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Book Review: The Healing Connection, Part I – Connections

June 14, 2011
‘Friends’ by h.koppdelaney via

The Healing Connection is a painful book to read.  It’s like ripping off a bandage or setting a broken bone.  One recognizes it must be done, fears the deed, but feels the ultimate benefit of it long after the pain is over.  It was painful for me to read because of how right the authors were.  The major source of pain in our lives are our broken relationships, striving for connection, and the ways we sabotage ourselves even while we long to reach out.  It makes such sense.  In this recognition is a reminder of past sorrows.  While reading this, I saw my own self-destructive habits in a startlingly clear light.  This is what makes it hurt to read the words of Jean Baker Miller, MD, and Irene Pierce Stiver, PhD.

Read it anyway.  I cannot stress this enough.  Even if it hurts.  Or perhaps it doesn’t.  Perhaps it makes no sense at all.  Read it anyway, knowing that it will resonate strongly with at least half the people you know and interact with every single day (and likely far more than half).  Read The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and in Life if you want a better shot at making and healing relationships in your life.

The first part of this succinct little book (only 195 pages in paperback, less the appendices) is dedicated to sketching out what the authors mean by “connection,” which they do in three chapters named “Relationships Revisited,” “How Do Connections Lead to Growth?” and “A Paradigm Shift.”  This section lulls you in by describing methodically what you already knew but never thought about or imagined could be articulated.  As we were reading this book, most of my classmates, especially the women, described this section as “duh,” which just goes to show exactly how much “women’s wisdom” is discounted.  It really shouldn’t have taken until 1997 for someone in the professional mental health community to write this stuff down.  Thankfully, someone did anyway, and it’s worth highlighting.

In the “Introduction,” the authors describe the context in which this oversight came about: “…psychoanalytic thinking has taken over without question the Western notion that becoming a self-sufficient individual is the goal of human psychological development.” (p. 2) Meanwhile, the truth is that we are not, never have been, and should not be so-called self-sufficient individuals.  We are, rather, social animals living in interdependent communities characterized by abundant networks of relationships.  This shouldn’t be such a radical notion to we Buddhists who do tend to blather on about interdependence and dependent origination and the oneness of self and other ad nauseam.  The authors posit that as a result the “connections between people … how we create them and how disconnections derail them throughout our lives” either “block psychological growth” or “provide the original and continuing sources of that growth.” (p. 3)

The authors admit that their theories and practices are strongly derived from observing and working with women, but they are broadly applicable to all people.  The men in my class agreed.  The first chapter points out how women’s ways of emotional expression were discounted and pathologized in favor of “male” ways of relating.  Seeing this occurring over and over again, the authors decided to pay special attention to just what was going on here and concluded “But the fact is, women do do it right in many ways.  The fault [for psychological problems] lies elsewhere, as we hope to demonstrate.” (p. 15)  It is from these observations that the authors are “reclaiming the knowledge about relationships that women in particular hold, [from which] we can begin to form a new model of psychological development within relationships, in which everyone participates in ways that foster the development of all the people involved, something we might call ‘mutual psychological development.'” (p. 17)

The key to connections which facilitate growth is mutual empathy.  Not just empathy, mind you, but mutual empathy.  We strive for this kind of connection, this type of ultimate compassion, a deep compassion for oneself and other simultaneously.

“Mutual empathy is the great unsung human gift.  We are all born with the possibility of engaging in it.  Out of it flows mutual empowerment.  It is something very different from one-way empathy; it is joining together based on the authentic thoughts and feeling of all the participants in a relationship. … Because each person can receive and then respond to the feelings and thoughts of the other, each is able to enlarge both her own feelings and thoughts and the feeling and thoughts of the other person.  Simultaneously, each person enlarges the relationship.” (p. 29)

This type of mutual empathy, leading to mutual empowerment, is characterized by five features: zest, action, knowledge, worth, and a desire for more connection.  Zest is the energy and vitality that comes from a genuine connection with another person.  Action is the feeling of empowerment that creates change within that very moment.  Worth is the feeling that comes when people acknowledge the reality and validity of each other’s experience.   When these come together they naturally lead to both an enhanced sense of connection and a desire for more connections.  It is these kinds of connections which facilitate growth, psychological health, and healing.

