to the world. And the real solution is someone else seeing all the meanness in me, and forgiving me anyway, and thus helping me accept that, in spite of it all, I am innocent.

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