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

Resilience: all about relationships

“Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?”

The topic of resilience has been getting lots of attention over the past years. It seems that many have realised that it is more helpful to aim for improved resilience than increased happiness. The core of resilience is seen in how well one deals with life’s setbacks. Think about it for a moment: What will be more useful in equipping a person for life’s daily challenges? Will it be striving for positive feelings? or will it be nurturing the capacity to bounce back after disappointments?

Definitions of the concept of resilience abound! I think it’s helpful to think of it as: The capacity to stay on track with goals and tasks in the midst of challenging environments. The majority of approaches to promoting resilience focus on the individual. They describe how a person can mobilize certain mindsets that allow them to see failure as opportunities rather than as a personal condemnation. This individual cognitive reframing and techniques for self-soothing can certainly be helpful in learning to not be crushed by disappointments; however they leave out the importance of relationship dynamics to our resilience. It’s easy to see external events like loss of job or an illness as the greatest threat to resilience but it is important not to underestimate the way that relationship dynamics can subtly drain a person’s capacity to manage life effectively. A useful question to ask is: Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?

I recently spoke to a woman I will call Leanne, who was increasingly stressed at her workplace. She had taken on a job in a community organisation and was looking forward to making a real contribution. After just 6 month in the job however, she was losing the ability to focus on her work tasks because all of her energy was consumed by trying to work out the relationship dynamics. She sensed that one colleague didn’t value her and had started to seek reassurance from others at the office.  Her boss had initially been available and supportive but she was now sensing a withdrawal of his involvement. She began imagining that he doubted her capabilities and that her colleague might even be bad mouthing her behind her back. Leanne had gone from an enthusiastic confident worker to an anxious and self-doubting person within a short time.

As with so many of us, Leanne’s sensitivities to relationships were a huge part of her lowered resilience. She was able to be productive when she felt valued and validated but any sense of disapproval and loss of attention would derail her from functioning well. All of us have emerged from our families with varying degrees of sensitivity to relationship undercurrents. The most common sensitivities are to approval, expectations, attention and distress in others. Which of these are most likely to destabilize you in your relationship contexts? What perceptions of others are most likely to distract you from managing life’s tasks? Is it seeing another upset and feeling that somehow you are responsible? Is it when you lose a perceived sense of importance or a shift from getting attention?

Here is a summary list of the common relationship patterns (drawn from family systems theory) that can impair people’s resilience.  Each of these patterns deserves a blog all its own but a brief checklist might open up more ways of understanding how relationship context affects us all. See if you can recognise any of these going on in your life at the moment:

 

  • Through too much togetherness: When people invest in needing to be close and connected all the time it is hard to get on with life’s responsibilities. Sensitivities to being connected, through approval and validation, start to take over all other important tasks.
  • Through too much distance: When people use distance to deal with tensions with others it increases the awkwardness in relationships. Negative distance and avoidance skews people towards blame and superiority. This distracts people from their own responsibilities as well as getting in the way of sharing resources and good team work.
  • Through over functioning for others: When people start to be overly helpful in telling others how to think and behave it can get in the way of them solving their own problems and can promote dependency and reduced competency.
  • Through being part of triangles: When people experience tension and distress in one relationship it is all too easy to find a 3rd party to vent to about this. Venting, complaining and gossiping to others about an absent party can seem to reduce our angst and worries, by having someone align with our point of view. The initial problem is prevented from being addressed in the relationship it belongs in. Detouring relationship tension also reduces resilience as we don’t get good practice at expressing differences and working them out person to person.

 

Leanne was able to see how her dependence on others being warm and attentive towards her was threatening her capacity to manage in her job. As an individual she had all the competencies necessary to do her work well but in relationships she could so easily lose her sense of capacity and become consumed by feeling left out. It was helpful for her to consider how this developed in her relationships in her original family. She realised that it would not be an easy pattern to adjust but that she could re- build some resilience by taking the focus of trying to get steadiness through relationships and instead get back on track with performing her job duties well. She could stay in friendly contact with her colleagues without getting caught up in figuring out what they thought of her.

We all inherit different degrees of relational and emotional resilience from the families we grow up in. there are many variables that go into this complex process that help make sense of the different capacities family members and people from different families have to cope with the fortunes and misfortunes of life. Bowen theory provides a way to grapple with this and to research in our own lives the ways that we interact within our relationship environment and its impact on our moments of apparent strength and episodes of greatest vulnerability.


This blog originally appeared on the Family Systems Institute Website 

To read more from Jenny Brown, you can purchase her book Growing Yourself Up here.

The FSI runs interactive groups promoting relational resilience for parents and adolescence, for more information go here.

New group schedules will be released in the coming months, if you are interested in attending please let us know by emailing us: info [at] thefsi [dot] com [dot] au or calling (02) 9904 5600

Grand-Parenting: beware of skipping a generation

The story of Helen who had put all of her focus on her relationship with her grandchild and had stopped working on having an adult relationship with her son

Helen had awaited the birth of her first grandchild with excited anticipation. She had begun shopping for baby items and imagining holding this little piece of her own genetic make-up in her arms. Life was going to change for Helen. She had reduced her work hours and looked forward to being an active grandmother who looked after her son’s child a few times a week. She wondered what the child would be called — would her name be in there somehow? Would this little one call her Nanna or Gran?

When I first met Helen she reported that her life was falling apart. Her grandson was nearly one and she barely got to see him. Her son, Aaron, would bring him for short visits but not leave him with her. Her daughter-in-law, Sarah, was not speaking with her and had given the impression that Helen wasn’t welcome to visit. What had gone so wrong at a life transition full of so many positive dreams?

I asked Helen about how she saw the problem that meant she wasn’t feeling like she could be a grandmother. ‘It’s all Sarah’s fault,’ she said. ‘She’s so possessive and controlling of Aaron and is taking away my rights as a grandmother. I tell Aaron that it’s just not acceptable. My life feels like it’s been ruined by this awful girl.’

As Helen sobbed in my office I wondered how to help her think her way out from this hurt and blaming position. I asked her about her relationship with her son since he had married. How often had they had contact and what kind of things had they shared with each other? ‘Aaron has seemed distant to me for years now,’ Helen answered. ‘He’s been very dutiful in visiting me but he doesn’t let me in on what’s happening in his life. He didn’t tell me about his relationship with Sarah until he’d already proposed to her.’

I asked what Helen’s response was to the news of his marriage. She replied, ‘I was thrilled about the marriage. I’d worried that he was leaving things too late to settle down and start a family of his own. My first thoughts were that finally my son was going to give me grandchildren. I’ve looked forward to this moment for all my life.’

Helen’s responses revealed that she had put all of her focus on her relationship with her grandchild and had stopped working on having an adult relationship with her son. Clearly Aaron had not made it easy for her by keeping a dutiful but distant relationship, but Helen had certainly played her part in this superficial relationship. Rather than working at being interested in Aaron’s life as opposed to pursuing him, Helen had put all of her relationship energy into planning for grandparenting. It isn’t surprising that the intensity of these expectations, combined with the distance between mother and son, led to an upset between Helen and her daughter-in-law Sarah.

Initially Helen wanted to get Sarah to come to counselling so that she could be ‘sorted out’. But as she began to see how Sarah had become caught in a triangle because of what had not been addressed between herself and her son, Helen decided to invite Aaron to come to a session to talk things through. Aaron was keen to get some help as he was feeling like the meat in the sandwich between his wife and his mother. He acknowledged that he had been more focused on keeping the peace with both these important women in his life than in defining his own views to them. Helen’s efforts went onto shifting her focus away from her grandson and back to her own son. She could see how much she’d assumed about her role as grandmother without asking Aaron what he thought. Helen also could see that she had put too many relationship eggs into one basket and needed to invest some energy in her broader network of friends and family. One of her biggest challenges was to stop using her friends as allies to take her side against her daughter-in-law. This triangle detour had helped her to temporarily feel better but had certainly not helped her to address her own part in the difficulties.

At any phase of life our immaturities can be assessed by asking ourselves how much we gain strength through being needed by others or through knowing ourselves and being steadied by our principles. How much do we use children, grandchildren or work to steady us instead of taking responsibility for our own growth?

*When I think about relating to grandchildren, do I override the importance of working on my relationship with my son or daughter?

* Adult children – if you are experiencing tension with your parents – ask yourself how well have you been making genuine contact with them?  Dr Bowen’s quote speaks well to this:

‘There are also those who kid themselves into believing they have “worked out” the relationship with parents and who make brief formal visits home without personal communication; they use as evidence of maturity that they do not see their parents.’

Bowen, M. 1978, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, New York, p. 494.

This blog is an excerpt from Jenny’s book “Growing Yourself Up” Chap.  14. Ageing well Retirement, the empty nest, relating to a third generation

Faith – polarising and harmonising

file3615Avoiding polarising and pretend harmonising about beliefs

I wonder, what does it say about our current level of societal maturity that Christmas is being increasingly secularised? – Seemingly driven by an anxious harmony force that declares we must not offend any who don’t share the basis of the ‘Christ Mass’.

I sometimes hear that people find it off-putting when I identify myself as a Christian. Is it the same when we hear people identify themselves as Buddhists, or atheists?  I am guided by a principle that I will not push anyone to agree with my faith position. It’s the push that is alienating for people – not a calmly expressed stance.  I am also clear that it wouldn’t be authentic for me to isolate my beliefs from any part of my work, my relationships, my writing. I think it is a sign of a more mature society when people are respectful and interested in other people’s faiths and philosophical positions. My life has been enriched by many such opportunities – being invited to participate in Hanukah celebrations in a neighbour’s home and to converse with a warm Muslim man as I appreciate his guided tour around his neighbourhood. I’ve also valued talking to atheists who explain to me calmly how they cannot conceive that science and God can co-exist and are able to listen to my view that science increases my awe of the God in whom I have come to know. I don’t appreciate it when there is a mocking tone to any discourse on belief and indeed I have encountered such arrogant dismissiveness expressed by people across many belief systems.

I wonder, what does it say about our current level of societal maturity that Christmas is being increasingly secularised? – Seemingly driven by an anxious harmony force that declares we must not offend any who don’t share the basis of the ‘Christ Mass’. For this end of year blog I am posting excerpts from my book on maturity and belief. I do think that the full variations of maturity are evident in all sectors of religion and society including in the Christian church. I trust you will find it useful to consider what maturity you have brought to how you have come to and express your beliefs.

Chap 10 – Developing mature beliefs

Compliance, rebellion or examination

‘The pseudo self is made up of … beliefs and principles acquired through the relationship system in the prevailing emotion … beliefs [are] borrowed from others or accepted in order to enhance one’s position in relationship to others.’1

—Murray Bowen MD

‘We will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching …’2

—The apostle Paul

 

Each chapter of this book on adult maturity has mentioned the value of considering carefully what values and ethics you choose to guide your behaviour and help you act consistently. When it comes to beliefs, it’s simple to go along with the viewpoint of your majority group, your parents, your cultural group or your peer group. If you’re carrying unaddressed resentments towards your parents there may be a tendency to take on beliefs that are the opposite of theirs. Whether you adopt beliefs to comply with or to rebel against others, in each scenario there isn’t much thought and effort going into the process. This leads to beliefs that are superficial. They can chop and change according to the emotions of the group you’re in. Such pseudo beliefs won’t hold much benefit for you in determining how to make a difficult choice when you are under pressure. They won’t help you to take a position on what you believe are important issues if you are easily thrown off course by another’s disapproval……………………………………………..

 

It’s not unusual to think that overlooking differences and viewing all beliefs as sharing common ground is a mature stance. It’s worth asking, however, whether this is a thoughtful position or an anxiously driven desire for pseudo harmony. A desire to blur distinctions may be more about discomfort with being in contact with different views, driven by a togetherness force, rather than a conclusion drawn from examining the basis of different views. Theologian and historian John Dickson makes this point in stating that ‘by seeking to affirm the sameness of the world religions [we] … are in danger of honouring none of them. As unpopular as the idea appears to have become, we simply must allow the world religions to have their distinct voice and to express their different points of view…………………………………

 

Theologian and philosopher Douglas Wilson has described these maturity problems well in saying that, ‘Those who blindly follow traditions and those who blindly throw traditions overboard share at least ignorance in common. One keeps what he does not know, another throws away what he does not know.’3

The key maturity challenge is to get beyond blind acceptance or rejection of any set of beliefs and values. This asks a great deal of us. In particular, it asks us to take time to reflect on what we believe and what creed we live by. It’s not easy to carve out reflection time in this pressured world. It sure is easier to come to conclusions based on subjective whims and what brings us the most comfort and acceptance from others……………………………………………….

Questions for reflection

»»How much do I know about my family’s beliefs and traditions? How have family members determined what they believe? Have they come to their beliefs for the sake of harmony or have they independently figured out their faith and ethics?

