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The Therapeutic Secret to Building and Deepening Satisfying Relationships

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Do you ever wish you felt more connected in your relationships with your partner, family or friends?

Mindfulness can help you with that. Mindfulness meditation draws from principles of Eastern philosophy. Studies show mindfulness is highly effective for reducing anxiety, depression and stress. As a therapist, I help individuals understand that mindfulness can also be tremendously helpful in building profoundly rewarding relationships.

My favorite definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabatt-Zinn, who describes mindfulness as the “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Each part of that definition is important: paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgmentPaying attention to the breath is just one example of how to practice mindfulness, but there are really a million more mindfulness exercises out there.

Here are some examples of how mindfulness principles can help you create more satisfying relationships:

1. You can’t judge what you can’t see. In fact, better yet just don’t judge. 

Remember: you cannot see what is invisible, such as another person’s thoughts, motivations or desires. It is better to ask than assume. You may feel like someone is trying to drive you “crazy,” when in fact they might just be doing the best they can. Mindfulness encourages a nonjudgmental stance with relationships. Approach your loved one with an open curiosity to understanding their perspective, without assuming or evaluating what they have to say. Listen with a calm mind to try to fully understand that which you cannot see.

2. Be a fully present listener.

We all experience distractions when talking to family, partners or friends, whether those distractions are screens, noise, temper tantrums or other external competitors for our attention. Oftentimes the distractions are internal you may notice judgments about what the other person is saying, or you may be busy scripting your own response without actually listening to the conversation. Mindfulness teaches you to let go of what you are going to say next and instead pay attention to what the other person is saying in this moment. Being a fully present listener will immediately deepen any relationship.

3. It is impossible to know what your boundaries are until you pay attention to them.

Mindfulness can help you realize how a relationship is — or isn’t — meeting your needs. Have you ever ignored a discomfort in a relationship, and hoped it would go just go away? How did that work out for you? Our bodies have powerful instincts that guide us away from danger. Listen to them.

When a relationship is toxic, you will feel that “spidey sense” that tells you so. Call it a 6th sense, a Wise Mind, or a feeling in your gut/bones/mind/whatever. It is that inner voice that tells you what is/isn’t right. That voice has been with you for all of your life — has seen all of your most embarrassing moments, triumphs and losses. I’m not talking about the scaredy cat voice, the nervous one. No, this is the confident self-assured voice that is sometimes very, very quiet and other times is very, very loud, but knows what is best for you. Mindfulness helps you to pay attention to that voice, and let it be your guide when deciding whether to try to nurture and grow a relationship, or whether it is healthier for you to take space, separation or end a relationship if need be.

4. Look for “the kernel of truth” in any viewpoint.

Relationships can be challenging when it seems like our views are completely opposed. An obvious example of this tension is the strain the latest election has put on relationships across the country when political conversations get so personal. Even when you don’t agree with anything the other person is saying, look for the part that feels true. Try to understand, “What is the feeling behind what this person is saying to me?” “What can I learn from this person?” “What do they want me to understand?” Finding the “kernel of truth” will help you connect with anyone and build empathy for their viewpoint. This doesn’t mean you have to agree or approve of anything they are saying, but it may help you understand it.

5. Be mindful of stress in the body.

The body offers helpful clues to help you navigate your relationships. Pay attention to physical sensations as they arise when you are upset, withdrawn, or otherwise at odds with a loved one. Notice any patterns How do you experience stress when talking about politics? Do you feel more tense or nervous when you have to ask for help? How does your body feel when you feel ashamed or embarrassed? Stress is uncomfortable, which can make you want to run away from difficult conversations. Practicing mindfulness can help you be aware of the instinct to run, and help you respond instead of simply reacting. Soothing your body in a moment of stress with mindfulness exercises will help you be more effective with those awkward and really important conversations with the people you care about the most.“Walk the Middle Path” when facing disagreement. When you are stuck in disagreement, remember we all view reality from completely different perspectives. It is quite common that two individuals will interpret the same situation in very different ways. We each view our experiences from a different angle, with different histories to inform our interpretations of any one event. Consider the optical illusion and great dress debate of 2015. Was the dress gold and white, or black and blue? You could argue for a long time about which reality is true, until you realize it is both. When struggling with disagreement, look for the “middle path.” Look for the common ground when there seemingly is none. If you find yourself saying “Yes, but…” try saying “Yes, and…” instead. Consider some of the following reframes:

“We are both showing up for this conversation, even though it is difficult.”

“We both care passionately about this subject.”

“We care about each other enough to listen to what the other person is saying.”

A dialectic occurs when two seemingly opposite truths occur at the same time. I can be doing the best I can, and need to do better. We can disagree and both be right. Looking for the middle path will help you maintain relationships despite the discomfort of opposing views.

6. Speak your truth.

Mindfulness helps you get in touch with your own basic needs and desires, as well as priorities for the relationship. We all have that guiding voice inside of us that tells us how we really feel. It is that voice which tells us what we should do even in moments when we opt not to listen to it. Mindfulness can help you refocus your attention and gain better attunement to your needs and wants. Rather than reacting to stress in the moment, mindfulness can help you respond in a way that is consistent with your core values and principles.

7. If you continue to struggle in your relationships, begin again… And again… And again…

Mindfulness is staying fully present on the journey, even when the journey is bumpy, challenging and tiring. This is where learning comes from. And you will learn more, the more you pay attention. Every attempt at incorporating mindfulness into your relationships is an additional investment in a relationship you have decided is worthy of your time and attention. Be well, and be loved.

Anna Lindberg Cedar, MPA, LCSW #64284 is a Bay Area psychotherapist who specializes in burnout prevention. The mindfulness techniques described in this piece are drawn from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) a counseling style that combines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other change-based skills with mindfulness and acceptance-based strategies to help you lead a more balanced life. Find out more about Anna’s counseling work with adults, teens, and couples:

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Thinkstock photo via lorenzoantonucci

Originally published: August 22, 2017
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