Glossary of Relational-Cultural Theory Key Terms
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A frequent occurrence in relationships resulting from a failure to understand or a sense that the other is not there in a responsive way and sometimes in more actively harmful ways such as humiliation or violation; in therapy, reworking acute disconnections becomes one of the most useful places of change.
A term coined by Goleman (1997) to refer to the reactive tracking of a response through the amygdala rather than through the cortex; often involved in heightened reactivity and impulsivity around anger and fear; more common in people with a history of trauma.
An important relational feeling that signals "something is wrong"; a necessary part of the movement of relationships, it points to the need for change, whether at a personal or collective level; distinguished from aggression or dominance.
Using one's attunement and understanding of an individual to predict the possible impact of one's words or actions on another person; a therapist constantly tries to use anticipatory empathy to get a sense of what might ensue following a particular intervention in therapy.
The capacity to bring one's real experience, feelings, and thoughts into relationship, with sensitivity and awareness to the possible impact of one's actions on others. It does not give license to total reactivity (what we might call amygdala authenticity). Authenticity does not involve telling the "whole truth" but rather sharing the "one true thing" that will move therapy in some positive way.
Central Relational Paradox
In the face of repeated disconnections, people yearn even more for relationship, but their fear of engaging with others leads to keeping aspects of their experience out of connection (these are protective strategies of disconnection, also known as strategies of survival). The individual alters herself or himself to fit in with the expectations and wishes of the other person, and in the process, the relationship itself loses authenticity and mutuality, becoming another source of disconnection.
An escalating and ongoing dynamic in which the less powerful person in a relationship is prevented from representing the hurt or disconnection to the more powerful person and learns that she or he cannot bring this aspect of herself or experience into relationship. The less powerful person begins to twist herself to fit into the relationship by becoming more inauthentic and by splitting herself off from these feelings and thoughts. A spiral of disconnection often occurs, and the relationship becomes less mutual, less a place of growth and possibility.
A phrase coined by Jean Baker Miller to capture the experience of isolation and aloneness that leaves one feeling shut out of the human community. One feels alone, immobilized regarding reconnection, and at fault for this state. This is different from the experience of "being alone" or solitude, in which one can feel deeply connected (to nature, other people, etc.).
Although this term is used in common parlance to mean any kind of relationship, RCT defines connection as an interaction between two or more people that is mutually empathic and mutually empowering. It involves emotional accessibility and leads to the "five good things" (zest, worth, productivity, clarity, and desire for more connection).
Images constructed by the dominant group that represent distortions of the nondominant cultural group being depicted, with the intent of disempowering them. The phrase was coined by Patricia Hill Collins who noted, "People become objectified to certain categories such as race, gender, economic class and sexual orientation" (1990, p. 228).
Interactions in relationships where mutual empathy and mutual empowerment do not occur; usually involves disappointment, a sense of being misunderstood, and sometimes a sense of danger, violation, and/or impasse. Disconnections may be acute, chronic, or traumatic.
Discrepant Relational Images
Relational images that contradict the negative dominant and fixed images that keep people locked in disconnection; expansion of these images leads to changes in the dominant relational expectation.
A complex affective-cognitive skill that allows us to "know" (resonate, feel, sense, cognitively grasp) another person's experience. In order for empathy to stimulate growth, the person usually thought of as the one being empathized with must see, know, and feel the empathy of the other. That is, she or he must see her or his impact on the other; this mutual empathy decreases the experience of isolation.
A fundamental and complex process of active participation in the development and growth of other people and the relationship that results in mutual development (Miller & Stiver, 1997); such a relationship creates growth in both (or more) people.
Hardwired to Connect
Biological basis for humans' need for connection; neuroscientific data is demonstrating that the brain grows in connection, that we come into the world ready to connect, and that disconnection creates real pain.
Honoring Strategies of Disconnection
Empathizing with an individual's strategies for avoiding connection, which includes being sensitive to her or his need for these strategies and the terror of being without them. These strategies are ways of staying out of connection because the only relationship that had been available was, in some fundamental way, disconnecting and violating; in other words, there was a good reason to develop the strategies (Miller & Stiver, 1997).
Loss of Empathic Possibility
Feeling that others cannot possibly be empathic, losing even the capacity for self-empathy; one feels unworthy of connection, flawed in some essential way, which is often experienced in shame.
Openness to being affected by and affecting another person. In mutual empathy, both people move with a sense of mutual respect, an intention for mutual growth, and an increasing capacity for connectedness. For mutual empathy to lead to growth, both people must see, know, and feel that they are being responded to, having an impact, and mattering to one another. The growth that occurs is both affective and cognitive and leads to an enlarged sense of community. Supported vulnerability, a feeling that one's vulnerability will not be taken advantage of or violated, is necessary for mutual empathy.