»»How much have I adopted or rejected my family’s beliefs and ethics without personal investigation? What could I do to consider my own guidance system in a thoughtful way?

»»Are my spiritual beliefs embedded in subjective experience or are they balanced with thinking about evidence and logic?

»»Do I get uncomfortable and avoid the issue of my selfishness and wrongdoing? What do I want to be the factual basis for knowing if I have wronged another and need to make amends?

»»How can I make time to unravel my thinking around an important issue, tracing it from its primary source to the position I currently hold, rather than borrowing opinions that are most comfortable to me?

»»What steps will I take to explore what gives my life integrity and purpose?

And I extend to you, from my faith position, warm tidings of Christmas joy – ‘Joy to the world the Lord has come let earth receive her King.’ And let heaven and nature sing of love, grace and genuine peace for all.

Wishing all a Merry Christmas, Joyful holidays in your faith & family traditions, and a Happy New Year!

And for any curious to hear a thoughtful audio about the basis of my faith and of Christmas:

*My blog will resume January 11th 2017

‘Faith – polarising and harmonising’ – Jenny Brown

 

Helping to See the Part a Person Plays in Patterns Around their Problem

circular-patterns3618The value of exploring patterns of relationships

A helper is interested in assisting another to discover what part they play in problem patterns.

When I first met Ahmed he explained the distress of being a father to a young adult daughter with a long history of eating disorders and impulsive behaviours. He and his wife Lina had supported many years of various treatments for their daughter Samira. Their focus had been trying to understand her diagnosis and finding a treatment that would fix her distressing symptoms.  I conveyed to Ahmed that I was willing to meet with him to lend a hand to his efforts to assist his daughter. His wife was also welcome to come to our sessions if she wanted to. It wasn’t necessary for Samira to attend. This was a great surprise and relief to him, particularly as his daughter was resistant to seeing yet another helping professional. His surprise was that I thought that just one family member, who is not the symptomatic person, can utilise help for themselves that can benefit the whole family. Ahmed and Lina started coming to meetings and piecing together patterns of relationships around their daughter. We worked like a research team examining descriptions of interactions and seeing what clues emerged to how interpersonal reactions had contributed to generating and maintaining their daughter’s difficulties. Over time Lina came to see how much she had focussed on assisting her daughter to cope with life challenges throughout her school years. She had been very sensitive to her daughter’s upsets and had taken on the responsibility of smoothing things over for her. Over the years she could see that Samira had become increasingly needy as well as entitled. She also saw that her well-meaning efforts to relieve Samira of any distress had left her daughter with little capacity for managing her own strong emotions. For Ahmed, the exploration of the relationship dance around Samira and Lina revealed that he had become passive and resentful as a parent. He was anxious not to impinge on his wife’s management of Samira and would only assist when Lina was at her wits end. At other times he stayed distant but was silently critical of what he judged as Lina’s overly soft approach. When he stepped up in response to Lina’s requests he would be excessively stern as a corrective to his view of his wife’s parenting. He and Samira would then get caught in conflict and Lina would step in to mediate. This left Samira caught in a confusing triangle with her parents. The pattern that was uncovered revealed that Samira had become accustomed to being rescued by her mother and dismissive towards her father’s reactive attempts at limit setting.

Questions that explore interaction

It took a number of sessions to clarify these repeating patterns between Lina, Ahmed and Samira. Questions were asked each session that focussed on how each person responded to each other. “How did you respond to Samira’s distress? What was her response? Then what happened? Who was involved in these upsets? How? What effect could you observe? How were you affected? What was your response? How did this impact your parenting partnership? How did this play out between you? What differences could you notice in how Samira responded to each of you? What do you notice is different in your response to your son when he’s stressed?” We rarely talked in detail about Samira’s individual symptoms. Rather we reflected on longstanding patterns of relating and how these patterns shed some light on ways Samira was struggling to mature and manage her life without depending on or opposing others. Ahmed and Lina could begin to see that their daughter was so caught in reacting to and leaning on her parents that she had not developed enough capacity to independently manage stress. Her symptoms revealed the overflow of her anxious self in her family.

