A Dad putting the puzzle pieces together

Joe was beginning to see how his best efforts to help his daughter and family to have happy times together were actually contributing to a lowering of Chloe’s resilience.

This is the next instalment in the story of one parent, Joe, as he worked to figure out how he could be a resource to his defiant 13 year old daughter Chloe. Previously Joe described in detail the interactions of all the family at a recent outing to a pizza restaurant (see blog May 10). Having clearly laid out the different family responses during this typical problem interaction with Chloe, his next effort was to think back over his interactions to consider if:

  • His responses were contributing to his daughter building her capacity to manage her strong emotions OR were they feeding an expectation to be rescued by others?
  • Is Chloe just reacting to others OR is she getting practice at managing her reactions?
  • Is she learning skills of independence OR are the interactions increasing her dependence and expectation that others will make her feel better?

In looking back at the Pizza restaurant blow-up, Joe noted how much he tried to get Chloe to be pleasant and co-operative by appealing to her with his positive voice. He was putting his energy into trying to manage her mood and it was backfiring. The more he tried to convince Chloe to be co-operative the more she would retort with her complaints. Joe noticed that this would pull his wife into being tough with Chloe which he would respond to with even more effort to calm Chloe down to avoid a bigger outburst. Chloe was not learning to manage her reactions at all. Joe was trying to do it for her. As other family members (Mum and brother) started to give Chloe a piece of their mind about her behaviour, Chloe was being given even more emotional opposition to react to. Joe acknowledged that he then moved into more drastic efforts to calm Chloe down by giving into her (allowing her to only order gelato) and offering her incentives ( a phone upgrade). Joe saw that this was contributing to his daughter expecting that others would make her happy rather than learning to tolerate not getting her own way. Chloe was becoming increasingly dependent on others to remove her frustrations. On the surface her defiance sounded like a kind of rebellious independence from her family but Joe was coming to see that this was actually a picture of a very dependent child who hadn’t learned to calm herself down when she didn’t get her own way.

Joe was beginning to see how his best efforts to help his daughter and family to have happy times together were actually contributing to a lowering of Chloe’s resilience.

If the child/young person is beginning to calm themselves down and be more thoughtful and reasonable during or after the interaction, they are growing in resilience. If the child is agitated and either leaving the parent to work things out for them, or leaving the parent equally agitated, they are NOT growing in resilience and independence.

The pattern of both parents rushing in to smooth things over for Chloe had been happening for many years. Over this time her defiance gradually increased. This was now being amplified by the hormone charges of early adolescence alongside the stressful transition to high school (junior high). Joe couldn’t find anything in his pizza restaurant interaction with Chloe that was promoting her growth in responsible independence.  He accepted that changes for Chloe would be slow but that the first step he could make was to stop calming and bribing Chloe. He had some more work to do to figure out what to do instead but his stepping back was the beginning of him becoming a more hopeful parent. Joe was starting to shift his focus from trying to change Chloe to a focus on what he could change. He felt hopeful that he could make a contribution to his daughter growing in responsible relating.

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What makes for healthy disagreements?

It’s not always about compromise

I was asked if the outcome of a constructive disagreement always involves compromise. It’s interesting that many people assume that resolution requires a degree of compromise or giving up something. When disagreements are managed maturely with good contact, avoidance of triangles and people expressing their own experience and perspective, there are a range of possible outcomes.

I asked a group of community group leaders: What they think makes for a healthy disagreement? I frequently ask this question of couples in counselling who are usually a bit taken aback that I think this is a more useful exploration than what makes for harmony.

Responses at my talk included: being willing to listen well and creating trust. People found it much easier to answer the question: What things get in the way of constructive disagreements? Responses included: our pride, believing that we are right, a desire to not give in, pushing our point of view, anger and attack and talking over the other.

I suggested 3 guiding principles from Bowen family systems theory that may be helpful in dealing with conflict well. Of course with generalities it is wise to appreciate that specific conflict situations need to be thoughtfully examined to determine ways to manage self within it. This caveat aside, see what you think of these guidelines:

1: Stay in good contact with the person with whom tension or disagreement has arisen. In the face of relationship tension, we humans are primed to use distance as a quick way of reducing discomfort. While avoiding conflict can feel like an attractive option, distance predictably increases negative projections. The less contact with the other the more we tend to exaggerate differences and imagine negative motives. When 2 people avoid each other after a tense interaction it is highly likely that they each begin to escalate a negative emotion circuit.

It isn’t easy to stay in good contact in the face of tension but tolerating this discomfort is a key way of being able to work things out in a thoughtful way. Even the act of demonstrating a warm greeting after a tense encounter can calm things between people and lay the groundwork for talking out differences.

2: Resist detouring tension to a third party. As well as distancing in the face of relationship discord it is predictable that people go to another person and vent about the person they have had tension with. This triangling process seems so natural and yet it can reduce the chance of being able to resolve the difficulty in the original relationship. When we find a person who validates our experience of the “difficult” other we immediately calm down and are less inclined to go back to the upset relationship to hear each side of the situation.

Triangles also provide a mechanism for spreading the original relationship tension as the person who has been vented to is now more cautious and tense around the person they have heard complaints about. I am always asked about the value of seeking counsel from a third party which on the surface sounds like a reasonable strategy in the face of conflict. The key question to ask is:

Am I seeking someone to take my side and expecting them to validate me?

or am I wanting someone to help me get my emotions in check and to think objectively about how I am managing the relationship upset?

Gaining more of a factual view about how we contributed to the misunderstanding is valuable bit conversations directed at describing, analysing and diagnosing/blaming the other person is actually adding fuel to the intensity of the discord.

3: Stay responsible for representing yourself not changing the view of the other. When our energies go towards changing or blaming the other we are contributing to a defensive response that amplifies their own stance; However when we can express our own thinking and experience of the situation we are more likely to be heard by the other who will be equally listened to by us. Our listening is in order to learn about the other’s experience from where they sit in the relationship system that we share (family, workplace, community group etc.).

At the end of this presentation, I was asked if the outcome of a constructive disagreement always involves compromise. It’s interesting that many people assume that resolution requires a degree of compromise or giving up something. When disagreements are managed maturely with good contact, avoidance of triangles and people expressing their own experience and perspective, the outcome will be one of 3 possibilities:

  • Each person will maintain their own position with an appreciation and acceptance of the others different stance. This is not just agreeing to disagree but an informed choice to operate from different positions. Respect is maintained.
  • One person will discover and acknowledge that they did not have adequate information to make a judgement and that they were wrong in their position and will back down from it. And conversely one person will choose to maintain their position having explained it to the other and remaining convicted of their view.
  • One or both people will thoughtfully choses to adjust part of their position in light of what they learn from the discussion with the other. Compromise is not a kind of pretend harmony but something worked at through respectful dialogue.

All of this is quite easy to write about but in practice it is hard. It requires overriding the rush of strong emotions that are automatically activated in the face of relationship disruption. We can choose to move towards that tension and manage our selves maturely or to avoid it and potentially contribute to more layers in to the relationship tension. It’s hard to accept that being grown up means choosing to do what doesn’t come naturally!

A version of this blog fist appeared on the FSI web page in 2014. 

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First Steps for a Worried Parent – A father learns to observe his interactions with his defiant 13yr old

It’s natural to want to fix and change a child/adolescent who is struggling to manage life. Hence it may be a surprise to hear that a first positive stage for a parent who is worried about their child/adolescent is to figure out the predicable steps in parent – child and family interactions. This requires close consideration of a recent interaction with the child/adolescent. The content of the interchange is less important to think about than the reactions of each person. The goal is to identify what the parent may be contributing to unhelpful repeated patterns in the back and forth interaction.

While it might initially seem somewhat tedious, examples of what are constructive questions to ask are:

Where did it take place? What started the interaction? What were the beginning behaviours (what was said and actioned)? What was the emotional tone? How stirred up were your emotions? How did other family members respond? What was the next response? (Behaviours and emotional tone)What happened next? How was that responded to? What happened next? How was that responded to? How did things finish up? What was the left over tone for each person?

Here is an example of a father working to observe the patterns he is a part of:

Joe reported a recent challenging interaction with 13 year old Chloe, his youngest daughter. The family were out for a pizza dinner to celebrate the birthday of eldest son Jake (16). Joe recalled that Chloe started complaining in a whining manner that she didn’t like any of the food choices and wanted to go home. He responded by reminding her that this was an important family dinner for Jake and she should make an effort to support him. He thought that his tone of voice was cheerful, appealing to Chloe to co-operate. Chloe responded irritably saying that they should have known that she hates Pizza. Her Mother Sue responded firmly saying she needs to stop being so selfish and not spoil her brother’s birthday. Jake joined his mother, saying “Chloe you always make everything about you! I get why your friends have had enough of you!” Chloe slams the table and respond to her brother with a cutting counterattack. Joe intervenes and says to Chloe that she doesn’t need to eat Pizza and can order whatever she wants. He uses his best peacemaking voice to suggest that if Chloe can calm down and help them all to have a pleasant family dinner he will upgrade her phone for her (this was something Chloe had been negotiating with him for a while). Chloe backs off and says that she just wants gelato for dinner. Joe orders it along with the family pizza and drink requests. Jake gives his dad a serious stare. Joe interprets it as a challenge to his generosity towards Chloe. Joe recalls that Sue is then mostly silent and sullen. She ignores Joe and focusses on talking to Jake about having his friends over for a birthday gathering. Joe feels very tense about the tenuous state of peace. About half an hour into the dinner, Chloe has finished her gelato and says she’s bored and had enough. Joe encourages her to stick it out for the birthday cake reminding her that the new phone is only going to happen if she does this. He rushes the birthday cake candle blowing and the family leave to go home early. Joe was left feeling highly stressed. He sensed his wife was frustrated and quietly disapproving of how he managed Chloe. Jake seemed withdrawn. Chloe seemed agitated and consumed with getting her new phone. He feels despondent that his efforts are not appreciated. He is deeply worried about his daughter distancing from the family at this vulnerable time in her life and is intent on trying to reverse this possibility.

Can you see the patterns that each family member is part of? Joe was able to begin his reflections by asking himself: WHAT WAS INEFFECTIVE IN HIS RESPONSES?  WHAT DIDN’T WORK WELL? WHAT WAS CONSTRUCTIVE?  WHAT WORKED BETTER? Here are some of his thoughts:

Joe recognised that this was a common interaction, with him trying to be the peacemaker, leading to him trying to bribe or cajole Chloe into co-operating. He could see that Sue was becoming increasingly annoyed with Chloe; and that Jake was getting fed up with his sister and distancing from her. He recalls the earlier years when the 2 siblings got on so well and Sue and Chloe seemed so close. Chloe had seemed to be an anxious child who struggled to separate. Jake had been such a protective brother in her early school years. Since the start of secondary school this all seemed to change and Joe was stepping up to try to recreate a happy family dynamic.

Rather than talk about Chloe’s problems and symptoms (she was having increasing problems with defiance at school) Joe began to focus on himself in the interactions.  He could observe that his efforts were able to achieve some temporary peace in the family as Chloe would back down her loud complaints when he stepped into to offer an incentive.  Mostly he could see that his peacemaking was not effective, in the bigger picture of family relationships and his daughter’s wellbeing… He identified that he was rewarding Chloe’s demanding behaviour which was frustrating his wife and son. He did say that he sensed that Chloe felt that Jake was Mum’s favourite and he tried to reassure her that this wasn’t so. Deep down he sensed that Sue was negatively withdrawing from Chloe. He wondered how much his reinforcement of Chloe’s complaints played a part in fuelling this.  He didn’t know how to change his part in things but he could see that continuing to observe his patterns of interaction was useful. It certainly felt more constructive than working out how to change his daughter.

All family responses are like intuitive dance steps and often, over time, develop predictable patterns back and forth between people. The more that this can be conscious, the more a parent can make choices about continuing what is helpful and changing what isn’t. When a parent can learn to observe their part in responding to the child they are concerned about, they can create a pathway to working out how they can adjust themselves in order to improve the family environment. Small steps are required in working towards changed interactions that promote improved functioning for all – in particular for the most reactive and vulnerable child.

  • Stay tuned for a follow up blog next month on Joe’s next steps to observe and understand his part in his daughter’s increased reactive behaviours. Joe considers the effects of his responses on his daughter’s growth (or regression) of responsibility.
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A Tale of Two Courtships

How reactions and relationship to parents has shaped 2 contrasting courtship experiences. 

Hayley and Dan met at a mutual friend’s wedding. They experienced an immediate spark and keenly saw each other several times the week following their introduction. They both sensed that they shared much in common and matched each other creatively.  It was easy to talk for hours, as if only minutes had transpired.  In the early weeks of their relationship Hayley and Dan relished setting up dates for each other at favourite restaurant’s and cultural events. They lost interest in other friendships and immersed themselves in the pleasures of their apparently perfect connection. After a passionate 2 months of romance and intertwining of lives, Dan proposed to Hayley on a surprise weekend luxury retreat. Hayley unquestionably accepted and they set about planning a wedding 4 months later. The first time they met each other’s parents and siblings was after their engagement was announced.

Pete and Trish were introduced by mutual friends 6 years ago. They had begun dating and seemed to get along well and have shared values. When they began courting they were both in their early 30s and established in their careers.  Their friends were all getting married at the time and Pete sensed that he should make an effort to connect with Trish or he might miss his chance to find a life partner. Trish was keen for the relationship to move towards commitment as she was ready to settle down and found Pete attractive and interesting. Both appreciated that they shared the same religious faith and moved ahead in their courtship with openness for romance and love to grow. Pete was slow to take initiative in the early days and Trish began to make suggestions for their get-togethers. As the months proceeded Pete became increasingly ambivalent about the relationship. He didn’t want to lose the friendship with Trish but he was reluctant to allow things to become too close. He used the busyness of his demanding work to slow the pace that he sensed Trish was angling for. They often gathered with friend’s and had frequent dinners with each of their parents. As the months and then years rolled by, friends increasingly encouraged Pete to step up and commit but the more he experienced other’s pressure the more he struggled to imagine a future with Trish. Rather he would find fault with her and become irritated easily when they were in their family and friendship groups. Trish lost patience a number of times and separated. She was however quite attached to Pete and felt drawn to helping him manage his life. Pete was lonely without Trish and would convey this when they were apart.

These two courtship stories appear to be an antithesis.  One is hastily and passionately committed to within 6 months. The other proceeds ambivalently over 6 years. What they share in common is a driving force of unresolved attachments in their families of origin.

Both Hayley and Dan had distanced from their parents in their late adolescence. They had experienced their parents as an imposition to their freedom as emerging adults. They each had been very close to one of their parents as children but this had become tense during their high school years. They had competitive, strained relationships with their siblings and were pleased to distance from this family intensity. They occasionally visited family on special occasions but things were kept quite superficial. Dan felt some guilt about distance from his mother as he knew she struggled in a tense marriage.  He was completely cut off from his father who he viewed negatively. Hayley experienced her parents as exceedingly proud of her during her growing up. She was a high achiever and she sensed that they admired her and were quite invested in her academic success.  Hayley had relished her father’s pride in her especially during her school years. She liked to be admired but could become reactive to the intensity of her parent’s expectations. She saw her mother as needy and her father as demanding.  Of course this was intensified as she increasingly pulled away from them. At the time she met Dan in her mid-twenties she was almost completely cut off from her family.

Pete and Trish also had quite intense relationships with their parents but instead of using distance or cut off to manage this they remained highly involved with their families. Pete was a youngest son who had always felt very close to his mother. He would tell her everything about his life and depended on her advice in making life decisions. His mother remained his closest confidante well into his 30s. Trish was very involved as an eldest daughter in caring for her aging parents. Her father had some chronic health problems and she remained central to organising health care and supporting her mother in the task of managing life with a dependent husband whose capacities were low. Trish was comfortable as an over-responsible daughter. For both Trish and Pete their families remained central to their life functioning. Much of their relationship energies went towards their parents – albeit in different ways. Pete was quite dependent, Trish was a responsible carer.

I wonder if you can see how reactions and relationship to parents has shaped these 2 courtships. The intensely fast tracked courtship of Hayley and Dan is driven by the degree of ‘cut off’ from their families. This had left them needy of replicating an admiring togetherness in a love relationship. The intensity gap they left in distancing from their parents had been waiting to be filled by someone who shares a similar need for being special. Rather than growing away from their parents in becoming independent adults they had each broken away. They ran away from quite fused relationships only to replicate a high expectation fusion in their relationship with each other.

Pete and Trish also experienced quite intense involvements with a parent as they moved into their adult years. They didn’t run away from this but instead were quite dependent on the roles they had in their families. Pete was so close to his mother that it was hard for him to invest in intimacy with another. Trish was so responsible for her parents that she equated closeness with being in charge.

For Hayley and Dan their cut-off from parents and siblings transmitted into an intense fusion with each other. For Pete and Trish their fusion with their parents translated into an ongoing distance with each other. Both relationships had many challenges ahead.  One of the keys to giving the relationship a chance to flourish was to build a more mature relationship back to each parent. To be connected in a genuine way without being overly sensitive or overly involved. Parents of course can have an important part to play in contributing to a better resolution of shifting attachments from one generation to the next. Parents can reduce the various ways they depend on their children and work on their marriages and peer relationships so that their relationships with their children are not primary. Distant parents can work on gradually increasing non-intense contact with adult children; Being interested in their lives, without imposing expectations.

There is an interesting directive in the Judaeo Christian scriptures (Genesis 2:24) about one generation leaving their parents to cleave to their spouse. The idea is that a ‘leaving and cleaving’ is necessary to establish a new generational family. The leaving however is not a running away just as the cleaving is not an over involvement.  I value Bowen’s idea of growing away from parents rather than breaking away.  A gradual shifting of attachment allegiance lays important groundwork for courtship and marriage. It can avoid the ‘hot housing’ of a relationship and all the pressures that unravel from this. It can also prevent excessive anxieties about commitment that contribute to either serial short relationships or long term ambivalent courtships.

CAVEAT – continuum not categoriesThese 2 examples are based on real scenarios with identifying details changed. Each represents a quite polarised position, from overly hasty to overly cautious. It is useful to remember that each serious dating relationship will fall somewhere on a continuum between these positions. In Bowen theory there are NOT neat categories but rather a CONTINUUM that represents the level of differentiation and tendencies to either cut off or fusion that we have inherited from our family emotional system. You may find it helpful to reflect:

Was/Is my courtship more a reflection of diving into the new relationship with some distance from my parent/s?

Or was/is my courtship more a reflection of a tension between my pull to past attachment to my parent/s/family and the investment in my future priority attachment?

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Relationship boundaries in social media

As a pre digital revolution baby boomer, traversing the world of IT and social media has been challenging.  I was slow to venture into the realm of Facebook and was certainly naïve about how to use it helpfully. For my first 7 years I friended family only, ignoring all incoming friend requests. Then I did an about face and somewhat impulsively accepted all requests in one foul swoop, announcing that I had decided to come out of the ‘stone age.’

When my book publisher fed back that I needed a social media presence in order to gain entry into the US publishing market, I decided it was time to be better informed about this area. This prompted my seeking assistance to start up this blog site along with its attached Facebook page. I wasn’t aiming for a large reach, just a platform to gradually work out how to utilise this medium for sharing ideas. For the past 2 years I have been fumbling my way through navigating this strange boundary-less online world; and it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

Like any new relational domain, my interactions with social media reveal much about myself. In particular it has revealed ways I’m inclined towards fusion in relationships. For example, I have written some personal blogs along the way, which have  included my intersections with broader family member’s lives. Often in ways that identify some of their circumstances – at times including photos. Importantly this has been done without fully asking permission. While I have consciously focussed on representing my own ‘growing up’ journey, I have come to see ways that I have inadvertently invaded other’s personal boundaries.  While it has been uncomfortable, I have been grateful to receive some honest feedback about other’s unwelcome experience of reading mentions about them in a blog or post. This feedback has helped me see the subtle ways I make assumptions on behalf of others.

In the realm of social media, I think us parents need to be especially respectful of the autonomy of our children (whatever their age). I recently came across a new word to describe social media boundary issues for parents: ‘Sharenting.’ It’s quite telling that such a word has emerged to describe how over-involvement with our children may spill onto a parent’s Facebook and Instagram pages. I remind myself that our children are not our property and hence their lives are not open slather material for our conversations and our social media. I have come to see more clearly that as my children have launched into their adulthood, their separate lives and boundaries are even more important to honour.  Mia Freidman, long time Mamamia blogger writes:

We are the first generation of parents who have to decide how much of our children’s lives are made public. We must choose how exposed they’re going to be. How much of their story we’re going to write through images of them and words about them before they’re old enough to decide how – and if – they want to be portrayed to the world. These are very big decisions.

For my adult children and for all of the people who are part of my systems of relationships, I have increasingly seen the importance of thoughtfully considering what I write and post. Given my blog is all about relationships, the appropriate lines of privacy can be easily blurred. Primarily I refrain from the fusion trap of assuming that any other person would approve of my referring to them in a public blog or post. I can mention the relationships I’m part of but if I refer to another’s life circumstance, then their permission needs to be requested. At the same time if I only write what I think others will approve, this can be another expression of togetherness fusion. I see that mindreading on others behalf is a form of ‘over-functioning’ in crossing boundaries while posting what we perceive will bring the most approval is an ‘under- functioning’ kind of fusion. If I’m honest I need to watch for both immature possibilities in my online relating.

What is this ‘fusion’ thing I keep referring to? Immature fusion (or undifferentiation) is when we fail to discriminate where our separate selves begin and end in relation to others. It is when the positive bonds of human relationships are amplified (usually unintentionally) to the detriment of respecting each person’s autonomy within the family/group. The more a person utilises the experience of togetherness with others to steady them self in life, the more vulnerable they are to ‘fused’ relationships. Additionally, the more a person avoids uncomfortable relationships and focusses on the validating harmony that can be found in a small nuclear family/ or ‘in’ group, the more likely they are to lose perspective regarding their boundaries with these people. I see that we all have degrees of such immature fusion in our lives and relationships.  My responsibility is to address indicators of my fusion, to the best of my capacity, when it is evident in my relationships.

Self- absorption and unhelpful togetherness is a challenge for us all in this anxious world. The realm of social media provides a new stage for this and hence calls for honest reflection and clarification of relationship principles. I have seen my own lapses in wisdom and maturity as I have engaged with this public, web based domain.  At those confronting times it would have been tempting to simply cut off my social media involvement to avoid the risk of future discomfort. However I consider that I’ll learn and grow more by continuing to work at managing myself online with clearer principles and awareness of my potential lapses.  For this work in progress, the following principles are emerging as helpful to me:

  • Is there any assumption made on behalf of another in posting this?
  • Am I conveying thinking about myself in my relationships and not crossing into giving a subjective commentary about another’s life?
  • Have I thought about the longer term implications for people’s privacy around what I post?
  • If I am conveying the thinking of others? Do I appropriately give them credit in my referencing?
  • Am I clear about the purpose of my site (which posts belong where)? Have I communicated this clearly to the potential readers? Do I keep within these parameters and not impulsively post about areas about which I have insufficient knowledge or permission?
  • Is my self-referencing in social media portraying an exaggerated picture of my accomplishments, my relationship strengths or the flip side = failures?
  • Equally is my other-referencing portraying an exaggerated picture of other’s accomplishments or failures?
  • Am I posting what conveys my own thinking or am I editing myself in an effort to garner the most online approval?

NOTES: Bowen conveys that = High Fusion People Live in a feeling dominated world. So much energy goes into seeking love and approval and keeping the relationship in some kind of harmony, there is little energy for life-directed goals.

Less fused people = have employed logical reasoning to develop principles and convictions that they use to over-rule the emotional system in situations of anxiety and panic. They are less relationship directed.

Summarised from: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice p 366- 370

Mia freedman blog and use of the term: ‘Sharenting’ 

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The bigger picture behind negative self-talk

“I know that my ‘self-talk’ in relationships tends to be negative and full of doubts. I need to work on improving this self-talk.”

I wondered whether there was more to this than a case of negative self -talk.  Together we began exploring the effects of the relationship reciprocity and not Helen’s individual cognitions.

*Helen is a recently semi-retired, professional woman. She had enjoyed a successful work life but was ready for a reduction in work responsibilities now that she was in her 60s. It was a huge transition for Helen who had been with the same employer for over 25 years. She had taken on this full time career track following her divorce. Helen described the way her adult children were stepping up to support her following this significant job departure.  They were all hearing about her fears that she would struggle to manage her finances and have sufficient funds. While Helen had followed sound advice on her investments and had offers of secure part time work, these facts did little to allay her fears.

As Helen reflected on her shifting relationship with her 3 adult children she recognised how much she was venting her worries to each of them. They responded with reassurance, statements of respect for her ongoing achievements and advice about her transition decisions. Helen did appreciate the caring response from each of them but said that she felt unworthy of their praise and encouragement. When asked about the effects of their increased support she replied:

“The more support they give me the emptier I seem to feel about myself, and my money anxieties are not relieved.”

Such an interesting response! I deemed it was worthy of further investigation. I asked Helen how she accounted for her discomfort with her children’s gestures of encouragement and affirmation. She thought that distance had been her main way to manage herself in relationships to her own parents and that this had translated into a comfortable distance with her own children. Not a cut –off kind of distance, as she saw them all regularly. Rather it had been an emotional distance where she refrained from sharing at a deeper, more personal level. She had been concerned not to be an emotional burden for her children. This current transition had prompted a greater connection with her children. Her recent expressions of vulnerability however, were clearly unsettling the previous equilibrium for Helen.

Helen’s next reflection was especially intriguing. She said:

“I know that my ‘self-talk’ in relationships tends to be negative and full of doubts. I need to work on improving this self-talk.”

I wondered whether there was more to this than a case of negative self-talk.  Together we began exploring the effects of the relationship reciprocity and not Helen’s individual cognitions. I asked about the pattern of receiving praise from important others. We explored how the more she expressed her self- doubts, the more her children responded with assurances; and the more Helen received assurances the more she was felt inwardly depleted. This cycle did provide positive connection with her children but it was also setting up a pattern for Helen to under-function. The more she was reassured, the more she feared for her future; the more she was praised, her sense of confidence diminished. The self- talk was much more than an expression of individual doubts. Rather, it was an outworking of a relationship phenomenon.

To investigate the relationship influences further I asked about the specific patterns with each of her children. While the over-all pattern of Helen venting and her children encouraging was apparent, each relationship had some unique features. Helen became increasingly fascinated as she explored the nuances of her interactions with each adult child. This was expanding her lens well past individual introspection. She could see that her eldest son responded with lots of practical suggestions and offers to help her save money by having regular meals with their family. Helen’s response to him was to present as less capable than she was in terms of her budgeting and life management. With her only daughter, Helen experienced a good dose of emotional caretaking. She felt quite overwhelmed by her daughter’s rescuing gestures but could see that she was giving plenty of invitations to be rescued through her expressions of worry.  Her other son was somewhat less responsive to Helen’s worries. He was more laid back in listening to her concerns.  After listening and empathising he would shift the conversation away from her worries to an exchange of ideas. Helen had first thought that he was less caring than the other two. However on further reflection she saw that she felt more solid and less vulnerable in this interaction. Each of the varied patterns with her children reflected differences in the degrees of worry she had for them growing up. The son she worried least about was the son who was now relating more to her capacities. The children who she saw as having more struggles during their growing up and young adult years were the ones that were relating more to Helen’s expressions of incapacity.

Helen began to appreciate how much she was contributing to a depletion of her ‘self’ in her relating – in particular with her eldest son and her daughter. This ‘de-selfing’ in the relationship exchange contributes to a negative internal dialogue.  Helen determined to stay connected to each of her children during her current life transition. She was not going to revert to the previous distancing. She stated however that she wanted to work on connecting in a less fragile manner. She resolved to be open about the impact of the changes to her circumstances. She would share what she was learning about herself during this time. Helen wanted to share in a manner that conveyed she was responsible for managing her worries thoughtfully. She would welcome her children’s gestures of care but endeavour not to participate in unnecessary rescuing interactions. All of this would require consistent observation of herself in each relationship and continued practice at presenting her more open and capable self to the other. It would be a different effort to just endeavouring to correct negative self -talk about her deficiencies.

I think that Helen’s example demonstrates how ‘systems thinking’ is different to individual thinking. The key focus of attention is how is each person is effecting and shaping the other. Each individual’s ‘mind set’ and behaviours are inextricably linked to the back and forth responses in important relationships. The question that promotes maturity is not: How can I change my self -talk and the consequent behaviours? The more constructive growing up question is: How am I contributing to this pattern that is either depleting my confidence, or another’s sense of capacity? How is the relationship dance shaping my thinking, feeling and behaving? How can I alter my part of the dance in ways that promote mutual responsibility?

*Names and identifying details have been changed

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How to help a friend when you think they are over protecting their child?

Talking to a friend or family member about concerns you have about their parenting (or indeed any relationship) is a fraught arena.

People are happy to hear their friend’s ideas about external things – professionals to go to, new family activities, and extracurricular offerings, holiday destinations – BUT none of us like to hear input that sounds like advice or criticism of how we are managing ourselves with people we care about. As a result we tend to approach such conversations awkwardly which adds to the probable angst. When we are tense we tend to listen less and speak with excessive intensity.

Often it’s best to pay attention to our own management of relationships before venturing into giving a friend feedback. There are however times when I think one can be a genuine resource to another in sharing a systems way of thinking about parenting. The following is a de-identified* discussion I had with someone grappling with whether to talk honestly with her friend about parenting concerns:

The situation she described for her long term friend was: a shy, teenage son who was especially close to his mother. He had always been a sensitive child and during his younger years had regularly come into his parent’s bed to settle night fears. Two other children appeared to be more confident. The pattern of parenting being observed was of doing what the children wanted and not holding boundaries on any things that resulted in a child’s distress. The parents were devoted and generous to their 3 children. They enabled them to do what extra curricula activities they wanted and to promptly give them up if they no longer enjoyed them. It was becoming evident that the son was increasingly struggling to cope with school and peer activities. The mother was progressively adjusting her schedule to attend events with him. Recently the boy was missing school and showing increased signs of anxiety. He was reporting problems with being teased by friends. The parents were looking at both medical intervention and a change of schools.

What is described above is such a tricky family scenario – what looks like loving, devoted parenting can so easily cross the line into an over focus on a child – in particular reacting in ways to reduce a child’s distress. The more a parent supports – the more the young person comes to depend on the support and acts in ways to invite more of it. The child’s development of resilience in the face of stress is impaired due to too much protective intervention – this renders a young person much more vulnerable to emotional symptoms because they have less internal stress management capacity. They struggle to steady them self in even ‘normal’ challenging moments and gradually become highly relationally dependent and sensitive.

The close friend of this mother knew a bit about ways that an increasing focus on a child can, over time, amplify a child’s dependence and impair their growth of internal resilience. The friend had addressed some of her own tendencies as a mother to put her children’s happiness ahead of their learning to tolerate and manage life’s stressors. She wanted to share her concerns and her own lessons with her friend but had previously experienced defensiveness when discussing parenting. She was fearful of offending her and sounding like she thought she was the ‘perfect’ parent.

How was she going to navigate being helpful to this close friend when it seemed to be a ‘no-go’ conversation zone? Many parents – especially conscientious ones – are very sensitive to criticism and blame. There is a pervasive view in society that generosity of parental love equates with happy, healthy children. Such a mindset isn’t easy to question.

The following are some principles (not directives) we discussed for raising such concerns in a friendship. These might provide helpful food for thought – This isn’t intended as a template to fit all situations:

1: Questions are so important – that show a care and concern and a desire to understand what each parent is going through- Creating a platform of coming alongside with curious empathy, not judgement.

2: It’s helpful to not get caught in the content of decision making – IE changing schools. While shifting schools may well reinforce a pattern of ‘over rescuing’ it may also provide a circuit breaker.

3. Questions about relationship patterns are more useful for generating possible insight than questions about the individual child and decisions about his life and possible treatment. What have you been trying to do to help? How has than gone? How has your son responded? What seems to be helping to build his resilience what doesn’t seem to help?

4. Ensure that questions aren’t used to disguise your opinion – this is always picked up on at some level – it is actually dishonest.

If you see a genuine opening for sharing your thinking and concern:

1: Show that you have been listening well and have heard some of the challenging detail of what they are up against as parents with an increasingly needy child.

2: Ask if it would be helpful to feed back some thoughts you have had from listening to them that may or may not be useful to them?

3: If they are open, share from your own experience and from the details they have shared with you. This shows you have listened attentively. From what you’ve been through and what you’ve heard, you wonder that there might be a pattern of loving their son in such a way that could be inadvertently reducing his resilience and increasing his dependency. Ask if that is something they have considered?

4: Rather than give direct advice, share a scenario from either your own struggle or from examples you have heard from another (or read about). This can provide food for thought without being directly challenging.

5: If they don’t want you to share, it probably indicates that there is some reactivity already present – this can enable an acknowledgement that perhaps past interactions on parenting have not been experienced as gracious – ask if this the case? Follow up asking: How can I help to repair this – given our friendship is so important to me?

It is part of healthy relationships to be a resource to our friends and family at challenging times. Avoiding topics because of fear of tension is not helpful. Nor is the converse of judging and attempting to direct their life. Listening well and being prepared to share our own experiences can be a gift to a relationship. At the same time it is useful to ask: Am I valuing the wisdom I can gain from my friend’s experiences and vantage points?   This ensures that the friendship is balanced with support going both ways. In this way neither feels superior or in a one down position.

* The facts of the above scenario have been changed for confidentiality

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Grand-Parenting: beware of skipping a generation

The story of Helen who had put all of her focus on her relationship with her grandchild and had stopped working on having an adult relationship with her son

Helen had awaited the birth of her first grandchild with excited anticipation. She had begun shopping for baby items and imagining holding this little piece of her own genetic make-up in her arms. Life was going to change for Helen. She had reduced her work hours and looked forward to being an active grandmother who looked after her son’s child a few times a week. She wondered what the child would be called — would her name be in there somehow? Would this little one call her Nanna or Gran?

When I first met Helen she reported that her life was falling apart. Her grandson was nearly one and she barely got to see him. Her son, Aaron, would bring him for short visits but not leave him with her. Her daughter-in-law, Sarah, was not speaking with her and had given the impression that Helen wasn’t welcome to visit. What had gone so wrong at a life transition full of so many positive dreams?

I asked Helen about how she saw the problem that meant she wasn’t feeling like she could be a grandmother. ‘It’s all Sarah’s fault,’ she said. ‘She’s so possessive and controlling of Aaron and is taking away my rights as a grandmother. I tell Aaron that it’s just not acceptable. My life feels like it’s been ruined by this awful girl.’

