Tag Archives: relational-cultural theory

Integrating Critical Race Theory and Relational-Cultural Theory

Weaving a Fabric for Transformative Social Justice Learning: Integrating Critical Race and Relational-Cultural Theories

By Cynthia Renee Donner, MSW, LGSW

Critical Race Theory and Relational-Cultural Theory

Critical Race Theory (CRT) emerged in the 1970s in response to changing forms of racial oppression, drawing from earlier movements and philosophers in critical legal studies and radical feminism (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012). Delgado and Stefancic (2012) define CRT as a movement “of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power” (p. 3). They also state that most social activists agree racism is a common experience, yet difficult to address because of color-blind perceptions of equality that advance white privilege in perceived and real experiences. A prominent base from which CRT evolved is the “social construction thesis” that “holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations” (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012, p. 8).

Relational-Cultural theory (RCT) is a modern psychological theory developed by Jean Baker Miller, and an initial group of scholars—including Judith Jordan, Alexandra Kaplan, Janet Surry, and Irene Stiver through the Stone Center at Wellesley College in Boston (M. Walker, personal communication, March 6, 2017). RCT posits growth-fostering relationships are central to human development (Jordan, 2010). Social justice activists have joined psychotherapists and educators in applying this theory in conjunction with other critical post-modern theories and advances in neuroscience to strategies that promote justice and healing. In particular, RCT examines the oppressive forces and related trauma and social isolation (Jordan, 2010).

CRT is concerned with disparities resulting from forces of structural oppression and was influenced by feminist views on the relationship between power and the social construction of roles and privileges that support patriarchy and domination (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012). These concerns with disparities are also reflected in what Jordan, Frey, Schwartz, and Walker presented on RCT in the June RCT conference that took place at the College of St. Scholastic, Duluth, Minnesota in 2016. CRT examines oppressive social stratification; “it seeks to uncover the mechanism and structures that actually disadvantage people, even those ostensibly designed by institutions to serve the needy” (Ortiz & Jani, 2010, p. 183). Carillo, Hernandez, and Fitch propose that the lived experiences—and understandings of those experiences—leave diverse teachers/learners in a place of “ideological dislocation, in which their interests and passions are neither consistent with Eurocentrically-based curricula nor fit well as acceptable research questions” (Ortiz & Jani, 2010, p. 181). According to Ortiz and Jani (2010), this ideological dislocation is manifest in higher education in in three ways: there is lack of curriculum content that speaks directly to the experiences of students and faculty of color; students frequently lack mentors who can assist them in successfully navigating the learning environment; and having few faculty of color likely affects the overall research agendas of universities. They write: “Racial assumptions become a part of the development of the psyche for members of all groups through internalization, the phase of social construction by which ‘facts’ become a part of the conscious and unconscious” (p. 181).

Jordan (2010) writes that RCT examines the trauma, isolation, and social shame resulting from human disconnection that accompanies forces of oppression. She further poses the basic premise of RCT that justice is served when interpersonal relationships and institutional alignments are grounded in empathy, respect, and mutuality. Both RCT (Walker, 2008) and CRT (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012) consider the role of stories and empathy as significant features of their philosophical dimensions and related practice approaches.

Transforming Community: The Radical Reality of Relationship

The June 2016 RCT conference sparked a unique synergy. People from diverse communities representing many histories of oppression and privilege convened with Jordan and other current leaders in RCT over the three days to listen, share, and reflect. There were heartfelt stories of struggle and transformation, and many individuals reported a renewed strength or clearer vision resulting from the connections made with new people and testimonies during conference sessions and dialogues. It was evident that several presenters and attendees were well steeped in theoretical and/or experiential understanding of oppression and related traumas and disparities from their respective fields of psychotherapy, education, health care, and social activism. But the focus on and practice of RCT over the three days seemed to launch both RCT followers and newcomers into previously uncharted territory rich in meaningful connections that generated substantive qualities of relief, validation, and hope for many in attendance.

Because these kinds of outcomes are not common among professional conferences or circles of learning and action, they merit particular consideration if the desire is to move communities beyond critical analysis to transformative change through shifts in individual and collective consciousness. Through dialogue that adhered to principles of RCT, conference participants demonstrated how the practical application of this theory facilitates growth-fostering relationships among diverse people and deepen engagement among those pursuing transformative change. This has been a significant missing piece in the curriculum and analytical approaches to social justice organizing in the past.

Implications for Social Justice Education

CRT is important to social work education. Like other critical perspectives, it promotes an understanding of racial segregation and the functions of postmodernism that is described by Ortiz and Jani (2010) as a “refusal of positivism, recognition of intersectionality, deconstruction of social constructions, understanding of categorization, and rejection of totalizing categories” (p. 177). In their argument for CRT as a transformational model for teaching diversity, they point out that because race-based ideology is woven into the fabric of the dominant culture, “research methods, theories, and practice techniques taught in social work education rest on the assumptions and values of dominant culture, which, unless subjected to critique, will have questionable applicability to non- Euro-American populations” (p. 182). In a discussion of explicit and implicit curriculum requirements associated with CRT, they further argue that in addition to teaching students about culture they also need to be taught how to “analyze the institutional arrangements of society, assess how they are shaped by dominant cultural assumptions, and recognize how they may disadvantage members of nondominant cultural groups” (p. 189). They conclude by declaring that CRT is a paradigm that calls forth action across all spectrums of social work curriculum with its use of socially conscious indicators, the nature of questions it poses, and the patterns of interaction it promotes can be conceptualized as social work competencies and be concretized into practice behaviors—with some creativity particularly on the part of social work educators.

RCT offers a framework for transformative learning that can be applied across social work curricula (as demonstrated in the June 2016 conference dialogue sessions) to facilitate understanding of CRT in engagement, assessment, planning, and evaluation in a context of growth-fostering relationships. As Ortiz and Jani (2010) assert, “teaching diversity is more complex than trying to attend to the various differences among people in society and the resulting ‘isms’” (p. 190). They further cite the need for students to be prepared to move outside of their prescribed roles and/or comfort zones, and be ready to engage in dialogues that lead to transformative evaluation and outcomes on micro/ mezzo/macro levels. RCT’s foundational principles for cultivating growth-fostering relationships can facilitate integration of CRT learning and development in cognitive, affective, value, and skill dimensions. These principles are grounded in what Jean Baker Miller proposed as Five Good Things which have been described as “Attributes of a growth-fostering relationship: zest, sense of worth, clarity, productivity, and a desire for more connection” (JBTMI, 2017, para. 15). The leading scholars of RCT have contributed research and curriculum in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, social work, education, and social and environmental justice with practice methods that can be integrated into curricular approaches with CRT and other post-modern theories to prepare teachers/learners for the challenges of today’s fragmented world.

At the June conference, Jordan suggested the “social prescription of self-interest” (how we have been socially conditioned to identify with a separate individual self) is a major consideration in examining the isolation that is prevalent among people and in accounting for the increasing disparities along lines of race and class. The separate self that we are conditioned to identify with is constructed along lines of race, class, and gender which creates an isolating fabric of internalized notions of privilege and oppression around our psyche that prevents us from engaging in growth-fostering relationships. Internalizing that isolated separate self is restricting on both cognitive and emotional levels. It requires intentional reflective work to be aware of how these restrictions impact our worldview and relationships. Conscious effort is required to be fully open, empathically present, and responsive with others who are different.

Learning how to connect with others in growth-fostering relationships may be the glue to hold movements together that are focused on transformative justice. People who benefit from or succumb to the dominant individual-centered mindset are not typically invested in transformative social change; and yet they regularly challenge our classroom, professional, and community learning circles. Individuals who expect to be taught what will be on the test, so that they can pass it and receive the degree that will land the desired job are conditioned to do so. The “what’s in it for me” worldview competes with critical thinking to the degree that people adhering to this mindset are not easily motivated beyond personal self-interest to examine the role of structural power and privilege affecting social conditions across micro-mezzo-macro practice fields. The separate individual self-interest orientation combined with privilege that comes with perceived or real socioeconomic status inhibits some people from stepping outside of the comfort zone of conformity and, in the June conference, what Walker called the field of anxiety between right and wrong. CRT suggests that this results from internalized social construction of race and the real socioeconomic benefits afforded people who fit the categorical expectations of white—including behaviors as well as skin colors. Walker further discussed how people are often willing to learn how to talk in politically correct “pseudoempathy” terms (i.e., Minnesota Nice), but not necessarily willing to walk in the field which demands critical curiosity void of judgment and the courage to be vulnerable.

For some the shame of identifying with a privileged group’s discriminatory beliefs or the inability to overcome one or more experiences with oppression is an additional layer of socially prescribed separateness that perpetuates isolation and suppression of voice. As Schwartz and Frey asserted in their presentation at the June conference: “shame is a social emotion,” and too often shaming is a public experience for people in classroom and professional/field encounters. They proposed that learners benefit from a context of mutuality (especially within the dynamics of power in the learning process), and appreciation that their thinking and efforts matter.

The experiences of trauma and shame associated with structural forces of oppression permeate lived experiences of both teachers and learners in a way that influences cognitive understandings of those lived experiences. The socially conditioned orientation toward a separate-self places the challenge of transcending these experiences and related beliefs deep in our individual and collective psyches. Schwartz and Frey went on to state at the conference that we all have “possible selves”— images of who we want/don’t want to be. They suggest that “feedback loops” are a powerful way to learn from and deal with our possible selves and the disconnection in emotional reactions to others’ thoughts and actions—providing the teacher/mentor is grounded in genuine openness to learning and utilizes reflection and support from colleagues.

Jordan cited the importance of relationship in her discussion of relational resilience. She wrote that it is “Movement to a mutually empowering, growth-fostering connection in the face of adverse conditions, traumatic experiences, and alienating sociocultural pressures; the ability to connect, reconnect, and/or resist disconnection. Movement toward empathic mutuality is at the core of relational resilience” (JBTMI, 2017, para. 39).

Implications for Marginalization 

Jordan suggested at the June conference that “closed hearts are taught” through socialization of the separate self in a society where “unacknowledged privilege is embedded in every social structure and system of the U.S. culture”. She further stated that capitalism has woven the fabric of U.S. history since early colonization, and stories of injustice continue as the interconnected threads of oppression have tightened under extreme corporate-capitalist control of global economies and political systems. Banks and Craddock pointed out in their presentation at the conference that “social exclusion and perceived social exclusion can be deadly”. They proposed that the psychological resistance to marginalization and other forms of social pain (e.g. overt and covert microaggressions, stereotype threats, exclusionary policies) is a part of the lived experience of people who occupy our classrooms, community, and professional circles. Pain can be enhanced by the combination of ideological dislocation and human disconnection that compels silence while inducing fear and isolation.

How might more inclusive policies and practices transform organizational and institutional systems if they ensured people coming together were grounded in analytical dimensions of RCT and relational dimensions of CRT? Social work values and guiding principles demand that implicit and explicit curriculum ensures inclusion of experiences and perspectives. As teachers, we have more to learn and can be transformed by students. As teacher-learners we must recognize as Frey stated at the conference that “expertise is fluid” and therefore must “be aware of our own disconnection to emotional reactions” to students and others with different in views or experiences.

Walker suggested in her keynote presentation at the June conference that our “embodied difference—or racialized bias/ narrative” is part of the human experience and yet we seldom acknowledge this in ourselves, much less make it part of our classroom discussions, nor hold each other accountable through institutional or community dialogues. Empathic dialogue is increasingly rare in our sociopolitical realms today, with rancorous debate dominating in public discourse and social media. It seems challenging for most people to actively listen to a speaker or connect interpersonally for any length of time, evidenced by the constant need to ask people to turn their communication devices off during class or professional meetings. Dialogue enables us to make meaning of our stories and experiences. Mutual compassion and genuine empathic listening, unconditional positive regard and courageous curiosity are important elements of dialogue that can take us to deeper levels of understanding. The conference dialogue sessions incorporated these elements, and demonstrated the cognitive and emotional levels of understanding that can be reached toward individual and collective transformation.

Ortiz and Jani (2010) emphasize CRT principles of asking the right questions, focusing on structural transformation, honoring contextual competence, refusing assumptions. Walker in her conference address identified five practical steps for respectful and courageous engagement with each other: Embrace the whole brain, all voices; pause, breathe; question normalcy; learn about people who’ve resisted racialized power systems; and develop a community of allies. Perhaps more focused and deliberate integration of both these approaches in classroom and community learning circles can foster transformative justice. Given the social and interpersonal isolation in current times, a firm base of knowledge and skills for growth-fostering relationships with diverse people is central to social work education. We are social beings, wired for connection; but unfortunately we are dealing with social systems that challenge this core aspect of humanity. Combined, both theoretical paradigms could help us through the struggles of transformative change—CRT for analysis to help us deconstruct oppressive forces and understand the complexity of intersecting systems, and RCT for building growth-fostering relationships into new and better ways of understanding and being with each other and the world.

About the Author

Transforming Community Relational Cultural TheoryPrior to teaching in the Undergraduate Social Work Program at The College of St. Scholastica and being Coordinator of that program delivered at Fond du Lac Tribal Community College, Cynthia Donner worked for over two decades with non-profits in the Duluth, Minnesota area. In merging a life-long passion for social justice with the role of educator, she strives to create spaces and opportunities for people to discover the transformative potential of connecting with and contributing to shared stories. Cynthia Renee Donner may be contacted at Cdonner@css.edu.

Relational-Cultural Theory Series, Previous Articles:

What is Relational-Cultural Theory?
Transforming Community Through Disruptive Empathy
Combining the Neuroscience of Relational-Cultural Theory and Clinical Practice
RCT: The Power of Connection Through Student and Professional Mentorship
RCT: It’s All About the Relationship
Unpacking White Privilege: An Experiment in “Going There” with White Relational-Cultural Practitioners


Delgado, R. and Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical race theory. New York: New York University.

Ortiz, L. and Jani, J. (2010). Critical race theory: A transformational model for teaching diversity. Journal of Social Work Education, 46 (2). Council on Social Work Education.

Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (2017). Glossary of key terms. Retrieved from: https://www.jbmti.org/Our-Work/glossaryrelational-cultural-therapy

Jordan, J. (2010). Relational-Cultural Therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Torres, C. A. (2007). Paulo Freire, education and transformative social justice learning. Retrieved from http://www.ipfp.pt/cdrom/Pain%E9is%20Dial%F3gicos/Painel%20A%20-%20Sociedade%20 Multicultural/carlosalbertotorres.pdf

RCT: It’s All About the Relationship

Relational-Cultural Theory Series, Previous Articles:

What is Relational-Cultural Theory?
Transforming Community Through Disruptive Empathy
Combining the Neuroscience of Relational-Cultural Theory and Clinical Practice
RCT: The Power of Connection Through Student and Professional Mentorship


It’s All About the Relationship

By Julie Kim, MSW, LICSW 

Transforming Community Relational Cultural TheoryFrom: Transforming Community: Stories of connection through the lens of Relational-Cultural theory

Edited by: Connie Gunderson, PhD, LISW, Dorothy Graff, PhD, LICSW, & Karen Craddock, PhD, EdM

As a student counselor with Health Services at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, I am sharing a personal story relating insights and experiences about surviving systems of oppression to living. Learning about Relationship-Cultural theory (RCT) clarifies the impacts of racism and oppression and helps people of color move from survival and isolation to building a foundation to live a meaningful life. RCT reflects my values, validates my personal experiences, and has taught me about the power of connection and healing. Julie Kim may be contacted at juliek@d.umn.edu.

“It’s all about the relationship” is a phrase Connie Gunderson says quite often. It couldn’t be more true, as I reflect on my life journey so far. Relational-Cultural theory (RCT), developed by the work of Jean Baker Miller, identifies the concept of chronic disconnection, a disconnection which promotes condemned isolation to such a degree that relationships are feared and persons have a sense they do not deserve loving relationships filled with understanding.

As a Korean girl, adopted at a young age into a white family, and growing up in a predominantly white community, I began my journey into condemned isolation. Being told daily that I didn’t belong, I wasn’t wanted, and I needed to go back to my country was reinforced through people’s attitudes and by systems I was involved in every day. Always feeling a sense of being left out, of being different, I was a label of ridicule, especially because of my appearance. Hearing comments such as: “Chink, you would be cute if your eyes were bigger. Can you see out of your eyes?” was a normal occurrence. I experienced an additional sense of condemned isolation because, since I was not fully Korean, I didn’t fit into the American culture and I did not belong in my home country. “Where do I belong?” and “Where do I fit in?” were common questions that continued until I reached my early 30s.

Learning about racism and beginning to understand the personal consequences of racism turned my world into wonder, curiosity, and the unknown. “What am I supposed to do with this information?”, and “Will it change my life?” At the time I remember thinking: “It was never my fault.” This was a defining message that promoted internal change. I began to seek people who would support me for the way I looked; who understood my life experience; and who accepted my authentic self; an authentic self no longer ruled by fear, people’s glares, or by people asking me personal questions about whether or not I was a “foreigner”, or why I was in the United States.

Living authentically didn’t come easy at first. I constantly questioned myself about whether or not my perceptions and ideas were valid. However, as I moved into deeper questions and reflections, my relationships became deeper and more intentional. Feeling accepted and understood was profound and life changing and I started to believe “I do matter” because my relationships reinforced this every day.

My journey continues and I am constantly reminded of my story as I listen to college students of color share their experiences which are very similar to my own. My goal is to help them recognize that they are enough, their multiple identities matter, and to teach them to live authentically. I say this because I know that no one can do this work alone or in isolation. For example, I was provided the opportunity to teach an all student of color course and in doing so, we created an environment that was not influenced by institutionalized systems already in place. In looking back, the students and I created an environment from the basic tenets of Relational-Cultural theory that modeled interdependence, empathy, mutuality, and connection. SunNy Vang, a class participant, summed up the learning experience for all by stating:

My experiences with relationship building in our class began from a place of vulnerability. As a person of color, I struggle tremendously with a sense of belonging. Knowing that I do not “fit” nicely with what is considered normal or customary; I learned to appreciate it and to acknowledge that I have more to contribute to my community. These awarenesses did not happen overnight. We had discussions every day that reflected our reactions, thinking processes, and how we felt about a number of awesome and sad things. We all came from different places and our stories were welcomed. We connected on a far deeper level compared to other classes.

The students and I focused on building empathic relationships, and it truly fostered a responsive and relevant teaching and learning environment in ways that included much more than racial, social, and ethnic demographics. We supported each other by validating and embracing each other’s knowledge, values, experiences, and differences. We all became more mutually responsive persons. I’m truly grateful for the students, as their insights and experiences have helped me to grow and continue to heal. Connie Gunderson was right, “It’s all about the relationship”.

RCT: The Power of Connection Through Student and Professional Mentorship

Relational-Cultural Theory Series Previous Articles:

What is Relational-Cultural Theory?
Transforming Community Through Disruptive Empathy
Combining the Neuroscience of Relational-Cultural Theory and Clinical Practice

Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) in Practice:

The Power of Connection Through Student and Professional Mentorship

By Connie Gunderson, PhD, Jane Larson, MSW, Corrie Ehrbright, MSW, Vanessa Thoennes, MSW, Amy Anderly-Dotson, MSW, Anthony Klar, MSW, Ashley Tuve, MSW, Will Wales, MSW

Relational-Cultural theory (RCT) recognizes the primacy of relationship, and emphasizes the intrinsic human desire for connection through mutual empathy, radical respect, community and social justice. The purpose of this paper is to share the voices and experiences of MSW students who completed an advanced practice course in Relational-Cultural theory at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota with the instruction of Dr. Connie Gunderson. Core aspects of learning included the opportunity for students to collaborate with faculty at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College in Boston, Massachusetts and participate in a mentorship program with RCT practitioners throughout the USA and Canada. Their experiences demonstrate that with the power of connection and the value of intrinsic inter-relationship mutual learning, growth and change are possible as students integrate Relational-Cultural theory into field placements and other professional settings. Connie Gunderson, PhD, LISW may be contacted at cgunderson@css.edu.

This article shares the voices of MSW students who completed a course in Relational-Cultural theory at The College of St. Scholastica. It will briefly describe the course curriculum for your frame of reference and focus on students’ learning and reflections of their professional growth during the course, and the implications of applying RCT in clinical social work practice.


Brief Introduction to Relational-Cultural Theory

Relational-Cultural theory evolved as a developmental and psychological model in the 1970s through the collaboration of four women psychologists, Jean Baker Miller, Irene Stiver, Judith Jordan, and Jan Surrey, in Boston, MA. These women, along with other scholars and practitioners, began to challenge mainstream, traditional psychologies of human development that were grounded in a belief of the separate-self. From their perspectives, psychological theories that valued and fostered a separate-self worldview, based on individualism and autonomy, promoted a culture that was fundamentally antithetical to the health and wellbeing of persons and communities. In refute, the women posited that health, well-being, and growth are based on the primacy and centrality of relationship and relational movement rather than the focus of acting in one’s sole interests (Miller, 1976). This paradigm shift in thought and action has affected how counseling, therapy, organizational development, and policy changes are understood and practiced. In 2012, an editor at the American Psychological Association recognized Relational-Cultural theory as one of the top ten psychological theories of our time (Carlson, 2012). This is a tribute to the scholarship of the women who dared to challenge the status quo in the field of psychology.


Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT):

An MSW Course Curriculum

In the fall of 2014, MSW students at the College of St. Scholastica had the opportunity to study Relational-Cultural theory and its approach to human development, clinical practice, and social justice.

The course curriculum included an in-depth exploration of RCT theory, collaborative mentorship with RCT clinical practitioners, an introductory training experience at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College in Boston, MA, and two community-based educational events, hosted by the College of St. Scholastica and the Duluth community, featuring Dr. Judith Jordan and Dr. Connie Gunderson. The course was designed to engage students to learn about growth fostering relationship with each other, RCT mentors, and RCT scholars. The students were encouraged to reflect and practice the tenets of RCT in all aspects of the course. To assist in this process, students worked in small groups with RCT mentors to examine RCT through comprehensive literature reviews and collaborative discussions. Each small group critically reflected on how the theory and tenets applied to clinical social work practice.

A student reflected that RCT mentorship was a unique way to build relationship and foster learning:

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with our mentors. They brought a wealth of experience, wisdom, knowledge, and fun to the table. They were willing to answer questions, share resources, and offer guidance. Most importantly, they brought themselves to the relationship and, I believe, we did as well. In true RCT fashion, our mentoring relationship was one of a reciprocal nature with all of us engaged in mutual learning.

This next section includes brief summaries of the students learning and reflections of some of the primary RCT tenets.


Basic Tenets of Relational-Cultural Theory

Mutual Empathy

Mutual empathy is one of the essential factors necessary for growth in relationship (Jordan, 1986). According to Hartling and Miller (2004), mutual empathy is not a static one-way process, nor is it a relational courtesy, but rather a complex skill that helps us “know” another person’s experience. To be empathic requires vulnerability. Jordan (1992) likens mutual empathy to a “life-giving empathic bridge” where people with different views and perspectives can come together and engage in dialogue that creates change (p. 2).

The practice of mutual empathy in therapy encompasses not only empathizing with clients’ experiences but also with their strategies of disconnection (Miller & Stiver, 1994). It is also a corrective experience allowing clients to build positive relational images and know they can have an impact on the world and the people in their lives which, in turn, contributes to a sense of empowerment (Walker, 2004). As clinicians, being mutually empathic also means identifying and empathizing with our own experiences and strategies of disconnection which can interfere with the ability to be fully present and engaged with our clients (Jordan, Walker, & Hartling, 2004).

Walker (2004) notes that all people deserve to be treated with dignity. Radical respect is a key aspect of mutual empathy. Without radical respect it is unlikely that clients would allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to authentically engage in a relationship. The practice of mutual empathy is paramount – without it, healing cannot take place. A student allowed herself to experience mutual empathy as she wrote:

Boston was an opportunity for me to join and experience the special bond the class already seemed to have. I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I walked into the airport the morning we were flying out, ready to cry over the fact I had to leave my babies, two of my classmates greeted me immediately with smiles, hugs, and words of reassurance. It was in that moment that I knew I was going to be part of something special. Special seems like an understatement here. The bond we all created in Boston was nothing short of extraordinary, and that bond continues to grow.



Authenticity is being able to fully represent oneself honestly in relationship (Jordan, 2004). When we are able to be authentic we are able to better know, understand, and discuss our thoughts and feelings with others (Miller & Stiver, 1997). The benefits of authenticity have been stressed in many fields including psychology, sociology, philosophy, and spiritual traditions (Chen, 2004). For example, a recent study on authenticity, life satisfaction, and distress indicated that the ability to be authentic in relationship was connected to an increased feeling of life satisfaction and decreased levels of distress (Boyraz, Waits, & Felix, 2014). As an example of this, a student wrote:

Authentic interpersonal relationships are critical to client health. Yet so many clients come to therapy in a state of profound isolation. RCT is refreshing because the focus is on healthy and authentic relationships, rather than on symptoms of mental illness.

Another student reflected:

The RCT class was like nothing I expected. The class was small and intimate. We got to know each other’s quirks and personalities on a deeper level. This was something new for me, since I was used to blending in, and being unnoticed. In the RCT class I was visible. When I spoke, people heard me, and that was something I had never experienced before. In this environment I learned my voice was accepted. For the first time, I realized I could make a difference outside of the classroom, and connect with others on a deeper level.

These results support the importance of helping clients share their personal stories, explore thoughts and feelings, be true to themselves, and feel free to engage in meaningful ways with others.


Social Justice

As clinicians it is important to understand that chronic exposure to social disparities, such as race, gender, and class-based stereotypes, are painful and foster self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness (Comstock et al., 2008). RCT invites clinicians to think beyond symptom reduction and remedial helping interventions (Comstock et al., 2008). Clinicians are encouraged to explore the social challenges and barriers clients may deal with on a daily basis. For example, Birrell and Freyd (2006) describe in their article, Ethics and Power, how cultural oppression, social exclusion, and other forms of social injustices underlie the pain that individuals in marginalized and devalued groups routinely experience in their lives. During the training in Boston, Dr. Maureen Walker explained that although oppression is often institutionalized at societal levels, it is necessarily enacted in the context of interpersonal relationship, therefore the fragmentation caused by the violation of human bonds can only be healed by new and healing human bonds (Walker, 2014). While at the training in Boston, a student became more aware of an important social justice issue while attending a lecture by author, Allan G. Johnson, who wrote The Gender Knot. The student noticed:

During the training, I was introduced to new perspectives about gender and privilege in our culture. I began to understand how white males have a status of unearned privilege in our society. As a white male with this unearned privilege, I became increasingly aware of how I may be perceived by others based on this unearned privilege alone. For example, I recognized how women are often discounted in our culture by being referred to as “guys.” This demonstrated how “male dominant” our society is.

As a clinical social worker, it is critical to be cognizant of the deep-rooted issues of power and privilege and to be able to address clients’ experiences with their environments and systemic assumptions and practices from a relational human rights perspective.



Many traditional therapeutic models view boundaries as a rigid line of separation. Clients may be subject to what the therapist determines as rules or boundaries. This perspective often carries connotations of control and separateness. From an RCT perspective, boundaries are viewed as an opportunity for connection and a place of meeting and exchange (Walker & Rosen, 2004). One method that fosters a power-with relationship is a conversation initiated by the therapist with a client at the beginning of the relationship. To create an environment that is mutually respectful and safe, therapists and clients need to discuss and clarify the purpose and focus of their therapeutic relationship. Here, boundaries are discussed and mutual agreements are developed to establish a constructive therapeutic relationship. For example, therapists respect clients by focusing on the clients’ needs during the therapy hour, and only use a “judicious use of self” when offering feedback and responses. Clients respect therapists by honoring the therapists’ need for personal privacy inside and outside of the office. This is critical in establishing a positive relational connection (Walker & Rosen, 2004). During the semester, there were discussions about the need for healthy professional boundaries. A student reflected:

I have struggled with the some of the traditional models of mental health treatment. For example, a therapist who is intentionally aloof and objective (if that is even possible) exudes judgment and superiority. Sadly, I have witnessed clinicians who repeatedly tell clients what is wrong with them, interpret clients as manipulative and treatment resistant, and unilaterally design treatment plans that clients must follow or face significant consequences. This does not model a growth fostering relationship, or offer a client a safe place to be vulnerable. An RCT clinician tries to relate with a client in a professional manner with mutual empathy, fluid expertise, a judicious use of self, clear boundaries, and clarity of purpose.



RCT focuses on safe and healthy therapeutic relationships. So the concept of power is central to RCT. Power is present in every relationship. How power is perceived and manifested is critical. RCT suggests that power is defined as the ability to facilitate change (Jordan, 2010). For example, relationships that strive to acknowledge and respect each person’s ability to contribute, while recognizing the different roles and needs each person may have creates an environment that supports empowerment, connection, and growth (Miller & Stiver, 1997). The students explored how they experience power in their work with clients and in their organizations. Recognizing how people use power to interact in relationship has been insightful. One student wrote:

The privilege of going to Boston to learn from the founding scholars of RCT was life changing for me. It’s not every day that someone like me, has the opportunity to meet people like Dr. Jordan, Dr. Banks, and Dr. Walker. They generously supported our efforts, and they invited us into mutually responsive relationships. How amazing to be invited to call or e-mail them with a question, or a thought, and get a response! How amazing to be asked to share our personal experiences, so they could learn from us.


Constructive Conflict

Relationships are not static. They are quite dynamic. In therapy, clients and therapists naturally move along a continuum between connection and disconnection (Comstock et al., 2008). Disconnections and resulting conflicts may cause fear. Conflicts in therapy can be seen as pathways for transforming misunderstandings to empathy, and for building bridges between one another through collective relational struggle (Comstock et al., 2008). RCT suggests that with increased mindfulness and a willingness to address inevitable conflicts that occur in therapy in a constructive “win-win” manner, clients can feel safe, become more attentive and responsive to relational movement, and gain confidence in their ability to grow in relationship. A student reflected on her insights about the importance of providing a safe climate for conflict and struggles to occur:

I have learned so much about the value of relationships and the importance of building them with clients. Many clients have experienced loss and trauma and are searching for safety, so it is important to be able to provide that for them.

RCT has changed my interactions with others – I find myself listening more and asking more questions rather than offering solutions right away, which has always been my instinct. I have learned how to create a space that is open and safe. Through this course I have found my voice and been able to share what I have learned about RCT outside of the classroom.

RCT has also taught me the importance of fostering and maintaining relationships that have already been established, to know when disconnections occur, and how to work through them in respectful ways.


Connection and Disconnection

Therapists will likely work with clients who have been referred by social services, the courts, and other programs. Clients may wish for connection with a therapist and hope that the therapist will care enough to listen and understand their story, and, at the same time, clients may feel ambivalent and guarded about treatment. The desire for connection and authentic engagement may be overshadowed by protective strategies to stay out of relationship and to feel safe – to be relationally disconnected (Jordan, 2005).

A disconnection is defined as a psychological rupture that occurs when a child or adult is prevented from participating in a mutually empathetic and mutually empowering interaction (Miller & Stiver, 1997). According to Miller and Stiver (1997), two key features are necessary to bring about re-connection. A person must be able to take some constructive action within the relationship to make one’s experience known. And the other person in the relationship must be willing and able to empathically respond in a way that supports a new and better connection.

Clients’ disconnections are not the only ones that need to be respectfully responded to. Therapists bring their own strategies of disconnection to a therapeutic relationship. The need for connection, based on mutual empathy, with other professionals is recommended for all who are working in clinical practice. Thus, it is important for therapists to participate in professional supervision to support their own personal and professional growth. One of the fundamental beliefs in RCT is that one never needs to be isolated because of the power of connection. A student wrote about her struggles with connection:

I had a profound life changing experience when I went to the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. Before leaving for the trip to Boston, my hope tank was on empty. I had been compassionately working for a rural agency. I was devastated when the agency suddenly eliminated my position. When I left for Boston with my cohort, I wanted to isolate. It was what I knew. However, while in Boston, I rediscovered who I was as an individual, a spouse, a mother, and as a social work professional. I realized I had been lost for over two and a half years. My life had been weighed down with shame and guilt. The environment I had been working in created these lonely and negative feelings. I noticed that the most fearful and difficult part of my journey in graduate school has been exploring who I am and who I am becoming. I have had to force myself to look at the positive attributes, skills, and passions that are inside of me.


The Five Good Things

A culture that fosters growth and is grounded in radical respect, hospitality, and community offers an environment that provides us with The Five Good Things: a sense of zest, clarity about ourselves and our relationships, a sense of worth, an enhanced capacity to participate in our world, and a desire for more connection (Jordan, 2010). From this perspective, life’s journey is inherently relational. For example, we grow through and towards relationships during our lifetime, rather than towards separateness and independence (Jordan, 2010). One student expressed her ideas: “We wish to feel safe and to offer safety to others. We wish to give and receive love and kindness. We strive to increase our capacity for relational growth by developing mutual empathy, mutual empowerment, and resilience.” Another student wrote about her experience with The Five Good Things:

Because of this course, I have zest in the face of the most trying time of my life. I have more clarity about myself, others, and my relationships than ever before. I have a sense of worth and an enhanced capacity to be productive. Most of all, for the first time in my life, I have the desire for more connection, and for that I am grateful.