Questions also focussed on important events in the family’s history and considered how these contributed to more anxious ways of relating. For example: What was going on in the family around Samira’s birth and early years? When did the family immigrate? Where was extended family during the early childrearing years? What were the circumstances of each grandparent’s health issues and the death of both grandfathers? When did Lina lose her job? What changed in family responsibilities with this loss of income? Every significant change in the family over time revealed a parallel of increased sensitivity to Samira and her struggles to cope at school. It was interesting to compare this investment in Samira with her older brother who had not been viewed as so vulnerable. Ahmed and Lina began to see that their son had developed more life coping capacities for himself without his parents trying to be overly helpful.

Broadening the view past individual diagnosis

Unlike previous treatment, which focussed on treating Samira’s symptoms with new medications and individual therapies, this helping process broadened the picture to viewing the family as a single system. If one person can change the way they are interacting, then others will make compensatory changes. Ahmed adjusted his reactionary parenting. He stopped trying to be the tough parent when Lina was struggling and instead worked to have a separate and consistent relationship with his daughter. His efforts were often clumsy and based on ongoing trial and error but he was keen to learn from each interaction about how he could better contribute to the well-being of his family. Lina determined to reduce how much attention she gave Samira during her struggles and to say “no” to her when she became excessively demanding. Every step was a challenge for both parents. They valued the opportunity in our meetings to review what they observed and experienced as they endeavoured to respond differently. Both parents were working on the part they had discovered they were playing in fuelling a regressive pattern with their daughter and each other. Samira had her part in it all as did her brother but the parents were helped to just focus on observing and modifying their part in the dance. A helping relationship that focuses on patterns or process is pivotal to enabling this. If the helper continues to ask about the content of opinions, symptoms and criticisms the parents would have remained blinkered in a narrower view of the problem without discovering pathways to bringing their best to their daughter, their marriage and their other important relationships.

From trying to change others to changing self

Ahmed had commenced counselling thinking that his wife and daughter needed to change. After exploring how each of them affected each other he appreciated that he had a contribution to the family problem. Rather than experience a sense of blame he felt a sense of agency as he had discovered something constructive to work on. It was important to him and Lina that they figured their own way through their problem patterns instead of being instructed to change. Both parents described feeling ‘back in the driving seat’ as parents. They could see gradual improvements in their daughter’s impulsivity which gave them hope that they could make a difference by being less reactive and having clearer positions as parents. Additionally they became interested in the influences of their families of origin and the sensitivities they had brought into their marriage and parenting.

A systems lens guides the helper

The focus on patterns is different to conventional ideas of helping that involve advice giving, interpretations or education about individual’s symptoms. I do need family systems theory as a road map to lead me in this questioning process about relating process. Questions are guided by an ability to identify common patterns of triangles, over and under responsibility and reactive conflict and distance. I have found the shift to asking questions starting with: Who, When, Where, What and How, is liberating as a helper. It reduces my responsibility to solve other’s problems. It keeps me from taking sides around people’s opinions. It prevents me from looking for a singular cause to a complex problem. It allows me to collaborate with others in learning about their particular ways of dealing with tensions in their life and relationships.

Even for the non-professional helper it is worthwhile to ask questions about how the other person is managing their difficulty and how this is played out in their relationships. For example when a friend wants to talk through a problem with a person at work, rather than ask about their view about this other person, ask about how they have been responding to the situation. When does it happen? Who is involved? How do they each get involved? What has been helpful in their efforts to deal with the challenge, what hasn’t been helpful? This can be of greater assistance to another than asking them to vent about their problem and speculate about cause. It can provide a person with an opportunity to think more broadly about their difficulty and gain perspective on how they can address what is within their control.

‘Helping to See the Part a Person Plays in Patterns Around their Problem’ – Jenny Brown

 

Side Taking or Triangling in a Helping Relationship

parent-blame-triangleGetting caught in becoming a third party detour is a central pitfall of any helping relationship (professional, family, friendships, congregations, work). Any struggling person will feel better when they find an empathic listening ear to their problems within another relationship.

Daniel is a committed helping professional in adolescent mental health services. He engages with young people well and is skilled at drawing them out to discuss the issues that are troubling them. One of the most common complaints he hears from his young clients is that parents or step parents just don’t understand them. They are too pushy and always on their back. They expect too much, they are disapproving of friends, they don’t convey trust, they set impossible limits, and they are intrusive. In hearing about the negatives of the adolescents’ adult carers Daniel would invite his clients to talk in more detail about the effects of these experiences of their parents. He asked about what they needed to feel better supported and conveyed that he appreciated what they were up against. He affirmed their strengths and sought to build their self-esteem as well as suggesting techniques for reducing negative thoughts and anxiety symptoms.

The problems arose for Daniel when he invited parents to counselling sessions. Having already conveyed assent for the young person’s criticisms of the parent he found that he was immediately biased towards parent blame. He worked to convey warmth towards the parent in order to engage them in exploring their relationship with the child but he was quick to be annoyed by what he perceived as their invalidating approach to their adolescent. Any slight gesture of negative body language from a parent would push Daniel’s emotional buttons of defence for his young client. Daniels focus would be on trying to help the parent see what their adolescent needed from them. There was little curiosity for what the parent was up against in relating to their adolescent or for the many years invested by the parent in trying to help their child. All he could see was the current conflict in the relationship and how this seemed to be causing emotional distress for the young person. Daniel was caught in a common helper’s triangle. He was on the side of his client and was unable to see the broader patterns of interaction as part of a complex backdrop to the adolescent’s current symptoms. Daniel genuinely believed in conveying warmth and respect for the parent but his side taking meant that the parent sensed that they were the focus of a blame and change effort. In turn the parent would be edgy with Daniel which gave him further confirmation of his biased view of their dismissive parenting style.

You may be wondering if it is ever possible to counsel one person without forming an alliance with their view of things. Without an understanding of relationship systems it is very difficult to avoid side taking. In particular, without an appreciation of the invitation to triangle, a helper inevitably falls into validating one person while blaming others – sometimes in subtle ways. A triangle is when a third party is used as a detour for dealing with an issue in the relationship between two people. When we are upset with another it is comforting to find a third party who will listen to our distress. The act of telling an outsider about our worry effectively calms us down. The predicament however is that the person is not working on their problem in the relationship in which it belongs. Additionally the third party now has a different view of the person who has been complained about. This infects a negative tone to the way they now relate to this person, as was happening with Daniel in his stance with his client’s parents.

When we construct our picture of a problem through the complaints and distress of an individual, it is natural that our focus will be helping them recover from what we perceive others have inflicted upon them. This forms the basis of the common helping triangle. Such side taking or triangling can be averted when the problem is explored through descriptions of patterns of interaction and how these relationships have adjusted to pressures of adverse circumstances over time. Exploring patterns of how each person has affected each other’s way of relating enables us to appreciate that every family member (or group member) has played a part in constructing current dynamics. Rather than draw out more details of a person’s complaint the helper asks: when does this happens, who is involved, how do they each respond, what is the effect of this?

Daniel was concerned about the blocks he experienced in working with parents of troubled adolescents. He knew their relationship with the young person was important to the adolescent recovering their wellbeing. As he came to see how he was getting caught in a triangle with the parents on the outside of his alliance with their child he began to work out ways to prevent this occurring. Rather than ask his young client to expand on their feelings of angst about their parents he would explore what they were doing to deal with their frustrations in their relationship. He tracked carefully the interactions the young person was regularly part of when conflicts or symptomatic behaviours escalated. As he saw a more objective view of parent-child relationships over time he began to appreciate how important it was to include parents in his counselling right up front. When parents expressed their grievances about the child (or the other parent) in counselling, he discovered that he could draw out how they were trying to address this in the relationship. This replaced his previous approach that provided a platform for making a case that another was the problem.

Getting caught in becoming a third party detour is a central pitfall of any helping relationship (professional, family, friendships, congregations, work). Any struggling person will feel better when they find an empathic listening ear to their problems within another relationship. The helper can also feel competent as they sense appreciation for providing positive validations that are missing from an important relationship. The short term relief of this alliance can easily give way to a helping impasse. While the upset person wants to feel supported, they have not been assisted to work their difficulty out in the important relationship in their life. When a helper shifts from encouraging venting about others, to identifying patterns in relationship with others, they can become a valuable resource for a person’s change process. They still convey respect and concern for the weight of the difficulty but they resist the invitation to side taking.

