I just returned today from an incredible conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico and I would like to share with you an important lesson that I witnessed. The Imago International Conference brought together Imago Relationship Therapists from around the world to increase their competency and expertise in the practice of this modality of therapy (imago means image in Latin and is similar to the idea of beshert). As an Imago Relationship Therapist, I was very excited to learn from master therapists to hone my skills in my work with couples and families. Yet, this conference did more than teach me new techniques; it taught me about the power of humility.
The moment where this teaching subtly manifested itself was during a session entitled “Commitment and Promises vs. the Empathic Bond.” The presenter was one of the big names in the field, holding the title master trainer. He has been involved in this work for seventeen years and he openly shared his own journey with his wife. It was not enough for couples to have good intentions, to promise to change, to say the right things; what was needed was the regular practice of dialogue to create a healing empathic bond. He talked about his own challenges in his relationship and how he still needs to engage in the discipline of dialogue with his wife in order to cultivate their connection.
He then shared a touching story about his own childhood. When he was two years old living in China, he had become gravely ill. He was quarantined in the hospital as his mother traveled the streets of their town to find a serum to cure his illness. As he was in the hospital, he contracted diphtheria. The nurse noted that he was unable to breathe and she quickly brought him to the doctor who cut his throat open. He miraculously survived, yet the figurative ‘scar’ of that trauma accompanied him throughout his life.
After his talk, two other therapists, including Dr Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love you Want and founder of Imago, and another master trainer, were asked to join the presenter on stage to discuss some of the ideas presented. The other trainer began her comments by telling him how touched she was by his story and that if she would have known that side of him and his vulnerability, she would have had a lot more compassion for him over the years. She then apologized to him publicly for any hurt she had caused him (I don’t know the details but imagine they have had heated debates over style and technique as they are both very different personalities).
What touched me most about this presentation and exchange was the display of humility and vulnerability. It took a lot of courage for that therapist to share what he did in public. It took a lot of humility for him to admit that he was not perfect and that he was still challenged by the same issues that our couples face. We like to think that our mentors and role models are infallible. After all, they are the experts. They have written the books, they are the teachers, they have years of experiences. It was refreshing to see that they are just as human as we are and they face the same challenges we do.
I believe this is an important lesson for all of us. It takes a lot of humility to admit that your marriage or your relationship with your children is not the way you would like it to be. I am not just talking about couples on the verge of divorce or families in crisis; I am talking about all of us. Our community knows better than any about the importance of action in cultivating a relationship with G-d. We are constantly engaged in mitzvos. Imagine that you could also have an amazing connection with your spouse or your kids. Would you not take action?
While it makes sense that we would be afraid to acknowledge the truth, our inability to be vulnerable about ourselves and with those we love prevents us from connecting on a much deeper and meaningful level. Look at the connection between the two therapists on stage. The empathy in action, as the conference was entitled, would not have occurred if not for the genuine humility and courage that was displayed before us.
So while I did learn a lot at this conference, nothing could replace the valuable lesson that I witnessed with my very eyes.
Rabbi Slatkin is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist