An overview of Bowen family systems theory – a different way of thinking

Given how much my book is about applying Bowen’s theory to understanding the commonalities of the families we all grow up in, it’s timely to use this excerpt (from ch. 3) as a mini blog to provide a crash course in family systems concepts. You will recognise them, described in everyday language, all the way through this book. 

Bowen researched his own family over the generations and came to see similarities in coping patterns with those families with more severe psychiatric symptoms. He noticed that there were two forces at work in relationships that drive predictable patterns of behaviour: these are the togetherness force and the separateness force, which are both essential for individuals in their relationships. The core concepts of Bowen’s theory describe the ways that family members react to the threat of loss of togetherness and explain the variations in how different families and individuals manage life challenges. These core concepts are: triangles, which describe how tension between two people gets detoured to a third party, such as when a wife discusses marital grievances with a friend rather than their husband or when a parent discuss parental grievances with a child rather than their partner; differentiation of self, which describes the extent to which family members can stay in their own skin — maintain their individuality — while relating to each other and still being part of the family group; fusion, the opposite of differentiation of self, where boundaries are lost in the pull for family togetherness; the nuclear family emotional system, which outlines the three ways that one generation of a family can reduce individual relationship discomfort — these are the conflict-and-distance pattern, the over- and under-functioning exchange between spouses, and the anxious detour onto a child. The family projection process explains how insecurities in adults can be managed through shifting the focus to the next generation; the multigenerational transmission process describes how parents’ anxieties are not transmitted equally to each child as each gets varying degrees of a parent’s worry focus; emotional cut-off is a common way that family members use distance to reduce the sense of loss of individuality in relationships; sibling position was seen by Bowen as formative in an individual’s relationship sensitivities; and societal regression process showed how the same anxious patterns in families can be seen in institutions in the broader society. All of these ideas, linked together, help show how every individual is part of a much bigger stage of actors in the same improvised play, building a storyline through their interconnections.

To see things from a systems perspective requires getting out of a ‘cause and effect’ way of thinking to seeing how every person’s impulses are part of a circuit of reactions that flow like electric currents around relationships. It’s as if relationships are a kind of dance, with each person responding intuitively to the dance steps of another. These circuits of emotional and behavioural responses in relationships shape how each individual develops. Hence getting real about ourselves in our original families requires us to get honest about how our emotional responses and behaviours flow onto others and influence how they appear to us. The good news, from a systems way of thinking, is that changing our emotional reactions and behaviours eventually flows onto changing the entire circuit of the system. That is if we can hold onto the principles that drive our change efforts in the face of others’ anxiety. This is how we can make a positive difference over time, not just for ourselves but for everyone we’re connected to.

 

Photo with permission: A Schara

Interventions and Confrontations – REPOST

Interventions and Confrontations – Are they the most helpful ways to respond to severe problems in a person we care for?

Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. 

Last week a relative called me to talk through their ideas for an “intervention”. They wanted to challenge a friend to admit to their symptoms and agree to get some professional help. I appreciated the deep care behind this request. I heard about how a long term friend had been exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms that were threatening many aspects of their wellbeing. I was happy to be a sounding board for my relative and to share some of my principles for communicating such important concerns to someone we care about. The term ‘intervention’ usually refers to the effort to gather a group of people together and confront a person about their need for help. It is often used in the case of serious drug and alcohol dependence. Web sites on how to do interventions describe the context:

People with serious addictive behaviours are often in denial that they have a problem. When heart to heart talks and other attempts to help prove ineffective, you can join forces with friends, families and a professional interventionist to confront the person with the truth and a detailed plan of action.

