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

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