As Helen sobbed in my office I wondered how to help her think her way out from this hurt and blaming position. I asked her about her relationship with her son since he had married. How often had they had contact and what kind of things had they shared with each other? ‘Aaron has seemed distant to me for years now,’ Helen answered. ‘He’s been very dutiful in visiting me but he doesn’t let me in on what’s happening in his life. He didn’t tell me about his relationship with Sarah until he’d already proposed to her.’

I asked what Helen’s response was to the news of his marriage. She replied, ‘I was thrilled about the marriage. I’d worried that he was leaving things too late to settle down and start a family of his own. My first thoughts were that finally my son was going to give me grandchildren. I’ve looked forward to this moment for all my life.’

Helen’s responses revealed that she had put all of her focus on her relationship with her grandchild and had stopped working on having an adult relationship with her son. Clearly Aaron had not made it easy for her by keeping a dutiful but distant relationship, but Helen had certainly played her part in this superficial relationship. Rather than working at being interested in Aaron’s life as opposed to pursuing him, Helen had put all of her relationship energy into planning for grandparenting. It isn’t surprising that the intensity of these expectations, combined with the distance between mother and son, led to an upset between Helen and her daughter-in-law Sarah.

Initially Helen wanted to get Sarah to come to counselling so that she could be ‘sorted out’. But as she began to see how Sarah had become caught in a triangle because of what had not been addressed between herself and her son, Helen decided to invite Aaron to come to a session to talk things through. Aaron was keen to get some help as he was feeling like the meat in the sandwich between his wife and his mother. He acknowledged that he had been more focused on keeping the peace with both these important women in his life than in defining his own views to them. Helen’s efforts went onto shifting her focus away from her grandson and back to her own son. She could see how much she’d assumed about her role as grandmother without asking Aaron what he thought. Helen also could see that she had put too many relationship eggs into one basket and needed to invest some energy in her broader network of friends and family. One of her biggest challenges was to stop using her friends as allies to take her side against her daughter-in-law. This triangle detour had helped her to temporarily feel better but had certainly not helped her to address her own part in the difficulties.

At any phase of life our immaturities can be assessed by asking ourselves how much we gain strength through being needed by others or through knowing ourselves and being steadied by our principles. How much do we use children, grandchildren or work to steady us instead of taking responsibility for our own growth?

*When I think about relating to grandchildren, do I override the importance of working on my relationship with my son or daughter?

* Adult children – if you are experiencing tension with your parents – ask yourself how well have you been making genuine contact with them?  Dr Bowen’s quote speaks well to this:

‘There are also those who kid themselves into believing they have “worked out” the relationship with parents and who make brief formal visits home without personal communication; they use as evidence of maturity that they do not see their parents.’

Bowen, M. 1978, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, New York, p. 494.

This blog is an excerpt from Jenny’s book “Growing Yourself Up” Chap.  14. Ageing well Retirement, the empty nest, relating to a third generation

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When worrying about a child gets out of hand

Sarah* was a competent health professional. She had years of experience assisting families with their children’s development. In her work life, Sarah was steady and confident. At home with her 3 young children it was a different picture. Sarah was gripped by anxiety about her 6 month old child. She was fearful that her son might have a disability and as a result was constantly monitoring, looking for indications of such a problem. Any number of things became evidence of her fear: when he didn’t sustain eye contact, when he was slow to smile, when he seemed to prefer rolling in one direction, when he was restless….and so the list of possible signs expanded. Sarah had begun to do particular therapy exercises with her son to address any possible delays in his development.

Chatting to Sarah revealed that she previously had similar anxieties with her other children during their first year of life but this current period of anxiety was much more intense and influencing her mood and capacity to maintain her life tasks. I asked Sarah what she could see were the effects of looking for signs of something wrong with her baby boy. She acknowledged that looking for problems wasn’t reassuring her; rather it was providing endless possible confirmations for her worries. As she asked herself “What if there is a disability that needs early intervention?” she was creating a kind of bottomless pit for her anxiety. Sarah had good insight that her monitoring and ‘therapising’ her son was preventing her engaging in simple play and enjoying getting to know her son’s particular preferences and emerging personality. She could also appreciate that. even in the unlikely situation that her child had a factual disability, her anxious parent- child interactions would not be helpful. We discussed how a parent can contribute to an escalating worry cycle where an infant responds reactively to the mother’s intrusive monitoring, which in turn confirms the mother’s worry and increases her fussing around her child, who in turn responds with restless behaviour…and on it goes.

I explored with Sarah what was going on in her important relationships and learned that she had withdrawn from her extended family supports and wasn’t keeping regular conversational connection with her husband. Her elderly father had died a couple of years ago. She had perceived that her mother’s grief meant that she wouldn’t want the load of assisting with her grandchildren. It was likely that this important loss and change in her extended family had added to Sarah’s anxieties with her third child. Certainly Sarah’s growing isolation appeared to be increasing the degree of her fears and her focus on her infant son.

Sarah knew it would be extremely challenging to reduce her worry for her child. There was something quite compelling and steadying for her when she perceived herself as helping her son. She felt stronger as a mother even though she was also frustrated by the effects of her increasing anxiety. Over time Sarah made a range of efforts to break this problematic worry cycle – making herself the priority project, not her child. This involved:

  • Noticing when her thinking was in the ‘WHAT IF?’ category instead of a ‘WHAT NOW?’  factual platform.
  • Noticing how much she was making a ‘fixing’ project out of her child – a project that could become something of a self-fulfilling projection.
  • Working to shift this project back to herself – her self-care, her relating to her husband, her initiating more contact and garnering support from her mother, siblings and friends.
  • Getting clearer about her personal job description as a mother. This was different to being led by every emotion and behaviour in her child.

Today’s parents swim in a sea of anxiety about any number of possible defects and dangers for their children. When I did a Google search on how parents can recognise problems in their child development, 4,960,000 results appeared! Added to this information over-load are the numerous categories where parents can look for problems: Language and Speech Developmental Delays, Vision Developmental Delays, Motor Skill Developmental Delays, Social and Emotional Developmental Delays, Cognitive Developmental Delays….. Such worry generating information can easily drive up the anxiety in many parents. Furthermore a worried parent will significantly influence the parent- child interactions in ways that are likely to confirm their imagined fear. The more a parent is distant in their marriage and/or from their extended family, the more such a worry cycle intensifies. Reversing such a pattern is immensely challenging – it can feel like a denial of the essence of maternal caretaking. Actually, the shift away from focussing anxiously on a child can build a pathway to a more confident expression of a parent’s caretaking instinct and wisdom. It also gives a child valuable enlarged breathing space for their natural growth and development.

*Names and details of this story have been changed

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What are the dominant forces of sensitivity in my relationships?

It is useful to appreciate that all humans have versions of the 4 instinctual relational sensitivities of attention, approval, expectations and distress.

Julia described the way she came unravelled when others were given acknowledgement for
tasks she has contributed to. She wondered why she was so sensitive to her boss’s approval and how tied it was to her work performance.


The forces of sensitivity in our important relationships are powerful. They exist at an instinctual level and are driven by our need for close connections with others to maintain our sense of well-being. These sensitivities can pull us towards people and equally drive us away when things get uncomfortable. For example, when things are comfortable in my marriage I am drawn to wanting more time with my husband. When a negative reaction gets triggered in our interactions I am inclined to avoid closeness.

I have found it helpful to consider 4 relational sensitivities that have been utilised in the writing and teaching of *Dr Michael Kerr.

He says that all of us grow up in our families with heightened sensitivity to our parents:

  • Attention-(& inattention),
  • Approval- (& disapproval),
  • Expectations-( met or unmet) and
  • Distress-(am I the cause of or the fixer for?)

Many people have commented that they have found it extremely useful to consider the way each of these sensitivities was shaped during their childhood. I regularly ask people to reflect on- which of these is highest on their relationship radar? While all are part of family relationships there is usually one that has been most activated in our relationship with parents and siblings. One woman I’ve chatted to about this has identified that meeting her parents’ expectations was clearly a driver of her relationship energies. She sensed the comfort of measuring up to preforming well and avoided the emotional disruption of letting her parents down – her father in particular. Recognising this dominant sensitivity has helped this woman to see how it has shaped her functioning at work where she strives hard to meet the perceived expectations of her bosses and is easily derailed when she senses that she has not met high standards.

For myself I have particularly been shaped by sensitivity to attention. In early childhood I experienced a large increase in attention at times I was unwell. I was aware that this elevated me to a place of specialness in the group of 5 siblings. As I began to perform well and take on leadership roles in later high school this attention platform shifted. Parental attention no longer focussed on my sick role but on my positions of importance and achievements. Much of this wasn’t verbalised but was conveyed through the emotional tone of interactions. This has primed me in my adult life to gravitate to situations where I have a profile in a group that brings me positive attention. I look back on my dealings with early supervisors and trainers and see how much I relished their emotional attention when I performed well. I would borrow confidence and energy from such relationship exchanges. As I’ve learned more about borrowing maturity compared to growing maturity, I can see that much of my self-assurance has been dependent on this attentive relationship dynamic. In order to work on a more solid maturity I have needed to consciously choose to be in situations where I am less important and receive little attention. For example, I have deliberately pulled out of some work tasks that have put me at the front of an event and have made room for others to take on the spotlight. Similarly in my extended family I have noticed my discomfort about being left out of conversations. This observation and awareness has helped me to practice being more at ease when I’m on the periphery of a social interchange. I work to enjoy listening in on others conversations and not trying to push into the discussion. My successes and setbacks in these “growing up” pilot projects ebb and flow.

It is constructive to appreciate that all humans have versions of the 4 instinctual relational sensitivities of attention, approval, expectations and distress. While there is considerable overlap between the 4 triggers I think there is usually one of these that dominate our relationship experience. The sensitivities that dominate can also be influenced by the particular relationship context and may indeed vary between home and work. They develop in the circularity of our growing up relationship experience, in conjunction with our inbuilt social biology. The degree to which these sensitivities dictate our lives does vary according to the level of maturity we experienced in our family of origin. Perhaps you may find it useful to reflect on which one was a central driver in your exchanges with each parent. It has provided me with some awareness and direction in working to be less relationship dependent and more consistent in my functioning.

Questions to consider:

  • What response from either of my parents was most steadying for me? Their positive attention and/or approval? Meeting their high expectations? Being able to relieve their distress?
  • What response from either of my parents was most unsteadying for me? Their negative attention and/or approval? Not meeting their high expectations? Not being able to relieve their distress – or sensing that I contributed to their distress?
  • How did I sense my position of approval, attention, expectations and distress was different to each of my siblings (or the other parent)?
  • In what ways do I seek out relationship situations that are similar to the steadiers I experienced with either parent?
  • In what ways do I become reactive in relationship situations that are similar to the de-steadying scenarios I experienced with either parent?
  • How do the above questions help me to understand my triggers in current relationships? – at work, with friends and in my family?
  • In what ways can I practice being more steady without other’s attention, approval, expectations or neediness?

*Reference for Dr Michael Kerr
Presentation at FSI conference 2007: Why do siblings often turn out very differently?

Why Do Siblings Often Turn Out Very Differently?
Chapter in Human Development in the
Twenty-First Century: Visionary Ideas from Systems Scientists
Editors: Alan Fogel, Barbara J. King, and Stuart Shanker
Cambridge University Press – 2008
Michael E. Kerr

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The surprising link between dental hygiene and relationship maturity

As I reflect on what’s changed over the past year I see that this step of progress has less to do with a specific goal about dental hygiene and more to do with being a bit more of a self in all of my relationships.

I’ve been dismal with dental flossing for most of my life– I’ve made many efforts to be consistent with this key aspect of dental hygiene only to lapse as life gets busy. I have never quite understood why the establishment of this good habit has eluded me. Flossing was never a part of my childhood routine in the way that teeth brushing was. Hence I appreciate that it’s always more challenging to establish good habits as an adult if they haven’t been supported by parents in childhood. But this excuse doesn’t really let me off the hook. I recall hearing a conference lecture on geriatric preventative health and my ears pricked up when the doctor declared: “Flossing is not necessary…” this sounded hopeful until he went on to say “…unless you don’t want to lose your teeth!”

I floss regularly a week before a dental check-up but the redness of my gums gives my dentist evidence that I have not been consistent. After getting a lecture on preventing gum disease I improve for a little while but the habit starts to lapse before it is consolidated. A bit of external expert pressure can temporarily get me on track but I haven’t mobilised enough internal ‘self’ to persist. Growing a more responsible self is measured by how much a person can function in life without being dependent on external relationship directives.

2016 however has been a breakthrough for me in this area of my laziness. Surprisingly I have managed to make daily flossing a habit and the results were affirmed at my end of year dental visit. What is it that has enabled this meagre maturity break-through? It has not been a conscious new year (or post dentist) resolution as the evidence over the years doesn’t back this up. As I reflect on what’s changed over the past year I see that this step of progress has less to do with a specific goal about dental hygiene and more to do with being a bit more of a self in all of my relationships. Over the pressures of the past year I have learned a great deal about managing myself in both family and work situations. I have consciously improved my respect for other’s autonomy – asking what is helpful before jumping in, keeping in contact, being more responsible for myself and less focussed on the other, noticing and addressing the sneaky signs of too much tension in me. I have continued my decades of small efforts to have better balance between managing my own health and sharing myself mutually in relationship. There have always been steps of progress mixed with setbacks, but gradually, over time I see the signs that I have grown a bit more inner agency (self) and have seen others in my family do the same.

The capacity to direct one’s self in a responsible manner while also being reliably connected to others – this is the groundwork for improving follow through on many a good resolution. It is less about achieving the individual goal and more about improving life maturity and a steadier emotional state in general. And, as important people in our lives lift their own responsible life management, others in the system are better able to lift theirs.

I can reflect on other previous habit forming failures and see that there have been steps of progress over the past year. Additionally I plan to work to be more responsible in a number of other life management domains —it’s a good size list. I do realise, however, that the broader endeavour to be a more mature self in the important relationship domains of my life is more fruitful that just targeting a specific resolution. My efforts need to be balanced between my relationship and my individual functioning.

I’ve always known that regular flossing is important but having the capacity to turn this awareness into a daily habit has been predicated by growing up a bit more in all areas of my life and relationships – to be more inner directed and less externally motivated. Who would have thought that broadly improving how I manage myself across all of life could translate into a better-quality set of teeth?

The surprising link between dental hygiene and relationship maturity – Jenny Brown

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Faith – polarising and harmonising

file3615Avoiding polarising and pretend harmonising about beliefs

I wonder, what does it say about our current level of societal maturity that Christmas is being increasingly secularised? – Seemingly driven by an anxious harmony force that declares we must not offend any who don’t share the basis of the ‘Christ Mass’.

I sometimes hear that people find it off-putting when I identify myself as a Christian. Is it the same when we hear people identify themselves as Buddhists, or atheists?  I am guided by a principle that I will not push anyone to agree with my faith position. It’s the push that is alienating for people – not a calmly expressed stance.  I am also clear that it wouldn’t be authentic for me to isolate my beliefs from any part of my work, my relationships, my writing. I think it is a sign of a more mature society when people are respectful and interested in other people’s faiths and philosophical positions. My life has been enriched by many such opportunities – being invited to participate in Hanukah celebrations in a neighbour’s home and to converse with a warm Muslim man as I appreciate his guided tour around his neighbourhood. I’ve also valued talking to atheists who explain to me calmly how they cannot conceive that science and God can co-exist and are able to listen to my view that science increases my awe of the God in whom I have come to know. I don’t appreciate it when there is a mocking tone to any discourse on belief and indeed I have encountered such arrogant dismissiveness expressed by people across many belief systems.

I wonder, what does it say about our current level of societal maturity that Christmas is being increasingly secularised? – Seemingly driven by an anxious harmony force that declares we must not offend any who don’t share the basis of the ‘Christ Mass’. For this end of year blog I am posting excerpts from my book on maturity and belief. I do think that the full variations of maturity are evident in all sectors of religion and society including in the Christian church. I trust you will find it useful to consider what maturity you have brought to how you have come to and express your beliefs.

Chap 10 – Developing mature beliefs

Compliance, rebellion or examination

‘The pseudo self is made up of … beliefs and principles acquired through the relationship system in the prevailing emotion … beliefs [are] borrowed from others or accepted in order to enhance one’s position in relationship to others.’1

—Murray Bowen MD

‘We will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching …’2

—The apostle Paul


Each chapter of this book on adult maturity has mentioned the value of considering carefully what values and ethics you choose to guide your behaviour and help you act consistently. When it comes to beliefs, it’s simple to go along with the viewpoint of your majority group, your parents, your cultural group or your peer group. If you’re carrying unaddressed resentments towards your parents there may be a tendency to take on beliefs that are the opposite of theirs. Whether you adopt beliefs to comply with or to rebel against others, in each scenario there isn’t much thought and effort going into the process. This leads to beliefs that are superficial. They can chop and change according to the emotions of the group you’re in. Such pseudo beliefs won’t hold much benefit for you in determining how to make a difficult choice when you are under pressure. They won’t help you to take a position on what you believe are important issues if you are easily thrown off course by another’s disapproval……………………………………………..


It’s not unusual to think that overlooking differences and viewing all beliefs as sharing common ground is a mature stance. It’s worth asking, however, whether this is a thoughtful position or an anxiously driven desire for pseudo harmony. A desire to blur distinctions may be more about discomfort with being in contact with different views, driven by a togetherness force, rather than a conclusion drawn from examining the basis of different views. Theologian and historian John Dickson makes this point in stating that ‘by seeking to affirm the sameness of the world religions [we] … are in danger of honouring none of them. As unpopular as the idea appears to have become, we simply must allow the world religions to have their distinct voice and to express their different points of view…………………………………


Theologian and philosopher Douglas Wilson has described these maturity problems well in saying that, ‘Those who blindly follow traditions and those who blindly throw traditions overboard share at least ignorance in common. One keeps what he does not know, another throws away what he does not know.’3

The key maturity challenge is to get beyond blind acceptance or rejection of any set of beliefs and values. This asks a great deal of us. In particular, it asks us to take time to reflect on what we believe and what creed we live by. It’s not easy to carve out reflection time in this pressured world. It sure is easier to come to conclusions based on subjective whims and what brings us the most comfort and acceptance from others……………………………………………….

Questions for reflection

»»How much do I know about my family’s beliefs and traditions? How have family members determined what they believe? Have they come to their beliefs for the sake of harmony or have they independently figured out their faith and ethics?

»»How much have I adopted or rejected my family’s beliefs and ethics without personal investigation? What could I do to consider my own guidance system in a thoughtful way?

»»Are my spiritual beliefs embedded in subjective experience or are they balanced with thinking about evidence and logic?

»»Do I get uncomfortable and avoid the issue of my selfishness and wrongdoing? What do I want to be the factual basis for knowing if I have wronged another and need to make amends?

»»How can I make time to unravel my thinking around an important issue, tracing it from its primary source to the position I currently hold, rather than borrowing opinions that are most comfortable to me?

»»What steps will I take to explore what gives my life integrity and purpose?

And I extend to you, from my faith position, warm tidings of Christmas joy – ‘Joy to the world the Lord has come let earth receive her King.’ And let heaven and nature sing of love, grace and genuine peace for all.

Wishing all a Merry Christmas, Joyful holidays in your faith & family traditions, and a Happy New Year!

And for any curious to hear a thoughtful audio about the basis of my faith and of Christmas:

*My blog will resume January 11th 2017

‘Faith – polarising and harmonising’ – Jenny Brown


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Helping to See the Part a Person Plays in Patterns Around their Problem

circular-patterns3618The value of exploring patterns of relationships

A helper is interested in assisting another to discover what part they play in problem patterns.

When I first met Ahmed he explained the distress of being a father to a young adult daughter with a long history of eating disorders and impulsive behaviours. He and his wife Lina had supported many years of various treatments for their daughter Samira. Their focus had been trying to understand her diagnosis and finding a treatment that would fix her distressing symptoms.  I conveyed to Ahmed that I was willing to meet with him to lend a hand to his efforts to assist his daughter. His wife was also welcome to come to our sessions if she wanted to. It wasn’t necessary for Samira to attend. This was a great surprise and relief to him, particularly as his daughter was resistant to seeing yet another helping professional. His surprise was that I thought that just one family member, who is not the symptomatic person, can utilise help for themselves that can benefit the whole family. Ahmed and Lina started coming to meetings and piecing together patterns of relationships around their daughter. We worked like a research team examining descriptions of interactions and seeing what clues emerged to how interpersonal reactions had contributed to generating and maintaining their daughter’s difficulties. Over time Lina came to see how much she had focussed on assisting her daughter to cope with life challenges throughout her school years. She had been very sensitive to her daughter’s upsets and had taken on the responsibility of smoothing things over for her. Over the years she could see that Samira had become increasingly needy as well as entitled. She also saw that her well-meaning efforts to relieve Samira of any distress had left her daughter with little capacity for managing her own strong emotions. For Ahmed, the exploration of the relationship dance around Samira and Lina revealed that he had become passive and resentful as a parent. He was anxious not to impinge on his wife’s management of Samira and would only assist when Lina was at her wits end. At other times he stayed distant but was silently critical of what he judged as Lina’s overly soft approach. When he stepped up in response to Lina’s requests he would be excessively stern as a corrective to his view of his wife’s parenting. He and Samira would then get caught in conflict and Lina would step in to mediate. This left Samira caught in a confusing triangle with her parents. The pattern that was uncovered revealed that Samira had become accustomed to being rescued by her mother and dismissive towards her father’s reactive attempts at limit setting.

Questions that explore interaction

It took a number of sessions to clarify these repeating patterns between Lina, Ahmed and Samira. Questions were asked each session that focussed on how each person responded to each other. “How did you respond to Samira’s distress? What was her response? Then what happened? Who was involved in these upsets? How? What effect could you observe? How were you affected? What was your response? How did this impact your parenting partnership? How did this play out between you? What differences could you notice in how Samira responded to each of you? What do you notice is different in your response to your son when he’s stressed?” We rarely talked in detail about Samira’s individual symptoms. Rather we reflected on longstanding patterns of relating and how these patterns shed some light on ways Samira was struggling to mature and manage her life without depending on or opposing others. Ahmed and Lina could begin to see that their daughter was so caught in reacting to and leaning on her parents that she had not developed enough capacity to independently manage stress. Her symptoms revealed the overflow of her anxious self in her family.

Questions also focussed on important events in the family’s history and considered how these contributed to more anxious ways of relating. For example: What was going on in the family around Samira’s birth and early years? When did the family immigrate? Where was extended family during the early childrearing years? What were the circumstances of each grandparent’s health issues and the death of both grandfathers? When did Lina lose her job? What changed in family responsibilities with this loss of income? Every significant change in the family over time revealed a parallel of increased sensitivity to Samira and her struggles to cope at school. It was interesting to compare this investment in Samira with her older brother who had not been viewed as so vulnerable. Ahmed and Lina began to see that their son had developed more life coping capacities for himself without his parents trying to be overly helpful.

Broadening the view past individual diagnosis

Unlike previous treatment, which focussed on treating Samira’s symptoms with new medications and individual therapies, this helping process broadened the picture to viewing the family as a single system. If one person can change the way they are interacting, then others will make compensatory changes. Ahmed adjusted his reactionary parenting. He stopped trying to be the tough parent when Lina was struggling and instead worked to have a separate and consistent relationship with his daughter. His efforts were often clumsy and based on ongoing trial and error but he was keen to learn from each interaction about how he could better contribute to the well-being of his family. Lina determined to reduce how much attention she gave Samira during her struggles and to say “no” to her when she became excessively demanding. Every step was a challenge for both parents. They valued the opportunity in our meetings to review what they observed and experienced as they endeavoured to respond differently. Both parents were working on the part they had discovered they were playing in fuelling a regressive pattern with their daughter and each other. Samira had her part in it all as did her brother but the parents were helped to just focus on observing and modifying their part in the dance. A helping relationship that focuses on patterns or process is pivotal to enabling this. If the helper continues to ask about the content of opinions, symptoms and criticisms the parents would have remained blinkered in a narrower view of the problem without discovering pathways to bringing their best to their daughter, their marriage and their other important relationships.

From trying to change others to changing self

Ahmed had commenced counselling thinking that his wife and daughter needed to change. After exploring how each of them affected each other he appreciated that he had a contribution to the family problem. Rather than experience a sense of blame he felt a sense of agency as he had discovered something constructive to work on. It was important to him and Lina that they figured their own way through their problem patterns instead of being instructed to change. Both parents described feeling ‘back in the driving seat’ as parents. They could see gradual improvements in their daughter’s impulsivity which gave them hope that they could make a difference by being less reactive and having clearer positions as parents. Additionally they became interested in the influences of their families of origin and the sensitivities they had brought into their marriage and parenting.

A systems lens guides the helper

The focus on patterns is different to conventional ideas of helping that involve advice giving, interpretations or education about individual’s symptoms. I do need family systems theory as a road map to lead me in this questioning process about relating process. Questions are guided by an ability to identify common patterns of triangles, over and under responsibility and reactive conflict and distance. I have found the shift to asking questions starting with: Who, When, Where, What and How, is liberating as a helper. It reduces my responsibility to solve other’s problems. It keeps me from taking sides around people’s opinions. It prevents me from looking for a singular cause to a complex problem. It allows me to collaborate with others in learning about their particular ways of dealing with tensions in their life and relationships.

Even for the non-professional helper it is worthwhile to ask questions about how the other person is managing their difficulty and how this is played out in their relationships. For example when a friend wants to talk through a problem with a person at work, rather than ask about their view about this other person, ask about how they have been responding to the situation. When does it happen? Who is involved? How do they each get involved? What has been helpful in their efforts to deal with the challenge, what hasn’t been helpful? This can be of greater assistance to another than asking them to vent about their problem and speculate about cause. It can provide a person with an opportunity to think more broadly about their difficulty and gain perspective on how they can address what is within their control.

‘Helping to See the Part a Person Plays in Patterns Around their Problem’ – Jenny Brown


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Side Taking or Triangling in a Helping Relationship

parent-blame-triangleGetting caught in becoming a third party detour is a central pitfall of any helping relationship (professional, family, friendships, congregations, work). Any struggling person will feel better when they find an empathic listening ear to their problems within another relationship.

Daniel is a committed helping professional in adolescent mental health services. He engages with young people well and is skilled at drawing them out to discuss the issues that are troubling them. One of the most common complaints he hears from his young clients is that parents or step parents just don’t understand them. They are too pushy and always on their back. They expect too much, they are disapproving of friends, they don’t convey trust, they set impossible limits, and they are intrusive. In hearing about the negatives of the adolescents’ adult carers Daniel would invite his clients to talk in more detail about the effects of these experiences of their parents. He asked about what they needed to feel better supported and conveyed that he appreciated what they were up against. He affirmed their strengths and sought to build their self-esteem as well as suggesting techniques for reducing negative thoughts and anxiety symptoms.

The problems arose for Daniel when he invited parents to counselling sessions. Having already conveyed assent for the young person’s criticisms of the parent he found that he was immediately biased towards parent blame. He worked to convey warmth towards the parent in order to engage them in exploring their relationship with the child but he was quick to be annoyed by what he perceived as their invalidating approach to their adolescent. Any slight gesture of negative body language from a parent would push Daniel’s emotional buttons of defence for his young client. Daniels focus would be on trying to help the parent see what their adolescent needed from them. There was little curiosity for what the parent was up against in relating to their adolescent or for the many years invested by the parent in trying to help their child. All he could see was the current conflict in the relationship and how this seemed to be causing emotional distress for the young person. Daniel was caught in a common helper’s triangle. He was on the side of his client and was unable to see the broader patterns of interaction as part of a complex backdrop to the adolescent’s current symptoms. Daniel genuinely believed in conveying warmth and respect for the parent but his side taking meant that the parent sensed that they were the focus of a blame and change effort. In turn the parent would be edgy with Daniel which gave him further confirmation of his biased view of their dismissive parenting style.

You may be wondering if it is ever possible to counsel one person without forming an alliance with their view of things. Without an understanding of relationship systems it is very difficult to avoid side taking. In particular, without an appreciation of the invitation to triangle, a helper inevitably falls into validating one person while blaming others – sometimes in subtle ways. A triangle is when a third party is used as a detour for dealing with an issue in the relationship between two people. When we are upset with another it is comforting to find a third party who will listen to our distress. The act of telling an outsider about our worry effectively calms us down. The predicament however is that the person is not working on their problem in the relationship in which it belongs. Additionally the third party now has a different view of the person who has been complained about. This infects a negative tone to the way they now relate to this person, as was happening with Daniel in his stance with his client’s parents.

When we construct our picture of a problem through the complaints and distress of an individual, it is natural that our focus will be helping them recover from what we perceive others have inflicted upon them. This forms the basis of the common helping triangle. Such side taking or triangling can be averted when the problem is explored through descriptions of patterns of interaction and how these relationships have adjusted to pressures of adverse circumstances over time. Exploring patterns of how each person has affected each other’s way of relating enables us to appreciate that every family member (or group member) has played a part in constructing current dynamics. Rather than draw out more details of a person’s complaint the helper asks: when does this happens, who is involved, how do they each respond, what is the effect of this?

Daniel was concerned about the blocks he experienced in working with parents of troubled adolescents. He knew their relationship with the young person was important to the adolescent recovering their wellbeing. As he came to see how he was getting caught in a triangle with the parents on the outside of his alliance with their child he began to work out ways to prevent this occurring. Rather than ask his young client to expand on their feelings of angst about their parents he would explore what they were doing to deal with their frustrations in their relationship. He tracked carefully the interactions the young person was regularly part of when conflicts or symptomatic behaviours escalated. As he saw a more objective view of parent-child relationships over time he began to appreciate how important it was to include parents in his counselling right up front. When parents expressed their grievances about the child (or the other parent) in counselling, he discovered that he could draw out how they were trying to address this in the relationship. This replaced his previous approach that provided a platform for making a case that another was the problem.

Getting caught in becoming a third party detour is a central pitfall of any helping relationship (professional, family, friendships, congregations, work). Any struggling person will feel better when they find an empathic listening ear to their problems within another relationship. The helper can also feel competent as they sense appreciation for providing positive validations that are missing from an important relationship. The short term relief of this alliance can easily give way to a helping impasse. While the upset person wants to feel supported, they have not been assisted to work their difficulty out in the important relationship in their life. When a helper shifts from encouraging venting about others, to identifying patterns in relationship with others, they can become a valuable resource for a person’s change process. They still convey respect and concern for the weight of the difficulty but they resist the invitation to side taking.

‘Side Taking or Triangling in a Helping Relationship’ – Jenny Brown

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The One Up, One Down Pattern: A recipe for burn out and dependency

counselling-handsI am feeling close to burn out in my work. I provide my clients with lots of affirmation, good listening and suggestions from my training on the best ways to improve their situation or reduce their symptoms. After about 6 sessions I often feel stuck and frustrated.
What are the key pitfalls in offering help and counsel to others? Most problems in helping efforts occur in the ‘one up, one down’ relationship pattern. In my last blog I mentioned how I developed the ‘one up’ position in my family of origin and how this fuelled some unhelpful patterns in my early counselling work. I have also written about this pattern in the chapters in my book [Growing Yourself Up] on understanding family of origin, marriage, parenting and workplace. It is such a central relationship dynamic to any group that it deserves a bit more elaboration. Dr Bowen called this the over- under functioning reciprocity. This is where one person responds to the distress in another with increasing support, while the other responds to the support with reduced responsibility. It happens in a circular back and forth pattern that can start on either side of the relationship. People who feel most secure and affirmed being helpful to others find themselves connected to people who are most comfortable when others are paying them attention in a caretaking manner. In many ways the conventional counselling relationship is set up in this way.
So what’s the problem with this? I recall speaking to an experienced counsellor, Fiona, who came to me for supervision saying:
I am feeling close to burn out in my work. I provide my clients with lots of affirmation, good listening and suggestions from my training on the best ways to improve their situation or reduce their symptoms. After about 6 sessions I often feel stuck and frustrated. My clients say they get so much out of coming to talk to me but they don’t seem to be making any progress in between our sessions.
Fiona and I teased out her pattern in her counselling relationships. She could see how much her clients liked coming to see her because of her warmth and attentiveness. On the other hand she could also appreciate that she was helping in a way that was inadvertently fostering dependency. On behalf of her clients she was doing most of the work to sooth their insecurities and think of ways to address their difficulties. Her clients always felt buoyed after a counselling session and they liked the advice they heard, however because they hadn’t come up with their own solutions they couldn’t find the inner resolve to implement or stick with Fiona’s suggestions. As we explored this approach to counselling and the varied ways it took over a client’s own responsibilities Fiona could appreciate how this fed into her exhaustion and confusion. Increasingly she found herself referring her clients on for more intense therapy or for psychiatric assessment. Previously unbeknown to her, she had been playing a significant part in her clients reduced progress.
Fiona began to see that her position in her family had contributed to her tendency to be so helpful. Her younger sister had many symptoms during their school years and she had learned ways to reduce her parent’s stress by taking on some of the caretaking. She would spend many hours with her sister distracting her when she was depressed and would include her in her social activities. Fiona found it helpful to see how her caretaking posture was so well honed in her family. Her counselling training had acted to consolidate this pattern.
Fiona’s effort went into reducing her support for her clients. This seemed so counterintuitive and yet she understood that she did not want to continually promote dependency. She retained her commitment to good listening and conveying a tone of warm respect. Interestingly she did report her effort to reduce her tone of concerned compassion as she could see that it fed into her client’s perception that she was more on their side than any member of their own family. She began to increase the time gap between her sessions to communicate that she wanted to give people adequate time to observe and experiment with ideas in their real world and to use counselling as a place to review instead of a place to be changed. Rather than give advice she asked questions about the clients own problem solving efforts – what had they learned about what was helpful and what wasn’t? She became more careful about sharing information from professional training. We talked a good deal in supervision about when she would ascertain the appropriate timing for sharing information. Her new rule of thumb became to ensure her client had explored their own patterns of coping thoroughly before she would convey relevant professional knowledge. She would select carefully the information to share that matched her client’s own descriptions. For example when a woman she was working with said that she always did better when she slowed things down, Fiona opened up a conversation about ways to reduce the physiological effects of stress and anxiety. She was able to add some ideas for temporary stress reduction in a non-authoritative manner. Her key message in sharing information was: “This may or may not be helpful for you but might add to the ideas you are trialling.” As a professional helper Fiona was learning to collaborate with her clients, jointly investigating their patterns for dealing with their symptoms or challenges in their important relationship contexts. This more equal posture was very different to the previous ‘one up, one down’. It was providing Fiona with a new way to view her helping efforts and provided a platform for a sustainable counselling career.