Another student added how RCT concepts are intertwined:

Last year, at the beginning of my RCT journey, Dr. Gunderson spoke about The Five Good Things, growth fostering relationship, mutual empathy, and authenticity. Until then, I had never heard how these concepts could be linked together. I knew instantly, I found a “theoretical home”. Everything, from that point on, has been moving me towards learning how to live and practice RCT in my personal and professional life.

The course taught students to apply theory to real life situations. Students were able to engage with peers, mentors, clinicians, educators, and scholars. They created a safe place to explore, struggle, and support each other to develop personal and professional skills critical for comprehensive clinical practice.


Future Collaborations

The College of St. Scholastica has integrated RCT into the Masters of Social Work curriculum. There are plans to offer RCT as an undergraduate course to first year students to assist them as they adjust to college life. It is clear, scientific studies are continuing to emerge with data that supports RCT and demonstrates that humans are neurologically wired for connection (Banks & Hirschman, 2014). To assist in providing ongoing evidence in this field of study, Graff, Gunderson, and Larson completed and are in the process of publishing a study on the C.A.R.E. program with MSW students (Graff, Gunderson, & Larson, 2017). This is in the process of being published. This study focused on the relevancy of the C.A.R.E. assessment tool and specific C.A.R.E activities for the relational health of students.

In addition, in collaboration with the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute and Wellesley Centers for Women, engaged CSS faculty and staff, current students and alumni, along with other professionals organized the Transforming Community: The Radical Reality of Relationship Conference in June, 2016. We are currently establishing the cornerstone at the college and with our community to offer ongoing training in Relational-Cultural theory/ therapy in Duluth, MN.

Clearly, the “relational movement” is alive and well on this northern Minnesota campus and in our local community as CSS faculty and students introduce RCT in field placements, professional settings, and with clientele. Collaboration between the College of St. Scholastica and the RCT scholars and practitioners from Boston and elsewhere in the USA and Canada demonstrate that change is possible as we work collaboratively to foster healthier relationships for students, clients, and professionals.



Professional social work education integrates theory and practice and teaches students to engage, assess, and intervene with clients in a wide range of settings. RCT suggests working from a paradigm that places the focus of clinical assessment and intervention on relational development and interaction. From a relational perspective, we approach persons and their environments with a belief in intrinsic inter-relationship. We see the challenges for human rights through a relational lens. We incorporate a relational perspective into how we make policy decisions. For some, this is a significant shift in thought and action.

As the St. Scholastica MSW students graduate and move into the clinical world, integrating the tenets of RCT into their work may not always be easy. A student noted that she has much to learn as she embraces a relational paradigm in her personal and professional life.

I still feel like an infant or a toddler with RCT. I am still in wonder of everything. I am learning and exploring. I realize that RCT is not based on a set of facts to memorize, or quick steps to follow. It is a way of living and being with everyone and everything around me. This theory takes time to develop and understand.

Yet, as more practitioners and organizations truly recognize the centrality of relational interdependency, and as research continues to confirm that we, as humans, are literally hardwired to connect, and as persons consistently challenge power-over systems that intentionally isolate and marginalize “others”, a relational movement that is already underway will be ever-present to foster well-being for all persons and for the planet in which we live.



The students of the advanced course in Relational-Cultural theory would like to thank those who offered their assistance while writing this publication. We thank Dr. Gunderson for her endless support throughout the course. Her guidance challenged each of us to explore new ways to connect and relate with others.

We thank our mentors. We are grateful for their willingness to stand with us as we explored the tenets of Relational-Cultural theory. Their experience and insight enhanced our learning and broadened our perspective of social work.

Finally, we thank Dr. Amy Banks, Dr. Judith Jordan, and Dr. Maureen Walker. The training experience was life changing for us. We are moved by your passion for intrinsic human connection and your willingness to support each of us as people and professionals.



Banks, A., & Hirschman, L. A. (2015). Four ways to click: Rewire your brain for stronger, more rewarding relationships. New York: Penguin.

Birrell, P.,. & Freyd, J. (2006). Betrayal and trauma: Relational models of harm and healing. Journal of Trauma Practice, 5(1). doi: 10.1300/J189v05n01_04

Boyraz, G., Waits, J.B., & Felix, V.A. (2014). Authenticity, life satisfaction, and distress: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 61(3), 498-505. doi: 10.1037/cou0000031

Carlson, J. (2012). In e-Connections Newsletter. Spring, 2012. Wellesley, MA: Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Wellesley Centers for Women

Chen, X. (2004). Being and authenticity. New York: Rodopi.

Comstock, D., Hammer, J., Strentzsch, J., Cannon, K., Parsons, J., & Salazar, G. (2008). RCT: A framework for bridging relational, multicultural and social justice competencies. Journal of Counseling and Development. 86, 279-287.

Graff, D., Gunderson, C., Larson, J. (2017). [Assessing MSW student’s health and wellness with the C.A.R:E. program]. Unpublished raw data.

Hartling, L. M., & Miller, J. B. (2004). Moving beyond humiliation: A relational reconceptualization of human rights. Excerpts from a paper presented at the Summer Advanced Training Institute: Encouraging an Era of Connection, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.

Jordan, J. V. (1986). The meaning of mutuality. Work in Progress, No.23. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Jordan, J. V. (1992). Relational resilience. Work in Progress, No. 57. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Jordan, J. V. (2004). Relational resilience. In J. V. Jordan, M. Walker, & L. M. Hartling (Eds.). The complexity of connection: Writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. New York: Guilford Press.

Jordan, J. V. (2005). Commitment to connection in a culture of fear. Work in Progress No. 104. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Publications. doi: 0.1080/02703140802146423 Jordan, J. V. (2010). Relational-Cultural therapy. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Jordan, J.V., Walker, M., & Hartling, L. M. (Eds.). (2004). The complexity of connection. New York: Guilford Press.

Miller, J.B. (1976). Towards a new psychology of women. Boston: Beacon Press.

Miller, J.B., & Stiver, I.P. (1994). Movement in therapy: Honoring the “strategies of disconnection. Work in Progress, No. 65. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. P. (1997). The healing connection: How women form relationships in therapy and in life. Boston: Beacon Press Books.

Walker, M., & Rosen, W. B. (2004). How connections heal: Stories from Relational-Cultural therapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

Walker, M. (2004). How relationships heal. In M. Walker & W. Rosen (Eds.). How Connections Heal: Stories from relational-cultural therapy. New York: Guilford Press. Walker, M. (2014). The Power of Connection. Jean Baker Miller Training Institute Lecture. 24. – 26. October 2014. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College.

Combining the Neuroscience of Relational-Cultural Theory and Clinical Practice

Relational-Cultural Theory Series Previous Articles:

What is Relational-Cultural Theory?
Transforming Community Through Disruptive Empathy

Combining the Neurobiology of Relational-Cultural Theory and Clinical Practice


Since learning about Relational-Cultural theory (RCT) and relational neuroscience, they have become key components of my approach to mental health and substance abuse treatment with my clients. Using relational neuroscience in my work has been a particularly useful tool for depathologizing clients’ experiences and helping them to understand that we are hard-wired for connection with others. Elizabeth (Libby) Marlatt-Murdoch may be contacted at libbymarlatt@yahoo.com.

Your brain is shaped by your mind—including your conscious and unconscious experiences, your body, the natural world, human culture, and relationships (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). Relational- Cultural theory (RCT) is a psychological theory that acknowledges the radical power of relationship. RCT posits that throughout the lifespan, individuals grow through and toward relationship, and that culture has a profound impact on these relationships (Jordan, 2010). Relational neuroscience provides evidence that the brain is designed for connection and that without connection we cannot thrive (Banks, 2015). The neuroscience of Relational-Cultural theory offers a window into the mind and calls attention to the need to address not only an individual’s relationships in therapy, but also the social context in which they exist (Banks, 2015). Based on experience as a clinician, Relational-Cultural theory and relational neuroscience can positively impact individual outcomes in healthcare and psychotherapy as well as improve relationships and quality of life by providing a way to depathologize individual’s experiences. Sharing an understanding of relational neuroscience as it relates to RCT can be essential in promoting mutuality and growth in relationships in many areas. Multidimensional models for psychoeducation can provide key elements in accomplishing this.

Considerations and Connections

Sharing information on relational neuroscience with others can be powerful. Education is one way to begin this process. More specifically, psychoeducation, which is defined as information that is presented to individuals with a mental health condition and their families to help empower them to manage their condition in an optimal way (Bauml, 2006). So providing psychoeducation to clients about how the brain is hardwired for connection, and cannot thrive without healthy mutual connections, empowers individuals to push back against the hyper-individualistic social pressures that can undermine their health and well-being (Banks, 2015). In treatment, this knowledge can inform the process between client and clinician as they collaborate to come up with a plan to assess and improve the individual’s relational skills and to discover how previous relationships have impacted the client’s welfare. Outside of treatment, this same information may encourage individuals to evaluate their current relationships for mutuality, and provide the catalyst they need to seek more mutual relationships in an effort to improve their quality of life. The feelings of empowerment that come from this psychoeducation process can cultivate hope.

Relational neuroscience also has the power to depathologize an individual’s experience for them. In a culture that sees development as a means to independence and ignores the devastating impacts of social pain, having knowledge to educate individuals about connection as a basic need can normalize an individual’s experience of pain as it relates to social exclusion can be powerful (Banks, 2015). At the 2016 Transforming Community conference, Banks and Craddock presented their STOP SPOT model for empowering individuals to identify and address the pain of social exclusion. Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT) proposes that social pain which is the result of damaged or lost relationships, and physical pain which is the result of physical injury are experienced in the same part of the brain (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2005). In the STOP SPOT model that Banks and Craddock presented at the conference, an individual must first See Stratification, then Talk and Tell their individual story related to the stratification or exclusion. The next steps they proposed are Open Outreach and finally Partnered Protest and Production.

Based on clinical experience, the ability to teach someone that his or her brain is working and responding in the way that it was designed to often results in the client or individual feeling validated. Instead of experiencing the shame or embarrassment of feeling like they are broken or their brain is broken; the client experiences a sense of safety and compassion from the therapist. This safety and compassion are necessary for the client to heal from the damage that may have resulted from relationships that are not mutual, are chronically disconnected, or in other ways are experienced as traumatic. Relational neuroscience empowers individuals by depathologizing her/his experience. This often results in increased self-compassion.

According to Walker at the Transforming Community conference, compassion is bearing witness without judgment. She also described in her ARC3 Model of Empathy that Awareness, Receptiveness, Curiosity and Courage, plus Compassion are all necessary ingredients for empathy. According to her model, Awareness is being mindful of “what is”; Receptiveness is being open to innovative and possibly conflicting knowledge; Curiosity and Courage are about embracing constructive ambiguity, vulnerability, and limitations. Relational neuroscience has the potential to depathologize a persons’ sense of self leading to less shame, which in turn opens that person up for more vulnerable relational skills of compassion and empathy. In the words of Alamaas (2016) “it is only when compassion is present that people will allow themselves to see the truth” (para. 1). The feelings of empathy and compassion that are created through the psychoeducation process can be essential for clients in working through difficult experiences and for cultivating healing and hope.

