Relational Self-Awareness and Compassion with Dr. Alexandra Soloman – Episode #29

How do you define love while embracing the worth of each other? In this episode, Alida is joined by Dr. Alexandra Solomon to discuss acceptance and relational self-awareness to reach a balanced approach to intimate love.

Episode Show Notes

For many of us, working to care for others doesn’t stop when we head home from work at the end of the day. The other relationships in our lives, including the intimate one we share with our partner, also require care—of both ourselves and the other person.

In this episode, Alida Miranda-Wolff sits down with Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a therapist, author, and speaker who, over the past two decades, has worked with couples to help them better navigate intimacy and meet both each other’s needs and their own. Their discussion of acceptance and relational self-awareness, two key factors in healthy, thriving relationships, reflects the realistic, balanced approach to intimate love that Dr. Solomon teaches.

Explore how to build more meaningful intimate connections:

  • A definition of love that embraces the worth of each partner
  • The impact of our individualistic society on romantic love
  • How recontextualizing shame and disappointment can help us heal
  • Positive habits that instill relational self-awareness

Important Links from this Episode: 

Connect with Dr. Alexandra Solomon:

Connect With Alida:

Advocate for underrepresented and underserved groups in organizations with Ethos –


ALEXANDRA: If we can’t hold disappointment, if we turn disappointment into shame, we are so much more at risk of cutting and running then because shame is a hall of mirrors, right? Shame says nobody can look at me. I have to pull back. I have to shut down. I have to, as Brené Brown would say, armor up, we can’t be in shame and in connection. So if I don’t know how to hold onto disappointment and if I turn disappointment into shame, I am much more at risk of walking away from you an hour relationship because I can’t even bear you seeing me.


ALIDA: Welcome to Care Work, a podcast about what it means to offer care for a living. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. For most of my career, I’ve been a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner focused on teaching love, healing harm, and scaling belonging. In my books, Cultures Of Belonging, Building Inclusive Organizations That Last and The First Time Manager: DEI I explored what care inside of organizations needs. Join me as I continue this journey with guests who take meeting the needs of others on as their colleagues, both inside of organizations and in any other way. 

Love has the power to wound us and the power to heal us. This is the central insight from much of Dr. Alexandra Solomon’s work, including her latest book, Love Every Day. I had the pleasure of being able to speak with her last year, and I’ve been a long time fan. Dr Solomon has become, in the last several years, one of the most trusted voices in the world of relationships, and specifically, she developed a framework of relational self awareness that has changed the lives of so many. She, in addition to being an author, a clinical educator, and a clinician, is on the faculty in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern and is also a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at the Family Institute of Northwestern. She has a hit podcast of which I’m a longtime listener, Reimagining Love, and she’s written books like Taking Sexy Back and Loving Bravely. Listen to this episode to learn more about Dr Solomon’s approach to everything from self love, shame, and grief. 

Alexandra, I am so happy to have you here. To start us off one of the things about the Care Work podcast is we always talk about care work is trying to help people meet their needs. 


And so in that vein, I would love to hear how you came to help people meet their needs, specifically as a couples therapist.

ALEXANDRA: Well, thank you so much for having me on the show. It’s so interesting, you know, when I think of when I was first thinking about being in conversation with you about care work, the place that I went was thinking about myself as a mother, and I love that as a couples therapist, I am also a care worker. Like, of course, like, of course I know that and of course, I feel that. But it was interesting that my first association is a bit more in that kind of hands on care. But you’re right. Couples therapy really is about helping in partnership the ways in which partners want to and need to meet each other’s needs. And unlike the kind of clarity in the parent child relationship, you know, around whose needs are getting met, like, that arrow goes in one direction and one direction only, at least when, you know, the children are little and the grownups are big. In intimate partnership, the arrow goes in both directions. And that creates so much complexity, you know, like the question of, am I caring for myself in this way, or am I asking for you to care for me in this way? And what comes up in me when you ask me for care in this way? And what comes up in me when I need to ask you for care in this way? So I think there’s something really rich about bringing this idea of care work to the work of intimate partnership.