Many years ago I was a participant in such a strategy and experienced a long term fall out in the relationship as the years progressed. In more recent years I have come to a different view of such strategies. Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. Here are the key principles – some of which I shared with my relative:

  • The goal is to express to the other that they are important in my life as opposed to challenging how they are living their life.
  • Rather than confront the other with the problems in their life – which evokes intense defensiveness – I want to express my wish to have them as part of my life well into the future.
  • In conveying my care for having them as a living and important part of my life I will share some of the observations I have had that have triggered my concern.
  • I use the language of “I” rather than “You” in describing what I have observed and what fears for their wellbeing have been activated.
  • I describe the effects on me and our relationship and how this is different to the strong loving bond I am committed to as we continue as part of each other’s lives. This is different to describing my view of the effects on their life – positioning self as the expert overseer of another’s life can be heard as patronising and drive a wedge into the relationship.
  • I aim to talk one on one with the person rather than pull a group together to confront them. A group confrontation easily leaves a person feeling ganged up on.
  • I commit to ongoing contact with the person to show that my care for them is more than words. I don’t expect that just a conversation will change anything. I am committed to addressing my part in any unhelpful aspects of the relationship pattern over the long haul. This means I will not resort to distancing.
  • I will be truthful and not accommodating but my effort at honesty will be from my perspective and principles rather than a dogmatic declaration that I am an expert about the other. My effort towards speaking honestly will be grounded in real examples not in my subjective judgements and opinion.
  • I will watch my tendencies to be an expert about others rather than staying mindful of my own immaturities. I will stay clear of treating another person as a ‘diagnosis’ but rather will view them as a fellow human being who can be an important resource in my life.
  • If I were to focus on just a diagnosis in another it is all too easy to hand them over to an expert program as a way of reducing my own sense of distress- and my responsibility to work on myself in relationship with the other.

I appreciate that it isn’t easy to know how to address serious concerns about another’s life course or symptoms. Are there exceptions? I certainly conveyed to my relative that they know their relationship with their friend and will find their own way to deal with it best. Every situation is different and there may be occasions when a more direct intervention is the most caring thing another can do. At certain times it may be most loving to call in an emergency assessment service. Even in such cases I would aim to be transparent about my willingness to do this if I ever thought that my loved one’s safety or those of another were under threat.

My view is that a group or individual confrontation of another is almost never constructive. It sets up a one- up/one- down relationship where the person feeling challenged is evoked into high reactivity rather than being able to listen. They hear judgement rather than heart-felt concern. They can be fixed into the postion of a ‘patient’ in their relationship system. My system’s lens reminds me that people get into vulnerable symptomatic places in life via their position in their relationship/family systems. This means that if I change how I relate in that system I can contribute to a less regressive and anxious field for the most vulnerable person.

Bowen on confrontation in a family system:

ON CONFRONTING FAMILY MEMBERS

‘As an oldest son and physician I had long been the wise expert preaching to the unenlightened, even when it was done in the guise of expressing an opinion or giving advice….During my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents[others] in an angry confrontation…At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation. There may have been some short term gain…but the long term result was an intensification of previous patterns.”

Family Therapy in Clinical practice P 484

ON RELATING TO A PERSON IN THE SICK ROLE

‘In those families in which both parents could eventually tone down the sickness theme and relate to the ‘patient’ on a reality level, the ‘patient’ changed. After one family had emerged from their unreality, the ‘patient’ said, “As long as they called me sick and treated me sick, I somehow had to act sick. When they stopped treating me sick, I had a choice of acting sick or acting well.”’

P 86 ‘Interventions and Confrontations’ – Jenny Brown

Adopting a research attitude to your life in your significant relationships: a template to guide you

Dr Murray Bowen wrote, “A goal of this therapy is to help the other make a research project out of life” (Bowen, 1978, p. 179). What do you think of this as a counselling goal? – Not to fix, but to motivate a person’s learning journey about themselves in their family system. Nurturing a posture of curiosity through gathering as many facts about your family challenges and life course as possible is a worthy effort in growing a more aware and resilient self.

The personal research project below has been developed by a teaching psychologist in Washington DC, Dr John Millikin. It appears with his permission in the Appendix of the second edition of my book: Growing Yourself Up. I think it is a helpful template for learning to understand self in the bigger picture of one’s family of origin. It is a very different direction to the conventional mental health approach to focussing on symptoms. My own experience in life and clinical practice is that the effort to gather data about family is much more productive than investing in “fixing” effort directed at an individual or a relationship. Paradoxically the bigger picture approach can actually result in sustainable reduction of symptoms.

