Relational-Cultural Therapy

– 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.
ATTACHED FILE(S)
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: dcomstock@stmarytx.edu).
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-
logical growth. 
 4.  Mutual empathy and mutual empowerment are at the 
core of growth-fostering relationships. 
 5.  Authenticity  is  necessary  for  real  engagement  in 
growth-fostering relationships. 
 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
and Development
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). 
Journal of Counseling & Development  ■  Summer 2008  ■  Volume 86 281
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
of Empathy
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 
disconnection; 
 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 
the counselor. 
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 
Journal of Counseling & Development  ■  Summer 2008  ■  Volume 86282
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
and Disconnections
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, 
energy)
 2.  Each person feels more able to act and does act in the 
world
 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 
(p. 2) 
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. 
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
Disconnections
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 
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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. 
Conclusion
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 
images?
 4.  How have these images affected your capacity to cre-
ate and maintain mutually empathic, growth-fostering 
relationships with others who are culturally different 
from yourself?
 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 
managing shame?
 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 
from history” (Birrell & Freyd, 2006, p. 60). 
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