ALIDA: When you talk about intimate partnership, you are very much known for talking about relational self awareness. And I think that could be a really interesting entry point for us today. So tell me, what is relational self awareness?

ALEXANDRA: Relational self awareness is the sort of central through line in all of the work I do. And it is the idea that the core foundation of a happy, healthy, thriving relationship is the willingness to again and again and again, look inside of ourselves, hold up a mirror, and ask, what is this moment with this other person activating and stirring up inside of me? And most of my work is about intimate partnerships, but we can bring relational self awareness, and we need to bring relational self awareness into our role as a parent, into our, you know, friendships. But if we’re talking about intimate partnerships, specifically, when I am experiencing a moment of frustration, for example, with my husband of nearly 25 years, it’s so easy and so convincing that my frustration is about this thing that he did. It feels like objective truth. It feels like capital “T” truth. And if I can be brave enough to also get curious about what does his behavior stir up and activate inside of me, either about perhaps an unmet need of my own, or about a story I’m telling myself, or about something from my past, it opens the two of us up to have a much more fruitful, connecting conversation about what each of us is feeling and what we might do about that, than if I got stuck in that finger pointy you did this thing, it made me feel unseen, disrespected. Da da da da. So relational self awareness, is that the ongoing practice of turning inward, looking inward, self reflection in the service of intimacy, closeness, safety, connection, these things that we want, crave, and need in our intimate relationships.

ALIDA: I wonder if I can ask you a very broad question, which is, everything that you talk about in a variety of different ways is related to love, and I want to know, from your perspective, what is love?

ALEXANDRA: Okay, well, I know what love is, because Bell Hooks, in All About Love, she shared her definition of love, which comes from M. Scott Peck, and M. Scott Peck was first wave, 1970s self help guru kind of a guy. But she uses his definition of love, which is to commit in an ongoing way to another person’s spiritual evolution. And I don’t know that Bell Hooks was quite as invested in the spiritual element of that as it is a kind of, kind of orientation to somebody else’s growth. We imagine that we fall in love with somebody at time one, and they’re going to sort of be that person to and for us, you know, at time two and time, they’re going to stay the same. You know, the way we feel about them, the way they view us at the beginning, is going to be how it stays. And one of the hardest and most important things in an ongoing relationship is to just know that you forever have a front seat to that person’s evolution, and you have to. And you get to continue to stay curious about how they are evolving, even when it scares you, even when you notice judgments coming up in you. And so that quality of love as an active engagement with another person’s evolution and noticing your reactions to how it feels as they evolve and change, sometimes the change is a loss, right? Like, I think about, you know, as we age with a partner that can be, there are certainly elements of growth in aging, but there are elements of loss in aging. So as you watch your partner lose something or lose something in a disability or lose a job or lose someone they love, staying present to the evolution that comes also from not just celebration and success, but the evolution that comes from loss. So that’s, I think, what love is. What do you think? How does that land for you?

ALIDA: It definitely lands for me. I think the idea of evolution, very much a fan of Bell Hooks, and really just this idea of, love is active. I certainly have talked about in our practice of, uh, love really coming from a heartfelt desire to help and that being completely grounded in a sense of connection and that way that you help and what it means to feel that in your heart may change and evolve over time, but ultimately, for the individual, there has to be something related to the investment in the relationship. So I very much see a connection there.

ALEXANDRA: Wait, but can I. Can we go back for just a moment? Because you said something I want to really, I want to ask you about. Is that okay?

ALIDA: Sure.

ALEXANDRA: Can we just change roles for a moment? Okay, wait. You were saying that love is about caring from a heartfelt place. Okay, yes, I get that. I’m right there with that. I’m also aware that sometimes there’s an element of help that is about the way that it serves us. You know, like, what it does for us to feel helpful. And I think that can feel, there can be a part of it that is dangerous when it becomes egoic. Right? Like, I’m helping you, and therefore I need your gratitude. I’m helping you, therefore I need you to be the way that I need you to be. What are your thoughts on how do we, because I think that you use that word heartfelt really intentionally, right? So how do we know when we’re slipping from I’m providing care from a heartfelt place into I’m providing care from a place where I’m doing it so that I feel good, okay, stable, seen, boosted, elevated, powerful. 

ALIDA: Absolutely. And this is something that I’ve gone back and forth with, because my definition of help has changed over time. As somebody who has been through couples therapy and knows that in many ways, my role was to over function because of a value system, trained in service, and because of the way things were modeled for me in my life, but also the way that I’ve taken on my gender identity and socialized gender roles, I’ve had to really come to terms with the idea of help. And I think what could be useful here is the way that I’ve come to define help now is very similar to how one of my early guests on this podcast, Micky ScottBey Jones, talks about it, which is being with you, being beside you is helping you. Bearing witness, being a presence, being in that space, and to be in accompaniment is help. So I would like to sort of pull apart the idea of help, or a helper from sort of the capitalist system that we exist in that’s based in transaction, that something has to be exchanged, and really go back to the idea of help as being an embodied presence and being companion or accompanying someone else. And sometimes that will have an act of service tied to it. But a lot of times. It just means being there and committing to showing up the way that you can with what you have available to you and trying to really listen deeply enough that maybe you can be changed by what you hear. But at the very least, you can offer that witness for someone else.

ALEXANDRA: I’m struck by how much time I spend in couples therapy, widening the lens, contextualizing a couple’s conflict or stuckness in those larger gendered, racial capitalist systems. You know, there’s not a, definitely not a week that goes by even maybe not even a day that goes by where that’s not part of a session is inviting the couple to look more broadly at those structures because, I mean, for a number of reasons. Like one, it is validating. I think it’s really important to take a thing that feels like a uni thing and remind a couple that this is a collective thing that they are embodying. Yes, this is playing out in your kitchen, but this is playing out in Congress, you know, in corporate America, in the intergenerational legacy is that led to the two of you having this in this kitchen right now, you know? So I think there’s something, like, really important about contextualizing it so that they feel validated, so that they feel like maybe like a little bit of liberation and a little bit of anger, not at each other, but at the systems that kind of converge in their kitchen. You know, and it relates to something.

ALIDA: That you’ve written about and that you’ve said that really has struck me, which is that in these relationships and in many different types of relationships that you may hold, embracing acceptance is critical to a healthy relationship. And acceptance isn’t settling or settling for less. But understanding that each human is who they are and may have their own limitations, just as they may have their own strengths, and being able to show up and accept the situation, the context where they are without judgment, may be really healing for you, not to mention also for that relationship. And so I’d love to talk a little bit more about the role of acceptance in love and relationships.

ALEXANDRA: Alida this is, like, such a pressing one for me right now. Yeah, I just this week did a post about acceptance, and it got a lot of traction. You know, like, I know when I touch something that feels pressing, confronting, challenging by the way, the comment, you know, section of Instagram looks, which is such a wild thing about, you know, I began this work long before I could post, you know, to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. And it’s just so interesting to be able to have, like, put something out there and feel into how it lands for people. I mean, we here in the US, western, white, cis heteropatriarchy has always been highly, highly, highly individualistic. What have you done for me? What can I get from you? How do I get ahead? You know, a very, sort of, like, the smallest unit of measure is me. Where in other parts of the world, the smallest unit of measure is we. So, you know, this culture has always been that way. And social media amplifies it, not just because social media sends to us, you know, based on the algorithm, content that is uniquely ours, right? So it feels like our Instagram feed is uniquely ours, like, uniquely mine, but also because a lot, at least in my realm, the sort of realm of, like, relationships and self help, which is a really kind of muddy, murky world right now, there’s a lot, lot of focus on getting your needs met. That is highly individualistic. I think it’s a lot of content creators are losing a relational ethic around this and losing a context around it. And I feel like I end up putting stuff out there that kind of subverts the idea that a relationship is about the degree to which your needs can get met. You know? I think it’s problematic. I think it’s dicey as fuck. You know, I think there’s like, I don’t want anybody ever, ever, ever to accept abuse, neglect, deceit, you know, untreated addiction and mental health challenges where you are at risk of pouring care into somebody where there’s not any ability to have, not just not reciprocity in a transactional way, but ease and safety and connection, the kind of connection that comes from mutual care. And at the same time, none of us is perfect. And when you choose a partner, you choose a set of limitations. And I think right now, a lot of people’s Instagram feeds are full of messages saying that you don’t have to accept limitations, you don’t have to, quote, settle for less. And so I was inviting in that post, people, to really reckon with the idea that it’s not about settling for less. It’s about accepting that every partner you choose is going to be imperfect. Every partner you choose is going to have growing edges. And the best relationships are the ones where you get to keep talking about it together. And maybe the answer is that your partner does kind of step it up in that realm, but maybe the answer is that you accept that this is how your partner is, and then you source this need from a friend or a family member or yourself, and you liberate your partner from your own expectations. I want to give people the capacity to sit in the complicated questions rather than so many of the “if thens” that pop up on Instagram. Um, you know, if they’re not doing this for you, you gotta go. If you. If your needs aren’t getting met, you gotta go. I think that sells all of us short.

ALIDA: There is a lot of social media language out there that says, you don’t have to take it, leave, quit, move on from this relationship. And I think that makes relationships more transactional and more short term, which I don’t see as being entirely removed from the public health crisis of loneliness that we are talking about so much on a national scale in this country right now.

ALEXANDRA: So every spring, I teach an undergrad class at Northwestern called building loving and lasting relationships marriage 101. And I have office hours, and my students come to office hours not to talk about the syllabus, but to talk about their relationships. And that was a huge theme this year, was student after student saying, I know that I have, like, zero capacity to persist after the first time. I feel disappointed by a new friend, by a new partner. I cut and run, and I know that’s not serving me, but I don’t know what to do differently. And I just was, like, so moved by that. I’m so troubled by it because I think it’s really interesting, also how you’re tying that to the epidemic of loneliness. But I love that the students really could name the problem. You know, they were like, I know this isn’t how I want to be handling my relationships, but I don’t know what to do differently. And it makes sense, right? There’s so many messages that if this doesn’t work for you, move on. There are infinite. You know, I think dating apps give a sense that there are infinite options. You don’t have to settle for anything less than perfect because your phone is going to show you 25 new people tonight. But the problem is, all 25 of them are going to disappoint you in some way, at some point in time. So having the skills to sit in the messiness and knowing that sitting in the messiness, you may still end up saying, the juice isn’t worth a squeeze. But by staying in there for longer, you learn more about yourself. You practice really important skills of, like, putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, of choosing language that invites someone to stay engaged with you rather than escalate or withdraw or shut down. You see the ways that you have far more power in a situation than you think you do. I think especially those who have one or more marginalized identities, those who grew up in family systems where they felt invisible, are so much at risk of missing their own power, the power of their words, the power of their silence, the power of their facial expressions. And so I think that, like, by hanging in there in an interpersonal conflict, you get all these opportunities to see actually how powerful you are, you know, and then figure out what you’re going to do about that 

ALIDA: And going to this idea of disappointment and what you have experienced in talking with your students at Northwestern. And I’m sorry I told you, I follow you on Instagram. So this is coming up from another one of your Instagram posts, but you were writing about the fact that so much of our challenge in relationships and being in meaningful relationships is not being able to metabolize disappointment and mistaking disappointment for shame. And I would love to talk a little bit more about that. When we think about love in our everyday relationships, what the role of disappointment versus shame is.

ALEXANDRA: If we can’t hold disappointment, if we turn disappointment into shame, we are so much more at risk of cutting and running then. Because shame is a hall of mirrors. Right? Shame says, nobody can look at me. I have to pull back. I have to shut down. I have to, as Brené Brown would say, armor up. We can’t be in shame and in connection. So if I don’t know how to hold on to disappointment and if I turn disappointment into shame, I am much more at risk of walking away from you and our relationship, because I can’t even bear you seeing me, because the belief is that this has happened because something is deeply wrong with me. And that’s a skill to hold disappointment and not turn it into shame. And I think the first step towards being able to do that is just noticing when it happens. I think we slip so seamlessly from one into the other. So, I think just what I would want a listener to do is hold onto this idea. Okay, disappointment has a sneaky way of becoming shame. So, if I know that, let me kind of carry that frame into the next experience of disappointment and just see what I do with it and if it starts to become shame, can I thread my way back to disappointment? I’m disappointed that I fell into the same behavioral pattern that I’m trying so hard to break. I’m disappointed that I have to keep reckoning with the idea that relationships are imperfect. I have. You know, I think there’s a way that, like I always say, like, Disney did us dirty. I think that especially those of us who are socialized as women. We grow up on this diet that, like, once you found the right person, you won’t be disappointed. So sometimes it is learning to have a different relationship with disappointment and looking for, like, holding onto a thicker story of, it’s disappointing that this thing happened, versus it’s disappointing, because I’m disappointed that means I did something wrong, or disappointing things happen to me because I am not, whatever, beautiful enough, desirable enough, worthy enough, smart enough, rich enough, white enough, able bodied enough, da da da.

ALIDA: It strikes me as really being able to exist in these healthy relationships and experience. Love is a practice. It’s something that you have to do. You can’t just expect it to happen, that there is active participation for you. And this is one of the reasons I was also excited to talk to you, because I know that you have a book called Love Every Day, and it’s really focused on those relational self awareness practices that, ah, help your relationship. And I think that it might be worthwhile to talk about love as a daily practice. And so why does it need to be a daily practice, and what does that look like for people?

ALEXANDRA: I think, first and foremost, when we start to view love as an everyday practice, it’s an invitation to self compassion, because otherwise, I think what happens is when somebody becomes acquainted with my work, for example, it can be like, oh, where was this? You know, that’s like, the thing I’ve heard most over the years. Like, where was this when I was 20? Or, where was this before my divorce? Or, where was this before? Whatever. And so I think when you start to kind of learn about relational self awareness, you can just, like, head out of the gate, you know, going a million miles an hour, and you want to read everything and do everything and just get it done, and be like, if I immerse myself in Alexandra’s work for X number of months, then I’ll be done. Then I’ll be good to go. And I can date successfully, marry successfully, and happily ever after. And I really want to disabuse people of that notion, A, because you’re going to exhaust yourself, and B, because it has to be a daily practice, because we are all moving targets. We’re all forever evolving. So, whatever you get figured out about yourself, your past, your cultural socialization, your patterns, whatever you figure out at age, you know, whatever, 35, you’re gonna have to figure it out again at age 40, when you have your first baby, when you move across the country, when you lose a parent, like, because life is gonna keep changing. So even if you have more understanding of the inner workings of your soul. As your context changes, as you develop, as the people around you develop, you’ll get invited back in to those very same lessons. So, to me, healing looks like a spiral staircase. You know, like, you revisit old themes with new eyes. And so a book like, Love Every Day, which is 365 practices, it’s like, June 1, here’s your little kind of invitation to look inward. Here’s some questions. Okay, June 2. Here’s a little invitation. It’s like, sort of every day for a whole year, you get to just have this little touching in. And what that, what the book itself does is model that you just have to do a little bit every day. You get to do a little bit every day. It’s not a one and done. It’s not a sprint. And then you never have to do it again. You just start to integrate this contemplation and reflection, trying out a different kind of a conversation with your partner than you’ve had before, and you get to keep doing it forever. And that in doing it, each day, you reap the benefit of a little bit more levity, a little bit more ease, a little bit more joy.

ALIDA: And just building off on that, because I heard you loud and clear when you said that part of being able to engage in relational self awareness, engage in these practices, but also without exhausting yourself and missing some of the changes you’re going through, is self-compassion. So what is it about self-compassion that contributes to healthy relationships?

ALEXANDRA: It’s very hard. I mean, I know when I feel really pissy with my husband, I feel like everything he says is like, nails on a chalkboard. The first thing I need to do is ask myself, how have I been talking to myself today? How have I structured my day? Have I gone outside? Have I put my phone down? Have I made eye contact with somebody I love? Have I listened to music? Like, you know, and very often, my irritability with him shows me that I have actually not practiced much, if any, self-compassion. So that is a big part of it. It is really hard to offer patience, generosity of spirit to others when we’re struggling to offer it to ourselves. So, I think that’s one way of doing it, is noticing the irritability and then being like, okay, wait, if I’m annoyed with him, what might that say about how I’m tending to myself?

ALIDA: That’s such a beautiful reminder that tuning into yourself, understanding your own boundaries, your own needs, that you can meet your needs. Kind of going back to the conversation from earlier, of being told and messaged that somebody has to meet all of our needs, and that should be our expectation from a relationship. Self compassion is about feeling empowered enough to consider what your needs are and see if there are things that you can do to meet them instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you.

ALEXANDRA: That’s right. And then that’s not second best, you know, that’s not second best. I think when we are meeting our own needs, then when we approach our partner with an ask, it’s an invitation, not a demand. Our partner then gets to feel proud of the way they’re caring for us rather than begrudging. And when, you know, if my partner provides begrudging care for me, I’m going to just. I’m going to twist it inside of me and I’m going to turn into a story about whatever, how he doesn’t really love me or I’m not really lovable. Da da da. So it’s a dynamic that takes place in this space within each of us and in the space between us. But yes, self-compassion means that then when I turn towards my partner with an ask, it really is an invitation. And that his care of me feels additive. And I can feel him giving it in a heartfelt way. And I can take it in in a heartfelt way.

ALIDA: Well, Alexandra, it’s been such a pleasure talking with you and learning from you and also experiencing you. I mean your voice is familiar to me, but your presence, you have such an open, warm hearted, kind energy, and it was wonderful to be with you in these moments. So, I’m looking forward to continuing to follow you. I know that you have your book Love Every Day. You also have your instagram @dralexandrasolomon, and of course, you have your incredible podcast, which I can recommend fully and highly, Reimagining Love. You have some of my favorite guests of any of the podcasts I listen to. Is there anything else people should do to stay in relationship to you besides following you on these channels?

ALEXANDRA: Mmm, those are really wonderful. Yeah, those are really wonderful sources of connection. My website is, and everything that you just mentioned is there, in addition to lots of articles and little, you know, quizzes and ways to sign up for the newsletter, which newsletter comes out once a week, and it’s a nice way of hearing kind of first about future offerings and what’s going on. And so, yeah, there’s no shortage of ways to connect and learn together.

ALIDA: Well, thank you so much.

ALEXANDRA: Thank you, Alida. You have held a beautiful, thoughtful space, and I love these conversations that move between the microdynamics inside of our homes to the big, big, big factors that shape how we show up for all of it. So thank you for the work that you do and it was really wonderful to have a chance to spend some time with you as well. 


ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with your community to help uplift and advocate for more caring cultures everywhere. This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and me, Alida Miranda-Wolff I’m also your host. Theme music vibing introspectively was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass. Audio editing and post production assistance was provided by Organized Sound Productions. If you want more of me, be sure to order my books. Cultures Of Belonging and The First Time Manager DEI.


Read Less Read More