Yesterday, I was listening to NPR podcasts while driving to and from supervision with my mentor, psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams.
In typical NPR style, the interviews focused on problems in society and how to change them. The interviewer, Marty Moss-Coane, boiled the solution to each social problem down to one word: relationship. Relationships shape us, she repeatedly implied.
Judith Levine’s research tells us that a commonality among impoverished women, who have been consistently failed and lied to, is a global distrust of others. Prison researcher James Gilligan reports that nearly all prisoners have an early history of experiencing shame and humiliation. Psychology knows a deep and intuitive truth: how a person is treated by others predicts his global view of himself and how he expects to be viewed by others. And a person’s self-view and self-esteem is linked to all kinds of outcomes, both positive and negative.
We talk about relationship a lot in the psychoanalytic world. In my supervision group with Nancy, we all agree that therapeutic change depends on the relationship between therapist and patient. It’s the one and only necessary ingredient. In fact, if you look at the extensive literature on therapy success, you will see that the one single variable that always predicts a good therapy outcome is the therapeutic alliance (aka, the relationship).
It’s widely accepted in psychoanalytic circles that our earliest relationships give us a roadmap for our relational lives. The ways that we are related to in our early years teach us what we can expect from others. As developmental psychologist Erik Erickson observed, if you have the experience that you can rely on others to meet your most basic needs, you have a greater likelihood of experiencing trust in others. On the other hand, if you are neglected or abused, your relational default is likely to be a mistrust of others.
The Harvard Center on the Developing Child has scads of data demonstrating the impact of early relational trauma on the developing brain. There is more and more evidence, too, from epigenetic research about how social experiences shape gene expression.
So, if this is all true, then how is change possible? I strongly believe that we all have the capacity to be healed by new relational experiences, no matter what our history. (There is emerging data that a good therapy transforms and rebuilds brain structures.) What makes my work meaningful to me is this very truth: good relationships repair the damage caused by broken ones.
Of course, this is not news. This is not rocket science. But I am afraid that this basic truth of our humanity is getting lost. Which is why I love interviews on NPR that help us all to remember that relationships matter. In fact, they matter the most of all.
©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.