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  • Writer's pictureLaura Rader

Happiness and relational therapy

What is relational therapy and how can it help you?

An instinct of relating to others

To behave in a relational manner to another person is to tune in to our instinct to connect. This involves tuning into our emotional states. When we are connected to ourselves, and when there is no emotional block, we can relate to others with ease.

As social mammals, we are born with an instinct to connect to others because the survival of our species has always depended on cooperation rather than individuation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has again brought the matter of connection to our attention, as scientists from nations across the globe worked together to discover a vaccine to fight this new virus, whilst at the same time everyone suffered the effects of social isolation, including anxiety and social anxiety, depression, apathy, disgust, and a general sense of overwhelm or lack of ease.

We all felt alienated to some extent because our nature is to connect to one another, and we were presented with more emotional obstacles than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pursuit of Happiness

Tal Ben-Shahar, an expert in positive psychology and the author of “Happier: No matter what” (2021), quotes evidence-based research in his study on happiness. He concludes that

it’s part of our nature to pursue happiness because it feels good, and when we feel happy, we are more creative and productive people, and we become healthier, as our immune systems seems to work more efficiently.

However, his lifetime career and studies on happiness spanning philosophy, neuroscience, and modern psychology reveal that the secret to living happily is not looking too hard for it.

The paradox of happiness seems to be that the more we pursue it the more it eludes us. For example, if we think that success is going to bring us more happiness, we are completely missing the mark, as when we achieve any form of success we are actually left wanting for more. The adrenaline rush that we get from overworking, for example, is addictive and it leaves us dissatisfied because there is always more that we could achieve. When we don’t listen to our “stop, I am tired” brain and body signals, when we are disconnected from ourselves in this way, we burnout eventually.

Becoming obsessed by our quest renders us unhappy. If we wake up in the morning saying

“I want to be happier today” we automatically have a less happy day.

If we pursue happiness indirectly instead, for example if we say in the morning “I will invest more time in my relationships today” we are breaking down happiness, doing something that will automatically bring us more happiness. In doing so we are bypassing the natural tendency to overwhelm ourselves, focusing instead on step-by-step solutions, which our brains love to do.

The five elements of happiness according to the same author are:

· Spiritual wellbeing

· Physical wellbeing

· Inspirational wellbeing

· Relational wellbeing

· Emotional wellbeing

Relational therapy

Is a form of psychotherapy that aims to identify and work with the obstacles that people encounter when trying to form meaningful connections with one another. Mindfully observing our emotional states as well as our behaviours and thinking patterns is a way of working with our unconscious motivations and bringing them to our conscious awareness.

When we become aware of unhealthy patterns of relating to ourselves and others, we can choose to take responsibility and to address them.

In therapy together we can explore what you are feeling, why you might be feeling this way, and why sometimes you might feel confused.

Our emotions can get tangled up together in our mind and in our body.

An example of a tangled up emotional brain circuit looks like this:

“I am so angry with my boss for treating me so badly that I can’t even deal with them!!” – the person feels a rush of anxiety in their body, starts shouting about something else to a colleague, then runs and hides and avoids speaking to their boss. On their way home they pick up a chocolate bar and a bottle of alcohol. They call a friend and moan about it, and then they feel bad about themselves.

In the example above, the person who feels hurt is reacting from their Rage brain circuit, because the person cannot deal with their own feelings of grief and sadness, which are on the Panic/Grief brain circuit, and use anger and other addictive coping mechanisms, instead of facing their relationship problem, in an attempt to soothe their pain.

The problem with coping mechanisms is that they work, temporarily. In the long run, because of their addictive nature and because of our own tendency to make habits out of coping mechanisms, denying our emotions, and hiding will only exacerbate the relational difficulties.

Another choice the person in the example above is making is Denial. When we pretend nothing is wrong, we are actually bottling up our feelings, and they will eventually find a way to be expressed, most times in inappropriate environments. Emotional problems bottled up at work often make themselves known in the family environment, and vice versa.

The resentment that builds up from denying your own emotions and those felt but unexpressed by others can become toxic for the relationship, including the one you have with yourself.

Relationships have built-in tensions

We all have an instinct to grow and to develop intellectually and emotionally as human beings, and everyone grows at a different pace. Meanwhile, we all have trouble relating effectively to people sometimes, because we have a hard time examining painful emotions evoked in us by other people.

Relating to other people has as a base the way we primarily relate to ourselves. Sometimes the pain of our past is mirrored in the present moment by the behaviour of someone we love. In this instance we need a safe holding space to make sense of our pain.

How therapy helps

Compassion is a basic motivation to tune our attention to the things that are difficult or cause us suffering and to try to alleviate and prevent unnecessary suffering in the future.

Navigating our way through emotions requires compassion for our own suffering and courage to ask for help, from an empathic person who can help us feel cared for, regardless of how we are feeling and towards whom.

The main reason that many people seek professional help during challenging times, is that the people who are closest to them, family members or friends are either not available, or they cannot be impartial, unconditionally on the side of the person who is hurting, like a counsellor can be.

The therapeutic relationship is a safe space to explore non-judgementally your feelings and your tendencies, so you can become more emotionally intelligent and aware of your own triggers. By successfully navigating through your feelings in the therapeutic relationship you learn important transferable skills to apply in other areas of your life.

In counselling together, you can expect to reflect on yourself in a supportive environment and to feel listened to. The opportunity is that you can start to know yourself more fully, and resolve what action is best suited to create or maintain harmony in your relationships, whilst also considering your individual needs.


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