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 explores the intersection of his professional exploration and practice of Relational Life Therapy with his clients and the application of those principals in his personal life. 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®.
As any competent therapist, throughout my 30 years of clinical practice, I have pursued my own therapeutic or personal growth work, which has enhanced my technique and made me more aware of my "edge." For the last four years or more, I have been a serious student of Terry Real's Relational Life Therapy®. I have discovered a form of therapy that involves an interaction between participants (couples and groups) that is more exciting in the same way that symphonies are far more interesting than solo recitals.
Plunging into Terry's work has been like finding water in the desert, and incorporating and utilizing it has saved me countless headaches and made me a better therapist. Relational Life Therapy (RLT) is like having a GPS for the long relationship road ahead. If you make a wrong turn, there is always a comforting voice telling you how to get back in the right direction.
As I have worked and practiced this model, I have been fascinated with how couples differ in their capacity to adapt, learn, practice and "get" the orienting concepts or philosophies and ultimately learn relational skills. I do not think the differences are a factor of IQ (although perhaps "emotional intelligence may be at play). We all know those couples who stay rooted in the core negative image or preconceived notions of each other and who resist the therapeutic work to pry them from their negative stance. They become exceedingly activated emotionally. They react and are easily triggered by their partner's stuff. It is difficult to get them to step back from the typical roles they play out with each other in the maladaptive dynamic of their interactions.
These couples require significant therapeutic energy. They use a lot of the oxygen in the room, and are no fun to play with early on in the therapy. They have their "fight," and they're sticking to it!
In terms of RLT language, the primary consciousness from the adapted child has won out over the secondary consciousness of the functional adult. It is clear that the couples who more quickly and effectively understand, integrate and then learn the skills of RLT are more likely to be adept at what Terry calls secondary consciousness.
Terry defines secondary consciousness as the Voice of Reason, maturity and relational savvy which interrupts your initial (primary consciousness), knee-jerk reaction and offers a more constructive alternative. This is a learned behavior. He continues, "Growing into this functional adult part of the self, arming it with tools, and strengthening its power to override automatic reactions is the essence of relationship practice." (From How Can I Get Through to You, page 78).
I have wondered whether relational life therapy work could be expedited by focusing and elaborating on the concept of secondary consciousness as defined above. In other words, is there a way to teach a "meta-skill," if you will, to help the partners step back in awareness from their over-determined, automatic through and behavioral responses to become aware of what is happening as prelude to disengaging from those patterns. Could there be a psychological equivalent to the calisthenics, stretching or aerobic conditioning for the mind prior to running the race we call Relational Life Therapy so that the participants are primed, open, flexible, adaptable and in shape to engage in the therapy?
It is clear that awareness and attentive focus on what is happening at the moment is crucial in secondary consciousness so that one can step away from automatic responses. It seems logical then that a practice that encourages one to focus on selective attention to the moment and achieve non-judgmental acceptance might generalize to the therapy. These are precisely the capabilities that are woven into and utilized in mindful awareness practice.
My Personal Path to Mindfulness
In the past year as I have been honing my RLT work in supervision with Relational Life Institute faculty member Jan Bergstrom, I have had to cope with a personal medical crisis that threatened my equanimity. Due to overuse of my left shoulder joint and an inflammatory response to a drug injection, I lost the use of my shoulder function and needed a total shoulder replacement. This threatened my lifelong identity as an athlete and tennis player as well as the relationships that orbited the game. I fell into a deep anxiety over future functioning, pain and the ordeal of recovery.
As my wonderful wife Felice would say, I had become a kvetch. Never one to shy away from sharing my feelings, I would overwhelm her loving patience with an endless stream of worry and complaints. Finally, in an act of self-preservation, she limited me to five minutes of complaining, two times per day. Needless to say, my feeling of being victimized by the medical establishment fed this self-preoccupation and dwelling on loss, deprivation, sadness, and of course pain.
Around this time, I attended the Psychotherapy Networker Conference in San Francisco where I heard a keynote address on Mindfulness and the Brain given by the brilliant and relationally-oriented neuro-psychiatrist Dan Siegel. I was inspired to begin my own meditation practice again. I also began to practice Yoga with my wife, who is a lifelong practitioner.
As a result, while my shoulder is slowly rehabilitating, I have been successful at changing the focus of my attention from loss to the present moment and to the aspects of my life that, as Terry would say, are "rich in abundance."
Meditative and Yoga practice are helping me alter my consciousness around the thoughts of my shoulder and life. I am not so wedded to a specific outcome, measure by shoulder function, to guarantee life satisfaction. I have become better at shifting from "kvetch" consciousness to non-judgmental acceptance of the way things are now.
It is important to underscore that this is a practice of becoming mindfully aware, and as my imperfect mind drifts to negative thoughts, I take note of them in a non-judgmental manner. I take a deep breath, and I come back into the moment. This is the cultivation of secondary consciousness or mindfulness. It is becoming conscious of your thoughts and emotions and holding them in non-judgment in order to allow other "realities" to become known. I can become aware that one isolated thought may not be the way the situation really is.
In the next issue of the Real Advice Blog on Tuesday, April 29, Dr. Dan explores Mindfulness and Secondary Consciousness as a Concept and as a Practice.