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

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