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

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


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