Understanding of Neuroscience in RCT

To understand the neurobiological roots of interdependence we must start with understanding the brain. The reptilian brain, also known as the brain stem, is designed for regulation of the most basic functions such as heart rate and respiration, and is also involved in rapid mobilization of the brain and body for survival (Hanson & Mendius, 2009; Siegel, 2010). The paleo-mammalian brain, also known as the limbic system, works closely with the reptilian brain stem and is designed for creating our basic drives, emotions, memory, and is essential in establishing relationships and forming emotional attachments to others (Hanson & Mendius, 2009; Siegel, 2010). And finally, the neo-mammalian brain, also known as the cortex, “represents the three-dimensional world beyond the bodily functions and survival reactions mediated by the lower, subcortical regions,” is involved in creating ideas and concepts (Siegel, 2010, p. 19). According to Banks and Craddock (2016) “being a part of a group is so critical to humans that our nervous system literally uses the same alarm (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) to register the distress of physical pain or injury AND social exclusion” (para. 3).

Additional evidence for this concept is provided in studies that show the link between connection and survival. Research has shown that the human brain responds in a similar way to both food and connection, that the brains of neglected orphans from World War II did not have enough neural activity to support life, and that relational trauma impacts our mental and physical health and well-being long term (Bowlby, 1969; Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016; Hanson & Mendius, 2009). By looking at the different levels of the brain, we can begin to gather insight into how the basic need for survival led to the development of connection as a basic need in mammals.

Relational neuroscience has the power to shed even more light on love and belonging as a basic need. In fact, the research has shown that “lasting strength comes from being centered, and held within healthy relationships” (Banks & Craddock, 2016, para. 21). Banks’ (2015) C.A.R.E. program was designed to illustrate how individuals can strengthen the neural pathways in their brains to encourage closeness and connection. In Bank’s C.A.R.E. acronym, each letter represents a quality of a healthy relationship dictated by the functioning of one of four neural pathways of connection. In this model, she describes C is for Calm which represents the feeling that you get when you have a well-toned smart vagus nerve. She also explains that when we encounter potential danger, or when we are feeling stressed, the subcortical regions (primitive brain) becomes active and helps prepare the person to deal with the threat.

According to Banks (2015), this primitive brain often makes decisions that negatively impact our relationships. She indicates having robust relationships helps to keep a person’s smart vagus nerve well-toned, which in turn makes our relationships calmer. She describes how having a well-toned vagus nerve will allow us to mediate the primitive brain’s response and prevent it from taking over; and, as a result, we are healthier and have greater mental clarity. In the C.A.R.E. model, Banks (2015) describes A is for Accepted, and represents the sense of belonging that comes when your dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) is functioning properly. This part of the brain is described by Eisenberger & Lieberman (2005) in their ground breaking work, Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT). Banks (2015) explains the dACC acts as an alarm for social exclusion; being chronically excluded or isolated can result in an over-reactive dACC, which means the alarm can go off even when others are welcoming. She describes R as Resonance you feel in healthy relationships, which is facilitated by the action of the mirror neuron system. She further states that when an individual’s mirroring system is healthy the individual is able to understand other’s experiences, actions and feelings by creating an internal neurological template of the same experience, action or feeling (ex. noticing you are crying while watching a movie where the characters are sad and crying). She clarifies that if the mirroring system is unhealthy, it results in the individual having difficulty understanding others and can cause difficulty for others in understanding the experience of the individual. She describes E as Energy which represents the feeling of euphoria and zest we get in healthy relationships if our brain’s dopamine reward system remains closely attached to connection. She further relates the purpose of the dopamine system is to reward the brain and body for activities that promote survival—including approach behaviors, such as mating.

Unfortunately, when individuals do not get enough dopamine from healthy relationships, they may turn to unhealthy alternatives or addictive behaviors such as using drugs, gambling, or compulsive shopping (Banks, 2015). In this case the individual is rewiring their dopamine pathway away from connection and relationships, so that even when they are in relatively healthy relationships they may not derive energy and motivation from them (Banks, 2015). In summary, the C.A.R.E. acronym combined with describing how the qualities of a healthy relationship reflect the functioning of the four pathways for connection provides a solid, basic understanding of relational neuroscience.


Banks (2015) cautions that concepts of neuroscience often appear more clear than they actually are.  We must always respect the complexity of the central nervous system and what we have yet to discover. When starting the process of psychoeducation as it relates to the brain, it can be helpful to begin with some basic information about the brain. For example, the brain weighs approximately three pounds and is comprised of 100 billion neurons (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). Neurons connect via synapses and get their signals from other neurons through these receiving synapses and the signal is usually a burst of chemicals called neurotransmitters (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). Neural signals represent a piece of information according to Hanson & Mendius (2009), and the mind can be defined in a broad sense as the totality of those pieces of information. It is important to recognize that no single area of the brain is exclusively responsible for regulating relationship, which means creating healthy relationships is an easier task if your central nervous system is integrated, balanced, and flexible (Banks, 2015). Every interaction an individual has with the world changes the brain in some way, and individuals are capable of neurogenesis (creating new connections in the brain) as well as neuroplasticity (altering existing connections in the brain throughout their lives) (Banks, 2015; Siegel, 2010).

Visual aids for use in psychoeducation, such as Siegel’s hand brain (2012) or van Eys’ felt brain (personal communication, July 7, 2016), allow individuals to see how the brain works so they can change what the brain does. Siegel’s hand brain (2012) provides a portable and accessible brain model for neurologists and clients alike. His model is quite simple to create: take your thumb and fold it in towards your palm, then put your fingers over the top. He describes how the wrist represents the spinal cord, the palm represents the brain stem, the thumb folded inward onto the palm represents the limbic system, and the fingers covering the thumb represent the cortex.

To understand how the brain works, it is helpful to differentiate between parts of the brain that we have conscious control of from those we do not. In Siegel’s hand brain model (2012), if you raise your four fingers then you separate these two areas. He describes the four raised fingers as representing the cortex which is the part you have conscious control over. He elaborates that the thumb folded over the palm represents the subcortical regions that are beyond our direct conscious control. The importance of this distinction can be further emphasized by pointing out that the fear activation response takes 50 milliseconds, which is about 1/20 of a second, whereas conscious thought takes 500-600 milliseconds, or half a second (Cozolino, 2010).

Using Siegel’s hand brain model (2012), you can get a visual understanding of the first component of the C.A.R.E. program—Calm. He illustrates the process of “flipping our lids” by unfolding the fingers that were covering the thumb and palm to expose the rest of the hand which represents the limbic system and brain stem. When a person is triggered, the individual’s primitive brain is responding without the protective inhibition of the cortex—the logical/rational part of the brain (Banks, 2015). When this happens, Banks (2015) indicates the individual’s brain is not experiencing the feeling of calm that results when the individual can use their well-toned smart vagus nerve to mediate the response of the primitive brain. The Siegel hand brain model (2012) can be taken one step further by showing clients the location of the vagus nerve which runs between the right hemisphere (right two fingers) and left hemisphere (left two fingers) of the brain down through the limbic system and (via the parasympathetic nerve) into the brain stem and the rest of the body. Providing a visual representation of the location of the vagus nerve can increase understanding for the client about the role a well-toned smart vagus nerve has in calming both the brain and the body. In simple terms, when an individual has good smart vagal tone, they are able to accurately read a situation or person as safe and respond with engagement behaviors that result in enhanced connections and mutuality in relationships (Banks, 2015).

The second component of Banks’ C.A.R.E. program (2015), Accepted, involves the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex which is located deep in the frontal cortex, and can be illustrated using the hand brain model by showing the underside of the two middle fingers (Siegel, 2012). In Siegel’s hand brain model (2012), the two middle fingers represent the middle prefrontal cortex, which includes the dACC. It is important to emphasize that the dACC is part of an alarm system that responds to physical pain and injury as well as social exclusion, both of which are dangerous if left unaddressed (Banks, 2015). Both individual relationships and culture can impact our dACC explains Banks (2015). Developmental models that focus on independence and promote interpersonal competition often stratify and judge human differences creating an over reactive dACC, and consequently reactive pain pathways (Banks, 2015; Banks & Craddock, 2015).

The third component of Banks’ C.A.R.E. program (2015), Resonance, reflects the functioning of the mirror neuron system which is located in the parietal, frontal, and temporal lobes. In Siegel’s hand brain model (2012), the four fingers represent the cortical areas of the frontal and parietal lobes while the thumb represents the temporal lobe where the amygdala is located. It can be helpful to explain that the area of the cortex (four fingers) that is activated depends on the particular behavior or feeling that is being mirrored (Banks, 2015). In the hand brain model, Siegel (2012) indicates that the fingers overlap the thumb and palm illustrating how mirrored messages are created in the cortical areas and then transferred downward into the limbic system, then into the brain stem, and on into the body. He clarifies that these messages are transferred via the insula, also known as the “information superhighway” between the mirror neurons areas and the subcortical regions of the brain. The existence of the mirror neuron system is further evidence that we are biologically hardwired and evolutionarily designed to be interconnected (Banks, 2015). In fact, individuals understand what others are thinking and feeling by imitating them internally (Banks, 2015).

The final component of Banks’ C.A.R.E. program (2015), Energy, involves the social motivation system/dopamine reward system. This is located in the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, which travels from the brainstem through the limbic system, into the anterior cingulate gyrus and orbitomedial prefrontal cortex (Banks, 2015). This pathway can be identified on Siegel’s hand brain model (2012) by placing the pointer finger of your free hand on the palm of the hand brain model, moving it up to and through the thumb and ending at the fingers that represent the cortex.

Figure 1: Van Eys’ Felt Brain or Brain Puzzle

Another model or visual aid for making Relational Neuroscience accessible to clinicians and clients is the van Eys’ felt brain (personal communication, July 7, 2016), also referred to as the Brain Puzzle (see Figure 1). She indicated that this model was designed to create a basic understanding of the brain and its functions and to illustrate and facilitate an understanding of the body’s alarm system response. She described the felt brain as made of several pieces of felt: a large blue piece of felt shaped like the cortex labeled “thinking brain”; a pink piece of felt shaped like the brain stem added to the bottom right of the cortex; pieces of green felt and orange felt labeled “feeling brain” and representing the limbic system placed directly under the cortex and in front of the brain stem; a light orange almond shaped piece of felt represents the amygdala which together with the limbic system and brain stem is labeled “reacting brain”. She indicated that a felt star is used as a visual representation of a trigger and is placed over the top of the amygdala. She further explained that after the star has been placed over the amygdala a black piece of felt shaped like the cortex is placed over the top of the cortex to represent the idea that the cortex is not online during an amygdala highjack. This model, much like Siegel’s hand brain (2012), can be used to communicate a wealth of information about neuroscience, including RCT’s relational neuroscience. The felt brain model can be used to communicate the elements of the C.A.R.E. program in much the same way that the hand brain model was adapted.

Both of these models can be used in an interactive way. Clinicians can ask their clients to mirror the movements of the hand brain and/or work with their client to assemble the Brain puzzle. The felt brain model described by van Eys (personal communication, July 7, 2016) was created by van Eys and Tisthammer in 2015 and also includes a script containing informal language interspersed with scientific terms that makes the script easy to read and easy to follow. Their script even includes opportunities for discussion, encourages the user to change it in any way that makes sense for the audience, and even explains an amygdala highjack—which is the same principle discussed in the first component of Banks’ C.A.R.E. program (2015), Calm. This script by Van Eys and Tisthammer (personal communication, July 7, 2016) states in part:

Now, the limbic system cannot think…it can only feel and react. Only the blue part, the thinking brain, can think. Sometimes, the limbic system gets a danger signal and it gets afraid. It feels and reacts. So the brain’s alarm goes off because the reacting brain recognizes danger. So, let’s put this red star on the amygdala to show that the brain got that kind of danger signal. Let’s call this the “amygdala alarm.”

