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Natural Awakenings Fairfield County & Housatonic Valley CT

Relationships – the R in Positive Psychology

Mar 31, 2021 05:00PM ● By Ann C. Reeves

Positive Psychology (PP) is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, its research encompassing neurobehavioral, cognitive behavioral and physiological science. The acronym used in PP is PERMA-V. R stands for Relationships, another gateway to achieving wholeness and deep contentment.

According to PP professor Emilia Zhivotovskaya, the foundations for flourishing relationships include: a sense of belonging, capacity for empathy, attunement to the feelings of others, courage to be vulnerable, trust, appreciation of others and authenticity.

Loneliness and experiences of social exclusion are emotionally painful experiences and have been found to be as impactful on health and longevity as smoking. The opposite of loneliness is a sense of belonging. Belonging is more than just being with others. It has to do with feeling at home or emotionally connected. This is sometimes easier for extroverts, for whom socialization renews their energy. Introverts, who become exhausted by large social gatherings, need alone time to regenerate their energy. They may achieve a sense of belonging by being with just one or a few persons, and through telephone or video calls, finding an online community or pursuing meaningful volunteer work. 

The capacity for empathy involves the senses—one sees, hears and feels another’s pain, serving as a witness without inserting oneself. In this way, we become attuned to the feelings of others, responding without advice, but with gentle questioning or even silence. Empathy implies true interest and care with no agenda. It is partly inborn, but also taught by example early in life by parents or other trusted adults. Empathy goes well beyond sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone without actually putting oneself in someone else’s shoes.

Attunement is bringing two or more things into a harmonious or responsive relationship. When we listen sensitively, watch carefully, and speak more slowly so that each word can have clear meaning, we feel more attuned. Watching a grandparent respond to a baby can be a good example of mirroring, a gateway to attunement. We make “ridiculous” noises and facial expressions and that baby clearly gets what is happening and responds in-kind. 

Appreciation of the other promotes relationship. Responding to the good news of others often has a negativity bias. If a friend has received a promotion, it is too easy to say, “But are you sure you have the time for that?” rather than, “Wow, you have worked so hard. Good for you!” Active Constructive responses versus Active Destructive responses can make a huge difference in encouraging closer communication versus driving people emotionally apart.

Brene´ Brown has written extensively about the power of embracing one’s own vulnerability—knowing that this, and the shame underlying it, is a universal experience. She sees vulnerability as a strength that should be embraced rather than a weakness, one that can serve as the cornerstone of confidence. Our lives are about our stories, and there isn’t one life that hasn’t experienced significant pain. Brown has shown that sharing our stories with pride rather than shame leads to a greater sense of connectedness and belonging as we discover we are never alone in such feelings. There are ways to achieve such an important discovery—whether through individual or group therapy, 12-step programs, personal growth groups, books or inspirational TED Talks, such as those written by Brown and others.

Communication between individuals in families and couples can be difficult, especially when different points of view occur. Fundamentals of non-violent communication are useful here. When speaking, thinking and feeling in a way that does not criticize or blame the other requires stepping back. Using “I” statements rather than “you” statements keeps boundaries clear: “I am feeling angry because…” rather than “Why do you always…?” Listening is also an opportunity to step back—not hearing criticism or blame, but caring how the other is feeling. Listening objectively, even when a situation is charged, can lead to deeper communication.

When two people are able to communicate their observations, feelings, needs or requests from the other with authenticity and active listening without defensiveness, trust develops and problem-solving becomes easier. It can be helpful for the other to repeat what they have heard without editorializing or becoming defensive. Everyone likes to be listened to.

In addition, it is useful to institute rules of engagement using soft rather than hard approaches, such as, “Can you please say that more gently,” rather than accusing or defending. Five approaches guaranteed to promote harsh startups and preclude effective problem solving are: criticism, contempt or nonverbal attacks such as eye-rolling, defensiveness, stonewalling (withdrawing and refusing to communicate) and responding “Yes, but…” 

Learn to gauge how “hot” the situation is and agree to take a break for a while, asking for a hug or stating, “Can I take that back? I was overreacting.” Make repair attempts through apology and appreciation of the other so you can get to a better place. Saying “I never thought of things that way before” can cool things down. So can humor.

It is always possible to learn and practice new ways of communicating, leading to more flourishing relationships and feelings of belonging.

Ann C. Reeves, Psy.D is a Licensed Psychologist in Wilton. Connect at 203-451-6208, [email protected] or See ad, page 21.

Read the next article in this PERMA-V series, focusing on the M for Meaning, in the May issue.

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