‘Side Taking or Triangling in a Helping Relationship’ – Jenny Brown

The One Up, One Down Pattern: A recipe for burn out and dependency

counselling-handsI am feeling close to burn out in my work. I provide my clients with lots of affirmation, good listening and suggestions from my training on the best ways to improve their situation or reduce their symptoms. After about 6 sessions I often feel stuck and frustrated.
What are the key pitfalls in offering help and counsel to others? Most problems in helping efforts occur in the ‘one up, one down’ relationship pattern. In my last blog I mentioned how I developed the ‘one up’ position in my family of origin and how this fuelled some unhelpful patterns in my early counselling work. I have also written about this pattern in the chapters in my book [Growing Yourself Up] on understanding family of origin, marriage, parenting and workplace. It is such a central relationship dynamic to any group that it deserves a bit more elaboration. Dr Bowen called this the over- under functioning reciprocity. This is where one person responds to the distress in another with increasing support, while the other responds to the support with reduced responsibility. It happens in a circular back and forth pattern that can start on either side of the relationship. People who feel most secure and affirmed being helpful to others find themselves connected to people who are most comfortable when others are paying them attention in a caretaking manner. In many ways the conventional counselling relationship is set up in this way.
So what’s the problem with this? I recall speaking to an experienced counsellor, Fiona, who came to me for supervision saying:
I am feeling close to burn out in my work. I provide my clients with lots of affirmation, good listening and suggestions from my training on the best ways to improve their situation or reduce their symptoms. After about 6 sessions I often feel stuck and frustrated. My clients say they get so much out of coming to talk to me but they don’t seem to be making any progress in between our sessions.
Fiona and I teased out her pattern in her counselling relationships. She could see how much her clients liked coming to see her because of her warmth and attentiveness. On the other hand she could also appreciate that she was helping in a way that was inadvertently fostering dependency. On behalf of her clients she was doing most of the work to sooth their insecurities and think of ways to address their difficulties. Her clients always felt buoyed after a counselling session and they liked the advice they heard, however because they hadn’t come up with their own solutions they couldn’t find the inner resolve to implement or stick with Fiona’s suggestions. As we explored this approach to counselling and the varied ways it took over a client’s own responsibilities Fiona could appreciate how this fed into her exhaustion and confusion. Increasingly she found herself referring her clients on for more intense therapy or for psychiatric assessment. Previously unbeknown to her, she had been playing a significant part in her clients reduced progress.
Fiona began to see that her position in her family had contributed to her tendency to be so helpful. Her younger sister had many symptoms during their school years and she had learned ways to reduce her parent’s stress by taking on some of the caretaking. She would spend many hours with her sister distracting her when she was depressed and would include her in her social activities. Fiona found it helpful to see how her caretaking posture was so well honed in her family. Her counselling training had acted to consolidate this pattern.
Fiona’s effort went into reducing her support for her clients. This seemed so counterintuitive and yet she understood that she did not want to continually promote dependency. She retained her commitment to good listening and conveying a tone of warm respect. Interestingly she did report her effort to reduce her tone of concerned compassion as she could see that it fed into her client’s perception that she was more on their side than any member of their own family. She began to increase the time gap between her sessions to communicate that she wanted to give people adequate time to observe and experiment with ideas in their real world and to use counselling as a place to review instead of a place to be changed. Rather than give advice she asked questions about the clients own problem solving efforts – what had they learned about what was helpful and what wasn’t? She became more careful about sharing information from professional training. We talked a good deal in supervision about when she would ascertain the appropriate timing for sharing information. Her new rule of thumb became to ensure her client had explored their own patterns of coping thoroughly before she would convey relevant professional knowledge. She would select carefully the information to share that matched her client’s own descriptions. For example when a woman she was working with said that she always did better when she slowed things down, Fiona opened up a conversation about ways to reduce the physiological effects of stress and anxiety. She was able to add some ideas for temporary stress reduction in a non-authoritative manner. Her key message in sharing information was: “This may or may not be helpful for you but might add to the ideas you are trialling.” As a professional helper Fiona was learning to collaborate with her clients, jointly investigating their patterns for dealing with their symptoms or challenges in their important relationship contexts. This more equal posture was very different to the previous ‘one up, one down’. It was providing Fiona with a new way to view her helping efforts and provided a platform for a sustainable counselling career.

Next blog: a story of triangling/side taking in a helping relationship

‘The One Up, One Down Pattern‘ – Jenny Brown

The Grown Up Helper

fileAll this focus on maturing self, begs the question: Is it sufficient just to work on growing ourselves up in our relationships? Surely there’s a place for being a counsellor and helper; a place for guiding and supporting others in finding ways out of troubles?

A core message in my book, Growing Yourself Up, is that the best way to help others is to work on fostering our own maturity. A more mature presence in any group assists others to be more thoughtful and less reactive. