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.
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