by Anita Frankel MA, MFT

Neuroscience today tells us that a newborn’s brain begins its development in a kind of call-and-response experience, from the first moment we cry out from hunger and are met with a soothing gesture from a caregiver. The impact we have on other beings, and the impact they have on us, feeds the development of our “neural networks” – those patterns of brain activity that create and store our experiences. The idea that we grow “bushier neural networks” from the of ebb and flow of relational activity throughout our lives has given birth to the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, whose most enthusiastic spokesperson on the West Coast is UCLA neurobiologist Dan Siegel MD.

I owe much of my way of being a therapist to those who have evolved, and continue to evolve, a Relational Cultural Theory and Practice of psychotherapy (RCT). The “bushy neural networks” concept gives a scientific basis to the way that RCT therapists conceive of mental vitality and mental distress. We understand “growth-fostering” relationships as a “complex process of active participation in the development and growth of other people…and such a relationship creates growth in both.”Whether between peers, parents and children, or therapists and clients, a relationship which moves a depressed or anxious person on a path to greater clarity and possibility also creates emotional movement in the other person. This mutual movement, this “being moved,” gives the less confident person a heightened sense of self-worth, as they witness the impact they have on the other person. Good Relationship is a fluid thing, an interplay “honoring the idea that both people bring wisdom and knowledge to exchange.”

RCT’s notion of “self-in-relation” sounds attractive when it refers to an expansion of our sense of self-worth. So what can go wrong? Why are relationships so difficult to grow and maintain? Why is it that we are often afraid to interact with people whom we would dearly like to know? And how can it be that people who love each other still must weather scary moments of disconnection in their efforts to move together?

Through the lens of RCT, what frustrates a “growth-fostering” relationship is the stratified arrangement of the world we come into at birth, and the fear of being marginalized by others with more status, more self-assurance, and history of cultural superiority. No matter how far we’ve come in various movements for equality, our civilization-and our place in it-continues in large measure to be stratified by age, wealth, race, gender, sexual orientation, education, white-collar/blue-collar, and by the diversity-or lack of it-in the families and communities we live in. In each of these areas, Power -the ability to get what one wants and needs-is most often experienced in competition for “power -over” others.

Therapists themselves bring power and privilege to their encounters with clients. RCT challenges us to be aware of the uneven playing field, and, however imperfectly, to move in the direction of leveling it, toward a sense of sharing power-of “power with.” RCT uses a language which places qualities of relationship-what fosters it, what suppresses it-at the center of its theory and practice. Below are a few key concepts in that relational language. They are taken from a “Glossary of Key Terms” by Judith Jordan PhD, Director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.(1)


Relational-Cultural Theory (known as RCT) uses a language which places qualities of Relationship what fosters it, what suppresses it– at the very center of its theory and practice. Below are a few key concepts in their “relational language.” They are taken from a “Glossary of Key Terms” by Judith Jordan PhD, Director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.(1)

CONNECTION: “An interaction between two or more people that is mutually empathic and mutually empowering.”

EMPATHY: “A complex effective-cognitive skill that allows us to’ know’ (resonate, feel, sense, cognitively grasp) another person’s experience.” In order to be growth-fostering, the other person “must see, know, and feel the empathy of the other….must see her or his impact on the other…”

AUTHENTICITY: “The capacity to bring one’s real experience, feelings, and thoughts into relationship, with sensitivity and awareness to the possible impact on others of one’s [words and] actions.”

DISCONNECTIONS: “Interactions in relationships where mutual empathy and mutual empowerment do not occur; usually involves disappointment, a sense of being misunderstood, and sometimes a sense of danger, violation, and/or impasse. Disconnections may be acute, chronic, or traumatic.”

LOSS OF EMPATHIC POSSIBILITY: “Feeling that others cannot possibly be empathic… [Feeling] unworthy of connection, flawed in some essential way, which is often experienced in shame.”

STRATEGIES OF DISCONNECTION: “Methods people develop to stay out of relationship in order to prevent wounding or violation. Also known as strategies of survival, these evolved out of a person’s attempt to find some way to make a preserve whatever connection is possible.”

CONDEMNED ISOLATION: “The experience of isolation and aloneness that leaves one feeling shut out of human community… This is different from the experience of’ being alone’ or solitude, in which one can feel deeply connected (to nature, other people, etc.).”

RELATIONAL COMPETENCE: “The experience that one can be effective and have a positive impact on relationship; one feels that one matters and one is responded to in a way that is empathic and open to mutual effect.” It may involve “experiencing vulnerability as an inevitable place of potential growth rather than danger…”

FIVE GOOD THINGS: “Attributes of a growth fostering relationship-zest, sense of worth, clarity, productivity, and a desire for more connection-as proposed by [RCT founding scholar] Jean Baker Miller.”

(1) Jordan, J. (2010) Relational-Cultural Therapy. Washington, DC; American Psychological Association. The Glossary itself be read in full at <>


Anita Frankel MA, MFT is a therapist practicing in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, and can be reached at (323) 661- 0297, or

Copyright 2017 by Anita Frankel MA MFT