Next blog: a story of triangling/side taking in a helping relationship

‘The One Up, One Down Pattern‘ – Jenny Brown

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The Grown Up Helper

fileAll this focus on maturing self, begs the question: Is it sufficient just to work on growing ourselves up in our relationships? Surely there’s a place for being a counsellor and helper; a place for guiding and supporting others in finding ways out of troubles?

A core message in my book, Growing Yourself Up, is that the best way to help others is to work on fostering our own maturity. A more mature presence in any group assists others to be more thoughtful and less reactive. Conversely the reactive, less mature responses of gossiping (triangling), avoiding, taking too much control, blaming and being defensive, all contribute to others getting stuck in their problem issues.

All this focus on maturing self does, however, beg a valid question. Is it sufficient just to work on growing ourselves up in our relationships? Surely there’s a place for being a counsellor and helper; a place for guiding and supporting others in finding ways out of troubles?

Indeed there are many circumstances when the role of helper is needed. Many of us are in positions where we are called on to lend a hand to others in distress – as helping professionals, pastoral care workers, volunteers in community organisations. Or perhaps we often find ourselves in the role of ‘accidental counsellor’ in our communities and workplaces. People seem to open up to us or we just happen to be sharing an office space or place waiting at the school gate with another who tells of their trying circumstances. In such situations it is senseless and probably selfish to simply say to ourselves: ‘I am just working on being the most mature person I can be.’

Some of us are prone to running away from people in distress. I think of those well known to me who learnt to stay out of the way of family member’s problems and to allow the worry to be managed by others. For many people they lowered their own stress by distancing and staying well clear of other family member’s upsets. They became accustomed to the over- responsible family members taking this on. For such people the effort to be a more mature helper will involve being more attentive to others who are struggling. It will require tolerating their strong emotions without jumping in to give strategies or change the subject; and maintaining genuine ongoing contact with people in their seasons of anguish.

For others, including myself, the most comfortable place was to be in the middle of helping others. Distress in another was a signal to move in and make things better. This place in the family earned a sense of importance and being appreciated. As a confidant to my mother I learned to be helpful by letting her vent about her worries about my siblings. I would join in the triangle dance by discussing ways to assist the absent 3rd parties. On one occasion I recall going into one of my sister’s bedrooms to open up to her about personal details of my life and in turn to see if she would open up to me. I didn’t do this of my own accord. My mother suggested this strategy I order to prevent my sister from distancing further from the family. I was learning to help by creating indirect communication in my family. I didn’t realise at the time that this was not helping at all (Although I do recall it being a very awkward interaction with my sister). Rather it created more confusion and stress in relationships.

As a helping professional I can look back and see that much of my early counselling was via triangles as I had been primed in my helping role in my family growing up. I would join the client in focussing on their worry about another person – for example their child or spouse. I would listen to their descriptions of the problem behaviours in the absent third party and give possible explanations for this. I would join the client in strategizing about how to change or straighten out the other. Added to this I would offer my client empathy for the hard time they were having caring for or putting up with the other. People appreciated all of this help and I was validated as a novice helping professional. I have come to see however that even help that people are grateful for may not be helpful in the bigger picture. Help that bypasses a person looking at their own responsibility will not assist to make genuine change in a relationship. Help that focusses on what one thinks another should change will inject pressure into the relational space of this person which will not promote thoughtfulness. It will predictably promote resistance or increased neediness.

If you’ve previously thought that helping is a simply natural human instinct, you may well be asking yourself why add all this complexity? Does the business of helping others need to be so fraught and messy? Sadly the anxieties that flow in all our relationships can complicate natural processes of caring for others. Over the coming weeks my blogs will explore help that is helpful. What are the ways to best lend a hand to another who is struggling in their relationships or in dealing with life challenges?

‘The Grown Up Helper’ – Jenny Brown

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A Focus on Functioning not Fixing

img_4120Working on best functioning promotes the building of a more resilient and less dependent self. This is a different emphasis from a focus on trying to fix symptoms, such as depression or low self- confidence.
Last week I chatted to a young woman who said: “I just have to find a way to improve my self-confidence.” She had experienced many periods of low mood and had struggled to find energy to establish herself as an independent adult. She hadn’t managed to get her driving licence, or complete her university courses. Since her school days she had shifted back and forth from dependence on her parents to dependence on a religious or social group. I asked what she would work on if her goal was to function for herself a bit better each day. We chatted about how working on best functioning, such as her idea that she could cook daily simple meals, promotes the building of a more resilient and less dependent self. This is a different emphasis from a focus on trying to fix symptoms of depression or poor self- confidence. It got me thinking about Michael, another person who had worked to improve his day to day functioning and reduce his dependence on his wife Shelley to manage his life. Here is an excerpt of his story:

Being more real rather than feeling better (From Growing Yourself Up, J Brown. Ch. 12 Symptoms & Setbacks P 176- 179)
As Michael came to see the correlation between his dependence on relationships and his sense of wellbeing, he could shift his focus from trying to fix his symptoms to trying to grow himself up. This growing-up process was going to need to be taken one step at a time as the wiring to react to others was deeply ingrained. When he had focused on how badly he felt, how anxious he was, and how hard it was to sleep, he found that he would become increasingly overwhelmed. His symptom focus left him feeling helpless and looking to the ‘experts’ to come up with a solution. However, when Michael started to work on himself and not his symptoms, he took his focus off his feelings and started to work on his day-to-day adult responsibilities, such as getting to bed at a reasonable hour, eating three meals a day, doing daily light exercise and getting himself to work on time. These efforts were focused on using his inner resources at a basic level rather than looking to others to motivate him with praise and encouragement.

Prior to tackling his own self-management, Michael had fallen into a pattern of allowing Shelley to treat him as the patient. He was letting her manage all his appointments, as well as allowing her to remind him to take his medication and cook and clean up for him. Shelley talked through how she could return to treating Michael as her husband and not be a caretaker for him. This meant she started asking for his help again and shared with him her own daily ups and downs. She worked to even up the lopsided relationship rather than to focus on trying to fix Michael.
As Michael worked to better understand himself in his family he began to consider ways he could make contact with his father and begin to get to know him as a person rather than continue to write him off as a villain. None of these efforts was easy for Michael and his progress in managing himself and staying in contact with others was often slow. His anxieties about letting people down at work, and his consequent drain in energy and sleep disruption, were also slow to improve. Michael did, however, report feeling stronger as a person, with a growing acceptance of the sensitivities generated in his earlier relationships.
I recall Michael speaking about the struggle to accept how hard it was to function without lots of approval At times I get so discouraged with how consumed I get with my awful thoughts. I can see that both Mum and Dad, in different ways, struggled with their confidence and looked to others to boost them. I guess it isn’t any wonder that I struggle as well.
I wish I had been given a better deal from my family patterns but I get that I have to do the best I can with what I’ve got.
For Michael, and others like him who struggle with disproportionate fears and discouragements, it’s helpful to take the focus off feelings and to look at doing things that strengthen maturity from within. Following are three guidelines that can assist with this in the midst of challenging symptoms.

1. Function rather than fix
Look at the things you can manage to do each day that keep you responsible for yourself. When life energy is at a low ebb this might not be much more than feeding yourself three decent meals and getting out of bed when the alarm goes off.

2. Be a person rather than a patient
Take care not to allow others to take over basic responsibilities for you. Even when receiving medical advice stay involved in your choices and keep managing your own diary.

3. Keep in contact with others

The easiest thing to do when the pressure is high is to avoid others, especially those who are most challenging to your confidence. The more you are able to maintain some contact with a variety of people, the more you are able to experience yourself as a solid person. You can see that the focus is on taking small, realistic steps to be more of a self. It isn’t the same as a purely medical approach to mental illness which focuses on fixing the symptoms. Rather than analyse the severity of symptoms, the premise is that when a person can lift their functioning just a tad, their symptoms start to become less overwhelming.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other
To grow up in the face of the energy drain of anxiety and depression can be an enormous challenge. The most important principle is to not give up your responsibility for managing yourself to the best of your current ability, no matter how compromised this may be. The more you fall into becoming a patient, who is dependent on others and medication to solve the problem, the more you contribute to an increase in helplessness. This doesn’t mean medication isn’t sometimes a helpful choice but it should not be at the expense of working on managing yourself in the basic responsibilities of each day. And if you can see that a family member is taking on the role of managing your condition, it’s timely for you to step up and get back in charge of your own health care. This is not easy when you feel so lacking in personal resources but it will assist you to hold onto enough adult self to be able to keep moving forward wisely and compassionately.

‘A Focus on Functioning not Fixing’ – Jenny Brown

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Knowing when to ignore our children

ignoring-regressive-behaviourHow does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. I was chatting to a Mum last week about her 7 year old who was crying about not wanting to do swimming lessons in the school holidays. She had been learning swimming with her older sister throughout the year, and while she hadn’t been enthusiastic, she was making progress and participating.  On the cusp of the holiday swimming program this little girl declared that she was afraid of the water and didn’t want to be made to do swimming. I explored with the mother her possible responses to this protest. She was clear that swimming lessons were important due to the family’s proximity to the beach. For her it was not just an extra-curricular activity, it was about ocean safety. She did reflect that this younger child tended to become anxious and slip backwards just as she was making some maturing progress. Her responses had often been to sit down with her daughter and try to talk through her worries. She would suggest strategies for managing her fears but found that the more she reassured her daughter the more her daughter seemed to express her apprehensions.

In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. A parent can try to get to the bottom of their child’s setbacks by focussing on their fears and feelings. It can be quite disillusioning when the child then regresses further in response to such attention. A parent may then get frustrated with the child or teen and shift their positive attention to more negative cajoling: “Come on you can get yourself to swimming lessons; you’ve been doing it all year. You’re just being difficult!” The negative attention often leads to more ‘stuckness’ for the child and parent and the tone of their interactions easily becomes tense.

I recall a period in my own parenting, after an inter country move, when my then 3 year old began showing distress when I left her at her nursery school. She had previously been very happy to have me leave and had commenced her new ½ day pre-school with excitement and confidence. When she showed her 1st sign of separation distress I recall the staff becoming anxious about the child who had travelled all the way from Australia. They strongly encouraged me to stay with her to assist her in the transition and this synced with my own concerns about by child’s vulnerability. Some weeks later I was still sitting beside my daughter in the welcome circle joining in the children’s action songs and assisting with the afternoon activities. I often think I should have been put on the pay roll. Predictably my daughter did not increase her autonomy but became habitually distressed with the first inkling of separation. At the time I did not see the part that I had played in reinforcing her regression.

Bowen observed that when a child is focussed on anxiously they respond with increasingly impaired behaviours. This can happen in families, in schools, in psychological treatment. It is predictable that as a child reaches a new developmental milestone of more independence and mastery of skills, that they exhibit episodes of retreat to an earlier stage of dependence on caregivers. This is part of the growing up trajectory. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.  In essence, they ignore the child’s reversion behaviours and invitations for the parent to treat them as if they were back in a more dependent stage. When the child resumes their age appropriate functioning, the parent attends to the child with calm reassurance.

What might this look like? Drawing from the example of the 7 year old’s protests about swimming lessons: Firstly the mother will recognise her own uncertainties and steady herself so as not to inject her sensitivities into the child’s situation. When the objections arise the Mother can demonstrate with a brief comment that she will not entertain such protests. This is followed up by ignoring continued winging/wining from the child. The parent does not give attention to the child’s upset in the form of concern, advice or stern lectures.  Any parent will find this challenging and will need to attend to their own discomfort in reaction to their upset child. It is predictable that the child will up the ante of their upset for a time. They will give this up when they can sense that the parent is going to maintain their resolve. When the child moves back into participating in their swimming classes, as they previously had been able to do, the parents acknowledge the child’s efforts and show interest in what they have mastered. They take care not to ‘over- focus’, through exaggerated praise or reward for what is simply the child’s appropriate engagement in their life activities.

Looking back on my own nursery school internship with my then 3 year old I can see how helpful it would have been to ignore the initial displays of separation distress – To give the usual loving gestures of good bye and to leave calmly. At the afternoon pick up I would show an interest in her activities but not give my attention to discussing her earlier upset. With the passing of 25 years it is much easier to see a way through. At the time I was working through my own separation challenges from my extended family and I can see how this made it difficult to distinguish between my insecurities and my child’s emotions. Growing ourselves up as parents (or carers) requires managing our own insecurities so as not to allow them to spill over into our relating with our child.

The current tide of parenting is all about attending to a child’s distress and showing sensitivity to their needs. Challenging this ethos guarantees emotive counteractions from many ‘child experts’ and conscientious parents devoted to the path of tuning into their child’s emotions. Of course there are apt times to listen well and support a child as they face real challenges. This is different to attention that reinforces a child’s natural moments of resisting steady steps towards increased maturity. A parent who can see their part in these patterns can be the very best resource for their child’s resilience.

Key questions for reflection

  • How do I respond to my child when their behaviour is a step back in age appropriate maturity? { e.g. might be tantrums, thumb sucking, sleeping in parents bed, separation distress, refusal to do tasks or participate]
  • Do I attend to such regressions either positively (reassurance, affection) or negatively (lectures, threats)? Am I reacting to the other parent by attending with the opposite tone?
  • What do I observe of the effects of such attention over time on my child’s resilience?
  • What are my own internal struggles in the face of seeing my child’s increased neediness or immaturity? How can I keep myself calm and thoughtful? Can I recognise when my child’s increased neediness of me steadies my own insecurities?
  • What ways do I support my child’s steps towards more autonomy? – With acknowledgement and interest that encourage progress or with exaggerated praise, and rewards that promotes immature entitlement?


To read more see: p 106 – 129 in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Jenny Brown

If you’re going to assist your child to grow their resilience, the first step will be to increase your own resilience in tolerating your child’s upset without feeling compelled to rush in and smooth over everything for them. The grown-up parent, who really wants to be a loving resource to their child, is prepared to work on themselves and not make a project out of their child. P 108

Relevant Quote from Murray Bowen MD

The process begins with anxiety in the mother. The child responds anxiously to the mother, which she misperceives as a problem in the child. [The father usually plays a role – he is sensitive to the mother’s anxiety, and he tends to support her view and help her implement her anxious efforts at mothering] The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. Once the process has started, it can be motivated either by anxiety in the mother, or anxiety in the child. In the average situation there may be symptomatic episodes at stressful periods during childhood which gradually increase to major symptoms during or after adolescence. P 381 FTCP

‘Knowing when to ignore our children’ – Jenny Brown

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The Excluded Sister – feeling like an outsider in the family

3 sisters
The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains NSW Australia

Shelley had never considered the idea that her ‘tight’ mother and sister’s relationship could provide her with some ‘growing up’ opportunities as she practiced tolerating being an outsider.

I was chatting to a friend (who I’ll call Shelley) about how my relationship with my sisters has grown to be such a positive resource for me. Shelley bemoaned her relationship with her only sister saying that she always felt pushed to the outside while her older sister and mother shared a cosy togetherness. She felt excluded as she observed her mother and sister sharing much of their life with each other. Shelley sensed that they often talked critically about her, judging her motives and discussing her foibles.

I asked her how she manages feeling like the outsider with her sister and mother. Shelley’s response was: “I’ve given up on ever having a decent relationship with either of them, especially my sister. She is just a drain on my life and I can’t be bothered to work on it being any different.”

Shelley described occasionally making an effort to get her mother to herself but always felt like she gets pushed to the background seeing her mother privileging time with her sister.

This kind of relationship triangle is not uncommon. Usually when there is tension with a sibling this can best be understood by looking at the different relationship each sibling has with each parent. The way the parent invests in, leans on or worries about each of their children (at any age) will shape the way their children experience each other. Shelley viewed her sister as arrogant and exclusive but this can be seen differently when understanding the way her mother drew strength from her relationship with her eldest through the growing up years. When Shelley’s parents divorced she recalled that her mum looked increasingly to her eldest daughter for company and support. As the younger daughter by a few years Shelley remembers always being treated as the baby who was monitored by both her mother and sister. In contrast, in her relationship with her Dad, she sensed that he found her easiest to spend time with and would often spoil her.

As we chatted I shared some of my own sensitivities to being left out of some of my family relationships. These could typically be a sister gathering where I felt that I couldn’t get a word in; or hearing two members of my family discuss important things that I had not previously heard about. I have learned that being on the outside of a close twosome provides me with some excellent practice in regulating my emotions – toning down any negative reactions to those I feel excluded by. It’s been useful to practice being more comfortable as an outsider. As one who felt most secure when my mother leant on me, I have worked at not always be ‘needing to be needed’. I have consciously cultivated appreciating when others align to support each other with myself on the periphery. I’ve worked at stopping trying to get attention or to have more air time in these ‘outsider’ situations. I’ve learned to affirm the closeness of the other two people. This has enabled me to tone down my anxiety-driven competition to get the relationship inclusion that steadied me. What’s been fascinating in these changes is watching how the ‘tightness’ between others starts to appear less intense or offensive. As such, the sense of exclusion declines over time.

Shelley was surprised to hear of these experiences. She had never considered the idea that her mother and sister’s relationship could provide her with some ‘growing up’ opportunities as she practiced tolerating being an outsider. Considering the benefit of their relationship for her family’s coping with its many life challenges also provided a novel perspective. Shelley could be less critical of her sister as she saw how much the ‘mother – daughter’ closeness had helped her mother to keep up her life functioning at the difficult times. Rather than try to get some insider time with her Mum she wondered about conveying to her mother and sister how she admired the way they help each other out. She laughed at the prospect of such a radical reversal.

I don’t know if Shelley will begin to think differently about her sister through the lens of the triangle – that includes her and her Mum. It’s never easy to make such adjustments to our relationship sensitivities. Distancing and blaming usually feels like an easier path. I think it’s helpful to consider how we all need to be able to function well as outsiders in many parts of life. There will always be twosomes and groups that pull together as ways of managing life in families, workplaces, community groups and churches. We won’t always be in the cosy inside group and that is a good thing – with many advantages. When we are struggling with feelings of exclusion it’s useful to ponder how we are most likely a part of a relationship triangle and any reactions such as distancing or competitive manoeuvrers will contribute to the intensity of the triangle.

Questions for Reflection

  • Are there times I feel particularly stressed when feeling excluded? In which relationships does this usually occur?
  • Can I see a triangle at work in these situations – where two people have steadied each other by being aligned in contrast to a third?
  • In which situations am I on the inside of a triangle? When am I on the inside?
  • What patterns do I notice when I feel like an outsider? Can I see ways to halt those patterns of distance, criticism, competiveness, pursuing another for attention?
  • What are the opportunities to practice being able to maturely manage in the outside position?

For more information about relationship triangles read – ‘Growing Yourself Up” pages 44-46. And 144-5

Bowen writes FTCP p 478 & 480

‘A two person system is unstable in that it forms itself into a three person system or triangle under stress.’

‘When there is finally one who can control his/her emotional responsiveness and not take sides with either of the two, and stay constantly in contact with the other two, the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease and both will move to a higher level of differentiation [maturity].’


‘The Excluded Sister – feeling like an outsider in the family’Jenny Brown


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What does it mean to be mature?

GYU-front-cover-2011Sept600pixRelational maturity involves being able to hold onto our inner direction when the pressure is high. It involves staying connected to others in a meaningful way while also staying aware of one’s responsibility.

Interview with Jenny Brown

I was asked the following questions in an interview for a community magazine piece. I appreciated the opportunity for reflection and thought that others might find it useful food for thought:

I’ve read your book ‘Growing Yourself Up’ as well as your blog and found them very helpful for understanding my part in relational dynamics. What would you say is the main insight of the book?

It’s hard to pin down a central insight. The central premise is that if we can get our focus off blaming or trying to change others and work on our responsibilities in our relationships we can contribute to healthier relationships.

 What does it mean to be mature?

Family Systems understands that all of us humans have inherited various levels of maturity in relationships from our intergenerational families. Relational maturity involves being able to hold onto our inner direction when the pressure is high. It involves staying connected to others in a meaningful way while also staying aware of one’s responsibility. Immaturity is when we are shaped by relationship tensions – either by putting aside principles in order to be accepted or by distancing from important others when feeling under pressure.

How do we change to be more mature, and what are the obstacles to maturity?

The starting point is learning to see our immaturities and be realistic about the relationship sensitivities we’ve brought from our families of origin. It’s not really an appealing project to confront our maturity gaps but it is essential to improving the way we function in relationships. Helpful awareness grows from good observation of ourselves in relationships – especially during times of stress. Do I distance? Do I avoid by venting to 3rd parties? Do I become over adequate or controlling? Do I give up my problem solving and allow others to take over? Do I over invest in the life of another – perhaps one of my children? These are the common patterns for managing relational demands without bringing a more mature self to these pressures. Being aware of our predictable patterns is the key to slowly adjusting the way we behave.

The obstacles to maturity in this anxious world are many. A key one is the pull to focus on others at the expense of seeing ourselves honestly. Stress and busyness gets in the way of building improving our ability to observe self in relationships. It’s also extremely difficult to get objective about our-selves when our emotions are highly charged. Symptoms or problems in others draw our focus to ‘fixing’ efforts rather than addressing our part in contributing to a more health generating environment. Individual thinking, rather than seeing how all of us affect each other, is another obstacle to growing maturity.

How can we help each other grow ourselves up?

We help by being meaningfully connected to each other in open and honest relationships. We help by addressing our issues in the relationships in which they have arisen, as opposed to taking our issues elsewhere. We assist by not rescuing or over- helping others. In other words we respect the other’s space to find their own way through their difficulties, while demonstrating that we care and are ‘side by side’ with them. We listen well and share our own experiences rather than telling others what to do. We allow others to hear about our own journeys of joy and sorrow in a way that promotes mutual compassion and a deeper knowledge of each other. We stay persistent in prayer for others.

I know you’ve done a lot of training of people in ministry – what’s your biggest piece of advice for people doing Christian ministry?

Christian ministry, because of its imperative to serve others, has particularly intense challenges to not get caught up in others expectations. One of the most common dilemmas I hear is: how do I truly love and serve those in my community without getting burnt out? I think that the path of genuine contact with others without going into ‘over functioning- controlling-pleasing’ is a biggie. Avoiding triangling is also useful – to not rely on 3rd party lines of communication – as this will distort how one views others and generates unnecessary negativity or exaggerated worry.

What’s the most interesting feedback you’ve received about your work and how have you seen it affect people?

I do find it interesting that many people perceive this family systems approach to be uncaring. To me it is a different way of caring that is committed to the best for others.

I am regularly surprised at how people report being able to change the way they operate in their life and relationships by turning their attention to changing themselves and not others. People report that this lifts a huge burden from their experience of relationships. I admit that I am surprised that people are able to make shifts just from reading a book – I find that system’s thinking is complicated and difficult to apply. I have endeavoured in this book to make the ideas more accessible. I am truly encouraged that some people have found this effort useful.

‘What does it mean to be mature?’ – Jenny Brown


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Growing Self or Borrowing Self

Borrowing selfGrowing Self or Borrowing Self – an important distinction in growing up efforts.

Generating goal directed activity from within is quite different from being motivated by external factors. We can ask ourselves if we are dependent on factors outside of us – such as relationship attention – to produce results; or we can consider if our productivity is generated from our inner clarity about our priorities, personal ethics and life balance.

Gina explained to me that she is a perfectionist. She is happy when she is delivering on challenging assignments. Good outcomes at work give her a sense of satisfaction and steadiness.  She relishes being given challenging projects; however when she is left to initiate her own projects she finds it challenging to find motivation. In contrast to the energy of delivering designated assignments, when left to her own devices she feels lazy and inefficient. With this come feelings of guilt about not being adequate.

When I asked about her experiences growing up Gina recalled that she always felt driven to work hard in contrast to her siblings who were unmotivated with their school work. She remembers her parents worrying about her brothers and providing them with incentives to work harder. Gina didn’t need incentives to study. She was sensitive to her parent’s anxiety about poor performance at school and was constantly anxious about whether she was doing enough work to succeed. She recalls her sensitivity to her parents setting a high bar for her school achievements. In particular she remembers her father suggesting ways she could work harder and smarter. She didn’t hear her parents ask her to consider her own ways to measure what a reasonable effort is or to consider her balance of down time to work time. Rather it seemed that her parent’s postures about succeeding academically set a measure for Gina’s own efforts. Her measures came from outside of herself and relied on external direction.

So much of our hard work is driven by ‘borrowing self’ from our relationship processes. We act in ways to avoid upset in others or to sense their approval. We either invite others to fill in our gaps in being able to fulfil our adult tasks or we rely on others to set our tasks for us. Gina borrowed her internal drive from being distinct from her brothers. Her brothers borrowed their functioning from their parent’s external rewards to propel them to study. Gina sensed that hard work would please her parents and avoid generating worry. Of course all members of her family played their part in this process. Her parents were unknowingly loaning self to Gina through their advice giving and ways of pushing her to work harder.

There are many variations on how a person comes to rely on external relationship forces to generate their motivation. Generating goal directed activity from within is quite different from being motivated by external factors. We can ask ourselves if we are dependent on factors outside of us – such as relationship attention – to produce results; or we can consider if our productivity is generated from our inner clarity about our priorities, personal ethics and life balance.

Here is a table that compares the difference between borrowing from external factors to function, compared to directing our daily tasks from our inner guidelines.  It isn’t exhaustive but may assist in recognising activity that is dependent on the external relationship circumstance with activity that is generated from our internal regulation. What is missing from the list is the way other loan self-direction and emotion-regulation to the borrower. It may be helpful to ask if you are the one loaning self as you read through the Borrowing Self column. There are always relationship circuits at work in shaping a person’s functioning. Consider how this is playing out in all important relationships: parenting, marriage, siblings, friendships, work teams.


Borrowing Self Building Self
Needing cues from others to take initiative


Building an alternative positive identity via comparison with the negative focus received by others


Drawing on other’s approval and attention to

perform well


Working to measure up to others expectations


Allowing others to calm us down and solve our problems for us



Seeing other’s high achievement as a justification for our under-achievement


Drawing on other’s disapproval to bolster our sense of distinct identity (the rebel)



Initiative comes from a sense of inner priority


Managing life tasks is directed by principle and not driven by a comparison with other’s lesser functioning


Performing well because of own commitment to bringing our best and not needing to be praised.


Having realistic expectations for ourselves


Being responsible for noticing signs of stress and tension and changing our physiology to become more thoughtful and relaxed


Not allowing other’s successes to discourage our ongoing focus on our best efforts.


Being able to stay on a steady track and in connection with others even when they express  disapproval


Murray Bowen on reciprocal exchanging of ‘selfs’ in relationship

The exchanging of selfs may be on a short or long term basis. The borrowing and trading of selfs may take place automatically in a work group in which the emotional process ends up with one employee in the one- down or de- selfed position, while the other gains self. FTCP : 366

The ‘losing’ and ‘gaining’ of self are examples of the fluid shifting of strengths and weaknesses that occur within the family ego mass. FTCP:111

Teenagers can still have the ability to dissolve the selfs of parents. It is easy for parents to yield to meeting excessive demands for money and privileges, in the hope that the youngster has finally changed. FTCP: 431

The investment of self, or fusion, exists in all levels of intensity ….Once a child is ‘programmed’ to a certain level of ‘giving and receiving’, with mother (parents), this level remains relatively fixed throughout life. The child can have an ‘open and loving’ relationship only when conditions for that level of investment of self in each other are met. FTCP: 429

It is factual that dysfunctioning and over- functioning exist together. …the over- functioning one routinely sees this as necessary to compensate for the poor functioning of the other. FTCP: 155

FTCP : Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

‘Growing Self or Borrowing Self’ – Jenny Brown

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Watch Out for Inconsistent Maturity

large(excerpt from Growing Yourself Up : How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Ch 2. P 27- 30 J Brown)

To varying degrees, all of us have a disparity between what we know is best and how we actually live. Rather than address our immaturity, it’s often easier to just focus on doing what brings instant validation and ignore the areas where we have to face up to the disapproval or challenge of others.

One of the best ways to test the genuineness of your maturity is to see if the characteristics of solid adult functioning are displayed in each part of your life. Many people appear to be quite mature in their public profiles yet struggle to lift themselves above childish tendencies in their home lives. An example of this was Jerry, who came to counselling reeling from the distress of his wife Sally walking out on him. This shockwave came after 30 years of marriage and the raising of four children to adulthood.

Jerry said in a somewhat stunned state: ‘I have always been an optimist, believing that nothing bad would happen to me and if a problem arose I’d always be able to find my way through it. I can’t believe that Sally is refusing to come back and to work on our marriage!’

In his current circumstances Jerry was reduced to a distressing state of helplessness. Sally had told him that in her heart she had left the marriage years ago and she had only remained for the stability of the children. Jerry described his desperation in pleading with Sally to try to work things out, only to be met by her resolute declaration that it was too late now as she had lost all motivation to try. Jerry could not come to terms with the lack of options he had in trying to pull his marriage together.

In desperation he asked, ‘How could she do this to me, and to our kids? Doesn’t she realise how much this will damage us all and the family’s reputation? At least she could have given me some forewarning!’

As Jerry began to reflect on himself as a husband, he started to acknowledge that he had neglected his wife in many ways and had taken her commitment for granted. The biggest conundrum for Jerry was that intellectually he knew that a good marriage required regular times to talk, attention to a healthy sex life and working together on managing the household and parenting; yet Jerry had behaved in ways that contradicted his own beliefs. He had been a high flyer in his law practice and was admired by many. Over the years he had mentored younger associates with marriage problems, and he had even given them advice about how to get a better work–life balance.

As Jerry emerged from behind his shock and denial he started to ask himself, ‘How could I have been so wise with others and so stupid in my own marriage?’

Jerry was facing the jarring realisation that his seemingly mature persona in the outside world had not translated into a depth of principled living in one of the most important arenas of his life. He expressed his heartbreak in realising this now, when it appeared it was too late to turn things around in his marriage. Of course, there were many patterns of immaturity in his wife Sally that led her to being secretive about her discontent. It was appealing for Jerry to focus on his wife’s failings but when questioned he could acknowledge that this would do him no good in addressing his own immaturity.

Jerry is not alone with this problem of inconsistency. He knew how to function with responsibility in some parts of his life but neglected his responsibility in other important areas. When he had a public audience he was able to feed off the validation this gave him to build a strong façade; but when he was behind the scenes he was unable to find the drive to pursue his values. His behaviour was directed more by what was rewarding and comfortable in the here and now than what he believed was important and would bring longer term satisfaction.

Staying where it’s uncomfortable in relationships

To varying degrees, all of us have aspects of Jerry’s problem: a disparity between what we know is best and how we actually live. Rather than address our immaturity, it’s often easier to just focus on doing what brings instant validation and ignore the areas where we have to face up to the disapproval or challenge of others. In this way, we borrow a pretend maturity from relationships that validate us rather than grow our inner maturity to become more balanced and responsible across the spectrum of life. We gravitate to the people who admire us and don’t threaten to expose our vulnerabilities, and distance ourselves from the important people with whom we have difficult issues to work through. Choosing to avoid tension and stay in situations where we experience more positive energy from others is an attractive path to follow. But it’s a path that will restrict our growth, and that of others, towards real maturity.

Questions for reflection

»»In what parts of my life do I appear most mature? How do I depend on others’ approval to be comfortable in these areas?

»»In what parts of my life am I least responsible? Where could I start to be more of a solid adult in these areas?

Murray Bowen on pretend maturity:

‘It is average for the human to “pretend” a state [of maturity] which has not been attained. In certain situations, every person is vulnerable to pretending to be more or less mature than he or she really is.’

—Murray Bowen MD (in Kerr & Bowen Family Evaluation p 342

‘The pseudo-self is an actor and can be many different selfs. The list of pretends is extensive. He can pretend to be more important or less important, stronger or weaker, or more attractive or less attractive than is realistic.’

—Murray Bowen MD In Family Therapy in Clinical Practice p 365


‘Watch Out for Inconsistent Maturity’ – Jenny Brown


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Interventions and Confrontations

testimageInterventions and Confrontations – Are they the most helpful ways to respond to severe problems in a person we care for?

Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other.

Last week a relative called me to talk through their ideas for an “intervention”. They wanted to challenge a friend to admit to their symptoms and agree to get some professional help. I appreciated the deep care behind this request. I heard about how a long term friend had been exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms that were threatening many aspects of their wellbeing. I was happy to be a sounding board for my relative and to share some of my principles for communicating such important concerns to someone we care about. The term ‘intervention’ usually refers to the effort to gather a group of people together and confront a person about their need for help. It is often used in the case of serious drug and alcohol dependence. Web sites on how to do interventions describe the context:

People with serious addictive behaviours are often in denial that they have a problem. When heart to heart talks and other attempts to help prove ineffective, you can join forces with friends, families and a professional interventionist to confront the person with the truth and a detailed plan of action.

Many years ago I was a participant in such a strategy and experienced a long term fall out in the relationship as the years progressed. In more recent years I have come to a different view of such strategies. Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. Here are the key principles – some of which I shared with my relative:

  • The goal is to express to the other that they are important in my life as opposed to challenging how they are living their life.
  • Rather than confront the other with the problems in their life – which evokes intense defensiveness – I want to express my wish to have them as part of my life well into the future.
  • In conveying my care for having them as a living and important part of my life I will share some of the observations I have had that have triggered my concern..
  • I use the language of “I” rather than “You” in describing what I have observed and what fears for their wellbeing have been activated.
  • I describe the effects on me and our relationship and how this is different to the strong loving bond I am committed to as we continue as part of each other’s lives. This is different to describing my view of the effects on their life – positioning self as the expert overseer of another’s life can be heard as patronising and drive a wedge into the relationship.
  • I aim to talk one on one with the person rather than pull a group together to confront them. A group confrontation easily leaves a person feeling ganged up on.
  • I commit to ongoing contact with the person to show that my care for them is more than words. I don’t expect that just a conversation will change anything. I am committed to addressing my part in any unhelpful aspects of the relationship pattern over the long haul. This means I will not resort to distancing.
  • I will be truthful and not accommodating but my effort at honesty will be from my perspective and principles rather than a dogmatic declaration that I am an expert about the other. My effort towards speaking honestly will be grounded in real examples not in my subjective judgements and opinion.
  • I will watch my tendencies to be an expert about others rather than staying mindful of my own immaturities. I will stay clear of treating another person as a ‘diagnosis’ but rather will view them as a fellow human being who can be an important resource in my life.
  • If I were to focus on just a diagnosis in another it is all too easy to hand them over to an expert program as a way of reducing my own sense of distress- and my responsibility to work on myself in relationship with the other.

