Relational Frame Theory

We all have our own beliefs about what it means to be masculine, feminine, a man, or a woman, just as many of us have nuanced beliefs about what it means to be androgynous, fluid, or completely agender. We may even have some ideas about how our gender came to be in the first place. Perhaps gender is intrinsic, neurological, or biogenic— that we were born this way! Or perhaps gender is a socially performative script, written and rewritten as we develop over time. All of these beliefs, and more, make up a pattern of relational frames called our gender schema, which can either serve us really well, or completely ruin our day.

ACT is built on a foundation of Relational Frame Theory (RLT) which states that everything we know is framed in relation to everything else. These conceptual relationships allow us to make inferences without ever having to be told. Just as front infers back and up infers down, our thoughts link together in a web of hierarchical, comparative, oppositional, and even causal associations (just to name a few). And they’re very useful, after all, as they all us to to understand ourselves in context of the world around us. Frames of distinction, for example, are incredibly important when differentiating between a bear, a bear and a bear, as only one of them is going to leave us a phone number.

Yet our relational frames aren’t always accurate! Our hierarchical frame, for example, deduces that if “ice cream is sweet” and “ice cream is a dessert” then “dessert is sweet,” yet a critical thinker quickly spots the problem, but you just try telling a four year old with categorical thinking that not everything sweet is a dessert.

And adults are just as susceptible to faulty associations. Try asking a crowd what the opposite of a lemon is, and someone always shouts back lime! The opposite of a cat? Dog. The opposite of a man? Woman. But lemons and limes, cats and dogs, men and women, aren’t opposites at all, but somewhere along the line we were given a paired association like salt and pepper, and it stuck.

The reason gender variance is such a difficult topic for some to grasp is because our identities disrupt the presumed relational frame established by the cultural majority. Gender norms presume that if “females are girls,” and “girls have long hair,” then anyone with long hair is female, and when these rules are broken, people can feel either surprised, enlightened, or disgruntled. Rigid minds often rejects notions that don’t match up with their preformed associations, thereby maintaining bias, prejudice, all-or-nothing terminology, absolute language, and emotionally based reasoning.   

Yet rigid relational frames don’t just explain cisnormative bias and prejudice thinking, they also gives us a framework to understand how we get trapped inside ourselves.

Stress arises when we develop inflexible parameters for our own gender identity that either limit us from meeting our needs, or put us in conflict or competition with others. Additional stress arises when gender constructs that are not our own, or that we do not agree with, are projected onto us. Should we internalize these projections, we often feel a sense of dissonance between who we are and who we’re supposed to be. Discerning between them means unpacking our gender schemas, one relational frame at a time.

To recognize how layered this gets, a person may hypothetically have a very open minded view of race, but a very rigid view of gender. Another person may have a very flexible understanding of gender, but still believe their sexuality has to fit on a binary. Another person may be very permissive and forgiving of others, but restrict themselves with self-imprisoning limitations. And they truth is, we’re not always aware of our relational frames.

Stress, trauma, and even personal growth can sometimes bring our otherwise unchecked or unnoticed inflexiblity into our awareness, in the same way that we’re not aware of our national bias until we leave our country, or fail to recognize racism in our homogeneous community, or don’t realize how self-deprecating we are until a friend points it out. Mental rigidity is sadly commonplace, leading us to maintain unhealthy patterns of behavior rather than feel the discomfort of personal growth. Through continued mindfulness, however, we can take a big step back from our thoughts, and recognize them as the fleeting, powerless cognitions they are. When ideas are treated as malleable, flexible, and expandable patterns, then we can grow in response to diverse new people, places, and contextual circumstances. Likewise, when we learn to hold our gender schema lightly, lovingly, and even playfully, then it becomes easier to affirm who we are, empower our self expression, and simply let go of what we’re not.

To learn more, pick up a copy of ACT for Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide.