– Explore your reactions to the readings and to what you have learned about Relational-Cultural Therapy (RCT). Discuss in what ways the readings have changed your ideas about the therapeutic relationship. Explain how RCT can be applied to your own life.
* (This is a relational-type therapy and the goal is to have growth fostering relationships. It’s about the connections that we make. It embraces social justice and aligns with the feminist movement.)*
– Write one independent paragraph, explaining how Relational-Cultural Therapy (RCT) can be used by a psychiatric nurse practitioner to help patients.
Responses will be checked by Turnitin for originality. It should be a minimum of 350 words, scholarly written, APA formatted, and referenced. A minimum of 2 references are required (other than your text). *Information about the therapy is attached.
Journal of Counseling & Development ■ Summer 2008 ■ Volume 86 279
© 2008 by the American Counseling Association. All rights reserved.
Relational-cultural theory (RCT) was conceived after the
publication of Jean Baker Miller’s (1976) Toward a New
Psychology of Women, a groundbreaking book that has been
translated into more than 20 languages. The ideas in Miller’s
book emerged from her clinical practice with women in which
she noted that the centrality of relationships in her clients’ lives
was inconsistent with the traditional theories of counseling and
human development she had been taught in medical school.
According to Miller and other feminist theorists of the time,
these traditional theoretical models emphasize individuation,
separation, and autonomy as markers of emotional maturity
and psychological health.
Miller (1976), like other multicultural and feminist theo-
rists, suggested that a lack of understanding of the contextual
and relational experiences of women, people of color, and
marginalized men led many mental health professionals to
pathologize these individuals by misunderstanding and devalu-
ing how these important factors contribute to the psychologi-
cal well-being of all people (Robb, 2006). Consequently, RCT
complements the multicultural/social justice movement by
(a) identifying how contextual and sociocultural challenges
impede individuals’ ability to create, sustain, and participate
in growth-fostering relationships in therapy and life and (b)
illuminating the complexities of human development by offer-
ing an expansive examination of the development of relational
competencies over the life span. Challenges to developing
such relational competencies in today’s socially stratified and
oppressive culture are highlighted throughout this article.
Over the past 3.5 decades, Miller (1976) and other multi-
cultural, feminist, and social justice advocates and theorists
(Daniels, 2007; Ivey, D’Andrea, Ivey, & Simek-Morgan, 2007)
have noted how traditional theories of counseling and develop-
ment are built on the ideology of Western individualism that
includes “hyper-competitiveness and deterministic control”
(Walker, 2003, p. 1). Such an ideology is based, in part, on
the myths of “mastery,” “self-sufficiency,” and the idea “that
people assume their places in the existing societal hierarchy
by virtue of merit” (Jordan, 1999, p. 3).
RCT further complements the multicultural/social justice
movement by serving as an alternative theoretical framework
from which mental health professionals can explore how
issues related to sex role socialization, power, dominance,
marginalization, and subordination affect the mental health
and relational development of all people. The goal of this
article is to demonstrate how RCT complements the process
of multicultural/social justice counseling competency devel-
opment by providing an additional theoretical framework that
supports the fourth force in counseling and psychology.
Core Tenets and Assumptions of RCT
RCT is a comprehensive theory of counseling and develop-
ment that emerged from the notion that traditional models
of human development and psychotherapy do not accurately
address the relational experiences of women and persons in
other devalued cultural groups. To fill this gap, RCT provides
an alternative and inclusive model of relational development
across the life span. The RCT approach to helping and heal-
ing is grounded in the idea that healing takes place in the
context of mutually empathic, growth-fostering relationships.
In an effort to create such relationships, the RCT approach to
counseling involves identifying and deconstructing obstacles
to mutuality that individuals encounter in diverse relational
contexts and networks (Comstock, 2005; Comstock, Daniels,
& D’Andrea, 2006).
Core RCT tenets that explicate the process of psychological
growth and relational development, as summarized by Jordan
(2000), include the following notions:
Dana L. Comstock, Tonya R. Hammer, Julie Strentzsch, Kristi Cannon, Jacqueline Parsons, and Gustavo Salazar II, Depart-
ment of Counseling and Human Services, St. Mary’s University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Dana L. Comstock, St. Mary’s University, Department of Counseling and Human Services, One Camino Santa Maria, San Antonio,
TX 78228-8527 (e-mail: [email protected]).
Relational-Cultural Theory: A Framework
for Bridging Relational, Multicultural,
and Social Justice Competencies
Dana L. Comstock, Tonya R. Hammer, Julie Strentzsch,
Kristi Cannon, Jacqueline Parsons, and Gustavo Salazar II
Relational-cultural theory (RCT) theorists advocate expanding the multicultural/social justice counseling competencies
beyond the domains of self-awareness, cultural knowledge, and culturally responsive helping skills. This article pro-
vides an overview of RCT and discusses how creating and participating in growth-fostering relationships are essential
dimensions of human development and psychological well-being. Implications of this theoretical model for counseling
practice are also addressed.
