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Applying the Zone of Proximal Development to our Relationships

Particularly in longstanding relationships, we can start to feel like our interactions are on an endless repeat cycle—especially during tense or conflictual moments. Although changing deeply ingrained, seemingly automatic habits is not easy, the good news is that it is quite possible.Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson offers us the great reassurance that two-thirds of our personality strengths are learned over time. Recent neurological research shows that we grow neurons and establish new connections between neurons across the life span. It is largely what we choose to do with our experiences and innate abilities, what we rest our mind on, that determines who we are—and how we act.

Changing our responses and behaviors requires patience, realistic expectations, and acceptance that we will not always exhibit our best selves. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky postulated that there are three developmental zones: the Comfort Zone, the Learning Zone, and the Risk Zone. For each person, what constitutes comfort, learning, and risk differs—and varies across our development. When we are in our comfort zone, we have little opportunity for learning as we are not challenged. If we stay within our comfort zone, that zone shrinks as the world outside changes, and we feel more anxiety when faced with a challenge. At the opposite end, when we are in the risk zone, we are in survival mode: it can be dangerous—it definitely is scary (see blog, Scary versus Dangerous). Being in the risk zone leads to feeling overwhelmed. We may need to retreat back to the comfort zone before we can be ready to learn again. The learning zone is where our development can be optimized.

Within the learning zone is the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). In the ZPD, we have appropriate supports for the challenges we are facing—we experience the security of the comfort zone with the growth opportunities of the learning zone. When we are operating in the ZPD, we are challenged but not overwhelmed. This was made explicit to me when I studied, as a doctoral student, literacy development. Comprehension of what we are reading is optimized when 90% or more of the words are automatically decoded (‘sight words’). When we have to decode (‘sound out’) more than 10 out of every 100 words, fluency is compromised and we lose the ability to understand what we are reading—reading becomes an act of decoding rather than comprehending. To support children’s reading abilities (and enjoyment of reading), we need to provide them with materials that are within their ZPD—where 90% of the words are automatic for them—about topics that interest them.

Learning this and getting put it into practice at the university’s reading lab gave me immediate insight into my learning in adventure sports. I often kayak, mountain bike, and ski with friends who are more accomplished at these activities than me. Trying to keep up with them, I would push myself outside of my ZPD, into the risk zone. Instead of expanding my ‘fluency’ with the sports, I was desperately trying to decode each obstacle with no comprehension—or enjoyment—of what was occurring. I realized that I didn’t want to do that anymore: I wanted to engage in these activities at a level that was exciting and challenging, but not excessively beyond my current abilities.

Similarly, as we seek to enhance our agency in relationships, we will learn the most if we practice within our ZPD. Research has made it abundantly clear that behavior change is most successful when we meet two conditions: (1) we work to increase a desirable behavior (rather than focusing exclusively on trying to eliminate an undesirable behavior) and (2) we start small (rather than trying to change too much too rapidly). Applying this to relationships, our loving will be best supported by focusing on how we aspire to behave, rather than rehashing our past errors. And, we will be most successful if we scaffold our practice opportunities, starting when it feels relatively easy.

A Buddhist concept is that all mistakes are opportunities for learning, and we can give thanks for the awareness of an area for growth that they have illuminated. For me, this is really difficult—and valuable—council. First, I have to find the grace to believe that I am infinitely worthy, so that I can acknowledge that I really messed up and have a long way to go on my journey to who I wish to be. Second, almost always my interpersonal learning comes at a price to someone else. This just feels awful! It’s bad enough that I am a greatly flawed work-in-progress. But, that my insights and growth have to cause possible harm and pain to others!?! That’s a difficult one to swallow.

I have come to a couple of means of reconciliation with this inevitable tragedy. For most people, I am a lot less important to them than I probably want to acknowledge, and people are incredibly resilient. This doesn’t absolve my responsibility, but it is helpful to place the damage I have inflicted into context. For example, I feel remorse for the times I was grouchy to a cashier or someone helping me—and have worked hard to eliminate that from my behaviors. I send out the wish that no one helping the public should receive displaced aggression. And, I now try to pay it forward. I try to be especially present and appreciative in such interactions.

In school psychology, group counseling is a quintessential example of the ZPD. Working with the school psychologist, students try new ways of relating to peers and handling conflicts. What is learned in this controlled environment develops skills that the students can then transfer to the playground and in the classroom. Similarly, as adults, professional guides may expedite our learning. We set goals for how we want to behave differently in relationships, and design interaction opportunities with in our ZPD. Recognizing that our enhanced aspirations are an accomplishment in themselves, we then find small moments to practice being who we wish to be—and celebrate the heck out of our baby steps!

Since I have adopted the strategy of staying in my learning zone and leaning on my ZPD supports, my athletic abilities have greatly increased. Similarly, I have come to a place where I am comfortable enough with my fears that I don’t act out my insecurities on strangers. Do they sometimes still erupt in my most intimate relationships? Unfortunately, yes. However, I am now (usually) immediately aware of the transgression and able to apologize for a grouchy comment.

What’s your ZPD in your relationships? What supports do you need to challenge yourself without going into your risk zone?

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