Horizontal relationships

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This month’s theme – Horizontal relationships

The concept of vertical and horizontal relationships was created by Psychotherapist Alfred Adler and has been brought back into the public eye through the modern Japanese bestseller ‘The courage to be disliked’ by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga.

A horizontal relationship is one where both parties have equal power and relate from a place of mutual respect and authority.

A vertical relationship is where one party is deemed to have more power or wisdom than another. An example would be the relationship between parent and child, doctor and patient or teacher and student. It might feel natural to assume these relationships need to be vertical ones but they work best when there is a mutual respect and sharing.

I want to focus on one area within this subject – horizontal and vertical relationships in spiritual and therapeutic circles. I have seen the healed and wounded states of these relationships and I’m aware of the delicacy of my own position with clients and even as the author of these newsletters.

This subject is close to my heart because I briefly experienced an extreme version of a vertical spiritual relationship many years ago and I was amazed by how alluring it was, even as discerning as I felt I was at the time.

The course in question was run by a leader with great charisma and absolute certainty about his beliefs, a self-proclaimed child prodigy. His teachings were an amalgamation of work across the ages, he claimed, so it felt safe to trust his wisdom and experience.

As I got drawn in deeper I was shown a very duality based spiritual world, where people were either disciplined or lazy and where the teacher was the only one who could help us reach the next ‘level’ of love.

This was clearly a vertical relationship, where he felt superior to us and would help us become superior to others. Written like this, it sounds obvious that I should have sussed it out sooner, but these dynamics were tempting and appealed to the part in me that wanted to be ‘special’ and expected ‘specialness’ to be the reward at the end of a long road of effort and dedication.

It was an extreme experience, but there are more subtle aspects that can ensnare us, even within a therapy session or on a retreat or training course.

There are many warning signs I look out for, including within myself as I write these newsletters. I am not trying to show any special access to wisdom, just my capacity to ask interesting questions, to stimulate curiosity without necessarily offering solutions. In doing so I try to relate with you horizontally, and I hope it feels that way to you too.

So how do we recognise vertical spiritual relationships? Here are my list of warning signs, do you recognise any of them in your life?

  1. The teacher claims to have a gift, a better access to Spirit and the truth than you and their teachings are not open to challenge or the possibility of error.
  2. Their opinions claim to be based on timeless, possibly hidden, teachings that ‘normal’ people can’t access.
  3. There is no scope for your own opinions, experience, training or intuition. If you suggest something you might even be told that you have problems with authority or are channelling spirits.
  4. This rejection of your own sense of truth pushes you to concede your autonomy and personal values. You give your truth over to the leader / teacher / therapist.
  5. Sexual boundaries can be crossed.
  6. Extreme financial commitment is needed as proof of your dedication. You might be told that if you would spend money on, for example, life saving surgery, why not on your own spiritual development? If you question the cost you are told you have a problem with scarcity consciousness and your root chakra.
  7. There are promises of hierarchical spiritual rewards that lead to personal salvation.
  8. You might be taught that those who don’t follow this path will suffer in some great day of reckoning or global separation.
  9. Suffering and sacrifice are encouraged as a pathway to God or healing
  10. Members are expelled for non-compliance as an example to any waverers.

The relationship between client and therapist can feel inherently safer than being part of a spiritual movement, but risks still apply. There may be some clearer boundaries but the therapist inherently holds some core power and must use it to empower the client to find their own true path of healing rather than impose one on them. This helps keep the relationship horizontal, with the therapist in support of the client’s chosen objectives and healing process rather than in control of it.

The therapist must tread a delicate, nuanced, path and be careful not to drop into ‘rescuer’ or ‘director’. It is a constant challenge to ensure the client grows to feel their own wisdom and power, not the therapists.

With love


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