Journal of Counseling & Development ■ Summer 2008 ■ Volume 86280
Comstock et al.
1. People grow through and toward relationship through-
out the life span.
2. Movement toward mutuality rather than separation
characterizes mature functioning.
3. The ability to participate in increasingly complex and
diversified relational networks characterizes psycho-
4. Mutual empathy and mutual empowerment are at the
core of growth-fostering relationships.
5. Authenticity is necessary for real engagement in
6. When people contribute to the development of growth-
fostering relationships, they grow as a result of their
participation in such relationships.
7. The goal of development is the realization of increased
relational competence over the life span.
Consistent with feminist and multicultural/social justice
theorists, RCT scholar Walker (2002) made the point that move-
ment toward connection over the course of individuals’ lives is
made in relational contexts that have been “raced, engendered,
sexualized, and situated along dimensions of class, physical
ability, religion or whatever constructions carry ontological
significance in the culture” (p. 2). Walker also pointed out that
the way individuals respond to “disconnections in relationship
is in large measure a function of the multiple social identities
operating in that particular relationship and in the relational sur-
round at any given moment” (p. 2). In other words, the context
of relational development across the life span is inextricably
linked to individuals’ racial/cultural/social identities. As such,
examining culture-based relational disconnections is one way to
promote counselors’ relational, multicultural, and social justice
counseling competencies. These competencies are grounded in
an awareness and knowledge of the ways in which cultural op-
pression, marginalization, and various forms of social injustice
lead to feelings of isolation, shame, and humiliation among
persons from devalued groups.
RCT is based on the assumption that the experiences of
isolation, shame, humiliation, oppression, marginalization,
and microaggressions are relational violations and traumas that
are at the core of human suffering and threaten the survival of
humankind (Birrell & Freyd, 2006; Gilligan, 2001; Hartling,
Rosen, Walker, & Jordan, 2000; Miller & Stiver, 1997). Cultural
oppression, social exclusion, and other forms of social injustices
underlie the pain and trauma that individuals in marginalized
and devalued groups routinely experience in their lives (Birrell
& Freyd, 2006). It is important to point out that this theoretical
assumption has been supported by numerous empirically based
neurobiological studies that examine the antecedents and nega-
tive psychological and physical outcomes of such experiences
(Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003; Genero, Miller, &
Surrey, 1992; Hartling & Ly, 2000; Liang et al., 1998; Schore,
2003; Spencer, 2000; Taylor, 2002).
RCT supports the multicultural/social justice movement by
asserting that (a) “although oppression is often institutional-
ized at societal levels, it is necessarily enacted in the context
of interpersonal relationships” (Birrell & Freyd, 2006, p. 52),
and (b) “the fragmentation caused by the violation of human
bonds can only be healed by new and healing human bonds”
(p. 57). In essence, counseling relationships that are not guided
by relational, multicultural, or social justice ideology purport-
edly have the potential to further perpetuate the silencing and
oppression that marginalized individuals experience in the
larger culture (Day-Vines et al., 2007; Walker, 2003).
Many persons in the fields of counseling and psychology
have resisted mainstreaming RCT in professional training
programs and clinical practices. This resistance is similar to
that encountered by the multicultural/social justice counseling
advocates. Birrell and Freyd (2006) discussed the underpin-
nings of such resistance by stating,
It is unfashionable, in this age of managed care and risk man-
agement, to advocate for a treatment that not only takes time,
but also involves the possibility, on the part of the therapist,
of coming to new understandings of that forgotten realm of
what Buber (1975) calls the “interhuman.” A treatment that
does not address this level of experiencing risks objectifying
the already wounded and creating a superficial adjustment to
society which involves the risk of further abuse. (p. 54)
RCT’s further support of the multicultural/social justice
movement is reflected in the manner in which it encourages
counselors to think beyond symptom reduction and remedial
helping interventions (Birrell & Freyd, 2006). RCT theorists
emphasize that a more contextual approach to the helping
process aimed at ameliorating the adverse impact of various
forms of cultural oppression, marginalization, and social in-
justice has many positive implications for individual clients
and “the wider context of community and the social world”
(Birrell & Freyd, 2006, p. 50). These positive implications are
tied to the important role RCT counselors place on helping
clients examine new ways to develop and maintain growth-
producing connections in their lives.
