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Foundations of relational awareness in childhood

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Relational awareness emphasises the importance of understanding how our past experiences of family and social relationships shape our perceptions and interactions with the world as we navigate ourselves through it. In this blog post, we delve into the delicate balance of how relational awareness can be both damaged on the one hand and enabled on the other. Various factors are damaging, including childhood trauma, exploitation or neglect, or restrictive and divisive social forces. Enabling factors are vital childhood experiences and open and integrative social conditions. The blog starts with the challenges and then considers the enabling factors and finally draws some conclusions.

1. Challenging and limiting forces impacting on relational awareness

Childhood trauma or adverse childhood experience

Childhood trauma covers a range of experiences: extreme trauma such as abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence, but also refers to experiences that are beyond the resilience and capacity we have to bear such events. Traumatic events can leave deeply engrained, unformulated memories which distort the perception of self and others, making it challenging to form healthy relationships. Ways of coping are in the survival mode of narrow and restrictive responses that limit us internally and interpersonally. These are likely to be emotionally expensive ways of coping and we are left with unmet needs and untried skills along with hard to manage emotions. They can result patterns of coping that work as 'defence mechanism which guard us from strong emotions in us or imagined or expected from others. They keep us emotionally distant or overly reliant on others as the basic way of having a working sense of self. Childhood trauma often carries a burden of guilt, shame or fear that hampers the ability to trust and connect with others. We lose the playfulness, spontaneity or versatility needed for an adaptive sense of agency, negotiation, assertion of self that lead to authentic interactions. This in turn limits the scope in later stages of childhood, adolescence or adulthood of drawing on any healthy interactions that become available.

  • Cognitive Analytic Therapy, with its sensitive use of mapping and writing to voice to our deeper patterns of living, can help address these early experiences. They tend not to have a clear narrative but do have emotional and relational threads of meaning and attachment to them which can be provisionally and tentatively mapped and tracked. working on paper together with these helps externalise these half remembered threads of meaning and feeling and be part of a process of healing and repair. They can guide the helping relationship through difficult moments of remembering towards understanding and gradually reintegrating healthier, more meaningful relationships. Healing from childhood trauma can be a slow, gentle and complex process with any form of therapy. CAT provides a collaborative framework that supports change, and shows where setbacks and risks of repetition of the trauma can arise, offering pathways through the sometimes-painful process of healing. All this can be summarised as repairing or discovering for the first time a capacity for relational thinking. if childhood trauma causes rigidity of memory, or loss and narrowing of narrative awareness then healing involves developing narrative freedom and the ability to have a sense of self with more than one story.

Exploitation or neglect

Experiencing exploitation or neglect during childhood is also a block to relational awareness. Children who have been exploited or subjected to neglect may internalize a sense of worthlessness or learn to view relationships as transactional or unreliable. Seeing relationships as fixed by our past experiences can lead to the development of patterns of hyper-independence or unhealthy dependence on others, making it difficult to navigate the complexities of human connection and impairing the development of an open and healthy relational awareness.

  • Cognitive Analytic Therapy can foster self-awareness, helping individuals challenge their negative beliefs about themselves and their relationships. By recognizing how exploitation or neglect has influenced their relational patterns, clients can work towards healthier, more balanced connections with others.

Restrictive and Divisive Social Forces and Conditions

In the context of relational awareness, restrictive and divisive social forces and conditions can be profoundly detrimental. Such forces encompass societal norms, prejudices, and discrimination that hinder authentic connection and understanding between individuals. For instance, discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, or socio-economic status can lead to internalized shame, fear, or self-doubt, impacting how one relates to themselves and others. When individuals are exposed to restrictive and divisive social forces, they may develop defence mechanisms such as withdrawal, conformity, or aggression as a means of self-preservation. These mechanisms can further inhibit authentic and healthy relationships.

Cognitive Analytic Therapy can assist individuals in recognizing these limiting internalised and culturally and institutionally embedded social roles in the following ways

  • externalising their workings by mapping them out

  • helping make stand apart from us as (ego alien) and not second nature

  • raising consciousness about how power relations work and our part in them

  • helping develop a more open, empathic, and integrated relational awareness.

2. Enabling and empowering factors in developing relational awareness in childhood

Vital Childhood Experiences

Vital childhood experiences are the foundation of healthy relational awareness. Positive

experiences in one's early years, characterized by love, support, encouragement, inspiration and emotional validation, can foster a strong sense of self-worth and the capacity to engage in authentic, nurturing relationships. These early experiences contribute to the development of secure attachment styles, allowing individuals to trust and connect with others in a healthy and reciprocal manner.

In therapy, CAT can help individuals tap into these vital childhood experiences, even if they

were sparse. By identifying and building upon these moments of positive interaction and

nurturing, individuals can strengthen their relational awareness and create healthier

connections with others. Recognizing the importance of these vital experiences is a crucial

step towards healing and growth. In one way or another therapy has to provide the experience of a healthy relationship and/or at least provide the tools and values to recover a capacity to be open and alive relationally to self and others.

Open and Integrative Social Conditions

Relational awareness is a critical element in our psychological well-being, shaping our interactions with the world and others. While relational awareness can be damaged by childhood trauma, exploitation or neglect, and restrictive social forces, it can also be enabled by vital childhood experiences and open, integrative social conditions. Societies that promote inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance can create an environment where individuals feel safe to express themselves and explore their relationships without fear of discrimination or judgment.

  • Cognitive Analytic Therapy offers a valuable framework for individuals to explore, understand, and enhance their relational awareness, fostering personal growth and more meaningful, fulfilling connections with others.

  • It encourages clients to recognize the positive influence of open and integrative social conditions and to seek out supportive communities and relationships.

  • By engaging in a society that values diversity and inclusivity, individuals can further strengthen their relational awareness and build more fulfilling relationships.

By recognizing and addressing the factors that damage relational awareness and leveraging those that enable it, we can embark on a journey towards more authentic, empathetic, and healthier relationships.It becomes a virtuous circle.

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