I appreciate that it isn’t easy to know how to address serious concerns about another’s life course or symptoms. Are there exceptions? I certainly conveyed to my relative that they know their relationship with their friend and will find their own way to deal with it best. Every situation is different and there may be occasions when a more direct intervention is the most caring thing another can do. At certain times it may be most loving to call in an emergency assessment service. Even in such cases I would aim to be transparent about my willingness to do this if I ever thought that my loved one’s safety or those of another were under threat.

My view is that a group or individual confrontation of another is almost never constructive. It sets up a one- up/one- down relationship where the person feeling challenged is evoked into high reactivity rather than being able to listen. They hear judgement rather than heart-felt concern. They can be fixed into the postion of a ‘patient’ in their relationship system. My system’s lens reminds me that people get into vulnerable symptomatic places in life via their position in their relationship/family systems. This means that if I change how I relate in that system I can contribute to a less regressive and anxious field for the most vulnerable person.


Bowen on confrontation in a family system:


‘As an oldest son and physician I had long been the wise expert preaching to the unenlightened, even when it was done in the guise of expressing an opinion or giving advice….During my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents[others] in an angry confrontation…At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation. There may have been some short term gain…but the long term result was an intensification of previous patterns.”

Family Therapy in Clinical practice P 484


‘In those families in which both parents could eventually tone down the sickness theme and relate to the ‘patient’ on a reality level, the ‘patient’ changed. After one family had emerged from their unreality, the ‘patient’ said, “As long as they called me sick and treated me sick, I somehow had to act sick. When they stopped treating me sick, I had a choice of acting sick or acting well.”’

P 86

‘Interventions and Confrontations’ – Jenny Brown



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Averting Workplace Burnout

Is this heading towards workplace burnout – what are the contributing factors?

workplace stressRelationship disruption may well be the central unaddressed theme behind people’s burnout experiences. How many of us attend sufficiently to addressing relationship patterns that may be draining our energy, resources and those of others?

The past couple of months at work have been as demanding as any period of work I can remember. With computers crashing and key administrator’s leaving I’ve had to wear multiple hats and extend my working hours to ensure no major balls were dropped. I’ll admit it’s been exhausting however I have known throughout that it was a time limited stress. It was always clear that there was going to be a resolution as our business IT issues were addressed and a new employee had time to settle into their role.
This has prompted reflection on work place stress and what goes into burnout. While a period of overwork can be tremendously challenging it does not take the same toll that relationship disruption and sustained seemingly unresolvable stress does. A leader’s potential for burnout is certainly heightened, if the loss of a team member erupted from relationship discord and the ripple effects of this were infiltrating the organisation. In my recent scenario, the loss of the key staff member was predicted. They had completed part time study and had been open with me about looking for work in their field. The other stressors, while beyond my control, were solvable problems. This is very different from a sense of chronic repeating patterns of people complaining and leaving or of work systems malfunctioning.
I wonder what you think of when you hear of workplace burnout. Usually people associate it with too high a workload. In literature into burnout in ministry positions the most commonly noted contributing factors are: over work, role demand Vs capacity, demands of interpersonal complexity, reliance on solo/self-care and a belief system of selfless service.* Looking into such factors reveals much more than a problem of too much work and not enough leave. The demands of relationship strain and relationship patterns of over – functioning (or over- controlling, – helping) are core elements to the burnout picture. I hear that many overseas mission/aid placements are prematurely ended, not due to cross cultural strain, but to team conflict. Relationship disruption may well be the central unaddressed theme behind people’s burnout experiences. How many of us attend sufficiently to addressing relationship patterns that may be draining our energy resources and those of others.
I well remember some years ago the impact of a tense collegial relationship on my workplace coping. Unlike the recent high work load this earlier period of relational upheaval was infiltrating my sleep patterns and thinking space. The more I focussed on the other the more drained and negative I became. I realised how important it was to see my part in the troubled dynamics and to responsibly attend to the ways I had played a part in mutual misunderstandings and reactions.
For some who are edging on workplace burnout it may be that unaddressed relationship discord at home is driving the intense investment in work. When exhausted collapse occurs it is easier to point to the work load than to the relationship strain that is being bypassed by spending increasing hours away from home.
For myself I have learned to ask the following questions to avert potential burnout at work:
• Is this a factual problem that can be solved in the foreseeable future? If so how can I patiently manage my priority tasks and tolerate the disruption until things are resolved?
• Is this a chronic pattern that repeats and seems to have no foreseeable resolution? If so how can I ascertain my contribution to this?
• Am I contributing to the chronicity by continually worrying about what might happen as opposed to addressing the facts of what is happening?
• What relationship patterns are behind this stress? Is distancing, blaming or over functioning happening? What is my part in this? How can I take the lead in maturely addressing issues with the person/people I am tense with?
• Am I using work as a detour from addressing insecurities in my family relationships as a spouse or parent? How can I ensure that this does not get hidden by my very high workload? Am I being responsible in all my important relationship domains?
I am relieved that the worst of my work stress is now behind me. It was valuable to see that there was no call for panic or reactivity that would spread the stress throughout the team. It continues to be valuable to remember to always address my part in relationship patterns that can drain energy from self and others. This period has also been a welcome prompt to reflect on how I am going to gradually move towards some semblance of semi-retirement and free up space for projects beyond my current work. I am committed to a better balance in how I spread my God given energy around the various domains of my life.

Dr Bowen and different versions of stress & anxiety:

A key variable of family systems theory is the degree of anxiety – this includes the intensity and duration of different types of anxiety. “All organisms are reasonably adaptable to acute anxiety. The organism has built in mechanisms to deal with short bursts of anxiety….When anxiety increases and remains chronic for a certain period, the organism develops tension, either within itself or in the relationship system, and the tension results in symptoms’ or dysfunction or sickness.” P 361-2

* e.g. of burnout literature and clergy
Grosch, W. N., & Olsen, D. C. (2000). Clergy Burnout: An integrative account. Psychotherapy in Practice, 56(5), 619-632.
My literature review in this area comes from the master’s thesis of psychologist Amanda Mason (which I hope will be published at some time)

‘Averting Workplace Burnout’ – Jenny Brown

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Relationships – A Laboratory for Growing Up

laboratoryAt this busy conference time, I thought my most useful reflections could be ones I’ve repeatedly needed reminding of. A focus on other’s maturity gaps is a diversion from addressing my own. Watching how I manage myself in all my relationships provides the very best lab for seeing, understanding and attending to my own maturity gaps.

‘Grow up!’ How many times have you heard this, said it or thought it in times of frustration? Maybe it was said to you, or a brother or sister, by your parents. Perhaps you’ve said it in a moment of annoyance to one of your kids. Have you thought of your colleagues at work or of your spouse? It may be that one of your siblings still struggles with the same growing-up problems as an adult that they had as teenagers; or you could be frustrated by your adult children’s reluctance to fly the nest.


We’re often prone to thinking that if only that other person could grow up a bit we’d be able to get on with being our own mature selves. While many of us get caught up in finding fault in others when things seem to go off course, there are some who are always finding fault in themselves: ‘I’m the problem in this family’; ‘They wouldn’t be so upset if I was a better daughter/parent/spouse.’ Whether it’s judging another or harshly judging ourselves, this pathway doesn’t bring lasting growth in us. So what’s going to remove these barriers to personal growth? What is the road to adult maturity?


A key to adult maturity is to see beyond ourselves to the relationship connections we’re part of.  To see our maturity gaps we learn to see that we’re all part of a system of relationships that deeply influences each person’s capacity for emotional resilience. Given that our original family has such a profound sway on the development of our maturity, it follows that going back to these formative relationships is the best laboratory in which to make positive changes. Genuine maturity for life starts with learning to observe ourselves in our relationships, and appreciating that problems are not just in the individual but also in the interconnections — the relationship systems — with others. Each stage of life and its relationships provide rich opportunities to facilitate awareness of our part in patterns that either enhance of stifle growth in maturity. – From leaving home, to marriage, parenting, mid-life challenges, establishing careers, adjusting to aging.


It’s an interesting and rewarding experience to learn to see how to shift our less mature responses in relationships.  Learning to recognise when we detour to third parties, or become overly helpful or controlling, or we hand over our responsibilities to others, or we depend too much on relationship approval, or we’re too quick to distance when tension arises. Recognising such patterns enables us to make new choices that enable us to bring our best to our relationships.


The project of growing ourselves, our task of seeking to understand how we may be contributing to our own dissatisfactions in our interactions, is all about personal responsibility in our relationships and not about self-promotion. It’s a project that can gradually transform even the most challenging of our relationships as our awareness of the effect we have on others, and the way we react to them increases. Growing maturity, based on seeing the patterns of relationship we’re part of, promotes more honesty, humility and improved health for us and for those we care about.

‘Relationships – A Laboratory for Growing Up’Jenny Brown

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Seeing our Parents as Human

IMG_2086 [878459]Over my years of clinical practice I have met many people who either blame or idealise each parent. A parent can be described as ‘toxic’ with a resultant avoidance of relationship. Conversely when one parent is labelled as the ideal it can lead to setting impossible standards for self and for others to live up to.

At a special birthday celebration late last year for my father in law, my husband remarked:

“My father is not an exceptional man but he is my Dad and so for me he is exceptional.”

It was a moving comment to hear.  A comment he had heard made by a father who had lost a son in the Paris bombings that had resonated with him.  I reflected back on when I met my husband well over 30 years ago and heard of the challenges in their father- son relationship. There had been a growing distance in the relationship as my husband experienced a sense of his Dad’s disapproval for some of the decisions he had made. At that time my husband’s narrative about his Dad was dismissively negative about how he had fallen short as his ideal role model. As with most young adults he was not considering his own contribution to this.

Over the years I have watched my husband make an effort to get to know his Dad better – to understand his growing up experiences and to learn about the generations of his family. It has been a privilege to watch a relationship change over the decades, from negative distance to warmth and affection. Interestingly my father in law had a tense relationship with his own father when he was launching into the adult world. There were very similar tensions around life decisions that played out  in the next generation.

I reflect on an analogous journey with my own Dad. At the time that my mother was dying of cancer I was angry and judgemental towards my father. When he went on a weekend away with friends while my mother was very sick, I viewed him as irresponsibly avoiding his duty to help with her care.  At one level my Dad’s decision to take a holiday when his wife was in latter stages of metastatic cancer is not particularly admirable. What I’ve come to see however, is how this choice reflects the pattern of my parent’s marriage. My mother would have encouraged him to take this break while she ‘soldiered on’.  Considering my father’s relationship to his own strong mother and then to his highly responsible wife has softened my judgement of him. In its place I’ve developed a broader understanding of how his relationship interactions have shaped him. This greater understanding brings a sense of grace and warm acceptance of the less mature aspects of his character. In turn I am better able to have such an accepting, honest posture towards myself and others.

What are the effects of continuing to carry narrow labels of our parents through life? Over my years of clinical practice I’ve met many people who are holding onto either blaming or idealised labels for each parent. Many describe a parent as ‘toxic’ with a resultant avoidance of relationship. With such distance a person carries their reactive judgments into other life relationships.  They may become quick to blame and label and slow to see the impact they have on those around them. Conversely when one parent is labelled as the ideal it can lead to setting impossible standards for self and others to live up to. It also prevents a deeper, honest connection from developing in the relationship with that parent. When a parent is idealised the adult child tends to play out a pretend positive self with that parent – and to others.

Seeing our parents as human beings rather than as narrow ‘good’ or ‘bad” labels, doesn’t mean excusing any damaging actions (I acknowledge that for some people they have had a parents who has been abusive – which should not be minimised). For me it also doesn’t wipe away seeing the flawed and selfish aspects of being human. However most of the judgements we develop about our parents are not actually in this category of ‘wrong doing’ but about their relationship sensitivities and maturity gaps. Getting to know more of what shaped our parents can enable us to see how most of the characteristics that we found challenging can make sense. We can also begin to see how our reactions to that parent provided them with significant challenges.

As I reflect on the changes in my Husband’s relationship with his Dad and the shifts in my perceptions of my parents I can affirm the value of getting to know members of our original family in a more objective way. Both our Dads- alongside other extended family- have been an important resource to us on multiple levels. I understand that this is what Dr Murray Bowen meant when he wrote:

‘Gaining more knowledge of one’s distant families of origin can help one become aware that there are no angels and devils in a family: they were human beings, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, each reacting predictably to the emotional issue of the moment, and each doing the best they could with their own life course.’

What would be your next step in getting to know each of your parents as human beings and as part of a multigenerational family system that has shaped them – and us?

‘Seeing our Parents as Human’ – Jenny Brown

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Help that Doesn’t Assume

grandmother washingRecently I chatted with a woman who was distressed by the developing tension with her daughter –in- law. She was devastated that her son’s wife and mother to her 2 young grandchildren had conveyed that she no longer needed her regular visits. I asked about how she had been interacting with her son’s family and she reported that she had made every effort to be as supportive as possible. I heard that when she was on ‘grand parenting duty’ she’d take on a range of jobs to assist her son and daughter in law manage with their full time workloads and the demands of their young family. This included doing vacuuming, washing and other domestic chores. Additionally she would add extra things to the children’s routine that her daughter in law had written out for both grandmothers. Her thought was that an extra trip to the park would surely be helpful and guarantee the children a better night sleep. She was shocked to hear from her son that these acts of service had been interpreted as a negative judgement on her daughter in laws domestic standards and a lack of respect for their parenting practices. How painful for her to find that her well intentioned acts of help were experienced as intrusive!

I can certainly identify with the propensity to assume I know what will be helpful for others and to just dive in and action this. Throughout my growing up years I developed a strong sensitivity to others struggling to cope. My own mother was burdened by the load of caring for her elderly father as well as her 5 children and I discovered that ascertaining ways to help my grandfather, and in turn reduce her stress, was rewarded with a close appreciative response from my mother. Hence I entered my adulthood with a well-honed tendency to mind- read what I think others need without actually finding out what they think.

Having awareness of my priming to assume what will be helpful to others has enabled me to pause before rushing in to other’s space. It may sound incredibly basic but I am practicing asking others what I can do to be helpful – NOT jumping in as if I’m the expert on their emotional state. When one of my family members was recently going through a time of distress I made sure that I did nothing without checking in first, asking what they would like from me. I readily offered a few ideas of what I was able to do to lighten their load but I ensured that I was not invested in doing any of these things. It was entirely the call of the members of the household. This still doesn’t come easily to me as I can impulsively be ‘overly helpful”. I have come to see however that over- helping and assuming I know the perspective of another is actually an invasion of their privacy and personal space.

Dr Bowen observed the tendency of humans to move into either ‘over responsibility’ or ‘under responsibility’ when there is insecurity and stress in a relationship. The ‘over responsible’ one steadies her/himself through feeling useful to the other while the ‘under responsible’ one stabilises her/himself by drawing strength from the attentiveness of the other. The overly helpful person can easily burn her/himself out and neglect addressing their less interpersonal responsibilities such as financial management and administration. The under functioning one becomes gradually more unsure of him/herself and may become vulnerable to symptoms of depression, substance misuse and/or inability to manage life’s tasks. Help that affects a person’s ability to manage their own life responsibilities is actually not help at all. Help that assumes what another needs is also not help but is a contributor to misunderstandings and relationship discord.

Pulling one’s self out of such patterns is a way of addressing one’s own part in a relationship disruption. While misunderstandings in relationships can be deeply discouraging, being able to adjust how we respond to others needs or helping gestures provides a basis for bringing good to another and to our relationship. For the distraught mother in law who had been trying too hard to help her daughter in law, she could find an alternate path of asking her son and daughter what ways they would like her to assist them. This enables people to interact more respectfully without stepping into territory that belongs to others. Of course this woman’s son and daughter- in- law were contributing to the misunderstandings, however the most helpful thing any of us can put our energy towards is averting attention from blaming or mind reading the other to addressing our own part in unhelpful patterns.

Relevant Questions from “Growing Yourself Up” about ‘over – helpfulness’.

“Caretaking is an easy way to cover over unaddressed insecurities in much the same way that leaning on another as a prop can be.” P 89

“If a parent confided in us or leant on us when things were tough…we’re likely to be at easing giving advice but less comfortable accepting it from others.” P 38

“She needed to find a way to be real about how much she cared for [the other] without this compulsion to take care of [them]. Caring about another would come to mean something very different …than taking care of another.” P 59

“I am committed to not taking over and doing for another what they have the capacity to learn to do for themselves. (Not crowding another’s breathing space so they can develop their own capabilities and coping skills)” p 228

This grandmother “could see how much she had assumed her role as grandmother without asking her son what he thought.”  P 204

In Family Therapy & Clinical practice Dr Bowen wrote of the problem of being overly helpful as a counsellor/ health care clinician:

“When the therapist allows him/herself to become a “healer” or “repairman,” the family [client] goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish her/his work,” P 158 FTCP

‘Help that Doesn’t Assume’ – Jenny Brown

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Wishful Thinking

Heaven- Is this just wishful thinking?faith

I am fully aware of how easily we can find the evidence to confirm any of our biases. Confirmation bias is everywhere and I can be as vulnerable as anyone in applying this to my own questions

I recall as a 6 or 7 year old asking my mother, “How do you know that there really is a God and a heaven?” The answer stored in my memory is, “Jenny I believe it but even if it turns out not to be true I think it is the best way to live my life”. I was somewhat unsettled by her answer which I guess is why it has stayed with me all these decades. It vaguely made sense to me and quietened my questioning at the time but I was hoping for more assurance about what I was taught at Sunday school.

Last month I faced a tragic loss in my broader family. The details are not necessary to write about but what has been a growing up challenge for me is a reigniting of questions about life beyond the grave. I was confronted with a fresh challenge to the basis of my Christian belief, in particular of the hope of a better eternity and a renewed heaven and earth. There is nothing like the invasion of unexpected sadness to either turn a person to considering spiritual faith or conversely to challenge the faith foundations of any believer. Can I really trust a God who allows such pain? Is the hope of heaven just wishful thinking to ease the sharp edge of grief?

A number of people have said to me that they know my faith will carry me through this sad time but this doesn’t quite capture the tumult of my spirit when facing pain. Faith in itself isn’t a comfort, it is the object of my faith that I need to be sure of. Hence over the past weeks I have re-examined the basis and object of my faith. I have needed to revisit the historical life and death of Jesus who claimed to be God revealing himself in human flesh (the word became flesh and dwelt among us John 1:14; John 3: 16-17).

Most importantly I have considered as rationally as I can the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus; the hundreds of eye witness accounts and the dramatic change in life priorities of his followers as a consequence of seeing first-hand the mind-boggling presence of one who came back from the grave. (Acts 1:3; 1 Corinthians 15:6). It would not be sufficient for me to base my hope on just one person’s isolated revelation.

In one of the many recent conversations about my experience of questioning the basis of my faith, I heard another express that she is not looking for any faith that speaks to what happens after death. For her the important thing about any belief system is living a good and ethical life in the present. I get this priority. It reminds me of my mother’s previous ‘back up’ rationale if the heaven promise turns out not to be true – at least its teachings provide a basis for a life lived well now. There are many spiritual, philosophical and religious bodies of wisdom that speak to living better in the present. And yet when tragedy and death confronts us, so often our natural yearnings want more. Social researcher Hugh Mackay reports in his just released book ‘Beyond Belief’, that 68% of Australians claim some kind of belief in God although regular church/ temple/mosque attendance is under 15%. He writes about many reports of how a crisis turns even hardened atheists to praying. Mackay writes, “For some people, calling on God in a crisis is simply a case of ‘nothing to lose.’ For others, it’s a return to a faith they once had….or perhaps a last-ditch test to see if there is a God who might somehow intervene.” (p 19 Sun Herald Sunday Life, May 1 2016) While our society is predominately secular, spiritual questions are prevalent for many, especially in the face of adversity.

With my own spiritual journey I am fully aware of how easily we humans can find the evidence to confirm any of our biases. Confirmation bias is everywhere and I can be as vulnerable as anyone in applying this to my own questions. I am committed to reading widely the reasoning of different positions and making every effort to not just create my own subjective version of belief. Recently I have devoured writing about the varied works of many eminent scientists in the study of the origin of life (i.e. Signature in the Cell, S Meyer). Dr Bowen’s writing about the degree to which emotional and relational process can shape our belief systems has been helpfully provocative for me and challenged me to stay open to information that might not sit comfortably with my inherited or assumed viewpoints. If I am not willing to allow my beliefs to stand up to an examination of contrary thoughtful explanations then it doesn’t say much for the strength of my faith platform. While one reviewer of my book on Good Reads wrote that my discussion of my Christian faith runs the risk of alienating some readers my view is that is the tone of discussion rather than content that unhelpfully alienates people. My effort is to communicating considerately, without emotive dogmatism and to being genuinely interested in differing positions expressed respectfully.

It’s been good to ask questions of the basis of my faith at this time. I am not grateful for the painful circumstances of grief but I am thankful for the opportunities to re- ask my deep and challenging questions of life and of God. I’m in good company with the ancient Israelite King David who often in the psalms directs his troubling questions to God: “Why o Lord, do you stand so far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)While not all my questions can be simply and fully be answered I have come to a deeper confidence in a supernatural resurrection faith. It’s interesting to look back on my mother’s faith journey as she faced the ramifications of her incurable cancer in her early 50s. As I watched her face death it was clear as she spent much time reading her Bible and praying that her trust in God’s promises of heaven were not just wishful thinking. She had travelled well past her ambivalent answer to my childhood probing’s to a personal and confident relationship with the Good Shepherd of David’s Psalm 23. At this time in my own life I have asked hard questions of the God of my faith and have not been left empty. Even though walking through a dark valley I have not been alone. My experience is that I have been met, not with an apparition or mysterious hallucinatory voice but by a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be God and backed up this audacious claim with many solid eye witnessed evidences*. I have cherished the gift of a presence of God’s love and sustaining and a renewed confidence that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”*

* What constitutes reliable historical evidence? I found this discussion drawing from credible academic ancient historians helpful. – More info

Dr Bowen writes about a mark of higher functioning people:

These are principle oriented, goal directed people who have many qualities that have been called “inner directed”. [While] sure of their beliefs and convictions they are not dogmatic or fixed in their thinking. They can hear and evaluate the viewpoints of others and discard old beliefs in favour of new. They are sufficiently secure within themselves that functioning is not affected by either praise or criticism from others. They can respect the self and identity of another without becoming critical or becoming emotionally involved in trying to change the life course of another. FTCP P 164


For any who are interested to explore an evidence perspective on the Christian faith these are books I recommend

  • New Evidence that Demands a Verdict – More info
  • The Christ Files – More info
  • The Reason for God – More info
  • Hugh MacKay’s book referred to: Beyond Belief – More info
  • Another fine Australian journalist and social researcher who has a different conclusion to MacKay is Roy Williams. His book God Actually documents his journey of investigation into the evidence for God – More info


‘Wishful Thinking’ – Jenny Brown



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How our family of origin affects us AND how we affect each family member

family diagramThe desired outcome of Bowen’s family of origin coaching of an individual was for them to move beyond blaming or labelling family members as saints or sinners, and towards being able to accept the patterns over the generations that shape the relationship positions that each person comes to occupy

Most of us are interested in how our family of origin has shaped us. I have found that many people think in terms of cause and effect about how a parent or an event from the past has made life more difficult for them in the present. Much therapy takes this linear approach to exploring the past. For example, a detrimental parenting relationship is used to explain a person’s current sensitivities. In contrast a systems approach always looks at how each person and each generation affects the other in a circular (back and forth) way. For example one’s parents are understood in the context of their marriage, involvements with each child and the position they had with their parents growing up. The current sensitivities are understood through identifying family of origin relationship triangles that one participated in (I.E. How one related to each parent and how alliances impacted the relationship with other family members). A bigger picture of interactions across the generations diverts from blaming a parent for one’s current life difficulties.  This blog is an excerpt from an article I wrote and published in 2008 explaining a Bowen systems approach to looking at family of origin. I trust this will be of interest not just to therapists but to any who seek to constructively understand the influence of their previous generations.

Family of Origin Psychotherapy in a Nutshell

Coaching an individual to research their own patterns in their family and to redefine themselves in less anxiety driven ways is aimed at increasing their level of differentiation of self. This is not identical to the concept of individuation (Jung, 1954) or self-actualisation (Maslow, 1968) which focuses on growing away from family symbiosis through realising intra-psychically one’s separateness. Bowen’s concept of differentiation places an equal emphasis on staying meaningfully connected to significant others, as it does on expressing individual thoughts and beliefs. “The ability to be in emotional contact with others yet still autonomous in one’s own emotional functioning is the essence of the concept of differentiation.“(p.145, Kerr and Bowen, 1988)

Prior to focusing on the family as a system, Bowen had trained in psychoanalysis and undertook many years of his own analysis. In reflecting on the outcome of his early analytic training, he stated that “during my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents in an angry confrontation about childhood grievances that had come to light in the snug harbour of transference. At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation……The net result was my conviction that my parents had their problems and I had mine, that they would never change, and nothing more could be done.” (p. 484, Bowen, 1972)

Bowen was not satisfied with this outcome as he began to see from his clinical research that each family member participated in a reciprocal (circular) process of making compensations for others. This meant that with careful research of family patterns it was possible for an individual to begin to relate more from self and less in reaction to others, and that over time the efforts of one person might shift the functioning of the whole system. The desired outcome of Bowen’s coaching of an individual was for them to move beyond blaming or labelling family members as saints or sinners, and towards being able to accept the patterns over the generations that shape the relationship positions that each person comes to occupy. From this more neutral position, the individual is able to develop a person to person (not person to group or couple) relationship with each member of his/her family where differences can be expressed without attacking, defending or withdrawing. Bowen referred to this approach as ‘coaching’ as opposed to ‘therapy’ because the emphasis was on preparing for change efforts in the clients natural system of relationships, rather than a healing emphasis in the relationship between therapist and client. This has been likened to the coach of a sports team who is “on the sidelines. Both serve as teachers/consultants who prepare the players/clients, but the players/client(s) need to translate the learning into action on the playing field and the family turf.”(p. 22, Titelman, 1987)

Given that most clients of psychotherapy are motivated to address a problem in the here and now, a family systems therapist will begin with a focus on the problem bearer and gaining symptom relief (working in the foreground). Nonetheless, as family members start to understand their part in the interactions that maintain the symptom and how patterns of managing relationship anxiety are passed down the generations, they may choose to continue working with the therapist to look at the broader generational context. In the early stages of this work the focus is on gathering information about the family relationship history and exploring the functional roles the client occupied in their family. (Examples of functional roles are: problem solver – problem maker; anxiety generator-anxiety soother; supporter-collapser; energy lender-energy borrower)

A three generational family diagram/genogram is used as a way of mapping family history and looking for emotionally reactive patterns. The coach helps the client to identify gaps in knowledge, as highlighted by the genogram and hypothetical questions are used to explore what process is likely to ensue if the client is to get to know each family member better. When an understanding of the systems way of dealing with anxiety about relationship attachments is achieved they are encouraged to plan brief steps of contacting family members and subsequently observing and listening to them in a research minded way.

This information is brought back to therapy/coaching and further hypotheses are developed about the role the person plays in the system, what a less reactive role would look like and what might be the reactions of others to any changes they may make. The individual focuses their thought and effort on changing the way they relate in their family, not on trying to change others. There is rarely a termination of the work but rather a spacing of appointments to longer intervals and an encouragement to return at any time to continue the work of differentiating which is framed as a lifelong effort. The coaching effort aims to assist the client to work at being able to maintain their objective thinking, whilst in the midst of a tumultuous emotional family situation, yet still being able to stay in contact with family members.

Distinguishing Family of Origin Coaching from Traditional Individual Psychotherapy

The key distinction between family systems coaching and individual therapy that has evolved from psychoanalysis is that the focus for change is in the natural system of the client’s own family, as opposed to the in-session therapeutic relationship. Rather than the therapist seeking to facilitate a corrective relationship within the transference of the therapist client system, the therapist encourages the client to take action in their family system. Reflections are not on the individual’s intra-psychic processes but on their own family’s intergenerational patterns of relationships.

Similar to traditional individual approaches, family systems coaching emphasises the importance of the therapist managing their counter-transference. This is achieved by resisting the invitation to take sides (called ‘triangling’) and thereby staying out of the patterns of the client’s system. Betty Carter and Monica McGoldrick, who have applied Bowen’s approach to a feminist and multicultural framework, remember Bowen saying that 50% of the therapist’s energy is directed into the work itself and 50% is directed into staying out of the client’s family process. (p. 283, McGoldrick and Carter, 2001) A good deal of work on the self of the therapist is required  to stay engaged with a client without getting drawn into alliances, over responsibility, or withdrawing. Hence when a therapist can work on managing their anxiety when in contact with members of their family of origin, it is viewed as a constructive way of learning how to resist client’s invitations to loan support to their reactions to others. The premise is that “working toward becoming a more responsible and differentiated individual in one’s own family provides an avenue for lessening tendencies to become over involved with one’s clinical families, and it helps the family therapist avoid emotional “burnout”, a common occupational hazard for psychotherapists.” (p. 3-4, Titelman, 1987)

Researching, observing, planning and thinking are given priority over insight, emotional expression, support and interpretation in Bowen’s Family of Origin approach. Questions are focused on observable patterns of reacting by asking “What happened? Who was involved? How did each person respond?”; rather than on the particulars of a dispute, how one feels or what their interpretations are. The family systems therapist emphasises each person’s participation in the system, not what motivates individual behaviour. Instead of asking the individual to give direct expression of affect to the therapist, they are asked to reflect on what their feelings tell them about the relationship patterns in which they are involved.

Read the full article here.

Going Home Again: A family of origin approach to individual therapy

The paper was originally published in Psychotherapy in Australia Vol.14 No.1 pp. 12-18. 2008

For opportunities to explore this approach further (not just for clinicians) see the FSI conference offerings this June

The FSI – 2016 Conference – The Multi-generational Family

The FSI – Systems in Ministry Symposium and Your Family of Origin


‘How our family of origin affects us AND how we affect each family member’ – Jenny Brown


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Speaking From Self Rather Than Speaking at Another

SpeakingWhen we want to be truly heard by another it is useful to speak on our own behalf rather than telling another what to think, feel or do. A focus on correcting or directing another is most likely to me met with one of the 3 types of reaction:

  1. Defend,
  2. Attack,
  3. Withdraw.

In contrast being able to clearly say: “This is what I think and this is how I feel about it and therefore this is what I am going to do”; will be most likely to be heard as coming from your inner conviction.

The following excerpt from my book gives some examples of what speaking from self rather than speaking at another might sound like in parenting (you may wish to reflect on how this might apply to other relationship contexts):

Getting clearer about an “I” position; Rather than a “You” focus on the child:

The key principles for holding an “I” position: The parent manages themself, not the child. They don’t try to control what is beyond their own choice to activate. They don’t expect words to achieve much and are willing to action what they say. They don’t crowd a child’s developmental breathing space by pushing or pulling them into behaving as they desire.

Saying to a child that:

  • “You must stop doing that or I will send you to your room”’ might be replaced with:

“I am going to have to go to another room because I can’t concentrate on this task while there’s so much noise.”

  • “If you stop that screaming now I will buy you a treat at the checkout” is replaced with:

“I’m not going to keep shopping with all that fuss. If the screaming keeps up I will go straight home. I’ll come back and do the shopping later instead of going to the park this afternoon.”

  • “I will give you extra pocket money if you put an hour of homework in each night.” Is replaced with:

“I see it as your responsibility to satisfy the schools requirements, and I will not step in at the last minute if you haven’t managed to get things done on time.”

  • If you don’t stop fighting with your brother I’m going to take away your play station.” Is switched to:

“I expect that you two need to learn how to play together co-operatively and I believe you can find a way to do it.   If I come back in 5 minutes and you still haven’t worked it out, I won’t be willing to keep the computers on for the rest of the day.”

  • “How dare you swear at me? You are grounded!” is replaced with:

“I’m not willing to be generous when I experience so much disrespect.   I am pulling out from giving you that lift to your friend’s house today.”

  • “Ok, I can see from you blank look you aren’t getting far with that homework and its due tomorrow, let me help you out.” Is switched to:
  • “I’m hearing your complaints about this assignment. I’m willing to let you talk it through with me when I’ve finished my task; but I’m not willing to do any of the work for you.”
  • “Will you stop that whinging right now or I’ll stop all our visits to the park this week.” is replaced with:

No reaction from the parent who continues to go about their own business.

  • “Great job! That’s the best drawing of a tree I’ve ever seen. You could be a great artist one day” Is switched to:

“I’m really interested in what you’ve created; I’d love to hear about your drawing.”

 There is no magic in using the words of the “I” position. The impact is not so much in the language but in the parent’s inner conviction and their perseverance to continue to demonstrate this in action. The child senses the difference of the parent’s inner conviction and, after a time of testing, begins to manage them self better. It takes some dedicated time to think things through for yourself to know what your limits are and how you will live by them. Be prepared for your child to test out whether you really mean what you are saying you’re willing and not willing to do. After a time of testing your resolve, they will come to appreciate that they are dealing with an adult who is not having a knee jerk reaction but is clear and trustworthy.

‘Speaking From Self Rather Than Speaking at Another’ – Jenny Brown

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Are you a leader or follower as a parent or a dog owner?

Are you a leader or a follower with your dog?    


Are you a leader or a follower with your children?

yelling parent

I think there are some parallel principles to being a pack leader with a pet dog to being a parent leader with children. While clearly dogs and children have different needs and developmental trajectories both need good leadership for them to thrive. I think the current child focused trend has produced a lot of parents who are followers, not leaders. They parent in reaction to their child’s emotional state as distinct from parenting from managing their own emotional state and from clear leadership principles. Its not easy to reverse this trend when it is mirrored in schools and health professionals offices.

I respect the central ethos of the training principles of Dog Whisperer, Caesar Milan. Watching his television series illustrates clearly that the most important work in assisting a problem dog is for the owners to address their anxious way of relating to their dog. The work of change comes from the owner not by focussing on changing the dog. The following 10 questions from Caesar Milan are a checklist to ascertain if you are your dog’s pack leader. this gave me the idea to write some parallel questions for parents and their children. See what you think of such parallels?

You know you are a follower in your pack if you can answer yes to any of these questions: You know you are a follower  with your children if you can answer yes to any of these questions:
1.       Does your dog wake you up?

If your dog wakes you up, it means he doesn’t respect you. In order to correct this behaviour, you will need to change your dog’s habits to let him know that you are the one who will wake him up. So if your pup tries to wake you up, simply ignore him. And then when he finally exhibits the desired behaviour, reward him for following your lead.

1.       Do you wake up according to the demands of your child?

If your children expect you to rise and schedule your night waking and early morning according to their requests it indicates they have not learned to respect your schedule. Even if you need to check briefly on them when they call on you at night, you can demonstrate that it is not yet your time to be out of bed. When they show respect for this schedule you can demonstrate your appreciation for this.