RCT Complements Contemporary and
Traditional Approaches to Counseling
The notion of “connectedness,” an essential consideration in
RCT, is embedded in traditional and contemporary counsel-
ing scholarship (Coy & Kovacs-Long, 2005; Townsend &
McWhirter, 2005). Historically speaking, the importance of
connectedness in fostering psychological development and
emotional well-being is reflected in the writings of Alfred
Adler and other individual psychology theorists. These theo-
rists described the need for mental health professionals to
foster a sense of community and belonging to social groups in
their work with clients. Adler took particular time to illuminate
the importance of love and belonging as central to a person’s
mental health (Ivey et al., 2007).
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Relational-Cultural Theory: A Framework
Erik Erikson is another widely respected theorist who discussed
a related concept referred to as “homonomy” (Coy & Kovacs-Long,
2005, p. 139). According to Erikson, the term homonomy refers to
children’s ability to rearrange and expand their relational circles
based on their individual and developmental needs. This Eriksonian
construct represents another indicator of the ways that traditional
theorists acknowledged the importance of relational factors in
fostering people’s sense of psychological well-being.
RCT provides a theoretical basis from which mental health
professionals can reconsider the importance of the aforemen-
tioned relational concepts for the practice of counseling. Over
time, such concepts have consistently been muted by many
other counseling theorists who overemphasized therapeutic and
developmental goals that are culturally and gender biased. This
includes efforts to promote clients’ “autonomy,” “self-realization,”
“self-actualization,” and “personal mastery” in counseling (Coy
& Kovacs-Long, 2005; Ivey et al., 2007). Despite this trend, Coy
and Kovacs-Long advocated for the use of RCT concepts by
recognizing that mental health professionals should include the
ability to affiliate and connect with others in mutually empathic
and empowering ways as an indicator of emotional maturity
and psychological well-being.
Expanding the Rogerian Notion
Carl Rogers is another prominent counseling theorist whose
advocacy for relational concepts received sharp criticism by his
psychoanalytic peers. Similar to criticisms that were directed at
Adler and others, the criticism Rogers received was for focusing
on the client–therapist relationship as a primary source of heal-
ing in counseling. Such criticism targeted the emphasis Rogers
consistently placed on the counselor’s ability to communicate
a genuine sense of empathy with clients as a key component
in promoting positive counseling outcomes (Comstock et al.,
2006; Ivey et al., 2007). Although Rogers’s theoretical contri-
butions extended counselors’ thinking about the important role
empathy plays in the healing process, RCT expands Rogerian
theory even further by
1. extending the one-way concept of empathy espoused
in Rogers’s counseling theory to a two-way process
referred to as mutual empathy;
2. describing relational movement that occurs in all
relationships, including the counseling relationship,
which involves inevitable periods of connection and
3. resisting and eradicating sociopolitical factors that
operate as the source of relational disconnections
among many individuals in diverse and marginal-
ized racial/cultural groups who are discouraged from
naming their own reality and authentically expressing
many of their thoughts and feelings;
4. serving as a theoretical framework from which to pro-
mote the concept of mutual empathy as key to healing
and relational transformation in therapy, as well as in
other relational/professional contexts, including the work
counselors do as multicultural/social justice advocates,
consultants, and organizational development agents.
Unlike Rogers’s one-way notion of empathy (e.g., empathy
communicated by the counselor to the client), the RCT concept
of mutual empathy is cocreated in counseling relationships
and is viewed as an important source of healing and transfor-
mation in the counseling process (Jordan, 2001). This occurs
not only when the counselor effectively expresses her or his
connection with clients’ expressed thoughts and feelings, but
also when clients acknowledge being affected by the impact
they have had in generating this sort of empathic response in
In a mutually empathic encounter, everyone’s experience is
broadened and deepened because people are “empathically at-
tuned, emotionally responsive, authentically present, and open
to change” (Miller, Jordan, Kaplan, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991,
p. 11). It is important to point out that this sort of empathy
requires a degree of vulnerability on the part of counselors
that results from an ability to be authentically present with the
client during times of connections and disconnections.
Mutually empathic encounters provide opportunities for
counselors to become more culturally competent. This is
possible because counselors engaged in mutually empathic
exchanges with their clients can learn about their own and
their clients’ worldviews and beliefs in new and different
ways. This can be accomplished by exploring the relational
confluence of the similarities and differences between their
respective life experiences. Such self and cultural learnings
enable counselors and clients to more freely and respectfully
come to a mutual agreement about the intervention strategies
that are likely to promote the sort of counseling outcomes that
are consonant with culturally different clients’ worldviews,
beliefs, and values (Day-Vines et al., 2007; Ivey et al., 2007).