When the alarm goes off, the brain sends out chemicals that give our body energy to cope with danger (or “to handle the danger in order to get safe”). Our hearts beat faster, we breathe more rapidly, there is more energy sent to our muscles so that we can fight or run away from the danger. Or sometimes, we freeze or hide so that the danger won’t come to us.

Here’s an important thing: only the parts of our brain that help us survive are working when the amygdala alarm goes off. The other parts of the brain shut off until we have learned that we are safe; we will talk later about how we can recognize “triggers” so that we can quickly know that we are safe and turn the alarm off. The thinking part of the brain isn’t working because it isn’t needed at this time. (p. 7-8) There are a number of things that may be taken from these two multidimensional models that can make relational neuroscience more accessible to practitioners.

  • First, simplify the concepts of neuroscience appropriately in order to more effectively educate others.
  • Second, build a foundation for understanding by introducing the intended audience to fundamental facts about the brain by using basic language to convey the message.
  • Third, think outside the box and adapt existing visual aids or models to work for a new objective—in much the same way that the hand brain and felt brain models have been adapted to provide psychoeducation on relational neuroscience.
  • Fourth, promote understanding by asking open-ended questions, gathering feedback, and experimenting with interactive methods instead of just using the model as a visual aid.
  • Finally, use caution in deciding when it is appropriate to use relational neuroscience with clients or other individuals; this comes from experience and the ability to be attuned to those we serve.

Transforming Community Relational Cultural TheoryThe importance of sharing relational neuroscience with our clients has been supported by a number of considerations based on the tenets of Relational-Cultural theory. Psychoeducation on relational neuroscience has the ability to empower the individual to make changes in addition to depathologizing and validating the individual’s experience. This can often result in increased levels of compassion and empathy necessary to be with the pain that can result from relational trauma, loss, exclusion and/or isolation. Learning and sharing relational neuroscience represents a practical opportunity to enhance well-being, develop compassion, and reduce suffering through cultivating healing and hope.



Alamaas, A. H. (2016) Compassion leads to the truth. Retrieved from: http://www.ahalmaas.com/glossary/compassion

Banks, A. (2015). Wired to connect: The surprising link between brain science and strong, healthy relationships. New York: Penguin.

Banks, A., & Craddock, K. (2016). Stopping the pain of social exclusion. Retrieved from: https://www.wcwonline.org/News-Events-Extra-Information/full-article-stopping-%09the-pain-of-social-exclusion-full-blog-article

Bauml, J. (2006). Psychoeducation: A basic psychotherapeutic intervention for patients with schizophrenia and their families. Schizophrenia Bulletin, (32)1.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol. 1). New York: Basic Books.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). About adverse childhood experiences. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about_ace.html

Cozolino, L. (2010). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain (2nd ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. (2005). Why it hurts to be left out: The neurocognitive overlap between physical and social pain. In K. D. Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (pp. 109-127). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Jordan, J. V. (2010). Relational cultural therapy (1st ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Siegel, D. (2012). Dr. Daniel Siegel presenting a Hand Model of the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw

Siegel, D. J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

Transforming Community Through Disruptive Empathy

As part of our ongoing series on Relational-Cultural Theory, we present Maureen Walker’s keynote address from the conference referenced below. Dr. Walker gives an excellent history of the RCT movement and her vision of the future guided by its principals.

Read the first part of the series, What is Relational-Cultural Theory? here.

Transforming Community Through Disruptive Empathy

Keynote Address, June 9, 2016
Transforming Community: The Radical Reality of Relationship Conference

By: Maureen Walker, PhD

As the Director of Program Development at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute of the Stone Center at Wellesley College, Dr. Maureen Walker explores the linkages between social-cultural identities and relational development, as well as the impact of power arrangements on mental health. Through her publications and her work as an educator and licensed psychologist, she often uses Relational-Cultural theory as the lens to illustrate the interface between spiritual practice and social justice. In addition to journal articles and several papers in the Stone Center Works in Progress Series, she is the co-editor of two books which convey her strong interest in disruptive empathy as an essential practice for all who are engaged in the work of transforming community. Dr. Maureen Walker can be contacted at maureen@maureenwalker.com.

Here we are at a Kairos moment. We have the gift of this time to contemplate, collaborate, and challenge each other as we engage a very special project: transforming community. When we talk about community, we often do so in ways that take for granted a level of shared assumptions and expectations. We come with our shared assumptions, hopes, and expectations, but we each come with our particular claims on community: claims that may be at once aspirational, insistent, and conflictual. The radical reality of our relationships is that we ourselves are in the throes of transformation. And who are we?

Four decades ago, our “we” was self-described as “five, white, well-educated women” who found a community of place at Wellesley College, specifically the Stone Center. Who are “we” now—this motley collection of us—gathered here in 2016? And more pertinent to our purposes over the next four days, who do we hope to become?

When Connie Gunderson and I first talked about the theme of this talk, I have to say I was completely undaunted and completely in love with the title: Transforming Community through Disruptive Empathy. All of the right words were put together in one evocative phrase. But then the inevitable happened; the more I reflected on the title the more aware I became that I really didn’t know what it meant. And that was okay. Because the more I participate in these kinds of gatherings, the more I make peace with the reality that my starting place is often in a state of profound befuddlement—which is also okay particularly since I’m never content to stay in that place alone. I invite other people into it with me. So I started asking: What comes to mind when you hear the word community? What makes community different from an organization, or working group, or network? It’s probably not surprising that the first associations that came to mind were words like trust, like-mindedness, nurture, commitment, and belonging. And just to make sure our thoughts were not overly lofty, we threw in reminiscences of the Cheers Bar, the setting of a popular 1990s sitcom. Community, according to the promotional jingle, is a place “where everybody knows your name, and they’re oh so glad you came”—even if they give you a hard time once you get there. In other words, community is a place where we can be known; people miss us when we don’t show up; and, perhaps, someone even cares.

We are social beings—born to thrive in connection with each other—so it is no surprise that we find the life blood of our dreams, our values, and our expectations in community. We feel more alive when we are bound together by captivating ideas; we feel that we matter when we are in pursuit of compelling goals. Right here, right now, we are enlivened as we gather around this evolving body of work that we call Relational-Cultural theory. Right here, right now we are enlivened as we gather to insist on our right to forge a narrative of human possibility to heal the suffering in the world as we know it now. We are here—right now—to press our righteous claim and lay the groundwork for future we want to call into being. And somewhere, perhaps not too far away, so is the Ku Klux Klan. They too are enlivened by their connection to a communal narrative, perhaps one that promises to restore America to its greatness. Like us, they are captivated by a vision of possibility. The content of that vision may be different from ours; but, like us, they derive meaning from their connection to a narrative grounded in an imagination of justice, fairness, and the right order of relationships. We learn every day about young people who are drawn into terrorist activities—whether it is the terrorism of ISIS or the terrorism that led Dylan Roof to murder nine people in a house of worship. They too have an audacious vision of possibility and a yearning to belong. So right here, right now, a question worth asking ourselves is: What makes our claim on community different from theirs?

They have a compelling mission – just as we do.

They have powerful rituals – just as we do.

They believe they are right – just as we do.

Let me be very, very clear. I am not in any way suggesting some kind of moral equivalence between the mission of KKK and of this assembly gathered here tonight. What we share in common, however, is the fact that we come together to forge a narrative about power—the power of belonging. Relationship, like any currency of power can be used to dominate and exclude; to determine who is in; who is out; who can never belong; and, in the extreme, who must be destroyed. When we talk about our own beloved community, we often speak of Ubuntu as a relational ideal: that cultural ethos of “I am because we are”. What I am saying tonight is that as much as we might aspire to build our communities around that narrative, we cannot take refuge in linguistic niceties. “I am because we are” speaks to relationship as a currency of power. And unless we are mindful of how we do that power, “I am because we are” can quite easily devolve into “I am because we are” and “we are because you are not”. We all know that it can happen: that there can be a “disconnect” between our explicit narratives—who we say we are in relationship—and, our implicit, sometimes largely unconscious narratives—how we actually do our relationships. We all know that as much as we might like to associate the dogma of disconnection with corporate board rooms and the global political stage, an implicit narrative of disconnection can play out in our class rooms, clinics, and churches—presumptive spaces of health, hope, and healing. It’s a fair guess that we all have known the heartbreak of good work gone bad—when we embarked on some noble mission, with righteous ideas and fierce resolve and noble intentions, only to find that our good intentions are not enough. Unless we are mindful of how we do the politics of belonging, we too are susceptible to the same faults we so readily recognize in others.

And speaking of the others, who do we think they are? Two great thinkers, Albert Einstein and Jean Baker Miller, have given us our theoretical foundation to start answering that question. If we truly believe as we say we do that separation is an illusion, then we are free to embrace disruption. If we truly believe that we grow through relationship for the purpose of relationship, we can free ourselves from the constrictions of the ego—those boundaries ostensibly built to protect us—to ensure our survival against those pesky intruders who are trying to invade our borders. We are also freed from constricted notions of community that are defined by ego boundaries. “We are” because “you are not” is simply a variation on a very old theme that we must use our boundaries to protect us from each other. Indeed, we may be tempted to follow the advice of no less a personage as Freud and use our boundaries to protect us from what we perceive to be intrusive stimuli.

At core of our communal narrative as Relational-Cultural practitioners is the notion of boundaries of spaces of meeting and transformation. Jean Baker Miller (1976) put it this way: the essence of life is movement and change. She went on to say that we become more fully human by engaging difference—not just theoretical difference—by engaging real bodies whom we perceive to be other, opposite, and even enemy. So who do we think we are? And who do we think the others are? If we truly believe that as we say we do, then we are challenged to continually interrogate our notions of self and other. [Frankly, that scares me! I don’t want to be Donald Trump…which is not too much of a problem because I’m pretty sure Donald Trump doesn’t want to be me either.]

But isn’t that the very fear that causes us to misuse the power of belonging? Isn’t that the very fear that can cause us to weaponize our relationships—to use our relationships as fortified boundaries against engagement and inclusion? We do that not because we are bad people, but because we want to protect that which we know to be good. When we narrate our history and our hopes, we talk about growth through authentic connection.

And the radical reality of that narrative is that it calls us to transformation. The radical reality is that the power of belonging can support and propel us toward ever more expansive enactments of our humanity.

Or… we can ignore the call to transformation. We can say what we have is so good and so never want it to change. But to do so is to become reduced to a smaller and smaller version of what we call community.

So what are we to do? How can we use our powers of belonging—our powers of relationship—to foster hope and healing? It is important for us to start by asking the question “who are we” to develop an explicit, well-articulated narrative. But it is equally important for us to notice how we live the question: to embrace community as process, community as movement, and as evolving narratives of co-creation and human possibility.

I propose that we start with disruptive empathy. Disruption and empathy: I know—the words don’t seem to go together. But it captures the paradox of relationship, and what Keltner (2016) calls the paradox of power. And actually if we refer back to the foundational tenets of Relational-Cultural theory, the pairing of these two words may not be as peculiar as it might initially seem. When Judy Jordan defined empathy about three decades ago, she described it as a process of thinking and feeling, of joining with clarity and awareness (Jordan, Surrey & Kaplan, 1983). In other words, empathy requires engagement with paradox. Disruptive empathy both anchors and overturns.

It leads us to challenge our most sacrosanct notions of community while grounding us in the shared power of belonging.

Just a few days ago, I witnessed this shared power of belonging enacted on the sidewalks of lower east side Manhattan. There were two gentlemen in conversation, one of whom definitely appeared to be homeless, and the other, who if not currently homeless appeared to be quite familiar with that condition. The latter gentleman was explaining to his companion how to obtain services, what would happen on certain days in one agency or another, how to avoid getting caught up in a bureaucratic tangle when searching for shelter. And I thought: now that is power. Jean Baker Miller (1976) defined power as the capacity to induce responsiveness—a relational energy. Similarly, Keltner (2016) defines power as the capacity to make a difference, particularly through connections with others. In other words, power is not the exclusive province of the rich and the famous—as the burgeoning growth of reality TV would have it—the rich and the infamous.

And here’s the paradox. Power is also intoxicating. Keltner (2016) describes it as a dopamine high. We are not much soothed and made to feel calm by it, as we are made to feel more confident, more competent, and more deserving of whatever it is that we want. We now have tons of research showing that feeling powerful makes us—all of us—more likely to use others to our own advantage: whether that’s cutting in line or taking up more space than we need, or consuming more goods than we need, or taking candy from a baby. [Literally, not metaphorically.] In other words, the paradox is that this same power that can be used for good can foster a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. Of course, we can see how this plays out in the world of national and global politics, but it happens in small ways as well. Let me give an example. I spend way too much time in my favorite grocery store in Wellesley, MA. It’s a very special store and all of us who feel like very special people like to shop there. I can’t count the number of times I have seen loving, suburban mothers trying to shop with their children in tow—all the while grabbing fruit for their children to eat while they shop. What I’m saying is that they haven’t paid for it. And I’m thinking: why isn’t this called shoplifting? I don’t see any signs that say “this is free; you can take it”. Yet they feel entitled to appropriate someone else’s property for own use. [A client of mine once told me that’s the key to all successful shoplifting: you just have to believe it’s already rightfully yours.] I’m fairly certain the store owners calculate theft into the cost of goods sold; so, in fact, we’re all paying for that bunch of grapes. I’m also fairly certain that the shoplifters are upstanding, law-abiding, good-hearted mothers who are just doing the best they can to mollify cranky toddlers. I’m not saying they are bad people. I am saying they are people who are so comfortable—and confident about their status in this specific culture of shoppers that they feel entitled to exercise power without question. Whether it’s in a grocery store or a community of scholars and practitioners, disruptive empathy counters this sense of exceptionalism by anchoring us in awareness. It focuses our attention on the text of our narratives, as well as the context and the subtext. I think of it as relational corrective. To the extent that we are prone to deny our power—or to use it without regard to its impact on others, it prompts us toward mindful appreciation of what is real, what is present, and what is emerging in relationship. In our communities, disruptive empathy helps us to see what we prefer not to see; it helps us face down our implicit narratives that define who can be one of us—and who cannot. Disruptive empathy gives us the courage to name reality as we see it—to tell our multiple and conflictual truths—the cliques, the secrets, the taken-for-granted understandings that build impenetrable boundaries that may belie any explicit story we might tell about ourselves. It helps us to speak the unspeakable with humility and compassion and an occasional dose of good humor.

There is something that is core to our humanity that impels us toward authenticity. We want to be real; we want to be known. Yet we know that the central paradox of relationship is that we are often afraid of being known. We are drawn to community because of our deep yearning to be known and connected. Ironically, our fear of being known sometimes results in an implicit narrative framed around isolation and subterfuge. Not because we want to lie, but because community brings us face to face with what Audre Lorde (1984) called our fear and loathing of difference. This is the same fear and loathing that might deceive us into believing that we can use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is the same fear and loathing that would cause us to shirk away from good conflict. Again, the explicit narrative of relational-cultural community is that conflict is both inevitable and necessary for growth. And growth means change—transformation. You simply can’t grow and keep the same boundaries. That brings us again to the heart of disruptive empathy—respect for otherness. We don’t have to settle for pseudo-empathy or sentimentality. I find that absolutely liberating, because it means that we don’t have to always pretend to like each other all of the time. The good news here is that disruptive empathy is not about mutual attraction. I should be clear: I think mutual attraction is a good thing, but we don’t always have to go along to get along. There is no way that strong-willed, creative, and passionate people will avoid going into conflict with each other. We do have to enter conflict with respect, curiosity, and openness to the possibility that we just might learn something.

You also have to care enough to go into conflict. I say that as a personal confession: I know that one of my preferred strategies of disconnection is being nice. I know that because my family has told me so—many times. It often sounds something like: “Okay – sure. Peace out”. Let me say that there may be times when that strategy is absolutely appropriate. It may be all the relationship can bear—at the moment. But let us also be clear: a lot of exclusion and relational violence happens under the guise of being nice. Being nice—pseudo-empathy—is the antithesis of authentic engagement; it fortifies our boundaries against the other; it is refusal to invest the time and energy required to sustain relationship. Pseudo-empathy is a refusal to relinquish our attachment to the relational images we have stored in our brains about how our relationships should work. Disruptive empathy, on the other hand, reminds me of a quote by the 13th century poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” (Moyne & Bark, 1999, p. 8).

What happens in that field between rightdoing and wrongdoing? For one thing, anxiety happens. No one wants to feel anxious. Interestingly, the poet W.H. Auden (2009) encourages us to seek truth in the kingdom of anxiety…to go into the land of “unlikeness”…to stay in the here and now…to encounter rare beasts (the other)…to have unique adventures in the world of the flesh.

Jean Baker Miller (1976) was slightly less poetic, but just as clear—that we become more fully human through embodied engagement with difference. Becoming more fully human requires a little bit more of us than an eloquent theory or good intentions.

Let me give a quick example. One of our traditions at Harvard Business School—probably much like other schools—is that very senior administrators or faculty will hold informal lunches with small groups of students. This is a favorite ritual: the students get to feel good about themselves and the hosting faculty or administrator can feel good as well. At one of these lunches hosted by a senior faculty, an African American male student recounted his recent encounter with campus security. He had been detained, had a flashlight shone into his face, and had been required to produce his student identification because someone fitting his description had committed a robbery in a nearby neighborhood. He was hurt and angry—and actually reeling in disbelief that all of his accomplishments (which included a law degree from Yale) did not protect him from the indignity of racialized bias. When he told his story, his listeners were appropriately horrified; and the hosting faculty, a white male, suggested that he report the incident to another high-level white female administrator. So far, so good: Everyone is acting with the best of intentions. Later that month I was inadvertently included on part of an email trail. A part of the trail was meant for me; the other part was a private debriefing conversation between the two higher-level administrators—clearly not my business, but of course I read it! And the conversation went something like:

Female: “He certainly had very strong emotions”.

Male: “Oh my, I hope he spoke to you respectfully”.

Female: “It wasn’t too bad. I just hope he will channel his anger appropriately”.

I later met with the student, and his mirror neurons were fully functional. He knew what had happened in the field. People, who might have exercised their power to facilitate change and cultural healing, used it instead to curate his narrative of heartbreak. We have a choice when we enter into the field between rightdoing and wrongdoing: we can wrap ourselves in our protective boundaries, or we can shed the mantle of entitlement and become open to the possibility of learning something—maybe even becoming something new.

Our beloved scholar Irene Stiver (1997) taught us that when we enter that field of anxiety, between right-doing and wrongdoing, we must move out of the protective boundaries of image and authority and orthodoxy and toward relationship.

It is in this field of anxiety—between right-doing and wrongdoing— that we might exercise our power to say just one true thing. The poet Mary Oliver (2006) remarks on the important of silence.

To create a silence in which another voice may speak is at the heart of community transformation. It doesn’t sound that hard; in fact, it sounds like just the kind of thing we say we want to do. But we would do well to recognize from the outset that making a space for other voices is in fact a disruptive process. It may quite literally take us out of our communal skin. Fifteen years ago we probably couldn’t have imagined that our skin/our boundaries stretch from Waban Pond to the shores of Lake Superior. But here we are tonight, making a space into which other voices may emerge and speak to our communal narrative.

When I was very young, my primary babysitter was my great grandmother. I was about four years old and I thought she was about 217; and, frankly, we did not get along. I don’t know what I could have done at four years old to cause her to characterize me in this way, but she would complain to my mother that I was “mouthy” and “brazen”. To her enduring consternation (and mine) she would complain that I, “Always wanted to have the last word.” I confess that I still struggle with that, and sometimes as a community, so do we.

We have struggled long and hard to speak our truths to a power-over culture that did not always care to listen. And we have become quite good at it; we have filled vast spaces with our spoken word. And we have defined ourselves with our spoken word. This year 2016 is the 49th anniversary of the publication of Jean’s book, Toward a New Psychology of Women. After 40 years, we might say that we have established ourselves as members of the pantheon of thinkers and theorists who are trying to tell the story of what it means to be fully human.

Now, right here, we are gathered as a community because it is equally radical to listen: to embrace the reality that the practice of empathy may just disrupt who we think we are. Listening leads to transformation and what makes this radical is that we live in a culture that posits impermeability as a measure of strength. In fact, we are taught to fear that if we listen too well—if we allow ourselves to be influenced by others—we may lose our selves. Perhaps that is precisely what community calls us to do: to loosen our death grip on this construction of images, expectations, and entitlements that we call self. The paradox of listening to another voice is that we may come to more deeply appreciate who we truly are and who we may truly become.

In Relational-Cultural practice, we have a narrative about the transformative power of mutuality—of being influenced by voices of others. To listen to the voices of others is an act of courage; it is to open ourselves to disruption and to risk knowing that which we thought was the final word has dissolved. The final word has not been spoken, and that, perhaps, it is not for us to speak. By no means am I talking about moral relativism. I am talking about moral humility. I am talking about the courage to stand for what we believe is right, without being self-righteous. This is the space where courage and compassion grow precisely because we encounter our indivisibility—our common humanity. This is the space where we lay down our sword and shield, and study war no more.

I can think of a no more beautiful example of the practice of disruptive empathy than the story told of C. P. Ellis and Ann Atwater in Davidson’s (2007), a book that I highly recommend: The Best of Enemies. Ellis and Atwater both grew up in Durham, North Carolina, in a culture where deeply entrenched racial segregation was the way of life. Segregation by race and class defined the narratives of identity and possibility: this is who you are and this is all you can become (Davidson, 2007). C. P. Ellis grew up as a poor white boy, who regularly witnessed his father’s humiliation when he had to step off the sidewalk, so that the “big white men”—men with money—could pass (Davidson, 2007). He grew up hiding under stairwells, so that his school mates wouldn’t see that all he had to eat for lunch was a lard sandwich, but he became a “somebody” (Davidson, 2007). He, like his father before him, was eventually inducted into the Ku Klux Klan, and he rose to leadership as the Exalted Cyclops (Davidson, 2007). Ann Atwater grew up poor and Black and female in this same culture (Davidson, 2007). She was deeply intimate with the indignities of being poor and Black and female—all of which according to the cultural narrative would relegate her to a status of nobody-ness; but she too became “somebody” (Davidson, 2007). She became one of Durham’s most audacious and outspoken advocates for civil rights; she was a single mother, and housing activist who could not be silenced (Davidson, 2007). During the 70s, in the midst of the cataclysm of racial violence sparked by school desegregation, Atwater and Ellis were brought together in a series of meetings called a charrette, where they were to tell their truths and listen to the truths of the other (Davidson, 2007). As C. P. Ellis described it:

Here we are, two people from the far end of the fence, having identical problems, except her being Black and me being White…The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, [had] cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know we had things in common. (Atwater, 2016, para. 13)

When C. P. Ellis died in 2005, Ann Atwater took her rightful place seated with the family; and when questioned, she said, “CP was my brother” (Davidson, 2007, p. 6).

