The Key to Enemy Love
By Scott J. Gregg
The Uncontrolling Love of God helped me overlook deficits and focus on human goodness and enemy love.
I have been on a ten-year journey to find better ways of understanding myself, God, and the world. “Deconstruction” is a buzz word currently. Many people are rethinking inherited ideas that may be harmful or don’t make a lot of sense. In 2012, I started to question the answers that familiar systems had handed me. I was fortunate to find open and relational theology and the work of Tom Oord early on in my journey. I encountered beautiful ideas that helped me address critical questions and look at life in fresh ways.
In this essay, I will discuss a meaningful shift in my thinking during these years, namely my move from a deficit-oriented perspective towards a non-pathologizing perspective. I will also consider how the Uncontrolling Love of God helped prime me for a non-pathologizing approach to therapy and life. Lastly, I will explain why it is my belief that a non-pathologizing perspective is the key to enemy love.
I will start by briefly sharing what I mean by a deficit-oriented perspective. A deficit-oriented perspective tends to focus on weaknesses, deficits, and failures. From this perspective, the primary questions are “what’s wrong?” “what’s bad?,” or “what’s lacking?” People who view life from this perspective make negative judgements about the world. The deficit-oriented perspective leads to a shame and blame cycle where the self is condemned and the other is villainized. This view of the world is fatalistic and positive change is often dismissed as an impossible dream. One who holds this view is in danger of succumbing to hopelessness and despair.
In youth and young adulthood, my thinking was oriented towards deficits. I carried some shame, and I sensed that others were a threat to me. These extreme beliefs led to periods of moderate depression and social anxiety. Two familiar systems that I hoped would be helpful actually served to reinforce my deficit-oriented beliefs. Namely, my religious community and the mental health field.
I was part of a religious community that emphasized sin. I was told that I have a sin nature which made me tempted to engage in sin. I was also told that if I did sin, I would be separated from the love of God. The implication was that I should stop sinning so God would not punish me or leave me. I picked up that Jesus could be a friend to me, but that God was looking at me with a critical eye. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how sick this is but when I was young, I carried the weight of this narrative.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, my early studies in psychology also served to reinforce a deficit-oriented perspective. The mental health field has traditionally been informed by the Medical Model. Practitioners who employ the medical model tend to look for pathology in the individual client and determine if the symptomology meets criteria for a “psychological disorder.” Severe disorders are considered chronic, and any significant recovery can feel like a baseless hope. The Medical Model frames a person’s emotional pain as symptoms, diseases, or disorders. Within this framework, the client often carries the stigma of one who is “damaged” or “broken.” Whether it was intended or not, I started off my career asking, “what’s wrong with my client?”
Two systems of thought helped me emerge from a deficit-oriented perspective, Open and Relational Theology and Internal Family Systems Therapy. I will briefly discuss these in the coming paragraphs, but first I hope to describe what I mean by a non-pathologizing perspective. While the deficit-oriented perspective is characterized by individual weaknesses, deficits, and failures, a non-pathologizing perspective looks for strengths, resources, and resiliencies. The non-pathologizing perspective views people as having the good instinct to work towards survival within their environment. The focus is not on problems with the individual but on how they adapted in a relational context. Several therapies utilize a non-pathologizing approach including Internal Family Systems Therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, among others.
The non-pathologizing approach to therapy starts with the radical belief that every person, no matter how destructive their behavior, has goodness within them and is capable of healing. The non-pathologizing approach recognizes and appreciates that people value themselves enough to protect themselves. Extreme beliefs, emotions, and behaviors emerge from extreme contexts and originate with the good intention to survive. Destructive actions are not minimized nor is accountability dismissed, but there is a belief that a person can make better sense of their life and reach some level of self-acceptance and self-efficacy.
An Open and Relational Contribution
Thomas Jay Oord’s ideas about the Uncontrolling Love of God laid a foundation for my embrace of non-pathologizing approaches to therapy. In the following paragraphs, I consider how the Uncontrolling Love of God is compatible with non-pathologizing therapies.
Like the God of Uncontrolling Love, the non-pathologizing therapist emphasizes freedom. The person is empowered by the therapist to make decisions about the direction of the therapeutic process. The therapist does not come with a rigid agenda and often encourages the person to lead. Concerning God Tom states, “Our divine parent is always involved but never controlling. God gives space, listens deeply, and works with creation to bring about good. Our source gives freedom of choice without micromanaging or manipulating.”
Like the God of Uncontrolling Love, the non-pathologizing therapist knows that healing happens in a collaborative relationship. Whereas a more traditional approach to therapy may have the therapist prescribing a treatment or cure, the non-pathologizing approach is one in which the therapist works together with the client on equal footing. Tom writes that “God needs our cooperation” and he calls this cooperative partnership “indispensable love synergy.”
Like the God of Uncontrolling Love, the non-pathologizing therapist prioritizes safety. Internal Family Systems has a saying that “all parts are welcome.” This means the client can bring every part of themselves to therapy and they will not be judged, condemned, or abandoned. The non-pathologizing therapist knows that a healing relationship includes the whole person, wounds and all. Tom states, “God is present to every part of us, even those parts we don’t consciously feel.” And he adds we don’t have to “worry that God might punish, damn, or ignore us.”
Like the God of Uncontrolling Love, the non-pathologizing therapist always hopes. Founder of Internal Family Systems, Dr Richard Schwartz, frequently calls himself a “hope merchant.” He sees himself as selling hope to hopeless parts of us. He can do this because he actually has hope that significant and lasting positive change can take place. He even goes as far as to guarantee he can help. Tom states, “God responds to all that is negative, frustrating, and painful with resilient hope.” God never gives up on us.
Like the God of Uncontrolling Love, the non-pathologizing therapist extends compassion. The non-pathologizing therapist is fully present with others in their pain. The therapist’s compassion also includes listening for how the pain came to be and creates an atmosphere where the pain can be discussed openly. Concerning God Tom states, “The Perfect Lover is everlastingly sensitive and universally compassionate.”
Non-Pathologizing and Enemy Love
The non-pathologizing perspective appeals to me because I believe it to be the foundation for enemy love. Therapists tend to learn quickly that perpetrators were once victims at a different point in the lifespan. I admire IFS founder, Dr Richard Schwartz, because he has worked with the most severe populations and remained steadfast in his assertion that people are good. I believe he can maintain this perspective because he works to see people in their contexts, considers the multi-dimensional complexity of their inner world, and looks for humanity deep within.
It is my firm conviction that pathologizing people, no matter how wounded or destructive, leaves us in a blame and shame cycle. This doesn’t mean accepting a non-pathologizing approach is easy. It is extremely hard. We can all think of things so heinous that it feels like we’ve been punched repeatedly in the gut. In my career I have counseled perpetrators of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and murder. One woman I sat for therapy with killed her child. What’s astonishing when you get close is that they are still human. And the safer they feel the more you see it. Our tendency to label people as bad without knowing their story or getting close enough to see them is a major problem for our species. I suggest that the non-pathologizing perspective holds the key to learning to love more like God.
In conclusion, the non-pathologizing perspective as developed in therapeutic approaches like Internal Family Systems has the potential to change the world. Dr Schwartz has a deep intuition that his model has applications far beyond the therapy room. Frankly, I could not be more convinced that he is right. I also believe that Tom Oord’s view of an open and relational God fits like a glove with these non-pathologizing therapies. I hope to see more collaboration between open and relational theology and non-pathologizing therapies in the future. The ideas here can help us build relational bridges in a world that desperately needs it.
Scott J Gregg is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the states of California and Idaho. Scott is a contracted therapist with the United States Air Force. Scott also owns a private therapy practice with his wife Andreina who is also an LMFT. Scott has a newborn son Elias, and he enjoys sports and hiking.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love