A central idea of relational psychotherapy is that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours (healthy and unhealthy) are directly related to our interpersonal relationships. It is therefore about our self-with-other experience. We are all creatures of familial, social and political contexts, continuously formed (and forming) through our interactions with others.
Relational therapy can be an effective treatment for a whole range of psychological and emotional problems, understanding as it does that so many of them are rooted in troubled relationships past and present. Telling one’s own relational story in the presence of a carefully attuned empathic listener can be a powerful experience, generating shifts in self-understanding and ultimately in symptoms.
Not a medical model.
A relational therapist is not a doctor, there to administer a cure to someone’s emotional pain. This may seem disappointing to some clients. Rather s/he is a fellow human being, ready to engage with and understand the longings and the losses, the hopes, fears and struggles that might have brought a client into therapy.
Relational therapy does not hold with the notion that each of us is responsible for our own happiness. It rejects the tyranny of self-help models that suggest that it is only by “working” on ourselves will we claim our power, increase our self-esteem, become fully evolved etc.
Instead it believes that we all need good connections with others in order to feel good about ourselves. Individual power, agency and wellbeing are only achieved in the context of healthy interpersonal connections.
Relational therapy does not subscribe to rational, linear, cause and effect explanations of how change happens. We are complex systems of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, self-states and energies, all interconnected. Relational therapy takes a systemic, non-linear view of change. Having a new experience of oneself in the context of the therapeutic relationship may lead to new experiences of self and others outside of therapy as well.
Who needs Relational Therapy?
Anyone who has questions like “How do others see me?” “Am I good enough for them?” “Am I worthy enough?” might consider seeking a relationally oriented therapeutic approach. When your own answers to the questions above aren’t good, you feel bad about yourself and when you feel bad about yourself you are diminished.
A relational therapy will look at your everyday relationships with people in your life right now and seek to understand what it is that happens there that leaves you feeling bad about yourself.
Understanding the (repetitive) patterns of feeling bad in your life might be a reminder of earlier relationships. Consideration of these earlier relationships may help in developing an understanding of the sense you made of them, the sense of who you are and what you’re worth.
The here and now relationship between therapist and client is also kept in mind and attended to as part of a relational approach. As a relational practitioner I am always noticing the subtle shifts within and between myself and my client(s). The moments when a client might feel misunderstood or judged by me are important to “catch.” Understanding what goes on between “us” might be useful in understanding what goes on “out there” with “them.”
Therapy offers the possibility to reflect on what forms us and to make room for the changes we hope for. A relational approach understands the relationship itself between client and therapist to be a fundamentally important element in realising such change.
Gerry Gilmartin is an accredited, registered and experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor. She currently works with individuals (young people/adults) and couples in private practice. Gerry is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice.