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


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