The voice Jimmy heard, the one telling him to shut up, was the voice of second consciousness, his adult self, the best part of him—and the only part of him interested in using relational skills. That voice came to him because, under guidance, Jimmy had learned to pause for a second, contain his impulsive actions or words, and tune in to a part of himself that was healthier, smarter, more loving. The shift from first to second consciousness, from a knee-jerk response to a thoughtful one, is relational mindfulness. It’s the skill from which all other relational skills derive.
Mindfulness has been described as a state of meta-attention: attention to what we pay attention to, a state of self-awareness in which we watch our own thoughts and feelings without judgment or control. In RLT, we believe that this self-awareness is a prerequisite for all other shifts in thinking, feeling, or behavior. It’s implicit in all therapies that teach either cognitive or behavioral change; but in RLT, we not only make the implicit explicit, we teach people how to do it—how to pause, think, breathe, and choose. Relational mindfulness gives us the freedom of choice.
At first, Jimmy’s recitation might sound simple. He just paused for a second and responded better. But a closer look reveals that there’s actually quite a bit packed into his narrative. He stops to breathe. He uses both aspects of a psychological boundary: containing himself (“Shut the eff up”) and protecting himself from Julie’s emotional upset (“Her shit’s hers and not mine”). He can combine boundary work with healthy self-esteem, holding his wife in warm regard, even while protecting himself from her emotional energy. Finally, he keeps his eyes on the prize. Realizing that self-righteous indignation was going to lead to the same old same old between them, he gives up the momentary pleasure of being right for the greater pleasure of a decent evening together. All of his internal work culminates in his offer: “Where are the kids? Let me help out.” The behavioral shift is the punchline, but the critical change first occurs between his ears.
Changing the Relational Dance
Let’s take another look at what we call full-respect living, a pledge to manifest in our actions the principle of healthy self-esteem, seeing ourselves as neither better nor worse than anyone else. The inner benefits of standing up to disrespectful treatment, like the benefits of coming up from shame, are obvious. But it took Jimmy a while to get clear about the psychological benefits of bringing himself down from the seductive one-up position of righteousness and grandiosity. Why is this good for the person doing it? Because, I explain to him, the emotional energy on both poles—up or down, shame or grandiosity—is toxic. In fact, it’s the same energy, the energy of contempt, in both its complementary forms. When contempt is directed inward toward ourselves, we call that shame; when it’s directed outward toward others, we call it grandiosity.
Teaching Jimmy the practice of relational mindfulness—to stop, breathe, and reach for door B, for something better—invited him to step away from indulging contempt in either direction. “Look,” I tell him in one of our early sessions, “here’s how it works in my own life. I’m driving and some SOB cuts in front of me and then slows down just to make me wait. Now, in a former day, I’d have thought nothing of pulling alongside him, rolling down my window, and letting him have it. But now, I breathe myself down from all that one-up stuff, all that righteous anger. And I say to myself, as I look at this driver’s annoying little head through my windshield, I say, ‘I’m not doing this for your sake. I’m not coming down from contempt because you deserve it, but because I deserve it. I’ve had enough contempt in my life. I grew up with it. I internalized it. It became my depression. I’ve ruined relationships by indulging it. No thanks,’ I breathe myself down, as I say to myself, ‘Hey, I can live without it.’”
For most of us, learning to live relationally—practicing relational mindfulness, living with boundaries, exhibiting healthy self-esteem, committing to full-respect living, trading in five losing strategies for five winning ones—takes a few years. I tell clients it’s on a par with learning any complex skill in adulthood, like how to ski or play the piano. That’s the bad news. But there are a couple of pieces of good news as well. First, you needn’t spend those three to five years in therapy. RLT therapy generally lasts a matter of weeks, not months or years. The practice of relational mindfulness occurs mostly outside the office, and after a time, the client begins to work through his or her own process. Second, the practice of stopping oneself, taking a breath, and changing course allows us to begin using all of the skills involved in learning to live relationally, and these skills, starting with relational mindfulness itself, are so effective and so wildly different from what happens in the culture at large that even doing them badly will transform our relationships.
And we can begin doing them badly right now. By focusing on changing consciousness, and, in particular, by teaching clients to bring themselves down from the one-up position of grandiosity, RLT therapists routinely see clients decide to change egregious behaviors they’ve engaged in their whole lives—like being verbally abusive—and stop the old behavior permanently. As Jimmy practices reaching for and listening to that new voice inside, rage is no longer the response but a response. Cleavage begins to appear between his sense of self, his “I,” and his first-consciousness behavior.
The therapeutic work involves confronting each partner’s relational deformities, unearthing the fit between them, taking the current dance back into the family of origin, where each partner’s adaptive child was born, and teaching the partners about relational mindfulness and the components of living a relational life. Then it moves on to practicing mindfulness in the office with them, encouraging them to practice it outside in their lives, working with their resistance (their adaptive child selves), and amplifying progress (their functional adult selves), so that the “old Jimmy” begins to yield to the “new Jimmy,” the aware Jimmy—Jimmy the mindfulness practitioner.
“So,” I ask them both later. “You’re in the water. Chloe’s upset. You’re both upset, but you come to your senses. You’re not each other’s enemies; you’re a team. What do you do differently?”
Julie brightens up. “I explain to my husband—as I didn’t at the time—that Chloe is scared of the motor, and I ask him nicely—as I didn’t at the time—to turn it off for a sec.”
“And you?” I ask Jimmy. He doesn’t answer. Instead, he pauses dramatically and holds up the pointer finger of his right hand.
“See this finger?” he asks. “This finger,” he tells us, “can push a button that turns the motor off. And this very same finger can push the very same button to turn it back on again. That’s it. That’s all it takes. This finger. But first I have to pull it outa my—.”
“First consciousness?” I offer.
Jimmy grins. “Exactly.”
Terry Real, L.I.C.S.W., Good Morning, America’s relationship expert, founded the Relational Life Institute, and he’s a senior faculty member of the Family Institute of Cambridge. His books include The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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