By practicing disruptive empathy, Atwater and Ellis learned how to tell their own truths and how to listen to the truths of the other. They never backed down, but they created a pause—a silence into which another voice could speak. The poet Paul Williams puts to words so well the truths that I needed to learn as a “mouthy and brazen” little girl; the truths that every community needs to learn, that Ellis needed to learn, that Atwater needed to learn; and it is this:

When you just have to talk,
Try being silent.
When you feel reluctant to say anything
Make the effort
To put what you’re feeling into words…
Look and see
if you’re willing to trust
to misunderstand each other
and go from there…
Listen as if.
Listen as if you can’t always tell
what the truth is
Listen as if you might be wrong,
Especially when you know you’re right.
Listen as if
you were willing to take the risk
of growing beyond
your righteousness
Listen as if
love mattered.

And at the end of our days, isn’t love what community is all about?



Atwater, A. [Web page]. (2016). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Atwater

Auden, W. H. (2009). For the time being: Xmas Oratorio. In R. Housden (Ed.), For lovers of God everywhere: Poems of the Christian mystics. US: Hay House Inc. Davidson, O. G. (2007). The best of enemies: Race and redemption in the new south. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

Jordan, J. V., Surrey, J. L. & Kaplan, A. G.(1983). Women and empathy. Wellesley, MA: Stone Center Working Paper Series.

Keltner, D. (2016) The power paradox: How we gain and lose influence. NY: Penguin Press.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider. CA: Crossing Press.

Miller, J. B. (1976). Toward a new psychology of women. Boston: Beacon Press.

Moyne, J. & Bark, C. (1999). Open secret: Versions of Rumi. Boston: Shamble Publications.

Oliver, M. (2006). Praying. Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press.

Stiver, I. (1997). A relational approach to therapeutic impasses. In J. V. Jordan (Ed.), Women’s growth in diversity: More writings from the Stone Center. NY: Guilford Press.

Williams, P. (1990). How to tell the truth. Nation of Lawyers. Used with permission by Cindy Lee Berryhill.

Disruptive Empathy - Transforming Community

Relational-Cultural Theory

What Is Relational-Cultural Theory?

By Judith Jordan, PhD

Transforming Community Relational Cultural TheoryExcerpted from Transforming Community

Relational-Cultural theory (RCT) posits that we grow through and toward relationships throughout our lives and that growth-fostering relationships are the source of meaning and empowerment. The Five Good Things (Miller & Stiver, 1997) characterize these “good relationships”: (1) zest, (2) clarity, (3) sense if worth, (4) productivity, (5) a desire for more connection. We need connection the way we need air and water. Relationships are central to our lives, not secondary or peripheral. Self-interest is a social prescription rather than a biological imperative.

What has come to be known as Relational-Cultural theory was created in the late 1970s by a collaborative group of four women clinicians (Jean Baker Miller, Irene Stiver, Janet Surrey and myself). Foundational to the model was the work of Jean Baker Miller who wrote her best-selling book Toward a New Psychology of Women in 1976. Seated in Jean’s living room in Brookline, Massachusetts, beneath an antique quilt (undoubtedly the creation of several women from another era with a recognizable pleasure in creating something together) these four women came together to better understand clinical practice and the psychology of women. Jean Baker Miller could see the ways in which theories of personality and development, written by men (mostly white, well-educated, straight men), when applied to women, often led to distortions in understanding. Jean invited us to listen to women, to hear their stories, to understand their needs and motivations, to see strengths where others often saw weakness or deficiency. As we tried to represent women’s voices we sought to understand the impact of race, culture, sexuality, and sociopolitical power issues. Thus began a re-working of the dominant psychological theories of the time. The journey would take us from a celebration of the Separate Self to an appreciation of the centrality of relationships in our lives. Much to our chagrin, critical feedback from marginalized people pointed to the irony that in trying to describe “woman’s voice” we committed the very same hubristic error we had accused male theorists of. We presented our model as if there was one, homogenous voice of women. We have worked hard to listen to and represent the range of experience of women and to move beyond our own white privilege with its incumbent blind-spots (and other sources of unearned advantage such as class, sexual orientation, gender.) We have tried to represent many of the voices of women. We sought to “challenge assumptions of a powerful mythic norm that would define woman as a white, economically privileged, able-bodied, and heterosexual female. Unchallenged, this norm becomes a standard against which all women’s existence is interpreted and evaluated” (Jordan, Walker & Hartling, 2004, p.3).

RCT examined the ways in which chronic disconnections from empathically failing and non-responsive relationships early in life get encoded as relational images which shape our expectations for current relationships. Acute disconnections offer opportunities for re-working earlier relational failures; in fact when we can represent our authentic feelings and find respect, responsiveness, and empathic attunement we build trust and a sense of relational competence. When, however, disconnections are disregarded and a person is treated as if he or she doesn’t matter, she learns to twist herself to fit into the relationships with powerful others in her life (e.g. parents for children; bosses for employees). The misunderstood individual becomes less and less authentic, mutuality ebbs, and the disconnection becomes chronic. In such situations we see depression, low energy, confusion, immobilization, isolating, self-blame; the opposite of The Five Good Things of zest, worth, clarity, productivity, and desire for more connection.

Traditional models of psychological growth at the time that we began our theory building (late 1970s) emphasized that humans move from dependence to independence; that the goal of healthy development is to be able to stand on your own two feet, to be independent, to be rational and autonomous. Unrealistic standards for adulthood left many people, both men and women, feeling inadequate and ashamed. In many ways, the restrictions placed on boys in terms of emotional vulnerability (necessary for the formation of mutual relationships) and demands for unattainable self-sufficiency (to encourage functioning in a hyper-individualistic society) are deeply destructive for boys (Stone, 2011).

In the last decade, modern neuroscience has validated almost all of the early tenets of Relational-Cultural theory: We need relationships like we need air and water; exclusion and isolation create real pain for people; the brain is wired to register the pain of exclusion in the same way it registers physical pain or absence of water and oxygen. We are simply hardwired to connect. We come into the world with the underpinnings of empathic ability (mirror neurons). Just as we need others for survival, we need to give to others and to participate in the growth of others. This model points to the mutuality of human growth. Our inevitable interdependence provides us with a sense of meaning and belonging. When society sets up expectations that are at odds or clash with our neurobiology, when a connection-seeking being is met with cultural conditioning that valorizes self-sufficiency and standing on your own two feet, emotional stress and physical ill health ensue. Chronic stress, resulting from this mismatch wreaks havoc with our overall well-being. We now know that exclusion and isolation cause pain… real, demonstrable neurobiological pain. We know that there is amazing plasticity in the human brain; we also have learned that empathic attunement alters brain function. We are born with an impulse to connect which is not based only on satisfaction of biological needs. We are hard-wired to connect. We need to engage in and participate in relationships that go beyond just needing others to take care of us or resonate with us. We have a need for mutual empathy, resonance; we need to contribute to others. And we need to build community together.

While this work was quite controversial in the late 1970s, modern neuroscience, with its revealing functional MRIs, has confirmed almost every position put forth regarding the power of connection in people’s lives. Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT) has demonstrated that the pain of social exclusion (or even the anticipation of exclusion) travels the same neuronal pathways to the same brain area (the anterior cingulate) as physical pain (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004). This tells us that relationships are essential to our survival; physical injury and isolation are both wired to demand our attention, to send out survival alarms.

Although initially the model was widely accepted by many female therapists (“It’s what I knew in my heart about therapy and people”), other traditional therapists at first overlooked it, then labeled it “dangerous”, and later often concluded: “We knew it all along. Relationships heal.” While RCT is a relative newcomer to the psychological community, it has gained widespread acceptance, and has engendered a significant amount of research (Jordan, 2010; Jordan, in press). The American Psychological Association invited RCT into its “Psychotherapy monographs series”, noting it was one of the ten most important psychological theories in North America.

While originally anchored in the need to correctly represent the psychology of women and bring about changes in the practice of psychotherapy, RCT has been increasingly applied more widely. A small sampling of RCT research shows it has been used to better understand

  • organizational dynamics (Fletcher, 1999)
  • counseling theory and practice (Comstock, 2005)
  • diversity and marginalization (Comstock et al, 2008; Frey, 2013)
  • social justice (Gunderson, 2012; Gunderson, Mueller, & Teichert 2013)
  • men (Englar-Carlson, Stevens & Scholtz, 2010; Lombardi, 2011)
  • eating disorders (Tantillo & Sanftner, 2010)
  • addiction (Covington, 2008; Gahleitner & Gunderson, 2009; Gahleitner & Gunderson, 2007)
  • mindfulness (Surrey, 2005; Surrey & Jordan, 2005)
  • relational psychotherapy (Jordan, 2010; Walker & Rosen, 2004)
  • education (Schwartz & Holloway, 2014)
  • mentoring (Gunderson et al, 2015; Spencer, Jordan, & Sazama, 2004)
  • empowerment of girls (Covington, 2008; Jordan, 2016)
  • friendships (Miller & Stiver, 1997)
  • neurobiology of relationship (Banks, 2016)
  • couples (Jordan & Carlson, 2013)
  • resilience in girls (Jordan, 2013)
  • clinical outcome (Oakley et al, 2013)
  • chapter representations in college psychology texts (Engler, 2003; Frager & Fadiman, 2012)
  • summary of research on RCT’s usefulness in the field of counseling (Comstock, 2008; Duffy & Trepal, 2016).

Many more references to RCT can be found in the forthcoming APA 2nd edition of Relational-Cultural Therapy (Jordan, in press).

In terms of power analyses, RCT suggests that power over models severely restrict the development of mutuality. When people exercise power over, they seek to maintain the status quo, the imbalance of power that affords them considerable privilege in a stratified society. “Power with” and “power for” models provide healthier social arrangements in which all people matter, all people contribute to one another and the relationship and all people grow as a result of their interactions. In empowerment, we participate and value the growth of the less powerful person. The goal is mutual benefit and movement toward a greater sense of the power of connection.

RCT views isolation as one of the core factors in psychological suffering and dysfunction. Re-establishing meaningful connection with others fuels healthy development. As the client experiences empathic responsiveness with the therapist, she feels understood and she also feels less alone. She begins to entertain the possibility of healing and feeling that she matters. Strategies of disconnection begin to shift and the client begins to take small, appropriate risks in bringing vulnerability to relationships. This vulnerability is essential to being open and affected by our relationships with others and hence being able to grow in connection.


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