Part of a series on the GROUND of RSM – a foundational acronym introduced by Joe Weldon and Noël Wight at the 17th Rubenfeld Synergy Training.
Gentleness may have been the first thing I noticed about Joe Weldon, the co-head of my training. I may have noticed his size at about the same time: though he is by no means an enormous man, he was the tallest person in our training, and one of the few men. Though I believe that he is gentle by nature, I get the sense that he also carefully cultivates gentleness, probably in part to compensate for a tendency to seem imposing. The intensity of his focus, his fierce intelligence, and his penetrating insight may have contributed to an all-around sense of intimidation, were it not for his warm heart and gentle approach.
In fact, in that first week of training when I was so closed and skeptical, Joe’s equanimity and gentleness were part of what made me so suspicious. I felt I was being lulled into something, perhaps made to accept some kind of touchy-feely, New Age pabulum. (Only much later would it occur to me, with a painful shock: somehow I had been taught to fear genuine kindness, to be suspicious of sentiment, to believe that if it wasn’t genuine poetry, it wasn’t genuine feeling. When, I wondered, did I become so infected with irony that I couldn’t receive uncomplicated love?)
With time, though, I recognized that Joe epitomized the first rule of Rubenfeld Synergy Method: gentleness. Approaching our clients this way also communicates a deep kind of attention: when we are being gentle, we are listening, and leaving space for the client’s truth to emerge.
Gentleness, though, as my own experience showed, can be complicated. To me, gentleness implied condescension. I wasn’t used to receiving it, and had a hard shell that needed cracking. Ultimately it was gentleness that melted it, so that it didn’t have to break.
Some clients may also have the experience of not receiving gentleness; it’s not a highly valued thing in our culture of independence, striving, athleticism and innovation. The quality of nurturance is seen as feminine, and therefore inferior. We’re told to “grow up,” “get over it,” “just do it.” The young generation today is seen as too coddled and entitled, and tremendous value is placed on having had a rough time, pulled yourself together, and made it to where you are today all on your own. I know people – am even personally very close to some – who respond to gentleness with suspicion, either because they believe they are being drawn into a trap, or because it was never safe for them to be vulnerable.
But gentleness doesn’t mean coddling, or condescending, or even going easy or letting someone get away with things. Gentleness is an overall approach, even an effective way of being tough, of helping someone see themselves clearly. I think of the beautiful scene near the end of the film Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams, as the one psychiatrist who is able to get through to Matt Damon’s character, Will, simply holds onto him and repeats, gently, “It’s not your fault.” At first Will is bristly and brushes him off, but he just keeps repeating it, softly, patiently, until Will can hear it and let it in, and the locked emotion comes pouring out.
The world can be a very un-gentle place, but all of us need and deserve a place where we can feel like someone cares for us, lets us be vulnerable, won’t ever attack us or make us feel like our feelings are weakness. For some people, therapy might be the only place they get this. And so it is the place where we start, part of the foundation of the work. When I answer the phone, when I open the door, when I listen, when I make contact: I stand in gentleness first. Everything else follows from this.