On the first day of my psychology internship, we spent some time getting to know potential supervisors. In response to a question about how much support vs. challenge that she provides her supervisees, one psychologist replied, “I think that you can only challenge someone as much as you support them. In fact, I think there always needs to be a little more support than challenge so that you don’t run out of your ‘support bank’.”
This concept certainly resonated with me as reflecting how I best receive challenge in relationships as well as how I approach my clients in therapy. In order for me to effectively receive a challenge or constructive criticism from someone, I need to trust that the person challenging me also supports me, that the person has my best interests in mind and intends to build me up through the challenge. If I don’t feel an equal or great amount of support, then the challenge feels more like an attack on my person and abilities, and I react defensively instead of embracing the challenge as something that will help me grow.
I’ll admit that I am overly sensitive to any kind of criticism (perceived or otherwise) and even when challenged by someone who genuinely supports and cares for me, it’s easy for me to forget that support and just feel threatened by the criticism. But in the times when I do recognize the immense support I’m receiving and trust the other person(s) to speak into my life in a challenging way, then I can more easily accept the challenge, even if it’s still difficult to receive.
This is also how I approach both therapeutic and non-therapeutic relationships. For me to be able to challenge someone else, I must first support them and build a foundation of acceptance and trust, and continue to supply that support even as I challenge. This taps into what Rogers calls “Unconditional positive regard,” though I don’t think Rogers practiced any kind of direct challenging of his clients. These ideas of support and challenge going hand in hand also reflect the Christian saying of “speaking the truth in love.” Truth spoken without love for the one who is receiving that is just noise, a clanging symbol, that may be heard but won’t be listened to. I also recall a friend advising me, “If you’re coming from a place of love, then you can say just about anything to that person.” And I think it’s more than just having love in your heart as you say something – it requires the kind of demonstrated love that will lead to trust. The people I saw the other night on the street corner with their signs announcing repentance or eternity in hell were perhaps motivated by love for the multitudes of hell-goers they were preaching to, but I highly doubt than anyone who walked by felt loved by them.
While many of you might agree with these ideas (they’re millennials old and not original to me at all), some of us may have different ways of knowing that we are supported. I’m not saying that we all need to hug everyone and dote on them to make them feel loved, though that’s certainly appropriate and necessary in some relationships and in some cultures. In some contexts and cultures, support and love if felt through actions and words that are very different that what I find to be loving. For example, I’ve heard that in some Asian cultures which value authoritative parenting, children feel loved and accepted when their family members challenge them to perform better. Maybe some of them grow up believing that they only loved as a result of their good performance, but many probably grow up believing that the expression of requiring someone to succeed is a sign as love as it reflects a desire for that person to reach their full potential and have a good life.
So, I intend to keep these ideas in mind over the next year and hope to continuously examine how those I’m in therapeutic/romantic/family/friendship/coworker relationships with best feel loved and supported and best receive challenges. And when I receive challenges from others, then I’ll try to remember that (usually) the person challenging me cares very deeply about me as a person so that I can receive the challenge as an opportunity to grow.