One of the great delights that accompanied the publication of my first book, Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want, was hearing from therapists and coaches who let me know that they were using Loving Bravely as a treatment manual of sorts. Hearing this again and again made my heart sing. As someone who has been in practice for many years myself, the fact that I could offer something to my colleagues that was serving them in their work with clients was magnificent to hear! Let’s talk about how you too can use the Loving Bravely book to help your clients expand their Relational Self-Awareness (RSA).
RSA is about understanding our relationship to relationships. It is a meta-skill that we cultivate in an ongoing way, a skill that creates the sturdiest foundation for a happy and healthy intimate relationship. RSA is about taking a curious and compassionate stance vis a vis ourselves in order to understand all of what intimate relationships stir up inside us. Rather than focusing on what our partner is or is not doing, we bravely and gently turn the lens on ourselves, asking, “What is this moment activating inside of me?”
I encourage you to use the Loving Bravely book to guide your work with:
- Individual clients who are dating: By deepening RSA, your dating clients will be able to better understand and articulate healthy boundaries, helping them choose a partner from a place of awareness instead of reactivity.
- Individual clients who are single again: Clients who are recovering from a breakup or divorce are in a wonderful place to develop or deepen their RSA, so they can integrate the end of their last relationship and ready themselves for their next relationship.
- Individual clients who are in a relationship: When you are working individually with someone who is in a relationship, developing RSA will help your client avoid the pitfalls of blame and shame so they can make individual changes that impact the relationship in a positive way.
- Couples: The Loving Bravely book will help each partner develop RSA, so they can navigate conflict as teammates instead of adversaries and feel safer in each other’s presence.
Because the Loving Bravely book focuses on the self-in-love, rather than a particular demographic, you can utilize the book to guide your work with a wide range of clients. The book also explicitly attends to the intersection of cultural identity and intimate partnership, so clients of diverse backgrounds will feel that they belong.
The Five Pillars of Relational Self-Awareness
Relational Self-Awareness is a meta-skill composed of these five pillars: Self-Reflection, Self-Knowledge, Sexual Self-Awareness, Self-Expression, and Self-Expansion. The table below defines each pillar and directs you to the parts of the book that address each pillar. As you can see, Sexual Self-Awareness is a pillar of RSA that is the focus of Lesson 11 in Loving Bravely. It is also the sole focus of my second book, Taking Sexy Back. If you are interested in helping your clients deepen their Sexual Self-Awareness, you can read more here. In the Loving Bravely book, the term Self-Awareness is used. However, we now prefer to use the term Self-Knowledge, which reflects an evolution of the approach that has taken place since the publication of the book.
|Self-Reflection: Creating Narrative Coherence
|Understanding the self in the context of the family system in order to understand how roles and dynamics shape relational experiences and expectations.
|Loving Bravely Part 1
|Self-Knowledge: Integrating Cultural Identities
|Locating the self at the intersection of cultural identities in order to understand how these identities shape relational experiences and expectations.
|Loving Bravely Part 2
|Sexual Self-Awareness: Nurturing Sexual Maturity
|Filling in gaps in understanding of sexual health so that sexual choices are respectful and celebratory of self and others.
|Loving Bravely Lesson 11 and Taking Sexy Back book
|Self-Expression: Navigating Relational Rupture
|Practicing internal emotion regulation and taking a systemic approach to relational dynamics in order to feel empowered during inevitable relationship conflict.
|Loving Bravely Part 3
|Self-Expansion: Cultivating Resilience
|Shifting to growth beliefs about relationships in order to meet relationship ebbs and flows with curiosity and resilience.
|Loving Bravely Part 4
RSA reflects my decades of work as a clinician and educator who takes an integrative approach to therapy, teaching, and training. I have been affiliated with The Family Institute at Northwestern University since I was in graduate school in the late 1990s, and I have therefore been steeped in our model, which is called Integrative Systemic Therapy (IST). You will also notice elements of feminst therapy, psychodynamic therapy, narrative therapy, and Interpersonal Neurobiology, as these all inform my approach to love, sex, and intimacy.
Each lesson of the Loving Bravely book moves between three elements:
- Theory and research
- Narrative examples to clarify the idea
- Tools for applying the idea to the reader’s life, called Steps Toward Loving Bravely
These elements work synergistically to help your client create shifts in their thinking, their emotions, and their behavior.
Ideally, you would assign one lesson per week to your clients. Reading the chapter itself does not take much time, but at a pace of one lesson per week, your client(s) can really dive into the Steps Toward Loving Bravely. The more time your client(s) devote to the reflection exercises, the more they will bring into your sessions for discussion and exploration. This plan requires a course of therapy that is at least 20 sessions long.
If you anticipate a shorter course of treatment, you could work at a pace of two or three lessons per week. Under this plan, you could ask your clients to hold more time to work on the reflection exercises between sessions.
One final option is to assign your clients an entire section of the book per week, which is five lessons. Under this plan, you will want to identify two or three exercises for them to pay special attention to.
Regardless of the pacing that makes sense for your situation, ensure that you and the client have a clear and agreed-upon plan. Check in at the beginning of each session about their experiences with the work for that week. Here are some possible questions:
- What are your overall reactions to the chapter(s) for this week?
- How did this week’s chapter(s) connect for you to the challenges we’ve been working on in this therapy?
- What felt surprising to you?
- What felt confusing to you?
- What was your biggest a-ha?
- What were your thoughts and feelings as you completed the exercises?
- What do you want to make sure we keep in mind going forward?
These questions will help you understand how your client is experiencing the work of the book.
If your client is struggling to make time between sessions to read and complete the exercise(s), you will need to understand what is getting in the way. The constraint may be pragmatic in which case, your client will benefit from blocking out time in their calendar for Loving Bravely. The constraint may be emotional. Your client may feel afraid of what they will uncover during the process of introspection. A few years ago, an undergraduate student came to my office hours and asked, “Is it normal to read a few pages of Loving Bravely and then cry for a while?” I validated that the process of exploring our love template–the forces that shaped our relationship to relationships– can stir up powerful emotions. How wonderful that your client has the benefit of being able to process these strong emotions with you! You may still want to validate beforehand that this journey of exploration is not easy, normalizing some of these upsetting feelings. And, if parts of the book feel so upsetting that they are unable to continue with their day, for example, you can give explicit permission for them to skip that part, knowing they can return to it at a later time.
If you are working with a couple, you’ll need to navigate an added layer, which is determining the degree to which the couple will work independently versus together between sessions.
- With high-conflict couples who are prone to escalation, it may be helpful for each partner to have their own copy of the book. You may also want to put a moratorium on between-session conversations about the book and the exercises. This way, you are able to facilitate the sharing of individual insights and observations. As the couple is better able to manage their emotional reactivity, you can move toward having the couple read and work on sections of the book together, as this would be a concrete way to celebrate growth and progress.
- With more emotionally-detached couples, reading together, perhaps even reading aloud together, may be an intimacy-promoting activity. Ideally, partners will work independently on the reflection exercises, but, here again, talking about their experiences may help them feel more connected. Hopefully, the content of the Loving Bravely book will help them understand themselves and each other more fully, and the process of working together will help them feel more united.
Whether the couple works together or separately, the goal is for individual insights to foster increased empathy between partners. And we certainly want to avoid partners using these insights as cudgels during future conflict. In session, you can model gentleness and empathy as partners are sharing what they have learned about themselves and their histories, and you can be explicit about holding these parts of their partner’s story with sacrednes and care.
Finally, when working through Loving Bravely with a couple, a dynamic may emerge in which one partner is keeping up with the work and the other partner is not. If this replicates an over-functioning/under-functioning relationship pattern, you will address this dynamic the way you have addressed other variations on this theme. Address what might be getting in the way for the partner who is not keeping up, and invite each partner to notice the story they attach to their partner’s behavior.
I hope this article provided you with some useful suggestions for integrating Loving Bravely into your clinical work to help your clients expand their Relational Self-Awareness. I would love for you to share your thoughts and feedback with me.