Developing mutual empathy in multicultural counseling situa-
tions also results in a deepened understanding of and compas-
sion for all people, which the Dalai Lama has suggested leads
individuals to be more “genuinely ethical” (as cited in Birrell
& Freyd, 2006, p. 59) in all the work that they do.
The type of relational responsiveness that is espoused by
RCT involves a thoughtful process of anticipatory empathy
(i.e., giving some forethought as to how the client will be
affected by the way the counselor chooses to respond) that
ideally guides the counseling relationship into a deeper mutual
connection. Rogers referred to this as the practice of accurate
empathy. In extending this Rogerian concept, RCT scholars
(e.g., Jordan, 1995; Walker, 1999, 2002) have pointed out that
even the best attempts to understand clients sometimes result
in empathic failures and relational disconnections.
Although Rogers is generally silent in discussing empathic
failures and relational disconnections in the counseling process,
RCT scholars understand that these relational dynamics are inevi-
table in all relationships. These empathic failures and relational
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Comstock et al.
disconnections are particularly painful for the more vulnerable
person in the relationship (e.g., clients) and particularly for those
clients who come from marginalized and devalued racial/cultural
groups in contemporary society (Comstock et al., 2006).
Relational Movement: Connections
The key concepts of RCT are perhaps best understood in the
context of relational movement, which is the process of mov-
ing through connections; through disconnections; and back
into new, transformative, and enhanced connections with
others. Being aware of how all relationships move through
these different phases is referred to as relational awareness.
Acquiring this relational awareness is the first step in devel-
oping more sophisticated relational capacities that enable
one to identify, deconstruct, and resist disconnections and
obstacles to mutual empathy in counseling relationships and
in the broader culture.
Connections and Disconnections
Miller (1986) identified specific experiential outcomes of being
in connection, which she referred to as the “five good things”
(p. 3). In a relational connection, Miller (1986) stated that
1. Each person feels a greater sense of zest (vitality,
2. Each person feels more able to act and does act in the
3. Each person has a more accurate picture of her/himself
and the other person(s)
4. Each person feels a greater sense of worth
5. Each person feels more connected to other persons
and exhibits a greater motivation to connect with other
people beyond those in one’s primary relationships
Collectively, these qualities are characteristic of mutually empathic,
growth-fostering relationships (Jordan & Dooley, 2000).
Jordan and Dooley (2000) described the experience of
disconnection as simply the opposite of the five good things.
Consequently, in disconnection, people experience a general
decreased sense of energy. One feels unable to act construc-
tively in many aspects of one’s life. Instead of a sense of clarity,
one experiences confusion regarding self and others. Finally,
a decreased sense of worth often prompts one to turn away
from relationships in general.
Depending on the nature, frequency, and the relational
context of the disconnections a person experiences with
significant others in her or his life, and within the larger
culture, these experiences can be accompanied by feelings of
shame, fear, frustration, humiliation, and self-blame. Jordan
(1997) stated that “shame is most importantly a felt sense
of unworthiness to be in connection, a deep sense of unlov-
ability, with the ongoing awareness of how very much one
wants to connect with others” (p. 147). Disconnections that
cannot be transformed have the potential to lead to feelings
of condemned isolation.
While experiencing a sense of condemned isolation, individu-
als are at high risk of manifesting emotional and psychological
difficulties. In addition to condemned isolation resulting from
relational disconnections, power differentials, gender role
socialization, racism, cultural oppression, health disparities,
heterosexism, and other social injustices foster a sense of con-
demned isolation among persons in marginalized and devalued
cultural groups. Miller and Stiver (1997) pointed out that these
chronic experiences of disconnections lead not only to con-
demned isolation but also to the ongoing disempowerment of
many persons in oppressed groups in contemporary society.
The sense of disconnection, condemned isolation, and disem-
powerment many marginalized people experience is exacerbated
when counselors fail to acknowledge the contextual factors and
social injustices that contribute to their stressors and problems
(Hartling et al., 2000; Miller et al., 1999; Walker, 1999, 2001).
As a psychological phenomenon, condemned isolation can re-
sult from chronic relational and/or cultural disconnections that
promote the feeling of being “locked out of the possibility of
human connection” (Miller & Stiver, 1997, p. 72).
In this isolation experience, individuals carry a deep sense
of shame and the belief that they are defective as human beings.
Feelings of condemned isolation are reinforced when indi-
viduals from marginalized and devalued groups, who routinely
encounter the myth of meritocracy, end up primarily blaming
themselves for personal failures that are often linked to factors
in the broader cultural context (Hartling et al., 2000; Jordan,
1999; Miller & Stiver, 1997). Hiding or denying large parts of
their life experiences, and relating inauthentically with others in
an effort to reconnect in nonmutual relationships, often becomes
a strategy for surviving the emotional distress associated with
feelings of condemned isolation (Miller & Stiver, 1997). This
phenomenon represents what RCT theorists referred to as the
central relational paradox (Miller & Stiver, 1997).