2.       Do you reward your dog at the wrong time?

Don’t pet your dog when she does something wrong. This affectionate act — or reward — nurtures the very behaviour that you don’t want and will only convey that it’s okay for your dog to act that way. Instead, learn how to master affection.

      2. Do you give your child rewarding attention at the wrong time?

Focussing sustained attention on your child when they have not behaved appropriately is nurturing their irresponsible behaviour. They will become accustomed to your engagement when they are misbehaving rather than being given time to reflect on their poor choices or naughtiness.

       3. Do you feed your dog before you feed yourself?

A dog mom makes her babies wait to eat. So it should be no different with you as a Pack Leader. Instinctually, dogs know that the Pack Leaders eat first. So feed yourself before you feed your pup to show that you’re the leader.

     3. Do you allow your children to help themselves to a family dinner (pizza, desserts, treats) before you have commenced eating or given permission?

A parent is in control of serving food. Hence it provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate order and leadership.

    4. Does your dog enter or exit rooms ahead of you?

Just like with food, dogs instinctually know that the Pack Leader is in control and should be the one to lead. Dogs don’t walk ahead of their Pack Leader, so you will need to change your role if you’re the one following your dog around the house.

    4. Do your children rush ahead of you when visiting others? Do they rush into lifts and buses without waiting for others to exit? Do they rush to play without helping you unload the shopping?

Being clear about expecting your children to wait, help, and not rush to their play is a clear way of holding leadership in an everyday activity. “I expect you to help me unload the car before starting anything else.” Or “Hold on now, I am not going to tolerate you rushing in before others have left the bus.”

    5. Does your dog jump on you?

Jumping is a dominance behaviour. Enough said. So when your dog jumps on you, he’s asserting his dominance over you. But you can’t just jump on your dog, so you need to let your dog know that his jumping isn’t okay and learn how to manage jumping issues.

    5. Does your child push into your physical space? Shoving or pulling or poking you?

By stepping back and creating your space boundaries, you are demonstrating helpful leadership. By not giving any attention or responses when being prodded and pushed you make clear that this is not an acceptable way to get something from another.

    6. Are you your dog’s source of excitement?

Without rules, boundaries, and limitations, you make yourself out to be a playmate instead of a leader. Remember, your dog needs to follow a Pack Leader to feel secure and to be balanced. Strive to be your dog’s source of calmness and direction by creating your dog’s calm, submissive state.

    6. Have you oriented much of your life towards providing play, activity and entertainment for your child? Do you demonstrate through providing constant novelty activity that it is your job to keep them entertained? Are you always too busy and stressed? Or do you set aside other life responsibilities to attend to your child’s activities.

Remember your child needs you to provide opportunity for them to practice slowing down, Periods of quiet, calm, alone time. This starts with a parent who practices this in their own life on a daily basis.


    7. Does your dog have the run of the house?

She is on your bed, on the sofa, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, and going berserk at the front door if anyone dares to ring the bell. You need to set boundaries for your pack, so she knows what is and isn’t allowed. Follow these tips for building boundaries with your dog. Claim your space; teach your dog to wait; correct at the right time.

    7. Do your children have the run of your house? Do they come into your bedroom without knocking? Do they come into your bed when they choose?

Do they leave their stuff anywhere?

Think about how you can be in charge of when your children enter your space and how they take up the household space. Parents who have no boundaries when a child is anxious contribute to a child becoming increasingly anxious and unable to self-regulate.

You have the capacity to say “I will tell you when it’s OK to have special story and play time in our bed.” Or “I will not be serving dinner until that mess has been put back where it belongs.”

    8. Does your dog turn a deaf ear to your commands?

If you haven’t trained your dog in basic obedience, you are losing pack leadership points. Work on teaching your dog these five essential commands to establish yourself as Pack Leader and curb behaviour issues; Sit, come, down, stay, leave it.

    8. Does your child ignore your requests?

Improving your leadership in all the above areas makes it much less likely that a child will ignore you. If you just try to get a child to do what you want without working on broad leadership behaviour it is likely to become a  futile power struggle.

An instruction that depends on the child’s co-operation is less effective when re-building your leadership than a request where you can control the consequences. E.g. – when you serve food, go out, provide a lift, take them to a favourite place, pay for something.

    9. Do you yell at your dog?

Yelling is actually the best way of making sure your dog 1) never listens to you, and 2) develops fear and anxiety because of your unbalanced energy. So instead of yelling at your dog — which gets you nowhere, fast — try being calm and assertive.

    9. Do you yell at your children?

Highly reactive parents equates to highly reactive children.

Yelling is actually the best way of making sure your child 1) never listens to you, and 2) develops fear and anxiety because of your unbalanced energy. So instead of yelling at your child — which gets you nowhere, fast — try being calm and assertive.

And when a child is demonstrating their own calm self-management come alongside them and calmly show an interest in what they are doing.

    10 .Does your dog pull you on the walk?

This is the ultimate sign that you have yet to master pack leadership. On top of that, if you don’t walk your dog daily, it’s hard to establish your leadership. That’s why mastering the walk is essential to every Pack Leader.

10. Does your child dictate what you do on an outing?

Rather than every outing being focussed on the child’s interests include something you need to do before going to their preferred activity. They can benefit from developing capacity for delayed gratification and respecting your priorities.

Remember, when it comes to pack leadership, you are the one in charge. By setting boundaries now, you and your dog will be in great shape towards building your relationship and strengthening your bond for years to come. Remember, when it comes to parent leadership, you are the one in charge. You are not becoming a follower of your child’s moods and wants. By setting boundaries now, you and your children will be in great shape towards building your relationship and strengthening your bond for years to come.

count your “yes” answers.Here is Ceasar Milan’s checklist scoring:

0 yes…………………………………… You are the Pack Leader / or parent leader (it may well be a mythical being who can completely answer yes to every question all the time)

1 – 10 yes…………………. You are not the Pack Leader / parent leader YET.

Change does not happen overnight but in small steps of self-management. The effort is on changing self for the benefit of the dog and the child. I know I have often failed to be a calm assertive leader as a parent and dog owner. Rather than beat myself up I can get back on track with my own leadership project.

*10 signs that you are not yet a pack leader – Cesarsway.com

‘Are you a leader or follower as a parent or a dog owner?’ – Jenny Brown


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Resilience: all about relationships

relationships crowd“Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?”

The topic of resilience has been getting lots of attention over the past years. It seems that many have realised that it is more helpful to aim for improved resilience than increased happiness. The core of resilience is seen in how well one deals with life’s setbacks. Think about it for a moment: What will be more useful in equipping a person for life’s daily challenges? Will it be striving for positive feelings? or will it be nurturing the capacity to bounce back after disappointments?

In the day to day efforts to be more responsible in relationships I thought that it might be useful to consider resilience in the context of our relationship sensitivities.

Definitions of the concept of resilience abound! I think it’s helpful to think of it as: The capacity to stay on track with goals and tasks in the midst of challenging environments. The majority of approaches to promoting resilience focus on the individual. They describe how a person can mobilize certain mindsets that allow them to see failure as opportunities rather than as a personal condemnation. This individual cognitive reframing and techniques for self-soothing can certainly be helpful in learning to not be crushed by disappointments; however they leave out the importance of relationship dynamics to our resilience. It’s easy to see external events like loss of job or an illness as the greatest threat to resilience but it is important not to underestimate the way that relationship dynamics can subtly drain a person’s capacity to manage life effectively. A useful question to ask is: Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?

I recently spoke to a woman I will call Leanne, who was increasingly stressed at her workplace. She had taken on a job in a community organisation and was looking forward to making a real contribution. After just 6 month in the job however, she was losing the ability to focus on her work tasks because all of her energy was consumed by trying to work out the relationship dynamics. She sensed that one colleague didn’t value her and had started to seek reassurance from others at the office.  Her boss had initially been available and supportive but she was now sensing a withdrawal of his involvement. She began imagining that he doubted her capabilities and that her colleague might even be bad mouthing her behind her back. Leanne had gone from an enthusiastic confident worker to an anxious and self-doubting person within a short time.

As with so many of us, Leanne’s sensitivities to relationships were a huge part of her lowered resilience. She was able to be productive when she felt valued and validated but any sense of disapproval and loss of attention would derail her from functioning well. All of us have emerged from our families with varying degrees of sensitivity to relationship undercurrents. The most common sensitivities are to approval, expectations, attention and distress in others. Which of these are most likely to destabilize you in your relationship contexts? What perceptions of others are most likely to distract you from managing life’s tasks? Is it seeing another upset and feeling that somehow you are responsible? Is it when you lose a perceived sense of importance or a shift from getting attention?

* this blog appeared in the Family Systems Institute blog July 2014

Here is a summary list of the common relationship patterns (drawn from family systems theory) that can impair people’s resilience.  Each of these patterns deserves a blog all its own but a brief checklist might open up more ways of understanding how relationship context affects us all. See if you can recognise any of these going on in your life at the moment:

  • Through too much togetherness: When people invest in needing to be close and connected all the time it is hard to get on with life’s responsibilities. Sensitivities to being connected, through approval and validation, start to take over all other important tasks.
  • Through too much distance: When people use distance to deal with tensions with others it increases the awkwardness in relationships. Negative distance and avoidance skews people towards blame and superiority. This distracts people from their own responsibilities as well as getting in the way of sharing resources and good team work.
  • Through over functioning for others: When people start to be overly helpful in telling others how to think and behave it can get in the way of them solving their own problems and can promote dependency and reduced competency.
  • Through being part of triangles: When people experience tension and distress in one relationship it is all too easy to find a 3rd party to vent to about this. Venting, complaining and gossiping to others about an absent party can seem to reduce our angst and worries, by having someone align with our point of view. The initial problem is prevented from being addressed in the relationship it belongs in. Detouring relationship tension also reduces resilience as we don’t get good practice at expressing differences and working them out person to person.

Leanne was able to see how her dependence on others being warm and attentive towards her was threatening her capacity to manage in her job. As an individual she had all the competencies necessary to do her work well but in relationships she could so easily lose her sense of capacity and become consumed by feeling left out. It was helpful for her to consider how this developed in her relationships in her original family. She realised that it would not be an easy pattern to adjust but that she could re- build some resilience by taking the focus of trying to get steadiness through relationships and instead get back on track with performing her job duties well. She could stay in friendly contact with her colleagues without getting caught up in figuring out what they thought of her.

We all inherit different degrees of relational and emotional resilience from the families we grow up in. there are many variables that go into this complex process that help make sense of the different capacities family members and people from different families have to cope with the fortunes and misfortunes of life. Bowen theory provides a way to grapple with this and to research in our own lives the ways that we interact within our relationship environment and its impact on our moments of apparent strength and episodes of greatest vulnerability.

For reflection:

Can I recognise any of these going on in my life at the moment?

  • Too much togetherness: Sensitivities to being connected, through approval and validation, start to take over all other important tasks.
  • Too much distance: skews people towards blame and superiority.
  • Over functioning for others: can get in the way of others solving their own problems
  • Being part of triangles: Venting, complaining and gossiping to others about an absent party -we don’t get good practice at expressing differences and working them out person to person.

Some Bowen theory quotes on resilience in the context of relationships

From Dr Michael Kerr:

Instability in important relationships threatens people in two fundamental ways: (1) it jeopardizes the security of attachments on which their well being depends, and (2) it overloads their ability to cope with adverse social stimuli. Given the impact of unstable relationships, it is not surprising that human beings have evolved finely tuned sensitivities to social cues that alert them to threats to important relationships. We watch others for signs of attention and approval, we assess their expectations and whether we are meeting them, and we sense their distress.

The ability to observe relationship processes and one’s part in them more factually is referred to as emotional objectivity. It is a necessary step toward being able to be present in an anxious family without one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions being governed by the powerful relationship currents. If one person can get more objective about how family interactions contribute to the difficulties and change his part in those interactions, it calms the system and opens up new options for problem solving. Paradoxically, being more of an individual in a system promotes closeness and cooperation.

Ref : Why Do Siblings Often Turn Out Very Differently? Chapter in Human Development in the Twenty-First Century: Visionary Ideas from Systems Scientists Editors: Alan Fogel, Barbara J. King, and Stuart Shanker Cambridge University Press – 2008. 206-215. Michael E. Kerr

‘Resilience: all about relationships’ – Jenny Brown


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Once a Parent Always a Parent

parent generations [1166589]I have come to see that balance of connection and respecting autonomy remains  important whatever life stage the relationship is going through.

The intensive days of parenting are well and truly behind me. I recall them well. So much activity and so much constant change in a child’s life! -Adjusting to changing teachers, friends, subjects, sports, hobbies, technology, trends, – alongside their constantly changing bodies, cognitions, emotional expressions and fears. The challenge was always around how much to intervene in the child’s efforts to adapt to change and how much to step back and allow them to find their own way. Now that my children are well into adulthood my role is indeed very different, and my responsibilities substantially less. Given this, I kind of expected that I would have transitioned out of my parenting role taking up much energy, yet surprisingly I find that my grown children and their goings on are still very much in my thoughts. I have come to see that the parenting dilemma, around when to get involved and when to step back, remains a constant through all stages of life.

Just this last month I realised that I hadn’t had the usual catch ups with one of my daughters. I was wondering how she was going with a number of changes in her life including her work situation and paused to consider: what was the appropriate amount of contact for me to have with her? I always want my daughters to know of my interest in their lives but I don’t want to convey intrusiveness or worry. This is the very same dilemma for a parent of a younger child: How do I stay an interested support for my child while at the same time promoting their independence? Of course children’s developmental capacity for independence is very different in the younger years. In the initial stages of my children launching as adults I knew how important it was to step back and not impede their growth in responsibility and independent functioning. I think sometimes I’ve tended to go too much in this stepping back direction and not appreciated the value of regular contact. In my clinical practice I saw so much of over involved parents and dependent young people which primed me to focus on the independence side of the relationship balance. This meant that I sometimes avoided asking about aspects of my children’s lives that I thought might encroach on their adult launching. I have come to see that balance of connection and respecting autonomy remains important whatever life stage the relationship is going through.

As I reflect on the appropriate contact to have with an adult child I remind myself of my goal to be a loving, interested presence in their life and to also convey respect for their autonomy in making their way in life. It’s less about how much contact –although that question is worth asking – and more about the tone of the contact. I try to think more about my relationship with the child than getting caught up in thinking about their life issues. This might sound a bit uncaring. However when I think about myself in the relationship, instead of just thinking about the other person, I’m reminded of the effect I can have on them and how I want to address this. If my focus is all about them, it’s all too easy to fall into directing the proceedings of their life – which results in either anxious dependence or anxious distancing from the child. Being a calm loving presence can be easy when we know that our child’s life is going smoothly, with few changes making demands on them. It gets much harder to keep a relationship balance at times of perceiving stress and challenge in a child’s life. I make every effort to keep my anxieties to myself since my children and every other person in my life have enough stress of their own. I have learned that I can’t easily hide my worry from my children, it has a way of getting through and therefore I need to responsibly work out my worries away from relating to my children.

As I consider whether or not to make contact with one of my children I consider firstly the practicalities: Is there good quality, non-distractable time for me to make contact? Is it likely to be convenient for them? Then I consider the relationship: Am I calling out of interest and support rather than out of worry? Am I as open to sharing news of my life as I am hearing their news? Am I clear that I want to understand how they’re thinking about life’s challenges before jumping in with my thinking? The other area I keep in mind is not to parent on behalf of my husband. This means that I don’t convey too much news with him from my catch ups with our daughters. We discuss our mutual thoughts about our children and work to stay independently connected. (I admit this is an ongoing challenge to keep in balance)

So even when children have flown the coop and care taking is no longer an active part of the parent role, the work of being a supportive parent continues. Indeed I agree with the adage: “Once a parent always a parent.” There is always occasion for stepping in a bit more and for knowing when to step out of the way. My effort is to convey genuine love and interest without pushing any of my anxiety into the mix. Seeing the back and forth of the relationship rather than just focussing on the child helps enormously in not going too far in an unhelpful direction.

Questions for reflection

  • What do I see as the bigger picture goal as a parent? How much of my relating promotes responsible independence for each of my children (whatever their age)?
  • How do I manage my worry about my children? Does it get sprayed into the relationship unhelpfully?
  • What is the difference between thinking about myself in relationship with my child, rather than just thinking about my child? Which focus is most helpful for my child’s growth in appropriate independence?
  • In what ways did my own parents relate in ways that assisted me to be a responsible member of society? What are ways I can address any gaps in this as an adult?

Relevant M Bowen Quotes on parenting (from family Therapy in Clinical practice)

The motivated parent must carefully define his /her responsibility for self in his/her family, the operating rules and principles within the area of his/her responsibility, and what he/she will and will not do in relation to those who go beyond those rules.

The important principle is that the parent calmly defines self and rules and consequences, communicates them when they are sure of them and is prepared to stand on the consequences of broken rules if need be. P235

The parental problem was transmitted to the child through making a project out of the child…… parents who could make a project out of themselves was a turning point in both the theory and practice of family psychotherapy. P96

The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s (parents) anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. P381

“Once a parent always a parent” – Jenny Brown


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When caring for others can be self-serving

helpingIt’s humbling to see how easily I can fall back into this ‘over helping’ pattern given I’ve been working to improve my awareness of this over so many years. The work of maturing is indeed a slow process. In my own family my insecurities within could be alleviated when another was courting my advice and support. 

I’m aware that I need to monitor myself when it comes to responding to those in need. Recently I observed myself, during my small group church gathering, being over involved in the meeting – saying too much, filling in the silent moments, anticipating others needs and indirectly speaking for them. I tend to do this unconsciously, when I’m a bit tense or feeling over responsible for others.  As I reflected on what was behind this lapse I realised that 2 of the people in my group had been opening up to me about some challenging personal issues they were confronting. Rather than just stand side by side with them I fell into a position I had in my family of origin of feeling overly responsible for how their needs were being considered in the context of the community gathering. Emotionally (not intellectually) I perceived that they needed me to make sure that the group process was protective for them in their vulnerability.  Neither of them had asked me to do this and the effect of my over responsibility was to impinge on the work of the group facilitator – my husband.  My reactive efforts crowd out others space to contribute to relationships. These days I usually manage to stay aware of the importance of NOT allowing anxious sensitivities to other’s distress move me into taking on responsibility for what is not mine.  I have seen the evidence many times that when I listen and am present with people but allow them to work their way through their own life challenges, people do better and our relationship does better.

It’s humbling to see how easily I can fall back into this pattern given I’ve been working to improve my awareness of this over so many years. The work of maturing is indeed a slow process. In my own family my insecurities within could be alleviated when another was courting my advice and support.  My mother became a confidant to me in my teenage years and I tend to attract people wanting to confide in me and express their problems. You can see how well primed I was to go into the helping professions. I have come to see that any help giving that is used to steady one’s self is ultimately not genuine service to others. Just as any person seeking others to align with their complaints or overly bond with them through a helping process is likely to be reducing their own life responsibility. Both sides of the over helping and over venting are co-creators of a self- steadying pattern rather than a growth promoting relationship.

I’m often asked to give talks to church groups about ways to care for others constructively. In a faith community, with an imperative to love and serve others, this is a central issue. It’s such an interesting topic to tease out – What is genuine service to others and not a helping process that impinges on mature relating in community? The following is a list of questions I’ve developed to assist people to grapple with the different sides of this dilemma:

Questions to reflect on whether anxious relational sensitivities have gotten mixed up with caring for one another:

  • How thoughtful versus impulsive have I been in responding to the other?
  • Am I overly comfortable with people in need? Do I feel an impulse to rescue or fix?
  • How much is my response to the other based on my imagining what they need versus making the effort to draw alongside and hear what they think about their situation?
  • How much do I unknowingly bolster myself from the validation that comes from providing help to others? (Was this something that I experienced in my family of origin or early church community of similar non family group?)
  • Is the energy going into caring for certain people leaving any important relationships neglected? g. Family members. Not just neglecting being in good connection with family members but remaining responsible in family duties.
  • Is my effort to help another bringing benefit to them or is it resulting in increased helplessness and dependence? Are they responding by needing more and more time and attention?

And on the other side of the over helping pattern:

  • Is the way I expect others to care for me preventing me from maturing and being more responsible?
  • Do I talk more about the issues in my own life than showing interest in what’s happening in other’s lives?
  • When I’m struggling, am I prone to talk to others before thinking (and praying) things through for myself?
  • How uncomfortable am I with someone in need? Do I tend to avoid or distance?

By nature and nurture I have a high sensitivity to other’s pain and distress. I deeply care that struggling people should not be left to walk alone in their suffering. At the same time I know how easily anxieties can be caught up in the helping relationship. ‘Over helping’ and ‘over venting’ may temporarily make people feel important or valued but in the longer term can leave people burnt out and confused. In quite subtle ways what we think is in service of others can unknowingly be in service of ourselves. This is an area I continue to prayerfully and consciously work on in my relationships.

Reflect on the various postures towards helping that are shaped uniquely for yourself and each member of your family:

What was my position in my family in terms of helping?

Was I ‘over helped’ at time?

Was I valued as a helper?

Did I distance from any problems between other family members?

Was I encouraged to focus on self (my needs or achievements) at the expense of making space for others?

* Foot note – I think the issue of human selfishness/narcissism (in varying degrees) is universal. Hence even very good acts of care are often caught up in self- interest. Alongside this is the anxiety in family relationship systems that shape people differently in terms of their postures and sensitivities towards others.

Bowen quotes (from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice):

It is factual that dysfunctioning and over functioning exist together. P 155

It’s possible for the [person] to attain even more emotional equilibrium through the … helplessness of the [other]. The one down of the [other] permits her to function securely in the over adequate position. P 63

Basic relationship patterns developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood are used in all other relationships throughout life. P 462

I realized the degree to which I had been… instructing others and even functioning for them, while I had been irresponsible in failing to do other things that came within my own area. P498

‘When caring for others can be self-serving’ – Jenny Brown

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From Convicts to Functional Families – Exploring my Family History

Henry and Jenny small melville
Photo is of my 3rd great grandfather and mother who are both 2nd generation from convict parents. My second great grandfather is 1st on the left.

When I look at the visual diagram of my generational family I can see just how small we all are in the relationship web. For me this is grounding, humbling and strangely steadying.

Have you ever wondered if there is any tangible benefit in knowing details of the generations of your family? What insight does it really give to note interesting relatives in terms of their successes or misdemeanours? These are questions that have motivated me to do some extra family research over the recent holiday period. I’ve always known that, from one line on my mother’s side, I have two first fleet convicts as my ancestors.  My additional research has found another 2 convicts whose daughter married into that line. Across the other ancestral lines there is a mix of free settlers who came to Australia in the mid-1800s. Some came on assisted passage as domestic workers, labourers and tradespeople (such as a coach builder) and others came paying their own way having left behind in England families of relative substance such as Grazier landholders and business owners.

Seeing the bigger picture of my family over 5 to 7 generations does broaden my sense of the diverse influences that have been part of shaping myself and my current family. It lifts my view above the often exaggerated entanglement in present day issues.  One aspect of the facts of my family history that have particularly intrigued me is the rapid progress and resilience of my convict lines. From the first generation of these families since their transportation from England and Scotland there are signs of significant resiliency and progress. They produced many children who (apart from twins who died in childhood) lived long lives with apparently stable marriages and families. There were many more infant deaths from the family lines of the free settlers. This got me wondering about what factors contributed to such progress for those who came from a struggling petty criminal underclass.  What enables families who face such adversity to improve their functioning in society?

My hunch is that the convicts in my family had survived much adversity in their months in overcrowded prisons in England and on the arduous 8 month journey to Australia. The survivors were well trained to adapt to extreme environments and challenges. Some of the free settlers however were less experienced in enduring exceptionally poor conditions.

It is also interesting for me to consider what enables people to lift their functioning in society over the generations given the common pattern of multi-generational social dependency. As I look at the facts of the social and vocational positions achieved in the convict descendants it is striking that they were not in any way reliant on handouts after their original land grants. The onus was on each to lift their functioning to build a stable life for their families. The opportunity to build personal agency and competency is clearly a factor in a family lifting itself from imprisoned criminals (albeit often minor offences) to respected contributing citizens of a community. I am mindful of Dr Murray Bowen’s perspective on social processes that can impair group’s opportunities to adapt and progress. Too much benevolence can prevent groups from developing goals for themselves:

The poor are vulnerable to becoming the pitiful objects of the benevolent, over sympathetic segment of society that improves it’s functioning at the expense of those pitied. Being over sympathetic with less fortunate people automatically puts the recipients in a one down inferior position (Bowen FTCP p 445).

My sense is that there were not the resources for too much benevolence in the early Sydney colony. Sadly the treatment of the indigenous people in these times has often been destructive and disenfranchising; and the generational social swings from harsh treatment to over benevolent handouts has entrenched significant social difficulties for many.

Of course my research has opened up many more useful facts of the many generations of my family. I’m as interested in ascertaining those who have done poorly over the generations as those who have prospered as this gives useful grounds for understanding variations of resilience in my family systems. As I ponder the potential benefits of researching one’s multi-generational family Bowen’s ideas on this resonate with me. Family history research sets a context where:

One can get a sense of continuity, history and identity that is not otherwise possible… [and] can provide one with a different view of the human phenomena than is possible from examining the urgency of the present (Bowen FTCP p492).

I agree that there’s something clarifying about getting outside of the ‘urgency of the present”. It’s been a profitable exercise to revisit my family history and fill in a few more of the gaps in information using some books and an online research site. When I look at the visual diagram of my generational family I can see just how small we all are in the relationship web. For me this is grounding, humbling and strangely steadying.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How much factual information (as opposed to myths and emotive stories) do I have about all sides of my family for at least 4- 5 generations?
  • What do the gaps in my knowledge suggest about distance in relationships down some family lines?
  • What interesting data emerges about strengths and vulnerabilities in my family genealogy? Am I as interested in the challenging sectors of the family as the more noble elements?


Additional relevant quotes from Bowen

My goal was to get factual information in order to understand the emotional forces in each nuclear family, and I went back as many generations as it was possible to go. P 491

In only 150 – 200 years an individual is the descendent of 64 – 128 families of origin, each of which has contributed something to one ‘self. With all the myths and pretence and emotionally biased reports and opinions, it is difficult to ever really know “self” of to know family members in the present or recent past. As one reconstructs facts of a century or two ago, it is easier to get beyond myths and to be factual. P 492

‘From Convicts to Functional Families – Exploring my Family History’ – Jenny Brown



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Working on a Marriage not an Event

145276763151268Towards the end of last year I celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary and was able to mark it with a weekend getaway with my husband. It was a delightful, romantic respite from the end of year pressures. I was prompted to reflect on events that mark important relationship milestones or transitions. We can invest a lot in the experience of the event itself and loose the meaning of what the event is marking.

I recall a comment made about an upcoming wedding in my broader family – the soon to be groom wisely stated that for him this is all about a marriage and not all about a wedding. The wedding as an event and can be injected with disproportionate amounts of expectation for perfection that can leave a couple and family completely exhausted and somewhat flat afterwards- along with the depletion of their bank accounts (or parents bank accounts). In contrast to a focus on the event – a marriage is about a promise and a long haul commitment. It is not just about 2 individuals fuelling romantic expectations and creating a series of such experiences. It is about a transition of generational family relationships that restructures the broader family system. A marriage marks the beginning of another generational level.

For my anniversary break away I was certainly up for relishing the event. More than this however, my focus was on recognising the priority I place on my marriage and the mutual ongoing commitment that is involved through the many phases of life. The time away did boost emotions of joyful affection but more importantly it was an opportunity to reflect on the principles behind our original commitment and the lessons learned along the way.

There are many predictable deterrents to prioritising and working out a commitment promise. Marriage certainly exposes one’s selfishness. It also exposes ways of avoiding feelings of anxious emotions. Let me describe the typical ways avoidance of emotional discomfort plays out in marriages:

Rather than tolerate the discomfort of expressing differences of opinion in an open respectful way it is often just easier to avoid and distance into other activities; or ‘band aid’  anxiety through one way conflict. When emotions get stirred because of the inevitable absence of affirmation and attention from the other it is easy to impatiently pursue the other to steady ourselves rather than work on being less dependent on the other for self-esteem. If our spouse doesn’t respond as we’d like to our pursuits we easily become critical of them rather than clarifying what is going on for ourselves. Predictably this leads to complaining to third parties about our spouse being inattentive or unreasonable. Our anxieties lower as soon as we hear a third party support our point of view (Triangles).It is also common for one spouse to allow the other to solve their problems for them. Both the problem solving ‘expert’ and the one who gives way to the other’s ‘expertness’, have lowered tension through this adjustment.

And then come children!  It is predicable that a couple (to varying degrees) will substitute their effort to know each other with the detour of focussing on their children. Children need our attention but they can too easily provide a sneaky justification for neglecting the adult partnership. If there are not children, the detour of work, hobbies and pets can fill the breach.  Rather than work on being open about one’s challenges, hopes and dreams with the other it is just more comfortable to talk about the child’s latest milestone or perceived vulnerability. Commonly, a husband senses that his wife is less anxious for his attention when children come. As she is steadied and strengthened by caring for a dependent child she looks less to her husband when she’s unsettled. The husband is typically relieved that his wife is less critically attuned to whether he is measuring up and willingly participates in the distance that fosters more ‘mother to child’ focus. He may have opinions about child rearing or fostering their connection but avoid expressing them for fear of his wife’s critical response. The mother characteristically calls on her husband to help when parenting is overwhelming but as soon as he starts doing things differently with the child she is critical of him and is glad for him to resume his distance. The husband may just passively go along with his wife’s focus on the children to keep harmony or he may be passively critical and parent in a polarised manner. These anxious sensitivities and patterns to manage them in our marriages happen outside a couple’s awareness. (the opposite gender patterns may sometimes be present)

I think that every marriage partnership, and marriages with children, goes through varying degrees of at least a few of these patterns. It has certainly been the case in my own marriage and mostly I was oblivious to it. One such time was when my children left home in their 20s. It took me by surprise to watch how I became increasingly irritable with my husband. This revealed to me how much I had been stabilized by the presence of my children and their activities. It also challenged me to see where I had been neglecting to foster genuine connection with my husband. The past years have required renewed effort to know and be known to my husband in a deeper way. To address my part in immature management of discomfort.  My original promise over 30 years ago underscores this imperative.

I often hear, in my clinical practice, a spouse declare that they have no motivation left to prioritise their partner. The years have allowed for so much distance and detouring that they find it hard to feel affection and positive regard for the other. I endeavour to assist them to see how they have co-created this void and to envisage the possibility of playing a part in cultivating a fond acceptance of each other that enables them to grow old together. For myself, at the times I have struggled for motivation to be kind and in real contact with my husband, I recall the grace I have received in my life. Grace reminds me that love is a commitment. It is not based on another measuring up. This commitment was marked at a joyous event 35 years ago but it is not dependent on a series of happy events. It is sustained by an effort towards humility, confronting selfishness, immaturity and learning to stay truly connected in the face of tensions rather than take the easier detours that are on offer.

* The patterns described are observable in all long term committed relationship to varying degrees.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How much do I look to my spouse/important others to bolster my happiness? Is the state of my relationship measured by good times or an inner commitment to the good of each other?
  • How do I mark an anniversary? Is my focus on creating an experience or on affirming the achievement of sticking at promises made?
  • Which patterns have I been part of that contribute to distance and detours in my marriage? =

A focus on getting needs met through the other? Distancing (physically and/or emotionally) when feeling insecure? Snippy conflict, which is emotional venting rather than working through things? Detouring my discontents to third parties? Becoming the expert on how the other should manage life or allowing the other to do this for me? Subtly allowing children to be the main topic of conversations? Allowing the experience of parenting a dependent child to be a substitute for staying open with my spouse? Staying silent to avoid the discomfort of the other’s criticism?

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory

These quotes referring to patterns in marriage are from Dr M Kerr’s book: Family Evaluation 1988.

It is predicable that [anxious immaturity] will be bound in one or more of three patterns of emotional functioning: conflict between the mates, disproportionate adaptation by one mate to preserve harmony, or focus of parental anxiety on a child. P225

People are willing to be “individuals” only to the extent that the relationship system approves and permits it. Giving up some togetherness (fusion) does not mean giving up emotional closeness. It means that one’s functioning becomes less dependent on the support and acceptance of others. P 107

People select mates who are at the same level of differentiation of self. Each person has the same amount of need for emotional reinforcement from the relationship…..Both have the same amount of emotional separation (differentiation) from their respective families of origin, an amount that parallels the amount of emotional separation (differentiation) that exists in the marital relationship. P171

People are keenly responsive (not necessarily conscious) or sensitive to one another’s emotional states and make automatic adjustments in response to the information received….The emergence of a symptom in the other can, in turn, reduce the anxiety of the first person as he/she begins to minister to the now symptomatic one. This alleviation of anxiety in the first person can also have a calming effect on the symptomatic one; it is easier to be symptomatic [needy] than it is to tolerate one’s internal reactions to another’s distress. P 129

People do not have trouble getting on because of issues (such as children, money, sex)…These issues tend to bring out the emotional immaturity of people and it is that immaturity, not the issues, that creates the conflict. P 188

‘Working on a marriage not an event’ – Jenny Brown

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Where have the condiments gone? My emotional reactions at the family Christmas lunch

christmas condimentsHopefully I can continue to loosen up in the build-up to hosting a family gathering so that anyone can move the mustards and it will be just fine with me.

How did your family manage Christmas and holiday menu decisions? What were the issues that incited reactions from you and other family members? Could you notice who was most sensitive to the tension? Who were the peace makers? The distancers? The amplifiers? So often the issues that trigger reactions are insignificant but the extra intensity of the family gathering sets the scene for emotions to run a notch higher than usual. For myself I observed my emotions hitching a ride on the most petty of issues- the placement of the condiments?  Looking back it’s quite humorous to recall my reaction to a difference of opinion about whether the sauces should be with the buffet or on the dining table. Such a moment provided me with a humbling opportunity to practice managing my emotions more maturely.

Our emotions are hugely influential. I’m not referring so much to the secondary conscious emotions of happiness, anger or positive affection but rather to the primary emotions embedded in our lower central brain’s limbic system.  Like an iceberg, the primary emotions that drive levels of stress and fear (as well as being linked to essential biological systems such as digestion) operate beneath the surface of awareness and make up more of human experience and behaviours than we care to think. I have come to see that there is much value in an awareness of these primary emotions and the way they influence relationship patterns. At this Christmas holiday time, with extra demands on time, energy and extended family relationship interactions, I’ve been endeavouring to better observe these below the surface forces within my physiology.  Add a bit of stress to my life – even positive stress- and my primary emotions become more accessible to my intellect.