Perhaps you might like to begin your own family systems research project using the example below as a springboard. It requires a patient effort over time but may be one of the most growth enhancing projects you will undertake:

Another example of an excellent self -research template is:

Appendix 6

An overview of human development across the lifespan from a Bowen family systems perspective

A learning project for individuals and academic groups. Adapted from curriculum developed by John Millikin, PhD, LMFT, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Department of Human Development.

Cast of family and important people

  • Referring to the attached guideline in Appendix 5, construct your family diagram.
  • List other significant (positive or negative) friends, family friends and professionals such as therapist, lawyers, clergy.
  • Name other important or influential people.

Nodal events (births, deaths, illness, leaving home, marriages, divorces)

  • What were the nodal personal events that happened?
    • How did you respond to them? How did other key family members respond to them?
    • What were other nodal family events that happened?
    • How did you respond to them?
    • How did other key family members respond to them?
    • Describe any change in you and the family as a result of nodal events.
    • What were the family circumstances around the time of your birth? (Answer in the appropriate phase)
    • What was leaving home like for you? How old and under what circumstances? (Answer in the appropriate phase)
    • What was leaving home like for your parents? How old and under what circumstances? (Answer with the question above)

Stressors

  • What were general personal stressors (e.g., money, work, relationships, friends, school, sports)?
  • What were general stressors for others in the family?
  • What were significant stressors in the extended family?
  • Rate the intensity of stress and emotion in the family from 1–10.

Other changes and emotional events

  • Describe any abrupt changes personally and in the family.
  • Were there legal issues?
  • Were there sudden or chronic illnesses?
  • Were there episodes of abusive behavior?
  • If so, what were they?
  • Were there infidelities?
  • Describe any other extreme behaviors or events.

 

The Family Emotional Unit Relationship System

The primary triangle (parents/self)

  • How emotionally close did you feel to each parent? (Answer on a 1–10 scale)
  • How were you involved with each parent? (Also think in terms of conflict, distance, over- and under-functioning/involvement)

How were they involved with each other? (Also think in terms

of conflict, distance, over- and under-functioning/involvement)

»»Who did you take sides with more? (Your common triangle position)

»»Did you help one parent in difficulties with the other? How?

»»Who generally gave you positive attention? How much?

»»Who generally gave you negative attention? How much?

»»Who gave you approval? How much?

»»Who did not provide attention or approval?

»»What was each parent’s involvement like with their own parents (briefly)?

Siblings and sibling position

  • How was your sibling position and functional role in the family different?
  • How did sibling/s relate to you?
  • Were you or any sibling over-focused on? Labeled as a problem?
  • How did this affect your interactions (or perception of your sibling/s)?

General family emotional process (nuclear and extended)

  • Describe major conflicts in the family (blaming, criticism, hostility).
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major distance(ing) in the family.
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major cut-offs in the family.
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major over- and under-functioning in the family (imbalanced taking care of or being taken care of).
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major over- and under-involvement in the family.
  • Who made important decisions?

Together and separate

  • Who was closest to whom in the family?
  • Could you be alone for long periods of time?
  • Could you be together with significant others for long periods of time?
  • How were you responsible for other family members?
  • Did other people get involved in your problems? How?
  • Who would typically bail you out of difficulties? Relationship difficulties?
  • Who were you most dependent on? (How would you scale it from 1–10?)

Feelings, reactivity and sensitivities

  • What were you anxious about?
  • How did you work with it?
  • What were others anxious about?
  • Did anyone worry about you? Who?
  • Who did you worry about?
  • What did you typically get reactive about?
  • What were you sensitive about?
  • What were some of the labels made about you?
  • Who said those?
  • Describe the basic impact of labels.
  • Did any family members think poorly of you?
  • Did any family members not pay enough attention to you?
  • Who got the most attention in the family?
  • Were you able to meet key family members’ expectations?
  • Did you feel you were a disappointment to others?
  • Were others upset with you or you with them? Did you feel responsible for their upset?
  • Who else was generally upset with whom?
  • How did you regulate and work with emotions? Go to someone? Cope by yourself?
  • Describe any other emotionally challenging events or interactions?