The Central Relational Paradox
As emphasized throughout this article, RCT theorists have
asserted that all individuals have yearnings for connection,
belonging, and social inclusion. Despite these yearnings, RCT
posits that people commonly demonstrate a paradox in the
way they address relational issues in their lives. This paradox
is enacted when, in the face of their yearning for connection,
which inevitably produces a heightened sense of vulnerability,
individuals use strategies that result in further disconnection
and isolation. Such strategies are commonly used to avoid
perceived or real risks of hurt, rejection, and other forms of
relational disconnection, social exclusion, and marginalization
(Miller & Stiver, 1997).
Although it is noted that all individuals yearn to connect
with other people in authentic, mutually empathic ways,
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Relational-Cultural Theory: A Framework
feelings of vulnerability, fear, shame, suspicion, and mistrust
make movement into connection difficult. Understanding
how these relational dynamics are reinforced by social injus-
tices and various forms of cultural oppression complements
the culturally competent counselor’s knowledge of such
issues. Counselors’ level of cultural competence is further
enhanced when they acquire the types of relational compe-
tencies that enable them to effectively deal with interpersonal
and contextual dynamics that underlie the relational para-
doxes that clients commonly experience in their lives. These
relational/cultural competencies are necessary to acquire
when counselors strive to help all clients (and especially
clients from marginalized and devalued groups) move past
shame-based and mistrustful interpersonal impasses and
disconnections and back into transformative connections
characterized by new empathic and contextual possibilities
(Hartling et al., 2000; Jordan, 1997).
Challenges to Transforming
The ability for people to realize new empathic possibilities
through transformative relational reconnections is hampered
by the escalating fearful times in which they live. The pres-
ent war on terrorism that has been declared by governmental
officials has created an atmosphere of heightened anxiety
and fear that is “counter-relational” because of a perceived
need by many persons to live in an increasing sense of “self-
protective isolation” (Jordan, 2005, p. 1). Furthermore, from
a multicultural/social justice perspective, it is also noted that
many persons in marginalized and devalued groups are sub-
jected to various forms of structural violence (as manifested
in the complex problems of racism, sexism, heterosexism,
classism, etc.) that perpetuate additional forms of fear and
psychological disconnections with others. It is critical that
counselors understand why and how individuals implement
self-protective strategies that enhance a sense of disconnection
in response to these societal conditions. It is equally important
that counselors become more knowledgeable of the ways that
such disconnecting strategies paradoxically represent the
source of so much pain in many people’s lives.
When people acknowledge their relational fears, anxieties,
and concerns about their disconnections, they need others to
empathically resonate with their expressed vulnerabilities. Al-
though such empathy is essential in helping clients learn new
and more effective ways to work through the central relational
paradox, it is particularly important that counselors promote the
sort of mutual empathy described earlier when working with
individuals who are chronically subjected to various forms of
social injustice and cultural oppression (Walker, 2003).
When using an RCT approach in multicultural situations,
one should be mindful that disconnections are an inevitable part
of all relationships, including the relationships counselors have
with culturally different clients (Jordan & Dooley, 2000). It is
also important for counselors to keep in mind that developing
new relational competencies involves working to stay in con-
nection with others who are different from them, even when
practitioners are drawn to exercise strategies for disconnection
in multicultural counseling situations.
The process of resisting disconnecting strategies, by
moving into a creative place that is designed to enlarge one’s
capacity to realize mutual empathy with others, is essential for
developing relational resilience and necessary in becoming a
culturally competent counselor (Jordan, 1992, 1995, 2000).
This is so because developing relational resilience and working
through disconnections with clients from diverse groups and
backgrounds enhance the awareness, knowledge, and skills
counselors need to acquire in becoming culturally competent
practitioners (Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992).
Using RCT strategies to deal with the disconnections
that commonly occur in multicultural counseling situations
can increase counselors’ propensity for culturally competent
professional practice in other specific ways. In this regard,
counselors commonly encounter subtle and overt forms of
mistrust from culturally different clients in multicultural
counseling situations. Such mistrust is routinely manifested
when there is not much relational history, when the relation-
ship is relatively new, or when significant cultural differences
exist between counselors and clients that may interfere with
the development of a more positive connection in the helping
endeavor (Comstock, Duffey, & St. George, 2002).