On the surface I thrive during the events of Christmas and holiday gatherings. I enjoy the planning and preparation, the opportunities for connecting over favourite food and champagne with uplifting music adding to the atmosphere. Plus there are the spontaneous back yard games that unite the generations as both players and spectators. While there’s much pleasure to be had there is also extra responsibility and tasks at this time. I’ve had my in-laws staying for the week and been host, with my husband, to some of the Christmas gatherings. With the extra load comes just that extra degree of intensity from my limbic system. I know that with a heightened level of work load and occasion anticipation, my heart rate can be a bit higher and my general body tension a bit tighter. For me this played out in being a bit too focussed on event management and being in control. The control thing is a learned way to absorb the extra tension but even in it’s more subtle forms it can be unhelpful in relationships. It can exclude others from contributing and inject a bossy tone to exchanges.

So what have I observed over the holiday week? Two key examples stand out for me as good lessons in awareness and making adjustments. The first was a conversation I had with my husband about catering for Christmas day. I asked him what ideas he had and as I listened to his particular views on preferred menu I found myself countering his ideas. What was going on here? I genuinely wanted to get his ideas but at my emotional level I reacted to what was contrary to my own thoughts. Thankfully he gently called me on this. He smiled at me and said isn’t it funny the way we get into this trivial debating at such times. Initially my emotional response was to justify my viewpoint but as I stepped back I could see that I was moving into unhelpfully taking charge. I was also contradicting myself. What I was asking for input about was discredited by the way I was responding. My effort went into calming down and loosening up. Then I was able to utilise my husband’s suggestions as a resource.

My second example I mentioned earlier definitely wins the prize in terms of triviality. As lunch was about to be served buffet style on Christmas day I noticed that my sister in-law took it upon herself to move the condiments from the buffet to the dining table. I smile as I now reflect on how silly this now seems but, in the moment, my agitation spiked in response to another deciding on one small matter about the best way to serve the food.  I gathered myself and took charge of my uncalled for emotional response that would have been clearly evident in my facial expression and the tone of my voice when I asked “where have the condiments gone?” Then I looked at my sister in law as she answered and smiled saying “I really do need to learn to be more flexible at this moment.” The condiments stayed on the dining table and of course worked just fine for everyone.

It was interesting to me to recognise that if the level of task responsibility is high my emotional response is to be less collaborative and more directive. This example shows how primary stress emotions can highjack quite unimportant issues.  Placements of mustard and cranberry sauce for heaven’s sake! I appreciate that small reactions about unimportant issues can lead to accumulations of emotionality.  This can certainly pollute the air of any gathering as others emotional sensitivities also come into play. Every emotionally driven reaction adds to a moment of tension acceleration that spreads through a relationship system.

It’s never easy to tone down emotional responses at times of high demand on our resources.  At any large family gathering resources for tasks and relationships are bound to be a bit more strained. Anxious behavioural reactions ride on the back of chemical charges out of our limbic brains that happen without a conscious choice. While our particular responses happen instinctively they do reveal useful aspects of ourselves such as our patterned ways of functioning in relationships and unhelpful (or indeed wrong) motivations.

I received a Fit Bit watch as a Christmas present and have already found it fascinating to track my heart rate. When sitting in a movie theatre with a family group on Boxing Day I could see that my heart rate was well above my resting rate. With this biofeedback awareness I was able to slow down my breathing and relax my muscles and watch to see lower levels achieved quickly as I tracked it on my watch. Such awareness of the subtle levels of elevated emotions allowed me to steady myself and enjoy the movie and the company so much more. Monitoring such signs of elevated emotions does not require a Fit Bit but just a bit of body awareness. A little more effort can be directed at slowing down our activity, our heart rate and our breathing.  With the emotional intensity toned down we can commit to observing ourselves in reaction to others and working at doing a notch better.

For most people our ‘beneath the surface’ responses go unnoticed or underestimated. It’s easier to perceive the annoying reactions of others than to pay attention to the way we inject our emotional intensity into the mix. Through all of life, learning to better regulate our primary emotions is a path to improved functioning, for both us and our important others. Hopefully I can continue to loosen up in the build-up to hosting a family gathering so that anyone can move the mustards and it will be just fine with me.

Questions for reflection:

  • When intensity is higher in life what can I observe about my emotionality?
  • What are others up against when I’m more stressed?
  • Which patterns are predictable when I’m in the midst of gatherings of important others? Withdrawal; overly taking charge; getting too busy; becoming critical and moody; avoiding people; drinking too much; becoming preachy; becoming overly needy; gossiping about others……..?
  • What can I make an effort to observe of my reactive behaviours? How can I become more responsible in monitoring my primary emotions and their affects?

Relevant Bowen Quotes

The theory postulates that far more human activity is governed by man’s emotional system than he has been willing to admit, and there is far more similarity than dissimilarity between the dance of life in lower forms (species) and the dance of life in human forms.  P305

It is possible for the human to discriminate between emotions and the intellect and to solely gain more conscious control of emotional functioning. The biofeedback phenomenon is an example of conscious control over automatic functioning. P305

In poorly functioning people the two centres {of the brain} are intimately fused, with the emotional centre having almost total dominance over the intellectual centre…..The more the separateness between the centres, the more the intellectual centre is able to block or screen out, a spectrum of stimuli from the emotional centre and to function autonomously. P372

In periods of calm, when the emotional centre is receiving fewer stimuli from its sensing network, the intellectual centre is more free to function autonomously. When the emotional centre is flooded by stimuli, there is little intellectual functioning that is not governed by the emotional centre. P 372

Becoming a better observer and controlling one’s own emotional reactiveness. These two assignments are so interlinked…The effort to become a better observer and to learn more about the family reduces the emotional reactivity, and this in turn helps one to become a better observer…One never becomes completely objective and no one ever gets the process to the point of not reacting emotionally to family situations. P 541

‘Where have the condiments gone? My emotional reactions at the family Christmas lunch’ – Jenny Brown

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Christmas Rest

peaceIn this “Christmas Rest” blog I’m going against a pervasive stance that people should privatise their faith views (unless they are part of a current trend of social acceptability). I think this is generated by a tension about upsetting social harmony in the face of differences amongst us. I hope that I can be transparent about my faith in a way that is never pushy or judgemental towards others. Of course genuine transparency is living a faith not just talking it. Additionally I work to stay open to and listen well to others views and beliefs – a good ‘growing up’ opportunity.

A Time for Rest: Christmas reflections

Over all of the relationship challenges and busyness I will draw deep peace from the Christmas message.

Yesterday my work team celebrated Christmas and year end in the garden of one of our group. It was a truly pleasant time of sharing good food and refreshments, of connecting to broader family and laughing together as we negotiated the Kris Kringle gift process. I savoured the warmth of hospitality as well as the December air of summer ‘down time’ that marks a southern hemisphere Christmas.

I was full of gratitude for the good people I have the opportunity to work with, both now and in the past. The responsibilities for the lunchtime event were pretty evenly shared with everyone pitching in. As far as I could observe, no one was over -functioning and no one was under -contributing. It was good to experience this principle of non-anxious and balanced offerings in action. This is an example of seeing how the concepts from Bowen theory have assisted in building a constructive workplace culture where each individual has reasonable space to contribute without feeling over loaded or propped up.

At such a work Christmas gathering I particularly experience the intersection of my Christian faith and my professional interest in Bowen family systems theory. Before we all tucked into our main course buffet I shared a few reflections with my team members and their guests. This included recounting a Bible verse from my morning church service that I find deeply comforting. They are recorded words of Jesus: “Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

I’ aware of some of the varying burdens my colleagues are carrying, ranging from end of year tiredness to major family health crises. At this time of year especially, I think there is a hunger for deeper rest; to not feel abandoned to our insufficient resources in carrying our own load.

From my study and application of Bowen family systems theory I utilise astute research observations of relationship patterns to be a more responsible contributor to family and community. My Christian faith is in a distinctly different place, providing eternal life purpose and a compass for goodness and justice.  I’m committed to not pushing my faith position onto my work colleagues or any others but I do seek to be transparent about its importance in my life. I hope that I convey to others an openness to hear their particular faith story – which is frequently a tale of abandonment of spiritual faith.

Interestingly Bowen was intrigued by his observations of supernatural phenomena amongst humans and wanted to investigate this further in his life research of the human development. He did not live long enough to take this research interest very far. For me the experience of key times of supernatural interjection in my life undergirds my ongoing beliefs. My faith is experienced both intellectually and emotionally.  It is based on an intellectual commitment to studying scripture, including comparative reading from other traditions and criticisms. Probably more importantly it is based on the lived emotional experience of being loved and directed by a force outside of the limits of my human condition. I clearly recall as a twelve year old struggling with harsh isolation from peers and as I read words of scripture I had a visceral experience of the presence of Jesus with me.  This has been repeated many times at the various stages of my life – particularly (but not exclusively) in times of deep need. Yes I have certainly experienced times of doubt and have sometimes struggled to intellectually reconcile the miraculous claims of the Bible documents about God’s activity amongst humanity. Yet into these times of grappling I have repeatedly experienced the upholding and encouragement of a loving force from outside of myself. For me this is the presence of God offering rest and assurance. It is not religion but rather relationship.

During the Christmas season I will celebrate this precious rest and presence.  I expect I will also be drawing from what I learn from Bowen’s theory to manage myself in predictably intense relationship experiences. I will watch for the sneaky guises that tension can take in me and will work to deal with these in myself rather than to spread it unhelpfully amongst others by such postures as over- sensitivity, over- controlling or distancing. Over all of the relationship challenges and busyness I will draw deep peace from the Christmas message.  I will allow the beauty of ancient carols to again to connect to my lived experience of a personal God [Emmanuel] who offers rest for my soul.


Rather than questions for reflection here is a familiar carol that speaks of the rest offered in the Christmas message:

Silent night, holy night!

All is calm, All is bright

Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child

Holy Infant so Tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.


If you would like more to reflect on about the peace of Christmas here is a free mp3: by New York based Rev Dr Tim Keller

1: Does Religion Lead to Peace on Earth? – Tim Keller – 16 mins

At Christmas time, we sing about peace on earth, but does religion actually lead us there? It seems that religion more regularly leads to division and marginalization. What if anything, does the Christian message offer that can turn our skepticism into a living, breathing movement toward peace on earth?

Does religion lead to peace on earth? – Gospel in Life

‘Christmas Rest’ – Jenny Brown



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Clarifying and expressing my thinking about a highly emotive topic


Couples in Conflict = Clarifying and expressing my thinking about a highly emotive topic

It’s easy to write about topics that are socially acceptable, to express an opinion that is shared by the current majority trend. I’m aware that any writing that stays in a safe harbour of majority group think is not a growing up exercise.

I’m sitting down to write about couple conflict.  With so much important publicity this past week about the serious end of the spectrum of domestic violence I’ve thought it useful to add another angle on the less extreme situations.

It is a ‘growing up’ challenge to write about any highly emotive topic. The more a topic stirs up strong feelings the more the tendency to black and white thinking.  I admit that my conflict avoidant priming has rendered me a tad nervous about how this blog might be interpreted. That said I’ll now venture forth into my writing – a discussion of reciprocal couple conflict.  Reciprocity means considering how both parties contribute to a pattern of fighting. I know that there are many in the field who say that the woman is always in the one down position due to her reduced physical strength. Hence if fighting is escalating to yelling and angry gestures such as door slamming the wife needs to get quick smart to a place of safety.

Let me be clear that I unequivocally condemn violence against women and children – acts of criminal assault combined with inexcusable intimidation and control. I think that white ribbon day is enormously valuable in opening up much needed public discourse on the seriousness of relationships that escalate to men intimidating, controlling and beating female partners (or ex – partners). The statistic of 2 Australian women killed each week by domestic violence is appalling! But I also see, from years of clinical practice, that not all aggressive conflictual episodes in the home are helped by a ‘black and white’ response that blames and removes the stronger male perpetrator and treats the female as a victim. There are many expressions of relationship conflict that can unhelpfully be confused with the most serious of unsafe situations; and in these cases the label of villain and victim doesn’t assist either party to grow some maturity and to rise up out of their pattern of excessive fighting.

One of my colleagues recently told me about a couple she was working with in counselling where the presenting problem was frequent fighting. She explained that both spouses would quickly and regularly escalate to yelling at each other and both would sometimes slam doors or bang fists.  They could argue about the big and the incredibly small issues. The content seems less a driver of their fights than their sensitivity to losing one’s position. It’s an ugly picture in a marriage but it is very common.  I heard that in this case the female had discussed the fighting with a community health worker and within 24 hours she had been assisted to a refuge with her children and was engaging a solicitor to apply for a restraining order. After beginning a process of counselling where each had separately conveyed their desire to improve their marriage, the sessions had abruptly halted with a legal process taking over. Like many of the couple’s I’ve worked with, my colleague conveyed that these spouses both seemed committed to breaking this conflictual cycle but they each felt trapped in it. They had been able to describe their highly reactive behaviour in response to the other not seeing things their way. Each would turn up the volume to the point of exasperation and then retreat to a period of distance and avoiding each other. As I listened to my colleague describe this situation I recalled a number of women who had commenced couple counselling reporting to me being told by other helping professionals that they should not stay in a marriage where there is shouting – especially when there are young children. I have wondered if the helper had asked enough questions to see the pattern of provocation and arguing that both partners acknowledge they are caught in. I have pondered whether the criminal justice system and family and child protection systems would be better able to respond to the genuine safety threats if more questions were asked about the two- way patterns of arguing.  There is an important distinction between reciprocal arguing and the pattern of over-dominating aggression from the male partner (with a very small number being female partners).  In contrast to a mutual intense cycle of attack, defend and withdraw in a couple relationship, the more serious pattern of violence includes paranoid monitoring and efforts to control the others interactions with the outside world..

Dr Bowen observed that conflict and distance were one of the common patterns utilised to manage anxious intensity in a marriage.  Another pattern is when couples project their insecurities towards an over -focus on a child which may impinge on the child’s development; and the other common couple dance is an over- responsible /under-responsible way of relating that may leave one spouse vulnerable to emotional illness. For those in a confilctual marriage/relationship, the fighting serves a function of bolstering insecure aspects of self through the pretend strength of arguing; and then retrieving some breathing space through distancing. Couples in conflict often experience a strong reinforcing intimacy at their reunions (this is a false intimacy but can be quite compelling). Each of the 3 patterns for managing immaturity in the couple relationship can become destructive if they get fixed into a long term manner of relating. Yet it is usually the fighting couple whose relationship is judged more severely. In some families Bowen observed that the fighting created a kind of ‘conflictual cocoon’ that did not involve the children and left them surprisingly free to develop relatively unscathed. (This is distinct from conflict that draws children into taking sides or violent conflict that corrodes a child development through sustained fear).

It is concerning when people treat an argumentative couple on a par with a situation of severe regressive spouse abuse.  I think this confusion happens more than people may realise. When the fighting couple have had enough of their immature fighting cycle and want help to break free of it, they need to work on changing their contribution rather than labelling one side as the villain. Neither is helped by increasing a blaming focus on the other that can lead to unnecessary relationship breakdown. I think of couples I’ve worked with where each has moved away from blaming and railing against each other to figuring out how they can bring some personal integrity to the situation. I’ve heard men speak to an appreciation of what their wife must be up against when they don’t follow through on a commitment; I’ve heard women consider the effect of their withdrawal of interest in their mate while at the same time lavishing attention on their kids;  I’ve heard men and women own that when they use intellectual debating they know they leave their partner feeling at a loss to communicate; I’ve heard women after separation shift from only communicating through a solicitor to making time to talk in person to their ‘ex’ about contact with the children; I’ve heard husbands acknowledge that when they walk out in the middle of their wife expressing a complaint it is excruciating to her. A whole new path can be built when at least one spouse is willing to see the ways they contribute to the provocation and escalation of conflict. They come to see it as a false way of building a sense of secure self with their mate.

A husband who had been in a conflictual marriage for over 20 years  wrote on a counselling feedback form that he had shifted his focus from getting his wife to change her attitude (or hoping the counsellor would achieve this) to a desire to change himself. He wrote:

We have each contributed to the tension in our relationship. We have each reacted in such a way as to reinforce the worry in the other person. ———One of us needs to take the initiative, put the hurt behind them, and choose to declare their decision to act, as much as it depends on them, to re-establish a good relationship. —–My effort is to be that “one of us”.

An approach that looks at what each partner brings to the equation of their own immaturity is a path to breaking a cycle of futile fighting. Even at the severe end of the spectrum, where couple counselling is ill advised and safety is paramount, I see that there is still a degree of reciprocity to the patterns of fusion from which regressed behaviour can emerge. This does not blame the woman in any way but it does mean that once safety is achieved, she can be assisted to consider ways to prevent a pattern of over deference to a man who initially presents as a kind of over- charming ‘rescuing prince”. Men can also be assisted to look at ways their family of origin relationships have given them inadequate experience of not getting their own way contributing to an excessive sense of entitlement.

This is my effort to put out my thoughts regarding a tendency I’ve experienced to over diagnose domestic violence when hearing about fighting couples. I know this is a sensitive topic but I hope I can contribute to a thoughtful response to the complexity of relationship symptoms.  It’s easy to write about topics that are socially acceptable, to express an opinion that is shared by the current majority trend. I’m aware that any writing that stays in a safe harbour of majority group think is not a growing up exercise. Equally however, if I write provocatively to stir up dissent I am also on an irresponsible path. Bowen in his depth of observational research of the human family could see that the overly compliant person, who always looks for approval, is similarly undifferentiated as the overly rebellious person who creates a pretend identity using the forces of opposition. This blog has been an exercise in writing about an emotive issue where I have experienced past strong disagreement within my field. I hope to contribute to a thoughtful dialogue and information sharing about the diverse presentations of couple and family conflict.

Questions for reflection:

  • How do I deal with talking about issues that I know will evoke negative reactions?
  • Am I avoidant out of fear of disapproval? Or do I draw a degree of kudos from being provocative?
  • How do I respond to hearing divergent views about issues that I only like to see in terms of ‘black and white’ or right and wrong?
  • What is my response to the different ways immaturity is managed in marriages, /couples? Conflict, distance, focus on child, over and under-functioning?
  • Do I judge any pattern more harshly than another? Am I prone to a blaming stance? Can I hold a view of destructive behaviours that both preserves accountability and considers reciprocity – how each person contributes to symptomatic patterns?

Relevant Bowen theory quotes:

On holding a position that is not in line with prevailing emotions:

The ‘I’ position stance is conveyed by: ..’These are my beliefs and convictions…it is not negotiable in the relationship system in that it is not changed by coercion or pressure, or to gain approval, or to enhance one’s stand with others…….the pseudo self is acquired in the relationship system in the prevailing emotion.’ FTCP p 473

An expression of poor differentiation (maturity) is ‘working always for togetherness in relationships with others and avoiding “I” position statements that would establish themselves as separate from another.’ P 423

Bowen’s description of very low differentiation that describes one who is violent with an intimate partner:

‘Their use of “I” is confined to the narcissistic, “I want – I am hurt – I want my rights.” …They are dependent on the feelings of those around them. So much life energy goes into ‘being loved’ or reaction against the failure to get love.’ P 162 FTCP

What increased differentiation involves:

The difference between the narcissistic undifferentiated self and a differentiating self: ‘The responsible “I” assumes responsibility for one’s own …wellbeing. It avoids thinking that tends to blame one’s own unhappiness, discomfort or failure on the other.’ P218 FTCP

Patterns for dealing with fusion (over investment /sensitivity to the other)

Early in marriage two pseudo selves fuse into we-ness. The symptoms from fusion come [later]. To manage fusion the following patterns are utilised in varying degrees:

1= emotional distance

2= Marital conflict permits each to keep reasonable emotional distance most of the time and intense closeness during ‘make-ups’.

3= another pattern continues the fusion. One spouse moves into the dependent position leaving the other as the functional decision maker.

4= transmission of the intensity onto a child.

FTCP p 433

A good book reference: Couples in Conflict, R W Richardson 2010

Helpful suggestions for recognising signs of unsafe coercion & physical abuse p114-117.

‘Clarifying and expressing my thinking about a highly emotive topic’ – Jenny Brown

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Saying Goodbyes

the fsi

I am also clear that my children are not a possession and are not in this world to meet my needs. This helps me to make room for feelings of sadness at the moment of goodbye but not to allow such feelings to dominate.

What a special time I’ve just enjoyed with my daughter and family who live across the other side of the world. It is a torrid 24 hours of travel to reach her but worth all of the jetlag and side effects to have that personal face to face time. My priority was to be part of her regular routine and to get to know her life in a more tangible way. Nothing can substitute for face to face time! That daily sharing of life for even a short time enables me to move past feeling like a visitor in her life to reinforcing the settled platform of our lifelong connection. Cooking, shopping, attending the ordinary family member events, domestic duties and time out for the simple treats of a café outing. My position in this relationship needs to adapt to the changing phases of the life cycle but the loving bond of family continues to undergird the changes of circumstances.

After a teary farewell I took the opportunity to catch up with 2 friends before undertaking the long flight back to Australia. My friend asked me at lunch how I manage living so far away from family. She said to me that it must be very hard to deal with the distance in our relationship. I responded saying that while it has its challenges I never dwell on the loss of geographic closeness to my daughter. This is a definite choice for me grounded in some important perspectives. I’m mindful that my own mother never lived to see her children married and the arrival of grandchildren. With that reality as a back drop I couldn’t think of grumbling about the distance in my relationship with any of my children. I am grateful to be alive to enjoy seeing her and her family’s life unfold. I think of many people who are bearing the much greater weight of strained relationships with adult children or not having the opportunity for children and grandchildren.  I am also clear that my children are not a possession and are not in this world to meet my needs. This helps me to make room for feelings of sadness at the moment of goodbye but not to allow such feelings to dominate. Indeed as I write this blog I feel the small tugs of emotion that this much anticipated reconnect has come to an end. This is however tempered with a deep gratitude for such a blessed time and an appreciation of the joy of returning home, reunions with loved ones and resuming my own meaningful routines.

When we begin to draw life meaning and steadiness from any relationship it can move into what Bowen described as fusion. The other person loses their separateness from us and becomes merged into our own functioning. Each of us brings varying degrees of propensity to relationship fusion from our intergenerational families. It’s easy to use a relationship to provide us with a sense of being needed or to reduce a sense of inadequacy or futility. This rarely happens consciously but it can slowly develop in the presence of life’s anxieties and is reinforced as other people reciprocate in the fusion pattern. For some, who carry dissolution with their family relationships, it’s likely that they will over invest in substitute relationships. When there is cut off from important family members it may be that intense new relationships are not too far away.

From my faith position I find it useful to view the tendency to relationship over-investment as a kind of heart idolatry- where the other person is elevated to a position of exaggerated importance. Canadian Bowen theory scholar and Presbyterian minister Randal Frost described this in a presentation on ‘faith and functioning’ where the tendency to anxiously invest in others (or in work, education, causes, and substances) can parallel a lack of effort towards God:

 “…people who come to know and trust God no longer have the same need to secure themselves by means of over-investing in others.”

“..modification of the idolatrous component of an intense emotional attachment (to people or things) should gradually enhance the possibility of defining a self to the other.” Frost R 1998, paper presented at WPFC

As I reflect with warmth and gratitude on my recent time with my daughter I remind myself that my relationships are a gift not an entitlement. Even with the challenges of distance they are to be appreciated and worked on – but not elevated to a place where they are necessary for my sense of purpose or happiness. In my everyday growing up efforts I endeavour to keep relationships in their appropriate place. To feel the emotions of reunions and separations but not to let such feelings elevate the person to an unrealistic importance. To love them, appreciate and enjoy them but not draw on my interactions with them to prop up my wellbeing.

Questions for reflection

  • Which relationships risk becoming overly important to me?
  • What are the ways I look to a relationship to provide a sense of wellbeing?
  • How do I manage separations from important other’s?
  • If the emotions of loss and grief are excessive when separating from another, how might this indicate fusion (or elevating a person to a place of heart idolatry)? How can I slowly begin reducing this intensity?
  • What is the place of feelings in separating from important others? What is the place of principle and perspective when dealing with geographic distance from family?
  • Have I reflected on how it is that programs that encourage a relationship with a ‘higher power’ assist many people to reduce their investment in addictive behaviours? (12 steps in AA)

Relevant quotes from Bowen theory (this summary is taken from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice- showing what high, moderate and lower levels of fusion look like. p 366- 370.)

High Fusion People

  • Live in a feeling dominated world.
  • So much energy goes into seeking love and approval and keeping the relationship in some kind of harmony, there is little energy for life-directed goals.
  • When approval is not forthcoming energy is directed into withdrawing or fighting their relationship system
  • When failing to achieve closeness, they may go to withdrawal and depression, or to pursuit of closeness in another relationship.

Moderate Fusion People

  • Are more able to distinguish between feelings and facts especially when tension isn’t high.
  • Their feelings still tend to tell the intellectual system what to do
  • Their well-being can be dependent on other’s approval. Criticism can be crushing.
  • Are sensitised to reading the moods, expressions and postures of the other.

Low Fusion People (high differentiation/maturity)

  • When relationship tension is high, the person’s intellect can hold its own without being dominated by the emotional system. (emotions are both feelings and physiological reactivity)
  • They have employed logical reasoning to develop principles and convictions that they use to over-rule the emotional system in situations of anxiety and panic.
  • Are less relationship directed. While aware of relationships and connected to important others their life courses are not directed by what others think and how they react.

A caveat from Bowen

“A common mistake is to equate the better differentiated person with a ‘rugged individualist.’ I consider rugged individualism to be the exaggerated pretend posture of a person struggling against emotional fusion. The differentiated person is always aware of others and the relationship system around him/her.” P 370

‘Saying Goodbyes’Jenny Brown

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In-laws and Over Correcting

garden (1)

Learning not to ‘over correct’ in my in- law relationships

 I reflect on the growth of my relationship with each of my husband’s parents. It hasn’t always been easy to be clear about my position in these relationships.  I’ve endeavoured to find the right balance of staying connected but not filling in the space that belongs to my husband in managing his relationships with his own family. I didn’t always work at finding this balance. At one point in my married life I shifted rather dramatically from over involvement to minimal involvement.

What have you observed about your reaction after you’ve become cognizant of unhelpful activity in a relationship?  My trap has been to go too far in the other direction when I resolve to stop doing for others what really belongs with them.  When I saw that I was getting in the way of another’s growing up space , my response was to back off so much that I risked not staying helpfully connected. It’s a bit like over -adjusting the direction of a sailing boat by tacking in the opposite direction when all that’s required is a trim of the sails.

Let me describe the family systems lesson that I ‘over corrected” as it related to my husband’s parents.  As a typical over -functioner in family relationships I had instinctively taken on the tasks of staying connected to my in-laws in the early years of our marriage. For example, I remembered birthdays and ensured that gifts or cards were purchased and phone calls made at the correct times. My husband, who had been somewhat distant from his family as a young adult, seemed more than willing to allow me this position. It’s not that we ever openly negotiated the role it’s just the way our postures developed in our early marriage.  When I was training in Bowen’s family systems theory in the early 1990s I could identify that it was not helping my husband to forge his own relationships with his family if I was always managing this for him. I began to pull back from this. In fact I think I pretty much went ‘cold turkey’ in resigning from being responsible for connection with his parents. I did let my husband know that I wasn’t going to continue to be the primary contact with his family or keep the diary on their birthdays. I didn’t resign with anger but with a conviction that this would be better for our family in the long run. Many benefits have ensued from this decision. It was a great growing up experience for me in learning to stop monitoring my husband regarding his family. I needed to tolerate him forgetting birthdays and not contacting as often as I might have. Over the years I have seen him gradually take on more responsibility for his family connections and the relationships have certainly strengthened as a result. I have been more relaxed with my parents in law because of a reduction in my fusion with them where I had come to relish being important to them. It’s been good for me to reduce my importance in family relationships – to learn to not take up too much of the stage in relationship groups.

While this has all been a positive over the past 2 decades, I can look back and see that I took an unnecessary back seat with my in-law family. I concentrated on my side of the family and did not put in a responsible degree of effort in connecting to the very important other side of our extended family system. I have gradually worked to get a better balance in these important relationships. My husband stays at the forefront of these connections. Any important decisions will be left to him and his family members without me interfering. However I can be a resource and support to him in this – a sounding board for him. I can also be a secondary connector with his family making sure I chat directly to my in-laws when there is opportunity.

Yesterday, out of the blue, I called and chatted to my mother in law to catch up on news. My father in law was recently home from a stint in hospital and it was important to connect and hear about how they were managing and what their news was (even though my husband was keeping me in the loop). This contact is now quite independent from my husband who takes the primary responsibility for being present and accounted for in his family. My effort is to speak to each of my in-laws separately so that I forge a real relationship with them both.

I deeply value my relationship with my in-laws. There is mutual respect and care and I can see how this has been replicated in both of our daughter’s independent relationship with their grandparents. It was helpful to realise, all those years back that I was getting in the way of my husband’s developing relationship with his family. It has also been valuable and important to redress my back seat position and become a more active member of this side of my family system.  Thoughtful balance over the years is a worthwhile goal.

* This photo is of my mother –in- law’s flourishing garden.

Questions for reflection:

  • Am I aware of any unhelpful activity in my relationships, such as taking on relationship responsibilities for another?
  • When I see unhelpful patterns how do I go about correcting them?
  • Do I swing too far in the other direction?
  • Do I pull out of my old pattern with a blaming stance towards another?
  • Or can I adjust my position in a proportionate way?
  • How am I relating to my spouses side of the family? Am I allowing them to be primary in these relationships? Am I having an active role as a member of this important part of my relationship system?
  • To what extent do I relate to my in-laws as individuals rather than as a ‘clump’?

Relevant Bowen quotes (from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice)
“The various nuclear families in the extended family system tend to group themselves into emotional clumps and the communication is in often from ‘clump to clump’ rather than from individual to individual…..The new plan was to define myself as a person and to communicate individually to a wide spectrum of extended family members.” P 499

“My over-all goal was to be able to have an entire visit with the family without becoming fused into the emotional system.” P503

Over functioning- under functioning in a marriage

“The pseudo-self of the adaptive one (who allows the other to do for them) merges into the pseudo self of the dominant one who assumes more and more responsibility for the twosome….Each does some adapting to the other…The one who functions for long periods in the adaptive position (giving way to the other) gradually loses the ability to function and make decisions for self.” P 378

‘In-laws and over correcting’ – Jenny Brown

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Our Dogs and Our Family Systems

Pets and our family systems

(This was written a couple of years ago for the Family Systems Institute Blog)

It’s thought-provoking to consider what else is IMG_1468going on in our family at the time a dog enters? Hendrix came along at a time when I was adjusting to adult children leaving home?  There is no doubt that he filled something of a void for me in terms of my being needed and him relishing my attentions.  We have certainly developed a reciprocal sensitivity to each other.

This blog began as a casual conversation in the kitchen at my office with one of my colleagues Lily Mailler.  It was prompted by the site of Lily’s golden Labrador Bella sitting in the back of her car for over an hour while she was working. This gentle and cumbersome canine was sitting quietly and calmly on a blanket with a breeze cooling her through a partly open window. Lily had organised for her to be picked up by a family member some time that afternoon.

Jenny:  Lily, seeing your Labrador sitting so patiently in the back seat of your car has got my attention.  I can’t imagine my cocker spaniel, Hendrix, sitting so calmly outside knowing that I was in the building. I also can’t see myself being comfortable leaving him confined for an hour or so.  I would be working in the office with an ear out for his howling. There’s no doubt that I have a different intensity in my relationship with my dog to you and Bella!  What do you make of this?

Lily:  Yes, I have observed that my dog Bella has less separation anxiety than other dogs I know, for example she comes with me to the beach every morning and I tie her to a post at the surf club whilst I swim and do my thing. She doesn’t whinge or bark like other dogs that are also tied up and waiting for their owners to come back. She does however have a level of sensitivity to me. For example I have observed that she watches me intently whilst I swim and refuses to walk with someone she does not know when I am around.  I agree with Dr Bowen that we all have degrees of sensitivity and attachment which extends to family pets. I kid myself when I think that I am not disproportionately attached to my dog. Recently I have found myself feeling a sense of panic when she did not bark upon my arrival at home and found myself rushing outside to see if she is ok. I realise her hearing is not as sharp as it used to be.

Bella came into my life at a time when I was too preoccupied with making a living and surviving.  I did not particularly want a dog as I felt that it would be another demand upon me. My eldest son and his girlfriend got the dog and they assured me that they would be responsible for it. Of course things did not work out that way: they broke up, my son left to work in the Whitsundays and I was left with the dog. I learnt to love Bella but I made sure she was not to be another imposition on me, by making a conscious effort to be clear about what I would and would not put up with from her. I believe that as a consequence she is not demanding and she knows I am top dog. The kids do not understand how come she is so loving and obedient to me when I do not show her the level of attention they show her.

Jenny It’s thought-provoking to consider what else is going on in our family at the time a dog enters?  Hendrix came along at a time when I was adjusting to adult children leaving home?  There is no doubt that he filled something of a void for me in terms of my being needed and him relishing my attentions.  We have certainly developed a reciprocal sensitivity to each other. He is so alert to me giving attention to other dogs.  Our much older dog was quite self sufficient and non- demanding.  I agree with you that our pets are a part of our family emotional process. The position they occupy has a lot to do with what is happening with shifts in other relationships.

Lately I have been working on being a bit more boundaried (less fused) and more thoughtful about my responsibilities as owner/pack leader with Hendrix.  Perhaps my observing your calm with Bella, and reciprocally Bella’s calm with you, is an additional bit of a wakeup call for me. As a corrective I’ve started focussing more on being a leader to him—not letting him jump on our bed, or walk in front of me, or come through the door first.  He’s becoming a much calmer dog as a result.  Ironically I can enjoy him more when I’m not so wrapped up in him.  This sounds similar to what you observe with your relationship with Bella in contrast to your children.

I’ve been wondering if those of us who are vulnerable to a disproportionate child focus are also prone to a more fused involvement with our pets …especially when children are less present in our lives. 

Lily- My capacity to stay in my own skin with Bella does not mean that I have the same type of reciprocity with my children, I actually was so focused on my kids that there was less of the focus left for Bella and I believe that, as a result, she has functioned much better than all others in my immediate family system. It is interesting to note that Bella has not had any physical symptoms during the 9 years of her life but for the odd tick she has picked up from the bushes. It makes me wonder about how the relationship variables expressed in levels of sensitivity may be important predictors of her good health, besides her biological predispositions.  Her brother from the same litter, who belongs to another member of my extended family, has had a number of physical ailments. There is plenty in the writings of Bowen and Kerr around this issue although the evidence is not conclusive.