The concept in RCT suggesting that we grow toward an increased capacity for respect, having an impact on the other, and being open to being changed by the other. Jean Baker Miller's claim that if in a relationsip both people are not growing, neither person is growing has been a controversial concept, as some have critiqued RCT as encouraging the client to take care of the professional. RCT fully recognizes the responsibility of the clinician to pay attention to the growth of the client and not to invite caretaking from the client. But if the therapist does not open herself or himself to some impact and change (vulnerability), real growth will probably not occur for the client. Mutuality does not mean sameness, equality, or reciprocity; it is a way of relating, a shared activity in which each (or all) of the people involved are participating as fully as possible (Miller and Stiver, 1997).
Along with mutual empathy, this term suggests that both people in any growth-fostering relationship are experiencing more aliveness, more clarity, and a greater sense of possibility and potential agency. Mutual empowerment is built on a relationship of "engagement," of being present and caring about that relationship as well as the individuals in it. It is a two-way (or more) dynamic process that functions as a central component of psychological growth, enhancing the strength of each individual in a relationship and ultimately creating strength in the larger community.
A concept in many societies that people can only feel safe and productive if they exercise power over others, keeping the others in a less advantaged position. The dominant group exercises power over other groups and individuals and does not encourage mutually empowering relationships. This model leads to disconnections and violations of relationships.
Concept that more can be accomplished through collaborative efforts than through hierarchical arrangements, building on the notion that creativity and action develop in good connections. "Power with" grows as it empowers others and stands in opposition to "power over," which accrues through directing and controlling others.
A system of advantage gained through another's disadvantage (McIntosh, 1980, 1988). Unearned privilege is accrued through an accident of birth or luck, being part of a privileged group. The myth of meritocracy sometimes makes it seem as if the advantage or privilege has been earned. For example, white privilege is "an invisible package of unearned assets that [a white person] can count on cashing in each day but about which [he or she] was 'meant' to remain oblivious" (McIntosh, 1988).
A deep appreciation based on empathy for the other person's current functioning and for the context within which her or his suffering arose; an equally deep appreciation for her or his coping methods, survival strategies, and the inner wisdom that sought to keep her or him alive.
The experience that one can be effective and have a positive impact on relationships; one feels that one matters and that one is responded to in a way that is empathic and open to mutual effect. Relational competence involves movement toward mutuality, developing anticipatory empathy, being open to being influenced, experiencing vulnerability as an inevitable place of potential growth rather than danger, and creating good connections rather than exercising power over others as the path of growth.
Bringing attention to the other person, one's own responsiveness, the relationship, and the cultural context; being present with the energy and full movement of the relationship; feeling curiosity about the flow of the connection; letting go of images of how the interaction should be in order to discover what is; and awareness of one's own contributions to the quality of connection and disconnection in the relationship.
Shared sense of effectiveness, ability to act on the relationship, and moving toward connection. The relationship itself is strengthened and expanded in the movement of mutual empathy. Both (all) people in the interaction feel stronger, more alive, more able to create, and desirous of bringing this feeling of empowerment to others. This also contributes to productivity and creativity in the world.
Inner pictures of what has happened to us in relationships, formed in important early relationships. As we develop these images, we are also creating a set of beliefs about why relationships are the way they are. Relational images thus determine expectations not only about what will occur in relationships but about a person's whole sense of herself or himself. These often become the unconscious frameworks by which we determine who we are, what we can do, and how worthwhile we are. Negative relational images become the source of a sense of lack of relational competence and worth and often support strategies of disconnection and a sense of hopelessness.
Relationships are always in movement, toward either better connection or increasing disconnection; with an ongoing flow of mutual empathy, the participants move toward more connection.
Movement to a mutually empowering, growth-fostering connection in the face of adverse conditions, traumatic experiences, and alienating sociocultural pressures; the ability to connect, reconnect, and/or resist disconnection. Movement toward empathic mutuality is at the core of relational resilience (Jordan, 1992).
The ability to bring an empathic attitude to bear on one's own experience. Sometimes achieving self-empathy involves invoking an image of the client at an earlier age to reduce the self-blame and self-rejection that the individual carries.
Pathological shame arises when one feels that one is no longer worthy of empathy or love. It shares many of the characteristics of condemned isolation. One feels excluded, unworthy, and beyond empathic possibility and that one cannot bring oneself more fully into relationship.
Strategies of Disconnection
Methods people develop to stay out of relationship in order to prevent wounding or violation. Also known as strategies of survival, these evolve out of a person's attempt to find some way to make or preserve whatever connection is possible.
Disconnections that occur when what might be an acute disconnection triggers someone (often suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder) into a place of reactivity (the amygdala hijack) where she or he becomes unavailable to relational repair. The person cannot come back into connection because of a heightened sense of danger. Until safety can be reestablished, the therapist must honor the client's dramatic return to strategies of disconnection. Ironically, these traumatic disconnections sometimes follow an increase in closeness, a relinquishing of strategies of disconnection. In those moments the client feels increased vulnerability and may have to resort to old ways of self-protection.