With respect to the aforementioned complexities, Day-
Vines et al. (2007) emphasized that these disconnections
can either be prevented or transformed if counselors feel
relationally prepared to “broach” (p. 402) the subject of dif-
ference with their clients. In order to appropriately broach the
subject in the most effective and respectful way, Day-Vines et
al. emphasized that it is essential that counselors first under-
stand their own and then their clients’ level of racial identity
development and second understand that it is the counselors’
responsibility to broach the subject. Consistent with RCT
theorists, multicultural/social justice advocates emphasize that
culturally competent counselors understand the complexities
of broaching issues of difference with their clients and feel
prepared to hear the honest responses from their clients.
Although most counselors will work hard to establish trust in
the relational process in multicultural counseling situations, many
culturally different clients will inevitably adhere to distorted expec-
tations of how others respond to them. According to RCT, these
expectations are often not irrational, unfounded, and unreasonable.
In many situations, such expectations are based on clients’ past
experiences with chronic and abusive disconnections with others,
various forms of cultural oppression and social injustices, internal-
ized oppression, or any combination of these factors.
RCT advocates offer a number of suggestions that are
helpful in overcoming some of the mistrust that is predictably
manifested in multicultural counseling settings. One sugges-
tion involves helping marginalized clients recognize where
mutual engagement is possible in multicultural counseling
situations, despite what individuals have been taught to expect
Journal of Counseling & Development ■ Summer 2008 ■ Volume 86284
Comstock et al.
by the larger culture. It is equally important for counselors who
are privileged and/or are members of the dominant group to
understand what they have been taught to expect from margin-
alized members of society. These relational expectations are
what Miller and Stiver (1995) referred to as relational images,
which is discussed in detail in the next section.
Last, in addressing disconnections related to the central rela-
tional paradox, we emphasize the importance for culturally compe-
tent counselors to understand that both the counselor and the client
are mutually challenged to collectively work through the results
of historical mistrust that have been engendered between persons
in different racial/cultural groups. In attempting to address these
important issues, we encourage counselors to do the following:
1. Acknowledge to culturally different clients that all
individuals experience a yearning to connect but that
feelings of fear, shame, suspicion, and mistrust some-
times make movement into connection difficult.
2. State how the disconnections that emerge from such
experiences are fueled by the broader societal/cultural
context in which all individuals are situated.
3. Explain how the counseling process can address clients’
intrapsychic concerns as well as the contextual chal-
lenges clients encounter that undermine their sense of
authenticity, mutuality, and connection with others.
Using these RCT strategies in multicultural counseling situa-
tions can be useful in addressing obstacles to building mutuality
between the counselor and client that may occur because of the
perpetuation of negative relational and controlling images that
counselors and clients hold about themselves and others.
Relational and Controlling Images:
Obstacles of Mutuality
According to Miller and Stiver (1995), relational images are
expressions of individuals’ expectations and fears of how
others will respond to them. In essence, these images are
reflected in individuals’ expectations of the outcomes of their
relationships with others when they make personal strides to
establish meaningful and respectful connections with others.
If a person is repeatedly denied empathic possibilities with
other people in the contextual settings where she or he is situ-
ated, the person’s expectations of relationships in general may
become negative and distrustful. For example, a child who
is chronically neglected by caregivers may come to expect
that she or he will not receive love, care, or attention in any
relationship in the future. Because these relational images
are “fixed and difficult to alter” (Miller & Stiver, 1995, p. 3),
realizing empathic possibilities in other relationships becomes
quite challenging; thus, altering these images becomes a
central challenge in the therapeutic process.
Consistent with multicultural/social justice theories, RCT
suggests that counselors need to understand that “chronic
exposure to disaffirming stimuli” (Walker, 2005, p. 52), such
as negative race-, gender-, and class-based stereotypes, stimu-
lates many people’s sense of self-doubt and ongoing feelings
of their unworthiness to be in a mutually empathic connection
with others. From an RCT perspective, internalized racism
(as one example) interferes with a person’s ability to “name
and interpret” her or his “experience in self-affirming ways”
(Walker, 2005, p. 52), particularly in relation to members of
the dominant culture. As a result of this and other forms of
social injustice, RCT suggests that marginalized individuals
are less likely to seek out relationships, such as counsel-
ing relationships, that have the potential to be a “growing
medium for healthy psychological development” (Walker,
2005, p. 52).
From an RCT perspective, relational and multicultural
counseling competencies include one’s ability to increasingly
relate to others more authentically and empathically. In do-
ing so, individuals are able to gain a clearer understanding
of themselves, others, and the relational challenges they face
within the unique cultural contexts in which they are situated.