Jenny – Well Lily I’m glad I got to observe the differences in our relationships to our dogs. It’s prompted some interesting reflections. While my dogs are not comparable in importance to the people in my family they are certainly a part of our family system and its emotional patterns.

Questions for reflection:

  • What has been the timing of pets entering my family? What other changes in family dynamics were occurring? How did this impact the way family member’s related to the pet?
  • In what ways was a pet focussed on? Who were they most important to? How did this play out in family relationships? How did the focus influence the pet’s behaviour?
  • What work on self-regulation is required to be an effective pack leader with a pet?

Additional resources:

Professor Barbara Smutts, from the University of Michigan has presented at the Bowen Centre in Washington DC on triangles and domestic dogs,.  She studies the dynamics of social relationships in dogs (and other social mammals) by observing video-taped interactions in fine detail, using frame-by-frame and slow motion analysis.  Imagine being able to study our family process in this way! Click here to view more.

There’s a fascinating chapter written by Linda Flemming on triangles in a human & canine pack.  She describes the formation of an emotional triangle with 2 dogs with the dynamics of insiders and outsiders.  When she starts dating her future husband, new interlocking triangles are evident.  When one of her dogs becomes quite symptomatic, she draws from Bowen theory to deal with the system instability.  Her first step was providing more leadership, which helpfully shifts focus from the reactive pack member to managing self in a steadier manner.  She resisted focussing on the symptoms in her dog.  She writes, “As long as I was focussed on Shayne (dog) as the problem, we made no progress in changing behaviours. When I began to see the problem as residing in the system rather than on Shayne, we began to make progress.”  P 237-8

Flemming L. “Observation of Triangles in a Human-Canine Pack”. Ch 9  in Titelman, P. (Ed.) (2008). Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives. New York, Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

‘Our Dogs and Our Family Systems’ – Jenny Brown

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Relating to the whole person – not just their vulnerability

It’s all tsept blog jboo easy when we view someone as vulnerable to relate to their struggling side rather than relate to them as a whole person.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on how I relate to important people in my life who are going through a difficult time. I found myself in a series of perplexing conversations with one such person that has given me great opportunity to learn more about myself in relationships. When we interacted I would frequently ask how they were managing which was responded to with bleak descriptions of what they were enduring. Over time I found myself feeling frustrated with the monologue of negative responses. I was beginning to find it hard to listen graciously. As our conversations became increasingly negative I was starting to silently disengage. This was a challenge to grapple with as this person had some legitimate burdens in their life that deserved compassion. I knew that I wanted to be genuinely present in our conversations and be a caring presence in their life. At the same time I wanted to be able to share things that were happening in both our lives and not just stay with one sided hope depleting content.

In such situations the instinctual response for me is to feel somewhat critical of the other for becoming consumed by their difficulties. This can lead to my avoiding regular interaction. From such an emotional response I would be prone to either distance from this person or to try to change them- neither a mature option. Both options would certainly shut out being a supportive resource to another who is struggling with genuine hurtful life circumstances. It is also likely that I might triangle with another about my worry or frustration with the person. It’s uncanny how critical judgments can emerge without seeing our co- creation of the interaction.

My alternate response was to turn my attention to figuring out my contribution. If I was becoming disengaged from our conversations what was my part in this? I realised that if I kept directing my questions to another’s struggles, of course this is what would take centre stage in our conversations. My questions were inviting them to focus solely on what was painful.  With this awareness, I started opening up more of what I’d been doing with my life. I shared things that were dilemmas for me and asked her opinion about these. I made sure I knew what was happening in their daily life and asked specific questions about these events. I discovered that there were lots of interesting aspects to their work that I knew nothing about and this enabled a more compelling engagement in our conversations. We still discussed the challenges of their situation but it was a more mutual and broad conversation. The chatting about worries became more about their problem solving efforts. I was able to contribute a few ideas in response to the other’s expressed efforts to navigate a way through the complexities of their situation.

It’s all too easy when we view someone as vulnerable to relate to their struggling side rather than relate to them as a whole person. This is what Bowen called over functioning, where the helping posture of one person reciprocates in the expression of helplessness in the other. The caretaker feels in the more ‘one up’ position and can either make a project out of helping and advising the other or become frustrated with the ‘stuckness’ or lack of responsibility in the other. The vulnerable one can feel steadied by a helper taking up their cause but in the process they can increase their need to be supported with less confidence in their abilities to navigate a way through their difficulty. This is common in all types of relationships. It is particularly common between parents and a child they perceive as weak.

Recently I heard a Mother describe how she makes sure she is available after school for her teenage daughter so she could check up on her depressed mood. She would ask how she felt at school today and how she got on with her peers. Her daughter would respond with a list of complaints to which her Mum would offer suggestions for how she could deal with these. I asked how much of her conversation energy was directed towards her daughters struggles. This loving Mum was surprised to realise that a huge percentage of her interactions were directed to her perception and worry about her daughter’s mental wellbeing. It was difficult for her to think about broadening the basis of their interactions but she came up with a few ideas: to ask about the current art project, about what is different in science with a new teacher, about who she thinks might get eliminated from the reality TV series they were watching and why? This would make it easier for this Mum to add her thoughts and updates from the goings on in her day. It can begin to move conversation away from a pattern of ‘helper to the helpless’, towards an interesting, open and more equal exchange.

It isn’t simple to address the part we play in keeping another focussed on their neediness. It’s very easy to respond anxiously to another person’s struggles in ways that glue them into a place of dependence (or victimhood); and of course it always goes both ways. It’s hard not to be shaped by another’s invitation to feel sorry for them or to try to solve their problems for them.

It’s been useful over the past few months to watch how I interact in conversations. To notice the ways I contribute to the very responses that I am challenged by. On one level it all sound so simple – when a relationship is difficult, direct the focus to identifying our own part in the exchanges. To work on self, not on changing or blaming another. In the cut and thrust of often stressful lives it’s incredibly difficult to pull up out of instinctive responses and to work on seeing the reciprocal co-creation of an unequal relationship. I’ll keep watching myself in my conversations and practice recognising the sometimes subtle ways that compassion turns into disconnecting over- functioning.

Questions for Reflection:

  • What are the relationships where conversations have become one sided? Am I in the position of inviting another to focus on me? Am I in the position of focussing on the weakness in the other?
  • In my family of origin, which of these positions (Quick to help or prone to express helplessness) was I most often in?
  • What difference does it make when I focus on figuring out my part in the unequal interactions?
  • What interactions would be good for me to observe in the coming weeks to appreciate more of the ways we all affect each other?

Quotes from Bowen theory

“A common example of the transfer of anxiety was from mother to patient (child). Mother would become anxious and her thinking would focus on the sickness in the patient….Mother’s verbalisations would include repeated emphasis on the patient’s sickness. Very soon the mother’s anxiety would be less and the patient’s symptoms would be increased.” P 6 FTCP

“When the therapist(helper) allows him/herself to become a ‘healer’ or ‘repairman’ the family goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish his work” P 157-8

“..both [spouses] are equally immature. One denies the immaturity and functions with a face of over adequacy. The other accentuates the immaturity and functions with a face of inadequacy. The over adequacy of one functions in reciprocal relationship to the inadequacy of the other.” P53

“When one or more members have sufficient knowledge about the emotional process and its mechanisms (reactive, repeating patterns) to observe it in the family, and especially to observe and modify their own parts in it, the family gains a better chance to calm down and make thoughtful choices.” S Ferrera in= P Titelman Ed: Differentiation of Self p 123

“At our best we find the graceful balance between responding to one another’s needs and respecting one another’s strength and autonomy.” S Ferrera.= P Titelman Ed: Differentiation of Self p 129

‘Relating to the whole person – not just their vulnerability’ – Jenny Brown

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Families Facing Death


Avoidance in the face of a family death

Without clear principles for relating to others in the face of a painful loss I would be prone to operate out of my deep family programming – that is to emotionally avoid the gravity of pain.

‘Chief among all taboo subjects is death. A high percentage of people die alone, locked into their own thoughts which they cannot communicate to others.’

—Murray Bowen MD

On a recent work assignment I visited the grounds of the hospital where my dear mother died of breast cancer, aged 54, November 1980. The hospital has changed drastically, with large modern buildings dwarfing the original 1930 dark brick edifices. I paused in front of one of those old buildings, now used for pathology. It seems unsettlingly familiar. I recall entering such a building to visit Mum in her last week of life. While heavily dosed with morphine she managed to gesture an acknowledgement of my presence. I recall buying her a chocolate paddle pop to give her some kind of sensate comfort. She was only just able to muster strength to respond and take a few licks. Some 10 years earlier my parents had done the same for me when I was in hospital after the removal of my tonsils and adenoids – Oh how the caretaking tables had turned at this moment! The Sunday night before Mum died I felt compelled to visit her quite late in the evening after visiting hours. I discovered she had been moved from her hospital bed onto a trolley and into some kind of windowless storage room. It was as if her personhood had already been set aside and the nursing staff were filing her way for the next day’s tasks of dealing with a dead body.

It’s now more than 3 decades on and these confusing and troubling memories have become somewhat hazy. The whole episode of her dying is certainly blurred by our family’s coping style at the time. The modes operandi was to carry on with life and thereby avoid the realities of our loved one’s rapid decline. In a way each of us in the family did what the hospital staff had done in the face of her death – we shifted the painful reality into a closed off windowless room. How mournful I am to think that she died alone in that cupboard of a room some 5 hours after my final visit. My father and siblings struggled to know any better way to manage; especially given our mother had been the family rock who conveyed stability to us all when things were tough.

The following excerpt from my book, “Growing Yourself Up” tells some more of the story of my own family of origin’s reaction to death. It illustrates an example of a family system closing up in the face of loss.

“The most painful time in my life to date was the death of my mother to breast cancer when she was just 54 years old. Her untimely loss was heart wrenching, but alongside her painful death there is another level of sadness for me. This is the layer of how her death was handled in our family. I remember being in denial about her imminent death right up to her last ambulance ride to hospital. None of our family talked about her dying and how we were going to support each other.

My mother kept up a courageous presence and spoke of future plans. My father went on a planned trip to a sporting event with his male friends a fortnight before she died. All of us were using distance to cope with what was too painful to confront. We just shut out the facts and the aching emotions in order to keep moving forward. Well-meaning friends made efforts to talk with me about my mother’s deteriorating condition and the prospect of her death being near but I didn’t want any part in such pessimistic conversation.

Shutting down feelings in order to move on

When I look at the generations of my mother’s and father’s families, I can see that this stoic way of dealing with death goes back a long way. Children were not included in funerals, adults did not show their distress in front of others and normal routines were resumed as soon as the funeral was over. This pattern of moving on without dwelling on loss has helped the family to survive in many ways. When my dad’s father died suddenly at the age of 50 of a heart attack, it was vital for my father to quickly take the reins of the family business to prevent financial ruin for himself and his mother. Having just come through the Great Depression, financial survival took precedence over dealing with personal pain. Similarly, when my mother’s eldest brother died as a young child, the whole society was rebuilding from the loss of a generation of young men in World War I. People had to find a way to move on without falling into despair or having their livelihoods collapse.

Moving so far in the direction of shutting off feelings to survive has had its cost. I regret that I could never talk to my mother about what she was going through. It would have helped to have been able to cry together. The family could have been a supportive resource if individuals were able to balance their efforts to keep going with time to talk with each other about our struggles in the midst of grief. Thirty years later I can still awaken the deep hurt and helplessness that I felt after Mum’s death, hearing my father crying in his bed at night and calling out my mother’s name. I knew how to support him through busily helping with tasks but I had no idea how to talk to him about our shared loss. The shockwave of my mother’s death and the limits to being able to grieve openly were evident in my family for a long while. Some family members went through some significant emotional symptoms and there are still traces of anger and blame from this time.”

I sometimes think about my principles for confronting a family death. Without clear principles for relating to others in the face of a painful loss I would be prone to operate out of my deep family programming – that is to emotionally avoid the gravity of pain. When facing my own diagnosis of breast cancer 5 years ago I immediately pondered how I would handle my own death if I were to receive news of a grave prognosis. I considered how much I would want to speak openly to all family members about what I was going through – what I was feeling, thinking, praying, fearing, hoping in; and how I would want to hear the same from my loved ones. I remember praying with the psalmist: “teach me to number my days”, to not take life for granted, to appreciate that death is an inevitable part of every family’s experience. I reflect on my older sister’s vital profession as a palliative care nurse and on ways the health care system has redressed lack of sensitivity for dying people and their families. Compassionate health care and sustained person hood to all dying people is such a gift in assisting family members to be in genuine contact with their dying loved one. As with all areas of strengthening relationship, the effort is to improve toleration of pronounced discomfort in order to sustain open connection with those who mean the most to us.

Questions for reflection:

  • What do I remember about important deaths in my family?
  • How open were family members about the facts of the illness; and about their experience of the sadness and impending loss?
  • What were the indicators of ways family member shut off from the reality of death? What has been the effect over time of this way of coping?
  • What guiding principles have I developed for relating to a dying family member and for how I would want to relate if I were facing my own death?

Bowen Family System theory and Death and Loss

Reading Bowen’s reflections on how families can best open up their system in the face of death gives food for thought on alternate ways that this generation of my family can strive to manage grief; remembering of course that this is not a simple formula but requires an effort in all of life to manage strong emotions while staying in contact with important others.

*The following Bowen Theory ideas are from an excerpt of a book chapter: Bowen Family Systems and Grief: Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery:

“Bowen wrote about the role of rituals of grieving, such as funerals, in assisting a grieving family. He stressed the importance of making as much contact with as many people as possible as opposed to the anxious drive to shut down and avoid people as a coping mechanism:

The goal is to bring the entire family system into the closest possible contact with death in the presence of the total friendship system and to lend a helping hand to the anxious people who would rather run than face a funeral.

Bowen thought that funerals could provide an opportunity to resolve emotional attachments and for people to define themselves more openly to other family members by being present and accounted for; To get alongside other family members, even those who may have become estranged, is an opportunity for growth. It enables people to be clear that they choose to be present with others even when emotions are charged, that they have a part to play in the family and that they are not willing to allow themselves to avoid difficult times. In contrast to taking up the opportunity to be in contact with family members after a death, any patterns of relating that serve to deny death can prolong unresolved attachment issues for family members well into the future.

The following is a summary of Bowen’s suggestion using a family systems lens for managing a death of a family member:

  • Visit dying family members as often as possible
  • Include children (children aren’t hurt by exposure to death as much as they are hurt by the anxiety of survivors.)
  • Involve as many extended family members as possible
  • Open caskets in order to provide as much contact between the dead and living as possible.
  • Prompt obituary notices and communication with relatives and friends.


Bowen M., “Family Reaction to Death” in, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (New York: Aronson, 1978)

Brown, J. “Old Age & Facing Death: denial or honest preparation” in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships (Wollombi: Exisle, 2012)

Brown, J. “Bowen Family Systems and Grief. Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery.” published in “Loss and recovery responding to grief with the compassion of Christ and the skills of all Gods people.” Ed. Wesley M, Mosaic press, 2012.

* Part of this blog appeared in another blog by this author in 2014:

* Bowen Family Systems and Grief

Thinking about variation in the grief response and recovery

Jenny Brown: This article (in this excerpt form) is published as a chapter in “Loss and recovery: responding to grief with the compassion of Christ and the skills of all Gods people.” Ed. Wesley M, Mosaic press, 2012.

‘Families Facing Death’ – Jenny Brown


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Triangles at Work


‘I’m grateful for a theory that gives me a road map for tackling the inevitable triangling process at work. I’m reminded that when a negative report comes via a third party it’s likely to be exaggerated by the listener. Hearing things directly from another creates a clearer space in the relationship. It’s less likely that anxious negativity gets cultivated.’

In a recent meeting to review our training program, a remark was casually made that a team member (not in the meeting) was unhappy about a decision I had made.  Immediately I recognised a triangling process – when a problem between two people is detoured to, or through, a third person.  A genuine, concerned third party was conveying a message on behalf of another. It happens so naturally when there is some level of unease in relationships. The issue doesn’t get expressed between the two people with whom it belongs but gets conveyed via another who is instinctively acting as a mediator. It’s easier to express concerns indirectly and in turn to calm down if we sense that the third party shares our view. Hence Bowen proposed that the triangle is the most comfortable relationship (not to be confused as healthy), with the inevitable differences between two people making it inherently uncomfortable.

I responded to the detoured message with a tweak of frustration. Why hadn’t this person come to me directly? I expressed my concern about needing to work out how to deal with this triangle information to the 2 people in the meeting. They each suggested that I ignore the comment as if it had not been spoken— a withdrawal of the remark.  The problem with this is that once the concern is expressed, it is in the system of relationships and will consequently affect the way I relate to this absent person.  When we next connect, it’s likely to be a little edgy, with me perceiving a tension attached to the complaint that wasn’t expressed directly to me. Even if nothing is said, the impact of the detoured message will create some instability in the relationship – silence does not fool a relationship. The other person will sense that something has shifted and will not know why. They in turn will add their own reactive interpretation to this.

I determined that the best way to de-triangle was to let this colleague know how I’d heard about the upset regarding allocation of some training work. This is a way of putting whatever the issue might be, back into the relationship in which it belongs. I reflected that I had not been making sufficient effort to be in contact with this colleague. Our busy schedules meant that we were rarely in the office on the same days. I needed to address my part in increasing the likelihood of triangled communication by making better contact. As soon as possible I arranged a time to catch up over lunch. Over our casual catch up I made every effort to share updates about each of our lives; to hear about her recent travels to visit family and to share some of the non-work related things I had been up to. I know how important it is NOT to attempt to bridge distance by raising a potentially stressful issue.  A relationship needs to be sufficiently relaxed to be able to tackle points of difference. After our conversation moved to chatting about various professional endeavours, I mentioned how I had heard about her concern about the training related matter. She conveyed that while she had initially been taken aback by the information, she was comfortable with the situation when she heard more details.  Any tension between us that could have festered was simply cleared up in this exchange. Whether or not my colleague was reporting the situation factually is not the issue. The whole point of the effort is to ensure a more open, person to person relationship.

I left the lunch grateful for a theory that gives me a road map for tackling the inevitable triangling process at work. I was also reminded that when a negative report comes via a third party it is likely to be exaggerated in the listener’s psychology (in this case my own). Hearing things directly from another creates a clearer space in the relationship. It’s less likely that anxious negativity gets cultivated. As a leader I’m reminded once again of the importance of remaining in good enough contact with the people I work with. – Contact that is calm, not intensely self-disclosing and that best facilitates others being able to focus on their job duties. While distance is an issue, so too is intense monitoring that will just as surely trigger anxious relationship patterns such as triangle detours that can spread quickly through other triangles. I don’t always get this right but I do have a way of recognising the effect of triangles and in turn having the option to address my part. My goal is to relate in an open way to those I work with and to put detoured issues back where they belong.  A quote from a talk by Dr Michael Kerr has stuck with me: that differentiation of self/ maturity is having the capacity to keep a problem in the relationship from which it is trying to escape.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Can I recognise when information is being conveyed through a third party?
  • Do I notice when I feel compelled to share something about another to a third party?
  • When I hear a third party’s complaint about another how can I do my bit to get it back into the relevant relationship?
  • Is my distance from a person I work with increasing the likelihood of triangle communication?
  • What was my predictable triangle position in my family growing up? Was I quick to jump in and listen to the detoured concerns of a parent/family member? Was I a ‘distancer’ who made it hard for a parent to talk directly with me? Was I a mediator who was often overly sensitive to disharmony between parents or siblings? Was I a reactor who deflected receiving direct feedback from a parent?
  • What ways can I work at connecting with others without needing to discuss absent third parties?

Key quotes from Bowen

‘A “differentiated self” is one who can maintain emotional objectivity while in the midst of an [anxious] emotional system, yet at the same time actively relate to key people in the system. …Gossip is one of the principle mechanisms for “triangling” another into an emotional field between two people…..’ FTCP p 485

‘A two person relationship is unstable in that it forms itself into a three-person relationship under stress. A system larger than three persons becomes a series of interlocking triangles….As tension mounts in a two person system, it is usual for one to be more uncomfortable than the other and for the uncomfortable one to “triangle in” a third person by telling the second person a story about the triangle one. This relives the tension between the first two and shifts the tension between the second and third. ‘FTCP p 478

‘When there is finally one who can control his/her emotional responsiveness and not take sides with either of the other two, and stay constantly in contact with the other two, the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease and both will move to a higher level of differentiation (maturity)’ FTCP p 480

‘Triangles at Work’Jenny Brown


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Getting to Know You

Continuing to grow in knowledge of the familiar otherIMG_1281

…when a person never has a posture of curiosity towards another about certain issues there is a shutting down of dynamic conversation and growth in the relationship.

It’s hard for me to fathom but I’ve been married for almost 35 years. Having shared my adult life with my husband David it’s easy to assume that there’s little we don’t know about each other. We have traversed so much common life ground I can easily become a bit blasé about getting to know him better. Indeed I’m confident I know him better than any other human being.

This week I’m spending a precious week away with David and it’s interesting to reflect on what takes up our conversation with all this extra time together. With so much familiarity, will there be anything new to share?

One thing David has always seemed to love is listening to music – especially jazz and folk.  He’d prefer it any day to watching TV, which has been a point of difference between us at times. He relishes the opportunity Spotify gives him to try new albums and has determined already this week that he’ll be purchasing the new James Taylor and Tommy Emmanuel CDs. Over lunch today I asked him when he first remembers having this appetite for listening to music. After all these years I had never thought to ask this question. What I learned is that in his first year of high school (junior high for the Americans), he joined a record club recommended by fellow students. I wonder if any of you remember those mail out record clubs offering amazing bargains. In response to more of my questions I learned that he commenced listening to the likes of Uriah Heap, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in the boarder’s common room. I wondered how he managed to afford this and learned that his pocket money didn’t go far enough for him to continue after the first year (an early lesson in economics); however this predilection for relaxing to music had been firmly established. I must say I’m pleased his tastes have evolved since those early days!

This is one example amongst many of ongoing ways to keep getting to know another and to not fall into a type of detached over- familiarity. I’ve appreciated the shared conversations about viewpoints on current affairs. What is David’s unique vantage point on matters of business, politics, theology, sport…..? In earlier times my immaturity meant I could be over- attached to my viewpoints on some of these areas. This would mean that I was closed off from being interested to learn from others – including my husband. I’ve come to see how this closes down a relationship system – when a person never has a posture of curiosity towards another about certain issues there is a shutting down of dynamic conversation and growth in the relationship. This can happen so easily in a marriage – including a shutting down of interest in the other’s perspective about important shared issues such as finances and parenting. I reflect that David and I have often had differences of opinion on politics; and as I make some progress towards more maturity I have shifted from debating such differences (which can result in shutting him down) to seeking to learn from his distinct perspective. This helps move us from fusion to a notch more differentiation – distinct individuals who are simultaneously connected.

Every stage of life presents a new opportunity to get to know a spouse (or any family member). What are their thoughts about this stage of life? About future retirement?  About what’s important to them in our marriage at this time?  About later life issues?  About responding to aging parents? About relating to adult children? About dreams for the future – including outrageous ones? And of course an equal reciprocal exchange of sharing and learning opens up. This builds layer upon layer of intimacy as new knowledge of the other in their evolving life circumstances deepens.

Dr Murray Bowen observed that the less mature relationships tend to close up the exploration of new information – particularly if it was perceived as a threat to harmony. As people become more anxiously fixed in their perspectives they tend to shut down an interest in other’s vantage points. A focus ON the other – often in the form of blaming – rather than an interest IN the other can emerge. As criticism, or more subtle dismissiveness, emerges spouses can live increasingly parallel lives with a focus on others (children or work) and little openness to what their mate has to contribute to their growth and learning. A path to maturity in a relationship is the effort to open up an exchange of information.

For myself on my week’s holday I don’t plan to have a constant exchange of questions and conversation. Of course there’s time for precious quiet and time to do our own thing. For me to plan a how to cook up the local market produce; and David to aim for increased kilometres on his morning runs.  It is however a brilliant opportunity to cultivate curiosity about each other. And as I write I’m hearing some ‘interesting’ new background music playing. What is this music I ask? I’m informed it’s an artist called Morrissey and the song is a pretty obscure title: ‘Suedehead’?….never heard of it! There is always something to discover that I would never stumble upon if left to my solo efforts.


Questions for reflection

  • How open am I in important relationships to hearing the other’s vantage point and perspective?
  • If I’ve shut down this communication what have I replaced it with? Distance? Triangling by talking about others rather than person to person conversation?
  • Are there issues that I hold too much reactive certainty? How does this prevent me being open to learning about what goes into different standpoints?
  • Has a focus on third parties- children, friends, work assignments- replaced the effort to get to know my spouse?
  • If distance has crept in, what are some non- intense ways I can open up curiosity again in this relationship?

Bowen Theory relevant quotes

“ In broad terms, a person to person relationship is one in which two people can relate personally to each other about each other, without talking about others (triangling), and without talking about impersonal things.” Bowen, FTCP, p 340.

“If you can get a person to person relationship with each living person in your extended family, it will help you ‘grow up’ more than anything else you can do in life.”  Bowen, FTCP, p.540.

“Relationships that can be open and productive when calm become tense and non-productive when anxiety rises. Anxious partners display a range of reactive behaviours. They become more argumentative, less thoughtful, more critical and judgmental, more distant from one another and less able to maintain the complex behaviours of self-regulation that mark effective functioning in relationships.” From Dan Papero- Assisting the Two Person System, ANZJFT, 2014.

Getting to Know You – Continuing to grow in knowledge of the familiar other – Jenny Brown 

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Excelling at procrastination


Procrastination – sometimes I excel at it. When it comes to focussing on the daunting process of writing a data analysis chapter for my PhD thesis, I have developed many honourable distractions: checking emails, doing an extra load of washing, walking the dog, planning events,  …even writing a blog! It’s not that my material is engaging. In fact I’m finding the results truly interesting and can see how useful they might be in my future work. The issue is that the effort and focus required to do the hard work of academic wiring is hard. It’s simply not much fun.

I need to coach myself to achieve the target I’ve set myself for the day. I need to remind myself of how I will have let myself down if I don’t give priority to the task. My energy needs to be purposefully directed to this responsibility that I have chosen to take on. I have to own the task.

My helpful husband regularly reminds me to just plough on so I can put it behind me….somehow this kind of irritates me; but I get where he’s coming from and appreciate that the last 6 years of part-time research have impacted him by my reduced availability.

The effort to stay on task when it is not instantly rewarding is a marker of maturity. Such capacity is largely dependent on how much we were expected to see through a difficult task as children and adolescents. The degree to which we depend on external structure and relationships to pull us through a challenging project helps to reveal the amount of maturity we have emotionally inherited from our family experience. Not that external time frames, relationship approval and external accountability isn’t helpful, it’s just that our dependence on these motivators helps us to see how much solid self we have developed.

As I’ve been pushing myself to keep writing my thesis, my mind has drifted back to a memory of my mother encouraging me to write down my stories when I was a 7 year old. As a school teacher I’m guessing my Mum was impressed by the imaginative stories I would construct (I’m sure a mother’s bias came into play). The world of my childhood imagination was rich and full of narratives I constructed to entertain myself; but the idea of writing them down was not the least bit appealing! My persistent mother actually found a tape recorder -1960s technology, and suggested I might like to record my tales. I recall that the more she tried to coax me, the less interested I became in honing my naïve fiction writing skills.

Decades later, this memory reminds me that it’s up to me to choose whether or not to maintain the effort with my current writing project in the absence of immediate gratification. There is no one to outsource it to and I must find the motivation from my internal principles and goals. At this point in the project I can just see some promising light breaking through at the end of the passage and this certainly spurs me on.

Questions for reflection:

  • What do I observe of myself when I’m confronting an unappealing task?
  • How much am I able to muster motivation from within versus rely on others to push me or do for me?
  • What principles and personal goals can I set to lift the self- regulation needed to stick at a challenging task?
  • How do I respond when important people in my life are struggling to see a project through? Do I acknowledge their challenge or do I try to push them?

Relevant Bowen theory quotes:

People in the higher levels of maturity (differentiation) “have more energy for goal directed activity and less energy tied up in keeping the emotional system in equilibrium.”

Those rare people in the upper levels of maturity are “principle oriented , goal directed people who have many qualities that have been called ‘inner directed.’….they are sufficiently secure within themselves that functioning is not affected by either praise or criticism from others. “  FTCP p 164

At lower levels of maturity “Major life decisions are based on what feels right or simply on getting comfortable.” FTCP p 162

For a less mature person  “ so much life energy goes into  loving and seeking love and approval that there is little energy left for self-determined goal directed activity…success in professional pursuits is determined more by approval of superiors and from the relationship system than the inherent value of their work.” FTCP p 163

Excelling at procrastination‘- Jenny Brown

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Resisting the Tendency to Over Help as a Parent

Respecting parent – child boundaries, whatever the stage of life

grad blogStaying on the sidelines as a parent does not mean being detached but rather being connected without interfering.

I’ve learned that the work to be a balanced parent continues well beyond the school years – indeed beyond leaving home.  My tendency, embedded in my family of origin, is to over- invest as a parent. Hence I make an ongoing effort to relate to my daughters in a way that respects their autonomy while being an interested support.

I’ve had a valuable opportunity to work on this over the past couple of years, thanks to my youngest daughter making a call to go back to university and change her career direction. The icing on the cake of this ‘growing up opportunity’ is that she chose the same career platform as myself – the potential for me to become over-involved in this journey is heightened.

In May this year I joined with close family to attend and celebrate her graduation.  During toasts and reflections over lunch she thanked me for the support she received.  I responded, affirming my respect for how she had engaged with her subjects and excelled as a result. My contribution had been to listen to her on those occasions when she was struggling to figure out how to tackle an essay or select from the assignment options.  I had worked consciously not to jump in with suggestions or advice, just to listen and ask questions about how she was thinking.  “How are you approaching the topic?” “What are you weighing up in deciding which questions to tackle?” “What’s your thinking about the issues?”….There was always a niggling part of me that was drawn to jump into the essay topic as if it was mine to do – to cross boundaries and begin to step into the actual structuring of the argument.  I know this drive to take over for a child (whatever the age) is partially driven by a worry about whether or not my daughter is up to the task – not a logical concern but something embedded beneath the surface of maternal sensitivity.  At another level it is also an insidious, yet out of awareness, way to steady myself in the position as a caretaking Mum – feeling useful can be a way of stealing strength from the other.  Of course jumping in to do for another, what they can figure out for themselves, is not a true caring act – it crowds another’s space to grow self-motivation and regulation.

It has been a joy to stand back and hear my daughter’s independent approach to her studies; to see her both struggle to manage the pressures of a demanding work load and also to flourish in her work and results. Hearing my child under pressure is a fine laboratory for me to grow as a parent. I get to practice being present – while staying in my own skin, to be a listening ear, to trust that she can and must find her own way to overcome the challenge.

Being a parent into a child’s adult years can indeed be a gift- as friendship and mutual support is cultivated. I remind myself to ensure that this relationship keeps a separate space from my commitment to shared support and friendship in my marriage.  I appreciate that diverting from being truly present in a marriage and in one’s own adult responsibilities is the fuel to over- crowding and over helping the next generation.

I’ve truly appreciated learning from my daughter as she shared her scholarship during her studies and in her work assignments.   As the years unfold I will be interested to stay on the sidelines and watch her carve out her own unique career path alongside the other important aspects of her life and relationships. Staying on the sidelines as a parent does not mean being detached but rather being connected without interfering.

Postscript – I sent this blog to my 28 year old daughter for her to read over. My principle for these blogs is that they are about my efforts rather than the other people I mention. However I do want to give family members the opportunity to suggest edits of any aspects that speak about them personally. My daughter sent back the following comments:

I think that you did a good job of finding a balance between not doing any of my work or thinking for me but at the same time not ignoring me when I needed a sounding board. My sense of achievement, when receiving strong results, I believe was all the more satisfying knowing I had gotten there on my own.

Questions for reflection

(For those who are not parents these questions can apply to other relationships at work and in other groups)

  • Are there ways I tend to ‘over- help’ a child – or in another significant relationship?
  • How is my balance between genuine interest and connection with my child and allowing their autonomy?
  • How do I respond when my child is struggling to manage something?
  • Did my parent’s ‘over- worry’ or ‘over- help’ any of their children? How has this influenced my own focus?
  • How do I ensure that I don’t neglect my own responsibilities to be real in my marriage and other responsibilities?

Relevant quotes from Bowen Theory about anxious child focus

NOTE: In Bowen family systems theory all patterns sit on a continuum of intensity from very high to mild. Bowen suggests that all parents have some degree of unrealistic projection/investment into the next generation – and not all children are equally invested in or worried about. This variation in worry focus for different children explains part of how siblings can turn out very differently in terms of their capacity to manage life challenges. Parents are not to blame for this, as it is beyond awareness and driven by loving intensions; but with awareness they can reduce ‘over rescuing, monitoring or correcting’ a child and turn their attention to managing themselves.

Some parents are so emotionally invested in the child that so much of their thoughts, worries and psychic energies go to the child…it is difficult for them to speak about anything else. Bowen  P 97 FTCP

The child functions in reaction to the parents instead of being responsible for him/herself. If parents shift their focus off the child and become more responsible for their own actions, the child will automatically (perhaps after testing whether the parents really mean it) assume more responsibility for him/herself. Kerr & Bowen (1988). Family Evaluation. p. 202.

Parents often feel they have not given enough love, attention, or support to a child manifesting problems, but they have invested more time, energy, and worry in this child than in his siblings. The siblings less involved in the family projection process have a more mature and reality-based relationship with their parents that fosters the siblings developing into less needy, less reactive, and more goal-directed people. Kerr M 2004, One  Family’s Story.

“Resisting the Tendency to Over Help as a Parent”Jenny Brown


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Distance, a well-trodden path

DistancingFunny how these experiences in relationships don’t seem to go away! My immature patterns run deep and hence regular practice opportunities abound.  I continue to have to more work to do on remaining in real contact with others who trigger negative reactions. This is an important path to responsibility.

I hear that Dr Murray Bowen has reportedly said that there are 3 “C” words that are key to working on differentiation (maturing) of self. (At the moment I share this with others, I notice people hastily get their pens ready to write down the secret formula). Apparently Bowen’s 3 “C’s” were:

Contact, Contact & Contact.

I understand this to point to the value of remaining in connection when things are challenging in a relationship. This effort to reverse the automatic tendency to use distance to relieve tension gives any of us a good growing up workout.