Medical, health and addictions

  • List any medical/health issues and major health issues for all family members. Did you have unhealthy habits, addictions?
  • Did any member have unhealthy habits, addictions?
  • Were there developmental issues for you or anyone in your family?
  • Were there any (standard) psychological issues or diagnoses?
  • Who showed more symptoms/disrupted behaviors? What were they?

 

Autonomy, Effectiveness, Principles and Defining a Self

Autonomy and acts of self

  • List areas of self-directed activities/pursuits.
  • What were self-directed activities not necessarily chosen or supported by others?
  • How much autonomy did you have in achieving goals?
  • Did you generally have space to be yourself with others?
  • How open were you with others about your core thoughts and
  • beliefs?
  • Did parents and siblings have a good sense of direction?

Personal and interpersonal effectiveness

  • How did you respond to the personal challenges in your adolescence and leaving home phase? To what effect?
  • How was the family a resource for you in meeting your challenges?
  • What were your talents? How were they connected to family?
  • How effective were family members in meeting challenges, especially parents?
  • What did the family do well as a group?
  • What did the family do well in encouraging autonomy?

Principles and defining self

  • How could you have functioned better in this growing up phase?
  • What do you see now as your responsibilities to yourself during this phase?
  • How can you have taken better responsibility with significant others?
  • If you could now change something about self in this phase, what would it be?
  • What were some the guiding principles involved in your interactions?

A day at the tennis with my husband: Taking responsibility for moments of irritability in my marriage

I have well-honed sensitivities to those I’m particularly attached to, which triggers judgements, followed by intrusive corrections. Such corrections don’t always get verbalised but could be conveyed with a nudge or a look. I wonder, can you identify with this in your marriage or important relationships?

I recently sat next to my husband at the Australian Open Tennis. We were fortunate to have booked all day tickets at the main arena on the first week of matches. Such a treat to have a mini break in cosmopolitan Melbourne and enjoy the atmosphere of a renowned sporting event.

Early in the first match I noticed David scrolling through work emails on his phone. Instantly I experienced a bolt of irritated reactivity, thinking:

“Why isn’t he paying attention to the match? I can’t believe he’s letting his work override our watching the tennis together!”

I pulled my thoughts up quickly and prevented myself saying anything. My message to myself was:

“It is not my business whether or not my mate chooses to look at emails. He has every right to that choice and it doesn’t impinge in any way on my being able to enjoy the tennis.”

With this inner correction I could relax and keep my boundaries. This is something I have been working to improve over many years. Keeping within my own skin when alongside the important people in my life is a real workout. It hasn’t just been a challenge for me in my marriage. My parenting has had a good dose of sensitivity as well. Sitting next to a teenager biting their finger nails was always excruciating for me. I have well-honed sensitivities to those I’m particularly attached to, which triggers my judgements, followed by intrusive corrections. Such corrections don’t always get verbalised but could be conveyed with a nudge or a look.

This is a classic expression of relationship fusion where we monitor the other as opposed to being responsible for self. It is always interesting to consider how different our reactions are when mixing with people we are just associated with – they haven’t become important to our experience of self. Hence they can be checking their phones and displaying all sorts of nervous habits and it doesn’t bother us one bit. I wonder, can you identify with this?

The effort to observe one’s excessive sensitivities to others behaviours is of great value in the “growing up” journey. Dr Murray Bowen set this as the main destination for the counselling process writing:

“The over-all goal is to help individual family members to rise up out of the togetherness that binds us all” (Bowen FTCP 1978, p.371).

I can see the difference it makes to my marriage that I can refrain from reacting to the mannerisms and behavioural choices of my husband (most of the time). I can let him be him and me be me. This enables us to do life side by side as opposed to merged in each other’s emotional sphere. It certainly assists in achieving a relaxed day at the tennis and prevents the spread of irritability into other domains of marriage.