The process of addressing various relational challenges occurs
throughout everyone’s life span. From a multicultural per-
spective, such challenges often take place in environmental-
cultural contexts that many marginalized persons experience
as being unjust, oppressive, and violent. These perceptions
are supported by RCT theorists and researchers who explain
how and why negative relational and controlling images that
are fostered in a nonrelational world that is dominated by
separate-self ideology need to be constructively addressed in
counseling (Hartling, 2003; Hartling & Sparks, 2002).
Many feminist scholars and multicultural/social justice
advocates, such as Peggy McIntosh (1988), bell hooks (1984),
Janie Ward (2000), Janet Helms (1992), and Patricia Hill Collins
(2000), have explored the previously stated and related issues in
greater detail. In her book Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,
Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Hill Collins
(2000) wrote about the types of controlling images that many
people develop about African American women and the ways
in which these images have an adverse impact on Black women
in society. According to Hill Collins, the types of controlling
images that many persons formulate about Black women are
used “to make racism, sexism, poverty and other forms of social
injustices appear to be natural, normal and inevitable parts of
everyday life” (p. 69). The dynamic of “normalizing” these and
other social injustices is an important factor that contributes
to much of the resistance that continues to be directed at the
multicultural/social justice counseling movement and the source
of helplessness that is experienced by potential allies.
Jordan (2002) used an RCT perspective to explain how members
of the dominant culture promote negative relational and controlling
images by normalizing the process of systematic oppression.
This perspective is partly reflected in the following observations:
People at the margin are defined as “objects:” They are seen as be-
ing at the margin because of some essential failure of character or
effort. The myth of meritocracy and the myth of the level playing
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Relational-Cultural Theory: A Framework
field support this distorted understanding of privilege. That is,
people who have not “made it” deserve the place they occupy.
. . . If you are from a marginalized group and are successful
in terms of the center’s definition, you are the exception to the
rule; if you are not successful, it proves you are the problem
and are inferior in some core way. In fact, people at the margin
are actively socialized to believe that they have failed. . . . The
group at the center makes the rules and names the situations
and conditions of privilege and disadvantage. The prevailing at-
titude toward those who do not enjoy the privilege and power in
a given system is one of denigration. In mental health parlance
we pathologize the experiences of people at the margin. This is
obvious in blatant sexism, racism, or heterosexism, where broad
strokes of negative stereotypes are aimed at individuals with
various characteristics who are deemed inferior by the naming
group. (Jordan, 2002, p. 2)
Walker (1999) posited that in this process of marginaliza-
tion, “the dominant culture distorts images of self, images
of other, and images of relational possibilities” (p. 3). For
members of the dominant culture, these controlling images
confirm and promote the experience of internalized domi-
nance, White supremacy, and presumed superiority (Walker,
2005). As a result, these images limit our individual and
collective relational possibilities and our perceptions of (a)
who, how, and what we as individuals can be in the world and
(b) how and with whom we can mutually relate to persons
different from ourselves. Learning to expand and resist the
constricting nature of such relational and controlling images
represent additional challenges that can foster an increased
level of multicultural/social justice counseling competence
when effectively addressed by counselors in the field.
RCT and Multicultural Counseling
Within a Culture of Fear and Violence
The fourth force in counseling and psychology is emerging within
a culture that is increasingly traumatized and overwhelmed with
fear and conflict stemming from homeland and international vio-
lence (Walker, 2002). As noted earlier, the fear and conflict that
are pervasive in the United States are also fueled by various forms
of structural violence that adversely affect the lives of millions of
persons from marginalized and devalued racial/cultural groups.
This includes, but is not limited to, the adverse impact people expe-
rience when subjected to structural violence that accompanies the
various forms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ageism,
and ableism that continue to be perpetuated in this nation.
Shaw (as cited in Jordan, 2005) suggested that the fourth
force in counseling and psychology is emerging from what
is perhaps the “most anxious, frightened society in history”
(p. 1). Commenting on the nature of contemporary society in
this regard, Jordan (2005) suggested that
today we are witnessing the way the dominant-ruling group
fuels people’s fears about weapons of mass destruction, about
Iraq, about our personal safety in the face of anthrax, about
the dangers of gay marriage and gay families. . . . Terrorism,
a horrible disruptive process whose real aim is the creation
of destabilizing, unremitting fear, can send us not just to our
places of vulnerability, but to a defensive preoccupation with
being invulnerable, or safe in armed isolation. (pp. 1–2)
RCT advocates that mental health professionals need to
explore how the exploitation of fear serves as a social divide,
operates as a chronic cultural disconnection, impedes the
formation of communities of resistance, and could potentially
affect the future course of the fourth force in counseling and
psychology. In light of these fear-based challenges, Hartling
and Sparks (2002) emphasized that above all else, multicultural/
social justice advocates should strive to create and work
within diverse “communities of allies” (p. 11), where they can
most effectively resist and eradicate nonrelational oppressive
practices in counseling and in the broader culture.
In a paper titled “Strengthening Resilience in a Risky World:
It’s All About Relationships,” Hartling (2003) made the point
that counselors working from an RCT perspective demonstrate
relational, multicultural, and social justice competencies by be-
ing attuned to disconnections on interpersonal and sociopolitical
levels. By being aware of the psychological impact of oppressive
cultural contexts, counselors can more effectively help clients
identify, establish, and expand their potential to realize growth-
fostering relationships that promote resilience. This can be ac-
complished by (a) being responsive to clients’ social identities
(i.e., race, sexual orientation, gender identity); (b) taking a
relational-contextual view of clients’ mental health; and (c) assist-
ing clients to source, name, navigate, and deconstruct obstacles to
mutuality that are often grounded in negative controlling images
and relationships. Finally, Hartling supported the efforts of many
multicultural/social justice advocates who have recommended
that counselors themselves need to incorporate intervention
strategies that help create communities of resistance in which
they can participate with their clients rather than working strictly
for their clients in individual counseling settings.
This article discussed the many ways that RCT complements
and expands traditional models of counseling and development.
It also illuminated what counselors can do to address the ways
in which the broader culture promotes individualism, cultural
stratification, fear, and ultimately relational disconnection.
Birrell and Freyd (2006) stressed that in order for mental health
professionals to continue to guide the future of the fourth force
in counseling and psychology, they need to increasingly
question a system that pathologizes suffering individuals
while refusing to look beyond, to the system that sees noth-
ing wrong with objectifying others in the name of help, that
rewards power dynamics that, if not properly recognized,
have the power to cause great harm (Walker, 2002), and that
Journal of Counseling & Development ■ Summer 2008 ■ Volume 86286
Comstock et al.
privileges individualism and rights over the bonds of human
communities. (p. 60)
Clearly, more work needs to be done to outline concrete
intervention strategies that counselors can use to promote the
sort of positive outcomes that RCT and multicultural/social
justice counseling advocates assert are vital in fostering the
health and well-being of individual clients and the broader
society in which they live. However, it is important to be
cognizant of the suggestions that many RCT and multicultural/
social justice advocates have already outlined to realize such
outcomes as well.
In this regard, Jordan (2002) indicated that the best way
to strategically confront and challenge crippling stereotypes,
various forms of internalized dominance and oppression,
negative relational and controlling images, and other disem-
powering forces in society is to unite with allies in building
diverse communities of resistance in different environmental
settings (e.g., in schools, universities, workplaces, commu-
nities). It is also important for RCT advocates to work more
closely with professional multicultural/social justice counsel-
ing organizations such as the Association for Multicultural
Counseling and Development (AMCD), Counselors for Social
Justice, and the National Institute for Multicultural Compe-
tence to achieve shared goals (Constantine, Hage, Kindaichi,
& Bryant, 2007; Sue et al., 1992).
In addition to developing and implementing intervention
strategies that are aimed at achieving the shared goals of RCT
and the multicultural/social justice movement, counseling
professionals and students-in-training are encouraged to ex-
plore the following questions. These questions were initially
presented by Comstock et al. (2002) and have been modified
to help counselors develop new relational and multicultural/
social justice counseling competencies.
1. What are your strategies for disconnection, and how
are they exercised in relationships with others who are
culturally different from yourself?
2. What do these strategies look like in your personal
and counseling relationships?
3. What are some of your relational and controlling im-
ages, and what experiences have helped to shape these
4. How have these images affected your capacity to cre-
ate and maintain mutually empathic, growth-fostering
relationships with others who are culturally different
5. What parts of your authentic experiences do you leave
out of relationships?
6. In terms of authentic relationships, how do you name
and deconstruct obstacles to mutuality in your personal
and counseling relationships?
7. What are some sociocultural influences that have af-
fected your capacity/ability to develop and maintain
mutuality in your relationships?
8. In response to sociocultural influences, what strate-
gies have you used for survival? For resistance? For
9. How does the sociocultural makeup of various rela-
tional contexts affect your sense of safety regarding
authentic relating and mutual engagement?
10. What relational strengths do you possess that
complement the multicultural counseling competen-
cies that were developed by AMCD and formally
endorsed by the American Counseling Association
(Sue et al., 1992)?
By authentically examining their responses to the aforemen-
tioned questions, and perhaps by sharing and exploring their
responses with other allies, counselors and mental health pro-
fessionals could all work more effectively as change agents and
multicultural/social justice advocates. We hope that the fourth
force will continue to transform the mental health professions by
continuing to examine “culture-bound notions of mind and person
as autonomous, self-contained, socially isolated, and disconnected
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