By Dan F. Pollets, Ph.D.
Dr. Pollets describes himself as "an enthusiastic practitioner" of Relational Life Therapy® (RLT). He is a faculty member of the Relational Life Institute, and an ASSECT certified sex therapist.
In this essay, Dr. Dan continues his exploration of how his professional practice of Relational Life Therapy with his clients and the application of those principals in his personal life intersect. Unlike many forms of therapy, RLT practitioners are strongly encouraged to regularly apply relational living to their personal circumstances. This active learning process enables them to more fully engage with and understand their clients' struggles and helps them to more rapidly lead their clients to healing and the benefits of Full Respect Living®.
Successful change in any psychotherapy alters the patient's relationship to his particular form of suffering. In Relational Life Therapy (RLT), we ask partners to become conscious of their emotions and behavior towards each other. In fact, according to Terry Real, one of the major concepts that distinguishes RLT from more traditional forms of therapy is that we ask partners to change behavior first understanding that a shift in their feelings and attitudes will then follow.
RLT is therefore very much a behavioral treatment and a psychodynamic one. In fact, a leading principle of RLT is that changing behavior changes character and vice versa, changing character changes behavior. We work from both ends. We ask partners to step back from their knee-jerk reactions and work on themselves and to disengage from destructive behavioral responses. This is done by appealing to or utilizing secondary consciousness and becoming mindful of what is happening in the moment.
Mindfulness is a capacity or skill that allows us to be less reactive emotionally to what is happening in the moment. It is a way of relating to all experience -- positive, negative, neutral -- with a certain centered-ness or equanimity so that our overall suffering is reduced. Becoming mindful allows our sense of well-being to improve. To be mindful is to recognize what is happening in the present moment. It is the choice to pay attention to intention.
Mindless vs. Mindful: What conscious behavior looks like
Mindlessness or primary conscious behavior, as we talked about last week is that first instinctive reaction, that knee-jerk habit you have of reacting to your partner when you feel triggered by something he or she does. Mindlessness is what happens when:
- Your core negative image -- or worst impression -- of your partner is triggered and drives your habitual reactions and patterns.
- You experience an internal boundary failure -- you rage, point blame, tell an adult what to do.
- You act with contempt for the other person, and trigger his/her passive-aggressive response.
- In general your reaction causes your partner and your relationship to be weighed down and continue to drown in past traumas, preventing the forward motion of a healthy relationship.
- Emotions from the mutual hurt skyrocket so quickly that functional adult behavior cannot override the anger response, and your behavior becomes boundary-less.
By contrast, when we mindfully step back, take a breath and choose to suspend our knee jerk judgment to what is in our consciousness, we can let go of the immediate negative thoughts and habitual reactions. We take a brief moment to notice our thoughts or ideas, and just let it flow like water molecule down a river to the sea. The thought doesn't control our actions, it doesn't become the reality, nor do we have to react to it. We can just let it be.
Acceptance, along with non-judgment, is another fundamental aspect of mindfulness. "Acceptance" adds a measure of kindness. It is a willingness to let things be just as they are in the moment that we become of aware of them -- accepting the painful experiences as they arise. In Relational Life Therapy, this is akin to accepting your partner's subjective perception of reality even when it conflicts with your own. In mindfulness practice and RLT, the concept that one persons sense of reality versus the others is "the" reality is anathema. No one person's thought is any "more real" than any other's.
Learning how to be mindful
I have found that mindfulness as an attitude about life and relationships can be cultivated through mindful awareness practices such as meditation, yoga, T'ai Chi, etc. What these practices have in common is the repetitive exercise of focusing attention. Through this, they enable the individual to exercise and develop an increased capacity to regulate attention, focus on the present moment, be open an curious to experience, and adopt a perspective that non-judgmental and accepting. Most of these practices use the act of breathing as a focal point for the individual to listen to the mind's activities. In daily meditation, for instance, the one meditating focuses attention on breath, mantra or a visual image, and when he becomes aware that thoughts are intruding, he notes the thoughts, accepts them and then gently refocuses back on the breath, mantra or image.
It is not easy to describe how meditation works. It is better to try it and see for yourself. As we practice mindful awareness with effort and regularity, we purposely train the mind to act out of secondary consciousness and avoid the mindless knee-jerk reactions.
The bottom line about mindfulness for clients and therapists
My thesis is just that as meditation has helped me to personally shift attention away from negative thoughts and sad feelings about my lost shoulder function, partners who enter Relational Life Therapy can be similarly taught to buttress or strengthen their secondary consciousness to navigate the bumps along the relationship road.
As for my colleagues in the therapist community, I would like to share that an important tenet in RLT is that the work starts with the therapist's own self-care and psychotherapeutic work. Terry Real teaches us to speak from our own experience, not one-up or one-down. Sharing our own path in recovery is encouraged as long as it does not burden the client. In this regard, I would like to suggest that the practice of mindfulness meditation is a way for the therapist to take care of him/herself and to be a model for the client -- "walking the walk" so to speak.
How mindfulness practice and RLT are improving my life
I have noticed subtle yet palpable changes in the months since I began my meditative practice. I am more aware when I am drifting from the moment-to-moment interaction in a client session. I try not to judge myself for inattention but simply to note it and then focus back on the client and what is happening. I am sustaining more concentrated time in the moment, and I am finding it easier to discover interesting issues to explore as my mind becomes a bit more nimble.
Another interesting benefit that I have noticed is that I seem to accept a couple's negative emotional energy with more equanimity. My internal boundary has become more effective at non-absorption of the intensity of the room. As tensions rise, I breathe more slowly and deeply, and I focus on what needs to be done. My "edge" seems to have softened. A certain type of grandiose man has always evoked my edge. I have enhanced by becoming mindful of this, and I find it easier to have "loving kindness" for the personal history that has empowered his negative behavior. T am then able to move to meet it with skill and moderation.
Finally, I have become more aware of when I'm on "automatic pilot" and moving three steps ahead of where I am. This "catastrophic living" is not reserved only for my office, but is present in my life in general. I am becoming more mindful when I am not present in my relationship, my work with clients or wherever I am. At these times, I try to gently take a breath, become more aware of what is happening in the moment, and slow down to appreciate it.
My life has become more colorful and joyful.
Mindfulness can help participants in Relational Life Therapy to "get" what Terry Real calls secondary consciousness. By giving partners a metaphor to understand how the mind functions and by teaching meditative exercises, it is possible to expedite the learning curve of the Relational Living skills that are being taught.
Since awareness and present focus is the goal of mindful practice, enhancing this mental capacity could help couples refrain from their typical negative dynamics and rather employ the "new deal."
Meditation helps the user become non-reactive, non-judgmental and to be able to use words to label experience. All of these capacities will leave the RLT participant in good stead for the work ahead.