In a recent conversation I listened to the rewards of such an effort to keep non anxious contact in a difficult relationship.  A church minister described how he had been practicing staying connected with a congregation member who always seemed to be full of complaints about his leadership. For some years he had followed his automatic tendency was to avoid her whenever possible which had led to others being co-opted into the switchboard of vented grievances. Through studying Bowen theory he had thought more about the value of reversing this anxious pattern by reducing his distancing and working to deliberately connect with the other. He reported that over the past year this effort was reducing his stress levels and increasing his energy for relationships in his church. While the other person continued to be a voice of discontent, this leader was able to reduce his reactions to them by remaining friendly and interested in their goings on.

This got me reflecting on my own life – a benefit of a job where I get to hear other people’s “growing up” efforts.  Are there any people I’m keeping a distance from?  What’s the anxiety that I’m trying to relieve through distance?  These questions help me see that whenever I think negatively or judgementally of another about how they are operating I tend to move away from that person. I don’t go warmly towards them in the normal conversations and interactions that would happen in the community we’re a part of. This can happen in my nuclear and extended family, in my workplace, friendship group and in my church. I thought about a person in my community who I’ve been thinking is handling some things poorly. My silent emotional stance towards them is critical. I am being polite when our paths cross on (kind of a pretend friendliness that never fools anyone) but certainly not in open contact with this person.  I’m sure they would be picking up a confusing tension that can lead to walking on eggshells – which of course can compound the twitchiness between us. So what’s the more mature path for me?

  • Firstly I need to figure out what is my responsibility in addressing the things I am critical about? Do they belong with me or have I picked up on someone else’s issues? Perhaps I’m triangling (expressing my criticism to others)?
  • Is there a topic of conversation that would be constructive to have but I’m avoiding because it’s too uncomfortable? Have I worked at enough contact to build a thoughtful platform for such a conversation?
  • What are my principles for communicating concerns to another?

These questions about myself help me focus on reversing my pattern of avoidance and being genuinely in contact with this person; to view them with respect for the challenges they’re up against; including dealing with critical distancer’s like me; to find a way to speak my concerns in a manner that’s not anxious or pushing my perspective; to be open and interested in how they see the situation- to keep proportion about what concerns me rather than inflame or minimise it; to seek the good of us both and our shared community, rather than to contribute to unnecessary escalation of tension.

I can recognise that this is not a new growing up opportunity for me but one I’ve been up against in family and work.  Funny how these experiences in relationships don’t seem to easily go away! My immature patterns run deep and hence regular practice opportunities abound.  I continue to have to more work to do on remaining in real contact with others who trigger negative reactions. This is an important path to responsibility.

Questions for reflection:

  • Are there any people I’m keeping a distance from?
  • What’s the anxiety that I’m trying to relieve through distance?
  • What effort could I make to keep non intense contact with this person?
  • How would this effort teach me more about myself in the face of a tension in a relationship?
  • What was each of my parent’s patterns in relationships that were challenging? Did they keep contact? Did they avoid? Did they triangle in others by venting to third parties? How were these patterns similar to how they related to their parents?

Relevant Bowen Theory Quotes:

Bowen about himself in his family: “I was using emotional distance and silence to create an illusion of non-responsiveness. Distance and silence do not fool a relationship system.” FTCP p 491

The human “has long used physical distance as a way of getting away from inner emotional pressures.” p441

Significant “social relationships….are duplicates of their relationships to their parental families. When they encounter stress, and anxiety increases, they cut-off from the social relationship and seek another.” P539

Michael Kerr quotes from: One families Story

“The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them…….Relationships may look “better” if people cutoff to manage them, but the problems are dormant and not resolved.”

“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.”

Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000. http://www.thebowencenter.org.


‘Distance, a well-trodden path’ – Jenny Brown

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Reflections on alcohol use and potential misuse in self and family

drinks glassIt is useful to be curious about patterns of drinking and temperance in our families of origin; and to reflect on one’s own potential to use alcohol as a coping mechanism (or alternatively to be vigilant about monitoring another’s drinking) when stress is running high. This is certainly a pattern in our broader society that interacts with family patterns.

(a similar version of this blog was published by The Family Systems Institute in conjunction with its conference on Addictions & the Family System))

After a busy, quite stressful work day a colleague said to me: What you need is a glass of wine; it got me thinking about the accepted link between a drink and stress relief in our society. I enjoy a good wine and wonder about what goes into turning this into a drinking problem? Some reflections on my family of origin shed some light on patterns of dealing with anxiety that may turn a flavoursome beverage into an addictive substance.

Many families can look back over the generations and see that there have been people who have been over reliant on alcohol. Certainly in my own family the consumption of alcohol is an interesting theme. My mother came from a strict Methodist family where alcohol was viewed as a social evil. The Methodist church of her day was strongly connected to the temperance union. I recall my mother organising church events where the Women’s Christian Temperance Union demonstrated mixing a range of non-alcoholic cocktails. I have wondered if there is anywhere in the preceding generations, where reaction to someone’s alcohol problem may have intensified the transmission of her strong stance. I’m aware that these polarities often flip flop between generations.

When my parents married in the 1950s my father agreed to my mothers’ wish that alcohol would not be consumed in our home.  I assume that my father would drink when at outside social and community events, such as rotary club dinners. It was interesting that when I first was introduced to alcohol late in high school I declared to my parents that I thought that Cinzano and Coke was a great cultural discovery!  As the child who was most aligned with my mother I think my father sensed that my endorsement of alcohol provided a path to introducing liquor into our home. My Dad bought me some Cinzano Rosso and we would share a drink together on the weekend in front of the rugby (football) – me with my Cinzano and Coke and him with a beer – and other siblings where then included.  It is so interesting that this triangle alliance with my mother enabled my father to bypass his earlier marriage accommodation. As far as I could ascertain, my mother did not protest.  When my mother died of cancer in her early 50s my father was quick to purchase and set up his own bar in the family lounge room. It became his pride and joy and gave him a way to entertain his friends and his young adult children & our friends.

After my mother’s very painful death, my father started to introduce his own preferences to the family home. He complimented his bar with a fancy flashing light 1980’s sound system. I don’t recall that this resulted in any drunkenness at home but as the years progressed I could observe that evening glasses of whiskey became a coping mechanism for my Dad in the midst of the ongoing shock wave of grief. This would have been compounded by the avoidant way our family dealt with our mother’s illness and death. The tendency to over drink was clearly a way of managing ‘closed in’ emotions and the effects of distance to cope with grief. This was certainly part of our family vulnerability with some members more at risk than others.

It is useful to be curious about patterns of drinking and temperance in our families of origin; and to reflect on one’s own potential to use alcohol as a coping mechanism (or alternatively to be vigilant about monitoring another’s drinking) when stress is running high. This is certainly a pattern in our broader society that interacts with family patterns.

I reflect on the way my parent’s marriage did not allow for each spouse to have a different view on drinking and to allow room for variance while also respecting each other. Often the more pressure for sameness in a family, the greater the likelihood of anxiety getting attached to any issue where difference isn’t tolerated. Reactivity is not to be confused with open communication of self in a relationship. Maturity can be expressed in a willingness to take a position on concerning levels of drinking and the effect it has on the relationship. Reactivity, on the other hand, may be expressed as attacking, gossiping about and/ or avoiding of another’s drinking patterns.

Being mindful of the sensitivity attached to alcohol use in my family of origin helps to alert me to the potential reactivity around it.  Maintaining a proportionate stance towards drinking will remain important for me.

* Note : Just as Bowen theory places levels of maturity on a continuum, levels of problem drinking sit on a spectrum. From drinking as a compliment to food and as a proportionate part of social gatherings, to the next level of also using it to reduce stress but not over drinking, to stress relief and some over drinking, to episodic binges when stress (especially in relationships) is high, to chronic dependence. The relationship system plays a key part in intensifying and in reducing the conditions that lead to addiction.

Questions for reflection:

  • What were the patterns of alcohol use in my family growing up?
  • How does a person get a balanced view of alcohol consumption? Or if making a choice not to consume alcohol how can they not become reactive to those who chose to drink? (this judgement/blaming of the drinker or non- drinker may be a sign of unhealthy reactivity that only serves to stir up challenges in the relationship)
  • How does one learn to deal with relationship stress more openly and directly so that there is reduced propensity to resort to substance use (or other potentially addictive anxiety management mechanisms)?

Relevant quotes from Dr M Bowen

Bowen’s first research interest was with chronic alcoholism. He has some fascinating observations about alcohol use in the family. Bowen doesn’t discount the role of biology and genetics in the vulnerability to symptom development but he does see that openness versus anxiousness in family relationships plays an important part in whether or not an individual develops a symptom such as alcoholism; and whether or not it becomes fixed.  The way a person manages their relationship with their parents in leaving home is considered an important part of how the adult manages in life.

Bowen writes:

“From a systems viewpoint, alcoholism is one of the common human dysfunctions. As a dysfunction, it exists in the context of an imbalance in functioning in the total family system. ….every important family member plays a part in the dysfunction of the dysfunctional member.” FTCP p 262

“Systems theory assumes that all important people in the family unit play a part in the way family members function in relation to each other and in the way the symptom finally erupts….The symptom of excessive drinking occurs when family anxiety is high…. The higher the anxiety, the more family members react by anxiously doing more of what they are already doing.” FTCP p 259

Quotes from Ch. 12: Alcoholism and the Family (1974) in Family Therapy and Clinical Practice. 1978 Jason Aronnson.

From Dr M. Kerr, One families Story

On the pattern of one spouse giving way to the other to preserve harmony:

“One spouse pressures the other to think and act in certain ways and the other yields to the pressure. Both spouses accommodate to preserve harmony, but one does more of it. The interaction is comfortable for both people up to a point, but if family tension rises further, the subordinate spouse may yield so much self-control that his or her anxiety increases significantly. The anxiety fuels, if other necessary factors are present, the development of a psychiatric, medical, or social dysfunction.”


“Reflections on alcohol use and potential misuse in self and family” – Jenny Brown


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Making room for distress in relationships

 Reflections from a sisters weekend awaysisters weekend

“I could appreciate that our family has made some genuine progress. To be able to tolerate the stirred up emotions of another’s upset and not respond in ways that swiftly shut it down is very different to the way we grew up.”

It was jarring witnessing one of my 3 sisters’ breaking down in tears as we shared breakfast together. I felt my heart rate escalate in readiness to do my automatic smooth things over. On this occasion however, I managed to restrain my impulse and join my others sisters in acknowledging her hurt. I could then observe how this gave her space to be in charge of what she needed to do for herself at that moment.

Let me explain the context. I was away for a rare weekend break with my 3 sisters in a charming rural setting outside of Sydney. We had relished a relaxed time of walking, chatting, reminiscing, laughing, country store shopping, and cooking up some great food to match our wine selections. On the Sunday morning I’d suggested listening to a pod cast and had randomly chosen one from a site I follow that linked to the theme of mother’s day (which coincided with our weekend). I had thought it might be interesting to reflect on our own mother, who we’d lost some 30+ years earlier; and I also hoped that this post would add some helpful Sunday faith reflection. The message went straight to interviews of mother’s talking about their deep intimate experience of their baby’s expressed love and dependence. For my dear sister, who has lived the complex heartache of infertility, this touched on a raw and deep grief; and through tears she asked that we stop the tape saying it was too painful for her to continue listening.

I immediately felt foolish and insensitive at my contribution to her upset. It would have been easy for me to try to compensate for this by lots of apologising and quickly moving the conversation and activity to something cheery. (This would have been the kind of apologising that was driven by wanting to feel better about myself as opposed to genuinely taking responsibility for wrong doing toward another.)  On this occasion I just stayed quite, along with my other sisters, and we listened to an honest insightful description from our sister of her living through extraordinarily challenging times. She was able to describe so many aspects of her life at the time which added an understanding of our whole family system and the different ways we were each impacted by the death of each of our parents while trying to make our way in our adult lives. It revealed her personal journey of coming to faith in the aftermath of suffering, providing a gift of encouragement that no online pod cast could have delivered. After a period of listening and learning I walked over to my sister and gave her a quiet hug. It had been a moment of connecting that would have been missed if any of us had tried to relieve and distract from the expression of pain and loss.

Our family has certainly shifted from our previous ways of dealing with distress. As we were growing up, the jolts of suffering and loss were minimised in an effort to keep going and to survive. As a family we closed up expressing our hurts and fears to each other and took the path of ‘soldiering on’. This happened in the face of grandparents’ deaths, the trauma of our house burning down and of our mother’s excruciating battle with terminal cancer. This closing up conversation in the face of upset was entrenched in the coping patterns of previous generations. It has taken its toll on each of us and our relationships in different ways.

As the years have been on fast forward to this sister’s gathering, I could appreciate that our family has made some genuine progress. To be able to tolerate the stirred up emotions of another’s upset and not respond in ways that swiftly shut it down is very different to the way we grew up. There are many times I see my immaturities when I’m with my original family but on this occasion, each sister contributed to a precious mature space where no one got in another’s way. It was a moment of intimacy and appreciation for the different experiences each has dealt with. The younger sister was trail blazing courageous honesty to her elders (yes elders in sibling position even though in reality our ages are so close we are peers). It was an opportunity for getting to know, at a deeper level, one of our siblings and to show love for each other that would not have been possible with the old pattern of smoothing over another’s distress. Our brother, as the youngest after 4 sisters (tough gig right?!), was in many ways the most vulnerable to the isolation that came from our closed communication about grief. As part of my effort with ALL my siblings, I need to keep working at becoming more open and honest in the way I relate with him.

The growing up lesson for me is to be aware of the old stress reducing family impulses, while at the same time, slowing down the reactions so that conversation can open up. For me it is not making it all about my embarrassment for upsetting another by self-protective apologies; on this occasion it was about learning from another as they had the space to truly express themselves.


Note: I sent this blog to the sister I have written about to as a check that I had represented the situation factually and was not inappropriately crossing privacy boundaries. Her feedback provided a few extra ideas that I included.

Questions for reflection

  • How was distress responded to in the family I grew up in?
  • To what extent did my family system allow open communication from each person about their response to difficult circumstances?
  • What are the signs of closed communication (shutting down, avoiding, distracting, smoothing over, taking over…) in my relationships?
  • How can I practice tolerating the tension in myself when another is expressing strong feelings?
  • Are there ways I am unknowingly preventing others from having the room to speak their experience? Or am I accommodating to others smoothing over my own expression of difficult times?

Relevant Quotes from Bowen:

“An open relationship system is one in which an individual is free to communicate a high percentage of inner thoughts, feelings, and fantasies to another who can reciprocate. No one ever has a completely open relationship with another, but it is a healthy state when a person can have one relationship in which a reasonable of openness is possible.” FTCP p 322

“The closed communication system is an automatic reflex to protect self from the anxiety in the other person., though most people say they avoid the taboo subjects to keep form upsetting the other person. “ p 322

“From family research we have learned that the higher the level of anxiety and symptoms in a family, the more the family members are emotionally isolated from each other. The greater the isolation, the lower the level of responsible communication between family members and the higher the level of irresponsible underground gossip about each other in the family and the confiding of secrets to those outside of the family.” P 291


“Making room for distress in relationships:  Reflections from a sisters weekend away” – Jenny Brown

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A trip to hospital & the slow progress of learning to be vulnerable

 “Once an Overfunctioner,………….”

Help wantedI’m not that comfortable asking for help. In fact I struggle to really know when it’s appropriate to ask for help. I realise that I have an overdeveloped sense of independent coping and tend to minimise various life challenges and carry on as if I’m not affected. This is not a new discovery for me. When I first came across Bowen theory some 25 years ago I realised that I was attuned to helping others but not good at being vulnerable in my relationships. I have been consciously practicing sharing my needs and stressors with those close to me over the years. My progress is sometimes slow.

Last week I was booked into hospital for an overnight stay to have some minor surgery. It was not a life threatening issue and I was told that recovery would be quite fast. Hence, in my typical fashion, I minimised the effect of the experience and independently took myself to the hospital. When there were no taxis at the rank, I caught a bus and admitted myself in isolation. I had organised for my work administrator to collect me the next day as I didn’t see the need to disrupt my husband or other family member’s working days. Once in my hospital bed, with preparations for surgery commencing, I reflected on the inklings of stress arising. The nurse commented that my blood pressure was a little high, alerting me that my perceived sense of calm independence was not the true story according to my physiology. As I was wheeled up to the theatre area and greeted by the anaesthetist’s nurse I realised that this was bringing back the emotionally charged experience of my cancer surgery a few years earlier. I had underestimated the power of my memory system to evoke similar feelings of fragility and aloneness. At that moment I realised that my well-honed pattern of pseudo independent strength had once again been ruling the show and I resolved to ask my husband to come and be with me the following morning and take me home when I was all clear for discharge.

This pattern of being sensitive to others needs but under sensitive to my own has been shaped in my family relationships growing up. It is a common pattern that Bowen observed in his research and termed the “over and under functioning reciprocity”. It’s like a see-saw in relationships where one person steadies self through being strong and helpful and another by willingly being helped and advised. The downside in any relationship is the loss of mutuality of shared strength and weakness. One person assumes the stronger posture at the expense of another’s capacity to manage. My mother was a classic “overfunctioner” in her relationships and unwittingly helped train me to operate similarly; she would share her concerns for others but didn’t share any of her own feelings and personal experiences. In my teenage years we both talked about others needs but not our own. Even as she was dying of cancer in her 50s she didn’t know how to be vulnerable for fear of upsetting others; and conversely my father didn’t know how to respond with strong support. All families have variations of these functional postures where each person automatically adjusts what they express of themselves in response to their sensitivity to another. Examples are “the Panicker & the Soother”; “the Distancer & the Pursuer”; “the Problem Generator and Problem Solver”; “the Intense one and the Clown”. For me the posture of being strong and independent means that my stress goes underground and is not dealt with appropriately at the time. It also means that I don’t allow myself to fully experience the wonderful nurture of family and friends reaching out to support me in their own unique ways. For those close to me they are robbed of the space to develop their own empathic strength in our relationship.

I’m grateful that my recovery is going smoothly as predicted. I’m also pleased that I was able to at least let extended family members know about my surgery and I could appreciate the caring phone calls I received. It was soothing to draw from my husband’s strong presence and not leave the hospital as independently as I arrived; and it was just delightful to have a friend from my church community deliver a delicious meal to enjoy. I am resolved to do better at asking for and joyously receiving care; both for myself, for the benefit of the important people in my life and for the growth of our relationships.

Questions for reflection:

• Do I tend to assume a posture of strength or neediness in my important relationships?

• What is the effect of this on the relationship?

• When things were stressful in my family growing up did I tend to collapse/struggle and/or distance or did I step into the over responsible, fixing position? What can I recall was the way other family member’s responded?

• What aspect of myself do I need to consciously practice expressing in my relationships – my capacity to manage or my struggles?

Quotes from M Bowen (family Therapy in Clinical practice):

The “emotional process” is deep …It runs silently beneath the surface between people who have very close relationships.” P 66

“Overadequate refers to a functioning façade of strength that is greater than realistic. Inadequacy refers to a functioning façade of helplessness that is as unrealistic as the façade of strength is unrealistic in the other direction.” P 53

“One of the most important aspects of family dysfuction is an equal degree of overfunction in another part of the family system. It is factual that dysfunctioning and over functioning exist together.” P 155

“When the therapist (helper) allows him/herself to become a “healer” or “repairman,” the family (or individual) goes into dysfunction to wiat for the therapist to accomplish his/her work.” P 157-8


‘A trip to hospital & the slow progress of learning to be vulnerable’Jenny Brown

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Stress Tiredness and Irritability in Marriage

marriage jenny brown blogThis past week has been more stressful than most. I’m working to get back into a demanding routine after a lovely break away and at the same time dealing with jetlag and the effects of a travel tummy bug. Having enjoyed a delightful time with my husband as a travelling companion I noticed that I was quite irritable with him as we were back into our ‘normal’ lives. Little things, such as his forgetting to put an event in his diary, were getting to me more than usual. I could see my pattern of negative affect escalation that tends to occur when I’m stressed. It doesn’t come out as full blown conflict but as a low grade bubbling brew of a critical spirit.

This kind of negative feeling process can really distort a picture of a relationship if we let it continue. Marriage researcher John Gottman notes that the wife’s low grade negative affect, that is not responded to by the husband (with either negative challenge or positive neutralising), or repaired by the wife, is one of the patterns that can predict divorce.  I knew I needed to deal with my own tiredness and health and not allow it to be projected onto critical thinking about my intimate partner. This reminded me of a previous blog I wrote about marriage. I wonder if you can identify any familiar experiences in any of your important relationships?


Marriage and Committed Relationships: a maturity workout par excellence

“If marriage blog picyou want a better marriage, you will need to give up making a project out of changing the relationship or your partner and instead make a project out of expressing your own maturity within it.” ( P 95 Growing Yourself Up).

I reflected on the context in my own marriage when it’s easy for me to me my shiny mature best.  It’s when I’m well slept, on top of my tasks, having a few wins with my personal projects and getting plenty of positive validation from my spouse and others. Surprise, surprise – If these conditions are in place I find it easy to feel content, have few expectations of my mate, be attentive, open, generous, approving and undemanding.  And isn’t it uncanny how these conditions seem to bring out the same kind of demeanour in my husband.

You can easily see the problem of course, that many of my days are tinged with tiredness, feeling swamped, facing some disappointing results and not getting much acknowledgment from others.  This is when my lack of resilience in solid maturity shows through: I become increasingly agitated, more intolerant and increasingly critical. My expectations of everyone go up as does my sensitivity to disapproval.  Before you know it I’ve stopped being responsible for myself and I’m reacting to my husband with either withdrawal or lecturing.  Not a pretty picture! And that’s just my side of the circular dance in the marriage.

The alert sign that my maturity is slipping in any relationship is when I put more energy into thinking about how the other can shape up than into sorting myself out. “When we’re finding fault with others we stop working on ourselves. Our growing gets stuck in the blame rut.” J Brown GYU P49.   Author Tim Keller speaks directly to my spiral down the maturity scale:

“Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it.” T Keller,(The meaning of Marriage p 64)

The most useful question I know for pulling myself up in this backwards cycle is: “What is my spouse up against having to relate to me at the moment?”  The good news is that when the focus is taken away from the other and the relationship and placed on being a responsible, distinctive self, the greater the options for deep togetherness.

Building maturity in marriage (in any relationship) can’t be dependent on creating calm contexts where tensions is low…that’s just not reality!  A maturity workout requires regular practice at managing myself in the face of tensions and not needing a positive relationship experience to set me straight.  It requires me to move towards and not away from stressful situations and to deliberately choose to work on flexing my maturity muscles.  Here are some examples of a good maturity work out:

  • When I’m stressed, I can practice staying in touch with myself and not finding fault with the other.
  • When my spouse is tense I can practice not personalising it or being derailed from my self- management.
  • I can try using my principles for being in contact as a spouse, even when my husband appears to be in a negative space.
  • And I mustn’t forget the maturity work out I get when I’m in contact with members of my family of origin – This is where I can best practice containing old reactions and sensitivities. Dan Papero has written: ‘A person’s level of differentiation [maturity] can best be observed in an anxious family setting.’

These efforts to practice tolerating stress in relationships without losing our clarity about how we want to express ourselves is something that grows gradually.  Just as one trip to the gym won’t do much for muscle tone.  I often think about these efforts to work on maturity while in the anxious atmosphere of important relationships as a kind of exposure therapy for our areas of immaturity.  Just as people learn to overcome phobias through gradually increasing exposure to the feared object or situation so it is with learning not to run away from bringing more steadiness to our marriages and all our relationships.

Dr Murray Bowen describes so eloquently what goes into one person bringing the best to relationships: having “the courage to define self, who is as invested in the welfare of the family as in self, who is neither angry nor dogmatic, whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what they should do.”  P 305—M Bowen

This involves a good dose of courage, energy investment, self-regulation and self-responsibility.  Sometimes this can all sound a bit too hard and we can be forgiven for searching around for a quicker less personally taxing formula for improving relationships.  Yet I do think there is something deeply compelling in asking ourselves:

“Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’? This might all sound too much like hard work in your already hectic life; yet if there’s the chance that this effort can unveil a very different picture of yourself in your relationships, it might just be worth giving this journey a go.”

J Brown GYU p8

Here’s cheers to the long haul of relational maturity workouts!

blog marriage pic2

Questions for refection:

  • What do I notice changes in my relationships when I’m stressed or tired?
  • In what ways do negative emotions that are stirred up by stress distort the picture I have of my spouse or a significant other?
  • What happens when I divert the focus of fault finding to managing my own stress levels?

Some Relevant Quotes:

The effort aims “To help one or more family members to become aware of the part self plays in the automatic emotional responsiveness, to control the part that self plays, and to avoid participation in the triangle moves.” (Bowen, 1978, p. 307)

“Undifferentiation manifests itself in numerous ways.  An important manifestation surfaces in the web of expectations each has for the other to “be there” for oneself. It is as if the undifferentiated side of the person demands of the other “Be the way I want you to be, not the way your are, so that I can be stable, comfortable and happy.”  Often these expectations lie dormant until somehow the other violates the expectation, leading to intense emotional reactivity expressed in conflict or distance or both.” Dan Papero, Understanding the Two Person System, 2014.

“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.” Michael Kerr, One Family’s Story. 2004

Stress Tiredness and Irritability in Marriage‘ – Jenny Brown

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Managing my social stuff ups

coffee stupid

It is a maturity “work out” to manage moments of thoughtlessness in social interactions -Being left feeling somewhat stupid! In such moments I pull myself up firstly by grounding myself in my principle to not define myself through needing other’s approval.

Recently I responded to an email without giving it much thought. I was asked if I wanted to sign up for a place at a conference lunch with the key note speakers.  I responded saying that, because my husband was traveling with me to this international conference, I wondered if there was a place at the lunch for him as well. This might all sound pretty reasonable but if I’d stopped and thought through the context of the invitation I would have appreciated it was only for those who were presenting papers at the meeting. After realising this later, and reminding myself that my husband is perfectly capable of looking after himself in the lunch break, I wrote back to correct my response. It was however too late as my earlier request had already gone before the conference organising committee and I received an email response declining my husband a lunch spot and laying out the logic of this decision.  My immediate reaction was embarrassment! And with that comes the niggling intrusive thought about what the others would think of my foolish request. I fleetingly allowed my immature thinking to imagine other’s judging me as having an overly dependent relationship with my spouse.

It is a maturity “work out” to manage moments of thoughtlessness in social interactions -Being left feeling somewhat stupid! In such moments I pull myself up firstly by grounding myself in my principle to not define myself through needing other’s approval. This isn’t easy for me as growing up in my family I functioned as a compliant, high achieving child, who was steadied by my parent’s approval. My next strategy to manage my potential escalation of anxious imaginings about what others thought of me, was to get proportion about the slip up. It was minor and not to be exaggerated. I could choose to let it go after taking a lesson from it. I could pray- acknowledging my self-interest driven elevation of other’s approval. I remind myself of my gaps in maturity and how they’ve been shaped in my family of origin. I also reflect on my tendency to fuse into my marriage and forget that when we travel together we can operate as individuals as well as “buddies”.

Wasting energy in ruminating about our social errors is not productive. In fact it’s counterproductive, in that the more we mull over things, the more we ‘blow up’ the imagined impact of our mistakes. At its worst, this kind of negative mind reading can become debilitating and interfere with getting on with every day functioning.  My own silly lapse of thoughtful judgement is just that; not a big deal. However these small awkward life moments are excellent opportunities for practicing a bit more principle driven maturity.

Questions for reflection:

  • How do I react to making mistakes socially?
  • Do I minimise or exaggerate them?
  • How did I deal with my mistakes in my family growing up?
  • Can I choose to learn from mistakes and also choose to let them go?


Bowen Quotes from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

With lower levels of differentiation (emotional maturity) people are “sensitised to emotional disharmony, to the opinions of others, and to creating a good impression.” P 201-2.

The mature self “is not negotiable in the relationship system in that it is not changed…to gain approval, or enhance one’s stand with others.” P 473

Basic relationship patterns developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood are used in all other relationships throughout life. The basic patterns in social and work relationships are identical to relationships patterns in family except in intensity.” P 462.

Dr M Kerr, One family’s Story 2003 p 7:

“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.”

‘Managing my social stuff ups’Jenny Brown 

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When an Acute Traumatic Event is Difficult to Shake Off

Anxiety, getting it into perspective: The impact of the Germanwings crash – When hearing about a traumatic event is difficult to shake off.

plane in airIt’s nearly 2 weeks since the murder- suicide that brought down the Germanwings flight over the Alps. News bulletins continue to report on new findings and the grim reality of the terror and helplessness that would have gripped the crew and passengers as their plane accelerated towards the mountainside. The retrieval and revelation of the contents of the 2 black box recorders and reports of a phone video of the last moments for the 150 people are chilling to hear.

What is the vicarious traumatic effect of such a repeated story of horror? I’ve been aware of how much this story has raised my own anxiety. While the horror of the Kenyan university murders is similarly, if not more complex in its horror, there is something more familiar in the 1st world of a plane going down.  This is particularly the case when victims are from our own country- it brings it all closer to home.  I’m due to fly overseas this Saturday and am aware of carrying more apprehension than usual about this. I think it will be harder to detach from the inevitable turbulence of my plane flying across the Pacific compared to the last time I was on a long haul flight. Mind you, I’ve always had a degree of tension about the experience of flight, where the sense of lack of control and the vulnerability of being at such elevations is not comfortable. I over-ride this with a reminder of the frequency and statistical safety of air travel. Added to this logic is the imperative of travel to faraway places to see loved ones; and to attend conferences or enjoy a special vacation. When confronting an anxiety about dying (a universal human fear), I also remind myself of my spiritual faith bearings and let go of my tight hold on the illusion of control of my own life. But this latest plane crash has unsettled my usual strategies. It challenges me to work through my fears in a healthy, proportionate way.

As I have thought this through I’ve noticed that not everyone is impacted the way I have been by this traumatic plane crash. For example, my husband, who is flying with me, is easily able to compartmentalise the news story from his own life.  He has different triggers for anxiety.

This reflection reminds me that there are 2 types of anxiety (in individuals and relationship systems):

  1. Acute Anxiety: The anxiety of facing a real threat, where our brains trigger the chemical associated with fear (glutamate) that enables us to take swift automatic actions. Short periods of stress response activation are helpful for tackling problems and changes circumstances. This can be thought of as a “WHAT NOW?” anxiety.
  2. Chronic Anxiety: The anxiety of imagined threatening events that elicit the fear responses in our autonomic nervous system even when not facing a real threat or challenge. This kind of anticipatory anxiety is called CHRONIC ANXIETY. I have come to call it “WHAT IF?” anxiety. It can become a bottomless pit kind of agitation that spreads a sense of danger to many ordinary domains of life.  Many debilitating symptoms can stem from this contagion of anxiety: symptoms of burnout from the effects of an overworked adrenal system and/or symptoms of obsession as one tries to create the illusion of control in one area of life.

The “what if?” chronic anxiety is the kind of response that has been triggered in me by the germanwings crash…it is not happening to me, but has triggered an imagined fear of it happening. When chronic anxiety is evident, I remind myself that a time limited anxiety only belongs in real events that I am facing; not all the possible events that can be faced by humans. I remind myself of the importance of distinguishing between the “WHAT NOW?” and the “WHAT IF?”

Bowen family systems theory makes the important distinction between acute (factual) anxiety and chronic (imagined) anxiety. The degree of imagined or chronic anxiety is linked to the propensity to life difficulties and symptoms. This reminds me of a tape I have watched of Dr Murray Bowen interviewing a troubled family where the parents remained deeply disturbed by the assassination of US president JFK some years after it occurred. Chronic anxiety has a way of attaching to events that happen outside of our own life domain. It means that our stress response is easily triggered by any perceived uncertainty. Our hypothalamus co-opts the pituitary gland, and the adrenal medulla in keeping us in a prolonged state of stress, with our immune system compromised. This kind of anxiety is infectious in relationships and can be picked up by the most vulnerable members of the group or drag down the functioning of an entire group.

Acute, short lived anxiety, as opposed to infectious chronic anxiety, is a useful part of life. As Bowen has written, anxiety itself does not kill anyone. It is an inevitable part of making progress in life by taking on new pathways and working out challenges. This quote from Bowen’s original research is particularly helpful in an ever increasingly anxious world:

Anxiety is inevitable if you solve problems. When anxiety increases, one has to decide whether to give in and retreat or carry on in spite of it. Anxiety does not harm people. It only makes them uncomfortable. It can cause you to shake, or lose sleep, or become confused or develop physical symptoms, but it will not kill you and it will subside. People can even grow and become more mature by having to face and deal with anxiety situations. *[Bowen. OFP: 119].

I reflect on the factors that have gone into igniting my own chronic anxiety at this time. In my family of origin there have been premature deaths over a number of generations that clearly adds to the sensitivity to this tension. Additionally some close friends have lost their son in a motor bike accident late last year. This will have inevitably stirred up some existing chronic anxiety in me. I accept that this is part of the legacy of my family history and patterns of coping, but that I can make some wise choices about how I deal with imagined fears. I ground myself in prayer and handing over my anxieties (Philippians 4:6). I then commit to not investing my thinking energy in any imagined or unhelpful possibilities. I will briefly and firmly remind myself of the statistically proven, increasing safety of air travel, in spite of the disproportionate amount of TV and internet time that gets focussed on the details of crashes that do occur. I will focus on the privilege of air travel when I board my plane this Saturday and of the valuable opportunities it affords me in this increasingly reachable global community I’m part of. Once on my way, I will relish the unique vista of the sun drenched boundless carpet of clouds, while considering the important decisions of the moment: which movies I will catch up on?

Questions for reflection:

  • Can I distinguish the difference between a WHAT NOW anxiety and a WHAT IF anxiety? (a factual challenge Vs. an imagined one)
  • How prevalent was a sense of stress in my family system growing up – what issues triggered the greatest tensions?
  • When I sense tension about a real issue to be tackled, how can I use it as an opportunity to grow, rather than a trigger of regression – into ruminations and avoidance?
  • What principles do I have for responding to the infectious anxiety around me?


Relevant quotes from Bowen:

(From Family Therapy in Clinical practice)

“Families in which the parents handle anxiety well, and in which they are able to stay on a predetermined course in spite of anxiety, will turn out better than the families in which the parents are more reactive and shift life courses in response to anxiety.”  P 537

We have “built in mechanisms to deal with short bursts of anxiety….When anxiety increases and remains chronic for a certain period, the organism develops tension, either within itself or in the relationship system, and the tension results in symptoms or dysfunction or sickness. ..anxiety can spread rapidly through the family or through society.” P361-2

*OFP: Origins of Family Psychotherapy, Bowen, edited by Butler, 2013.

‘When an Acute Traumatic Event is Difficult to Shake Off’ – Jenny Brown

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