In all these relationships, we have the opportunity to face each other’s emotional experiences directly or turn away.  As wonderful as these connections sound, we are constantly turning away, both from others whose feelings we cannot or will not deal with, or from our own painful emotions.  Sometimes not only do we turn away, we run from one experience and straight into another with all the emotion baggage from the first following us as the cart follows the ox (Dhamapada 1).  We can recognize in this a constant failure to engage with the present moment.  As Buddhists, we practice being present each time we sit our asses down on the cushion or move deliberately in walking meditation.  But what are we practicing for?  Well, perhaps this, so that we can be present off the cushion with people in our relationships that have such a strong influence on our lives.  Our ingrained habits take the form of relational images – “our notions of who we are – and who other people are.” (p. 39)  The authors believe “It is usually the parts of our experience that we feel we cannot share that make trouble for us, the parts we have walled off because we’ve been led to believe that we cannot bring them into a relational connection.”

How then do we become fully present, according to Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver?  They propose a “paradigm shift” in the therapy relationship can create a similar shift in the lives of patients.  This is a shift from the one-way empathy of power-over relationships to a mutual empathy between therapist and client that can create relationships for mutual growth.  The generally accepted motivation of gratification is exchanged for one of participation.  We don’t want to get what we want so much as we want to be who we are, and to be that in the company of others who accept us and who are likewise being who they are.

Naturally, no feminist theory can be complete without addressing the ubiquitous power imbalances of contemporary society.

“Indeed, by definition a dominant group is not likeley to create mutually empowering relationships, else it would not remain dominant.  Thus, a patriarchal society would not evolve a ssytem of relationships based on mutuality.  Instead, such a society tends to creat a concept of power as a limited commodity and a ‘power-over’ definition of power itself.” (p. 49)

Women are not immune from operating within the ‘power-over’ paradigm.  Much of what women do, including creating growth-fostering relationships, has been seen as “lesser business.” In studying women, the authors realized that “relationships are moving, dynamic processes, not static entities” that serve as the “‘locus of the creative energy of development.'” (p. 53)  As such, these processes not only deserved but need to be understood.  They point out that authenticity is not merely the ability to be genuinely present as oneself, but “also to respond authentically to the thoughts and feelings of others.” (p. 54)  Of course, this doesn’t mean loosing our individuality or uniqueness,  subsuming ourselves completely under some kind of group identity, or that personal growth never occurs outside interaction.  Rather, it’s a Middle Way.

The authors round out this section with a brief overview of disconnections, which are covered in later depth in the second section, and a discussion of the classical scapegoat of psychological problems: “the mother-infant relationship in a power-over culture.”  They characterize the focus on this relationship as a red herring and an “unprovable proposition.”  Rather this is a form of projection that has been so successful because it “discourages a more profound analysis of the intersection of the political, the social, and the psychological” processes resulting in the “misuse of power” and the ways that “society fails us.” (p. 59-60)

“We suggest that the study of how people participate in growth-fostering relationships opens up a vision of human possibilities that has been obscured,” the authors conclude in this section. (p. 62)  They’ve thrown down the gauntlet before the mainstream mental health community, challenging outdated, patriarchal theories.  Given how painful relationships can be, it’s a wonder that mental health ever focused on anything else.  In an interdependent world, the idea of creating ‘healthy, self-sufficient individuals’ seems rather ludicrous – both in terms of traditional psychotherapy and in the wider ground of American culture.

The next section, “Disconnections,” focuses on just what makes our relationships with others so painful.  This is where we realize the bone is broken.  It’s going to hurt.

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