Are you dancing? Are you asking?
To those that know me as a dancer, sorry to disappoint, but I’m not talking Salsa today, I’m talking relational dances. As a Cognitive Analytic Therapy practitioner, when we discuss relational dances, we are talking about the relationship you have with the parts of yourself, and the push-pull dance you get into with others.
Imagine, as you grow up in your unique petri dish of family, friends and socioeconomic culture, you are forming a template of how relationships work. This template includes how you view yourself; how you care for others; how you communicate your feelings; and how you interpret others’ actions, among many other things.
Next comes the interesting part: the idea that we like the familiarity of our template; and so, not only do we seek out relationships that fit our template, we also invite people in to do our dance with us. We pull them into a relational position that we know and expect. We invite them to follow our dance moves.
This model goes beyond simple mental health diagnoses and helps us understand that everyone has a relational blueprint, and that template affects who they are at work, who they are as a child or parent, and who they are as a partner. It often helps us understand where the sticky points are that underlie mental health difficulties, and why relationships get difficult.
Obviously, if you’ve got this far in the article, you are probably open to learning about yourself! Identifying your own template can sometimes be difficult — after all, we are complex and unique beings. That said, as an example, there are some patterns that we often see in therapy, and you might recognise in yourself or others.
The helpers dance — this is a pattern of pleasing, placating or rescuing others. It may come from a fear of conflict or rejection and/or a need for a high degree of validation and approval. It is often associated with neglecting their own needs and boundaries, and ultimately feeling stressed, overwhelmed, overlooked and irritable.
The narcissists dance — this is a pattern of seeking admiration and desperately avoiding contempt and inadequacy. To those outside, the person may appear self-obsessed and entitled, but internally their self-esteem is very fragile. Relationally, they move between admiring and hostile/defensive. They do try to stay in admiring as much as they can though.
The hurting/vulnerable dance — this is a pattern of feeling crushed by life; maybe abuse, neglect, trauma, which leaves the person feeling very small and threatened. There may be a pattern of self-protection that is avoidant, cautious and paranoid, or even angry and attacking. They may draw in care, or, alternatively, be mistrustful and hostile towards others.
The theory goes that, essentially, the broader your template is, the less likely you are to have difficulties. Effectively, you have an impressive range of dance moves and you can fit in at a ballet recital or a breakdance battle! However, narrow templates tend to make life more difficult — there is less flexibility, you only want to do the dance you know; hence, there is less ability to connect your jigsaw piece with others’ jigsaw piece, leaving more room for conflict or disconnection.
By understanding these patterns, we get to better know our motivations and our vulnerabilities, and we open ourselves up to the possibility of change; that there may be other ways to relate, to communicate, to connect and to motivate. We change — and hopefully improve! — our relationship with ourselves and others.
We can even look at the relational template of our workplace and organisations, which can be so informative when we want to understand systems and create transformational change.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor