How Mindfulness Just Might Change Your Relationship, and the World

In the mental health and wellness community, self-care as a concept has become almost cliché, and with it the common practices associated with it. Not just the obvious bubble baths, chocolate cake and mani/pedi’s, but also meditation and mindfulness, which are powerful, complex tools with benefits beyond basic stress reduction and relaxation for the individual. As self-care has become popularized, it seems to me that some of the more advanced relationship and community-focused applications of mindfulness in particular haven’t quite broken ground in the mainstream pop psychology dialogue. And there’s so much to be collectively gained.

First, some definitions: according to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness refers to a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Oftentimes, meditation and mindfulness are spoken of together as a pair (as I referred to them above), and it’s important to note that they are not synonyms. Meditation and disciplines like yoga and tai chi can help us  to cultivate mindfulness. But they are not a requirement. The ultimate goal of achieving a state of mindfulness is to have it woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, whether we are on our yoga mats or sitting in rush hour traffic.

Yes, studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce anxiety and even increase body satisfaction, but did you know that it has also been shown to increase one’s sense of morality?

Overriding Implicit Bias

As a therapist, I was first exposed to mindfulness as part of a graduate school course entitled Implications for Diversity in Practice at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadephia. At the beginning of class, we would spend 5-10 minutes in silence, eyes closed, observing our current body and mind state without judgement. Breathe in, breathe out. Awkwardly peek around the room to make sure you’re not the only one actually doing it.

The class covered systemic oppression and the everyday microaggressions and biases that continue to support it in healthcare settings and the larger community. At first, I didn’t quite understand where mindfulness fit into this particular course, and I even considered that it was just a way to cover more material in the curriculum. Perhaps it was an exercise that could have been added to any course. But as we engaged with topics of diversity, it became clear that mindfulness was essential to developing awareness into our implicit bias when encountering folks different from ourselves. It challenged us to dig deeper into our everyday interactions and automatic thoughts, from subtle changes in body language to our choice of language in different contexts. What mindfulness did was allow us to explore these delicate topics honestly, yet without judgement. We were able to create a safe space to identify problem areas and explore solutions together without shame (a feeling which can often paralyze one into inaction).

A 2014 study from Central Michigan University by Lueke and Gibson showed a decrease in implicit race and age bias after completing a mindfulness meditation exercise, suggesting that individuals may be able to “override” those problematic mental shortcuts that we all tend to make. Perhaps if more folks adopted a mindfulness approach to how they move through everyday situations where diversity is implicated, we might just build stronger community ties and begin to dismantle prejudice. They might be small ripples in a vast ocean of larger social issues, but they can still make a big difference in individual lives.

Improving Relationships

Mindfulness can be applied to all kinds of relationships, from the most casual of encounters at the grocery store to those we have with our most intimate partners. Many of us will agree that our relationships suffer the most when there is emotional distance, miscommunication and insensitivity.  Sometimes I refer to this as putting our relationship on “autopilot,” going through the motions of everyday life without being intentional about attending to our partner’s needs.

Mindfulness can help us become aware of what kind of nourishment our relationship is needing in any given moment. Take one example: you arrive home after a stressful day at work, keen on zoning out with your phone on the couch for half an hour. You say hello to your partner, and take a seat near them. But before you unlock your phone screen you look back up and notice that they are frowning and lost in thought. You have a couple of choices here, depending on your partner’s love language: you could ask them what’s on their mind, give them a hug, or perhaps offer to make them a cup of tea. There’s a myriad of options that could help your partner feel seen in that small moment. But imagine: what might that do to a relationship if you didn’t look back up from your phone, day after day? One can imagine how the emotional distance might grow. But if we learn to take that extra moment to be mindful of what’s going on with the person next to us, we just might maintain that sense of closeness for the long haul. Studies have shown that mindfulness can help predict relationship satisfaction.

There are everyday challenges, and then there are those tender spots deep inside that are formed from our early experiences.  Attachment injuries, losses and even moments of embarrassment that are written on our hearts. We all have them, and we bump into each other’s at home and in the community all the time. Consider those moments when someone reacts BIG to something that feels small to you. Without mindfulness, we might just write that person off as overly sensitive or “crazy.” It could be your partner, mother-in-law, a friend, or the person sitting next to you on the bus. But if we take a moment to consider their point-of-view, to observe what’s happening in front of us without judgement, we just might be able to respond with empathy, and hopefully even learn something in the process.

Are you interested in learning more about incorporating mindfulness in your life? Contact us at hello@ecstherapists.com to schedule a consultation.

~ Nicole Brown, LMFT

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