The Central Relational Paradox

“People grow through and towards connection” -Jean Baker Miller

This idea is at the heart of Relational Cultural Theory, a therapeutic orientation that posits healthy relationships as central to well-being.  Within this framework, emotional distress is always the result of disconnection; be it disconnection from other people, the self, or a larger community. 

Relational Cultural Theory suggests that human beings are, above all, relational creatures.  They seek connection and they experience anxiety, terror, and depression when isolated.  These two truths work in tandem to form the ‘Central Relational Paradox’.

‘The Central Relational Paradox’ asserts that though we desperately seek and desire profound connections, we are terrified of being rejected and isolated.  And so we proceed tentatively in relationships, keeping fundamental parts of ourselves separate and out of connection.  These parts of the self-thoughts, behaviours, needs, desires, emotions-are often parts that have been imbued with shame in the past. Somehow, somewhere, it was communicated to us that these parts are ‘unacceptable’ or ‘bad’, and so we try to keep them hidden.  We develop ‘strategies of disconnection’, that is, ways to conceal our shame-ridden parts from others.

And this is where things get problematic.  We want to connect with others and be seen, and yet we cannot and do not reveal large parts of ourselves.  Our natural, and often necessary, instinct to protect and safeguard ourselves from rejection, stands in the way of the very connection we so deeply need and desire.  

A skilled therapist will not attempt to take away our strategies of disconnection in one fell swoop.  As Jean Baker Miller writes, a therapist ‘must honour strategies of disconnection’.  This honouring of strategies of disconnection is undergirded by a deep and compassionate understanding of the circumstances that gave rise to these strategies.

We have learned to keep parts of ourselves out of connection because in the past it was not safe to expose them.  Our particular strategies of disconnection were likely necessary for survival at some point, although they may no longer be.  In fact, it is likely they are not only not necessary at this point in our lives, but rather harmful and detrimental to our well-being.  Within the context of good therapy, we are given the opportunity to experience a safe and accepting relationship, where strategies of disconnection are left to fall away when no longer necessary.  We have a new experience of relationship and connection and this experience is then carried outside of the therapeutic relationship and into the world.

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