 

 

For more on dealing with fusion in a marriage here is an article by myself and Jo Wright: Inviting each partner out of the fusion: Bowen Family Systems Theory and couple therapy

http://www.thefsi.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Inviting-each-partner-out-of-the-fusion_Bowen-Family-Systems-Theory-and-couple-therapy.pdf

 

 

ANNOUNCING NEW REVISED EDITION OF ‘GROWING YOURSELF UP’

‘Growing Yourself Up 2nd Edition’ also available on amazon, book depository and your local bookseller.

“The message of Growing Yourself Up is that you can’t separate understanding the individual from understanding relationships. All of life’s relationships are integral to increasing self-awareness and maturity. And it’s not necessarily the comfortable relationships that promote personal growth. In this 2nd edition of the bestselling book, Jenny examines how to help others without fostering dependency, and how to determine what kind of help you or others want from therapists. This is in response to the many lay and professional people who have found this book valuable personally and want to know how to help others grow.”

 

What kind of help facilitates the growing up efforts of others?

All this focus on maturing self, begs the question: is it sufficient just to work on growing ourselves up in our relationships? Is such a focus on self the best way to be helpful to others? I am convinced that as we become more responsible people, aware of our own immature reactions, we become a greater resource to those around us. I do, however, see a place for being a counsellor and helper; a place for guiding and supporting others through their troubles. Indeed, much of my over 35-year career effort has been to become a better helper and therapist. Helping efforts can be both helpful and unhelpful to people’s growing up.

Getting past the desire for the quick-fix expert

A theme running all the way through my book is that clear thinking in the face of pressure increases our effectiveness. Each of us can discover that we have a surprising wealth of wisdom to draw on from our human brains that can help us resolve life’s problems. The challenge is to put aside the desire for a quick fix and the tendency to look to others to come up with the instant solution. This quick-fix mentality has created a burgeoning industry of programs that promise a new method to get us out of our difficulties. Some even promise a new you in one week. Within my own profession of counselling and psychology, amidst some sound theories there are plenty of examples of this quick-fix technique trend.

Over my decades of clinical practice, I have observed that people make the best progress when they access their own answers to their dilemmas. I have learnt to refrain from giving directives and answers to client’s difficulties and instead I endeavour to guide their focus away from changing or blaming others to looking at themself. I pay close attention to their descriptions of what they are doing to address their problems and ask them to assess what they think is helping and not helping. From here I can share some ideas about the predictable patterns that all humans get caught in when trying to manage the challenges of relationships. I then encourage clients to research these ideas in observing themselves in their real lives.

When people give up their own capacity to problem-solve, no matter what their intellectual capacity, they are left to either blindly depend on others or to blame and criticise others when their advice does not work. This leads to communities of dependent followers or reactive blamers.

When any one person pulls back from blaming others or trying to be the expert for others, or just going with the flow of others’ opinions, it is possible to emerge as a more thoughtful, mature contributor to society.

What to look for from a helping professional

If you are in a professional therapy relationship or looking for an effective counsellor, It may be useful to ask yourself the following questions about your helping relationship:

  • Am I asked questions that get me thinking of new ways to understand and resolve my difficulty? Or are my viewpoints all accepted?
  • Am I respected and listened to as a competent person? Or am I being pitied or overly protected?
  • Am I given suggestions that build upon the description and ideas I have come up with myself? Or am I given lots of advice?
  • Am I encouraged to consider my part, and the way each person affects each other? Or is my view of the problem in others affirmed and agreed with? –
  • Do I leave my sessions thinking about my own pain in the context of relationship patterns? Or am I left thinking about how hard done-by I am?

 

This blog is from excerpts from the 2nd revised edition of Growing Yourself Up pages 217; 238; 241-2. The new sections of this book are focused on the process of mature helping.

https://www.exislepublishing.com.au/Growing-Yourself-Up-2nd-edition.html

Dr Murray Bowen’s Growing Up Years

Jenny Brown in conversation with Dan Papero reveal a fascinating historical context for the development of Bowen theory as well as the world of psychiatry and the family therapy field that emerged after World War 2.

