Love Your Neighbor: A Primer for the Helping Professions - Kimberly Thompson

The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, based on one man’s encounter with Fred Rogers recently opened in theaters across the country. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister as well as a children’s television personality, was always impressive in his ability to communicate acceptance and love to masses of children in a way that always seemed personal and individualized. Long before I had my own children, a friend told me that her preschooler looked up from watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and said, “He loves me, Mama. He really does.” After seeing the movie, I have concluded that it should be required watching for in every program training therapists. Heck, I’d also like to see it being shown in medical schools, nursing schools, seminaries, and teacher education programs. It would be an awesome component to parent education programs too. Let me explain why.

  1. The Power of Unconditional Positive Regard. Carl Rogers (no apparent relation) was the first to coin the phrase “unconditional positive regard.” When you read it in a textbook, it sounds kind of hokey and rather impossible to achieve. And, nobody in school ever tells you how. The movie on the other hand shows us how Fred Rogers did it. There’s a scene in which he tells his interviewer, “I don’t see you as broken.” Then he initiates a moment of silence in order to remember all the people who have brought love into their lives.

Seeing people as whole allows them to step into their wholeness. As we let go of the need to see people change, we create a space where change is safe. Pushing change on them by withholding love and acceptance guarantees that their current ways of being will become more defended. They are then much less likely to give up those ways, even if they are hurting themselves and others.

  1. The Power of Presence. To love unconditionally is to be unreservedly present – and love is really what we are talking about. Rephrase it as “positive regard” if you want – as long as you understand that it is love, in the “love your neighbor as yourself” sense. The movie very clearly demonstrated to us how Fred Rogers loved his neighbors: by giving others his complete attention. Whether it was a cynical journalist interviewing him for a magazine, an ill child visiting the TV studio, or a group of teenagers singing his theme song on the bus, he affirmed them by his presence.

Mindfulness skills have become an integral part of psychotherapeutic work in the last 20 or so years. To be mindful is to be present in both body and mind, and it is the antidote to many of the psychological ills of our time. It is also the “how” of unconditional love. Therapeutic presence requires that you practice mindfulness throughout life, not just at work. Through presence you cease wielding the instruments of healing (e.g., all those interventions you have mastered) and become the instrument of healing.

  1. The Power of Losing the Ego. My observation, both from the movie and from years of watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is that Fred Rogers excelled at one particular thing: being exactly who he was. That’s why his message of “there’s nobody exactly like you” and “I like you If just the way you are” resonated so strongly with both parents and children. If you are able to be yourself without apology, embarrassment, particular pride, or insistence that you know the right way to be – only then can you model wholeness and connect with the wholeness in others. You can then lay down your self-justifications, your secrets, your bragging rights, your “my way or the highway” attitude and meet others on a level playing field. You like them just the way they are, because you like yourself the same way.

I was impressed when the movie showed Mr. Rogers not only praying for others, but asking for their prayers in return. We only will ask for another person’s help if we really believe they have the power to help. It puts our belief in their wholeness into concrete form.

  1. The Power of Silence. Fred Rogers was quite well known for the slow pace of his speech and his long pauses. The movie demonstrated that very well. Too often we rush to fill the pockets of silence that emerge between ourselves and others, believing that there is something we can or should say that will confer healing upon them. We rush to speak because we are uncomfortable with the silence. It is only a belief that healing comes from beyond us, from a place deeper than words, that allows us to hold the space, to be silent, and wait. This is not unscientific, if that thought bothers you. It is well established that the active ingredient in psychotherapy is the therapeutic relationship itself – and the deeper any relationship is, the less important a multitude of words becomes.

In large part, these attributes are second half of life achievements. In the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, “Life is indeed ‘momentous,’ created by accumulated moments in which the deeper ‘I’ is slowly revealed if we are ready to see it.” (p. 202, Falling Upwards). Until somewhere in midlife, most of us have not accumulated enough moments, suffered enough, or let go of enough to be truly present and unconditionally accepting of others. Quite apart from the vast amounts of information that must be mastered in order to become competent, there is a wisdom in requiring helpers to have a certain amount of life experience. Granted, some mature at a faster rate than others! I have no idea what Fred Rogers was like at 20 or 25 or 30. It is doubtful that he was as skilled at 30 as he was at 60, the time of his life the movie illuminated. I know that I was not ready to carry the suffering of others until well past 30; earlier in life I could scarcely carry my own.

In a day in which the helping and healing professions are inundated with terms such as “manualized,” “evidence-based,” “outcome measures,” “performance data,” and the like, we can lose sight of what is crucial yet impossible to directly measure – the power of your healing presence, just the way you are.

ABOUT ME

I’m Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist with a maternal-child mental health practice in Lubbock, TX. From pre-conception to the empty nest, mothers can work with me in-person and online. I also offer psychological assessments for men, women and children across the lifespan. Download my free e-book, The Busy Mom’s Self-Care Planner, and bring yourself into the circle of care. You can also find my book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, on Amazon  or Praeclarus Press.

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