This podcast explores the growing up years of Dr Murray Bowen and his family background. This is all presented from the perspective of Dan Papero PhD, MSW who worked alongside Dr Bowen for several years.

The Life and Times of Dr Murray Bowen

When worrying about a child gets out of hand


Sarah* was a competent health professional. She had years of experience assisting families with their children’s development. In her work life, Sarah was steady and confident. At home with her 3 young children it was a different picture. Sarah was gripped by anxiety about her 6 month old child. She was fearful that her son might have a disability and as a result was constantly monitoring, looking for indications of such a problem. Any number of things became evidence of her fear: when he didn’t sustain eye contact, when he was slow to smile, when he seemed to prefer rolling in one direction, when he was restless….and so the list of possible signs expanded. Sarah had begun to do particular therapy exercises with her son to address any possible delays in his development.

Chatting to Sarah revealed that she previously had similar anxieties with her other children during their first year of life but this current period of anxiety was much more intense and influencing her mood and capacity to maintain her life tasks. I asked Sarah what she could see were the effects of looking for signs of something wrong with her baby boy. She acknowledged that looking for problems wasn’t reassuring her; rather it was providing endless possible confirmations for her worries. As she asked herself “What if there is a disability that needs early intervention?” she was creating a kind of bottomless pit for her anxiety. Sarah had good insight that her monitoring and ‘therapising’ her son was preventing her engaging in simple play and enjoying getting to know her son’s particular preferences and emerging personality. She could also appreciate that. even in the unlikely situation that her child had a factual disability, her anxious parent- child interactions would not be helpful. We discussed how a parent can contribute to an escalating worry cycle where an infant responds reactively to the mother’s intrusive monitoring, which in turn confirms the mother’s worry and increases her fussing around her child, who in turn responds with restless behaviour…and on it goes.

I explored with Sarah what was going on in her important relationships and learned that she had withdrawn from her extended family supports and wasn’t keeping regular conversational connection with her husband. Her elderly father had died a couple of years ago. She had perceived that her mother’s grief meant that she wouldn’t want the load of assisting with her grandchildren. It was likely that this important loss and change in her extended family had added to Sarah’s anxieties with her third child. Certainly Sarah’s growing isolation appeared to be increasing the degree of her fears and her focus on her infant son.

Sarah knew it would be extremely challenging to reduce her worry for her child. There was something quite compelling and steadying for her when she perceived herself as helping her son. She felt stronger as a mother even though she was also frustrated by the effects of her increasing anxiety. Over time Sarah made a range of efforts to break this problematic worry cycle – making herself the priority project, not her child. This involved:

  • Noticing when her thinking was in the ‘WHAT IF?’ category instead of a ‘WHAT NOW?’  factual platform.
  • Noticing how much she was making a ‘fixing’ project out of her child – a project that could become something of a self-fulfilling projection.
  • Working to shift this project back to herself – her self-care, her relating to her husband, her initiating more contact and garnering support from her mother, siblings and friends.
  • Getting clearer about her personal job description as a mother. This was different to being led by every emotion and behaviour in her child.

Today’s parents swim in a sea of anxiety about any number of possible defects and dangers for their children. When I did a Google search on how parents can recognise problems in their child development, 4,960,000 results appeared! Added to this information over-load are the numerous categories where parents can look for problems: Language and Speech Developmental Delays, Vision Developmental Delays, Motor Skill Developmental Delays, Social and Emotional Developmental Delays, Cognitive Developmental Delays….. Such worry generating information can easily drive up the anxiety in many parents. Furthermore a worried parent will significantly influence the parent- child interactions in ways that are likely to confirm their imagined fear. The more a parent is distant in their marriage and/or from their extended family, the more such a worry cycle intensifies. Reversing such a pattern is immensely challenging – it can feel like a denial of the essence of maternal caretaking. Actually, the shift away from focussing anxiously on a child can build a pathway to a more confident expression of a parent’s caretaking instinct and wisdom. It also gives a child valuable enlarged breathing space for their natural growth and development.

*Names and details of this story have been changed

What are the dominant forces of sensitivity in my relationships?

It is useful to appreciate that all humans have versions of the 4 instinctual relational sensitivities of attention, approval, expectations and distress.


Julia described the way she came unravelled when others were given acknowledgement for
tasks she has contributed to. She wondered why she was so sensitive to her boss’s approval and how tied it was to her work performance.

 

The forces of sensitivity in our important relationships are powerful. They exist at an instinctual level and are driven by our need for close connections with others to maintain our sense of well-being. These sensitivities can pull us towards people and equally drive us away when things get uncomfortable. For example, when things are comfortable in my marriage I am drawn to wanting more time with my husband. When a negative reaction gets triggered in our interactions I am inclined to avoid closeness.

I have found it helpful to consider 4 relational sensitivities that have been utilised in the writing and teaching of *Dr Michael Kerr.

He says that all of us grow up in our families with heightened sensitivity to our parents:

  • Attention-(& inattention),
  • Approval- (& disapproval),
  • Expectations-( met or unmet) and
  • Distress-(am I the cause of or the fixer for?)

Many people have commented that they have found it extremely useful to consider the way each of these sensitivities was shaped during their childhood. I regularly ask people to reflect on- which of these is highest on their relationship radar? While all are part of family relationships there is usually one that has been most activated in our relationship with parents and siblings. One woman I’ve chatted to about this has identified that meeting her parents’ expectations was clearly a driver of her relationship energies. She sensed the comfort of measuring up to preforming well and avoided the emotional disruption of letting her parents down – her father in particular. Recognising this dominant sensitivity has helped this woman to see how it has shaped her functioning at work where she strives hard to meet the perceived expectations of her bosses and is easily derailed when she senses that she has not met high standards.

For myself I have particularly been shaped by sensitivity to attention. In early childhood I experienced a large increase in attention at times I was unwell. I was aware that this elevated me to a place of specialness in the group of 5 siblings. As I began to perform well and take on leadership roles in later high school this attention platform shifted. Parental attention no longer focussed on my sick role but on my positions of importance and achievements. Much of this wasn’t verbalised but was conveyed through the emotional tone of interactions. This has primed me in my adult life to gravitate to situations where I have a profile in a group that brings me positive attention. I look back on my dealings with early supervisors and trainers and see how much I relished their emotional attention when I performed well. I would borrow confidence and energy from such relationship exchanges. As I’ve learned more about borrowing maturity compared to growing maturity, I can see that much of my self-assurance has been dependent on this attentive relationship dynamic. In order to work on a more solid maturity I have needed to consciously choose to be in situations where I am less important and receive little attention. For example, I have deliberately pulled out of some work tasks that have put me at the front of an event and have made room for others to take on the spotlight. Similarly in my extended family I have noticed my discomfort about being left out of conversations. This observation and awareness has helped me to practice being more at ease when I’m on the periphery of a social interchange. I work to enjoy listening in on others conversations and not trying to push into the discussion. My successes and setbacks in these “growing up” pilot projects ebb and flow.

It is constructive to appreciate that all humans have versions of the 4 instinctual relational sensitivities of attention, approval, expectations and distress. While there is considerable overlap between the 4 triggers I think there is usually one of these that dominate our relationship experience. The sensitivities that dominate can also be influenced by the particular relationship context and may indeed vary between home and work. They develop in the circularity of our growing up relationship experience, in conjunction with our inbuilt social biology. The degree to which these sensitivities dictate our lives does vary according to the level of maturity we experienced in our family of origin. Perhaps you may find it useful to reflect on which one was a central driver in your exchanges with each parent. It has provided me with some awareness and direction in working to be less relationship dependent and more consistent in my functioning.

Questions to consider:

  • What response from either of my parents was most steadying for me? Their positive attention and/or approval? Meeting their high expectations? Being able to relieve their distress?
  • What response from either of my parents was most unsteadying for me? Their negative attention and/or approval? Not meeting their high expectations? Not being able to relieve their distress – or sensing that I contributed to their distress?
  • How did I sense my position of approval, attention, expectations and distress was different to each of my siblings (or the other parent)?
  • In what ways do I seek out relationship situations that are similar to the steadiers I experienced with either parent?
  • In what ways do I become reactive in relationship situations that are similar to the de-steadying scenarios I experienced with either parent?
  • How do the above questions help me to understand my triggers in current relationships? – at work, with friends and in my family?
  • In what ways can I practice being more steady without other’s attention, approval, expectations or neediness?

*Reference for Dr Michael Kerr
Presentation at FSI conference 2007: Why do siblings often turn out very differently?

Why Do Siblings Often Turn Out Very Differently?
Chapter in Human Development in the
Twenty-First Century: Visionary Ideas from Systems Scientists
Editors: Alan Fogel, Barbara J. King, and Stuart Shanker
Cambridge University Press – 2008
Michael E. Kerr

The surprising link between dental hygiene and relationship maturity

As I reflect on what’s changed over the past year I see that this step of progress has less to do with a specific goal about dental hygiene and more to do with being a bit more of a self in all of my relationships.

I’ve been dismal with dental flossing for most of my life– I’ve made many efforts to be consistent with this key aspect of dental hygiene only to lapse as life gets busy. I have never quite understood why the establishment of this good habit has eluded me. Flossing was never a part of my childhood routine in the way that teeth brushing was. Hence I appreciate that it’s always more challenging to establish good habits as an adult if they haven’t been supported by parents in childhood. But this excuse doesn’t really let me off the hook. I recall hearing a conference lecture on geriatric preventative health and my ears pricked up when the doctor declared: “Flossing is not necessary…” this sounded hopeful until he went on to say “…unless you don’t want to lose your teeth!”

I floss regularly a week before a dental check-up but the redness of my gums gives my dentist evidence that I have not been consistent. After getting a lecture on preventing gum disease I improve for a little while but the habit starts to lapse before it is consolidated. A bit of external expert pressure can temporarily get me on track but I haven’t mobilised enough internal ‘self’ to persist. Growing a more responsible self is measured by how much a person can function in life without being dependent on external relationship directives.

2016 however has been a breakthrough for me in this area of my laziness. Surprisingly I have managed to make daily flossing a habit and the results were affirmed at my end of year dental visit. What is it that has enabled this meagre maturity break-through? It has not been a conscious new year (or post dentist) resolution as the evidence over the years doesn’t back this up. As I reflect on what’s changed over the past year I see that this step of progress has less to do with a specific goal about dental hygiene and more to do with being a bit more of a self in all of my relationships. Over the pressures of the past year I have learned a great deal about managing myself in both family and work situations. I have consciously improved my respect for other’s autonomy – asking what is helpful before jumping in, keeping in contact, being more responsible for myself and less focussed on the other, noticing and addressing the sneaky signs of too much tension in me. I have continued my decades of small efforts to have better balance between managing my own health and sharing myself mutually in relationship. There have always been steps of progress mixed with setbacks, but gradually, over time I see the signs that I have grown a bit more inner agency (self) and have seen others in my family do the same.

The capacity to direct one’s self in a responsible manner while also being reliably connected to others – this is the groundwork for improving follow through on many a good resolution. It is less about achieving the individual goal and more about improving life maturity and a steadier emotional state in general. And, as important people in our lives lift their own responsible life management, others in the system are better able to lift theirs.

I can reflect on other previous habit forming failures and see that there have been steps of progress over the past year. Additionally I plan to work to be more responsible in a number of other life management domains —it’s a good size list. I do realise, however, that the broader endeavour to be a more mature self in the important relationship domains of my life is more fruitful that just targeting a specific resolution. My efforts need to be balanced between my relationship and my individual functioning.

I’ve always known that regular flossing is important but having the capacity to turn this awareness into a daily habit has been predicated by growing up a bit more in all areas of my life and relationships – to be more inner directed and less externally motivated. Who would have thought that broadly improving how I manage myself across all of life could translate into a better-quality set of teeth?

The surprising link between dental hygiene and relationship maturity – Jenny Brown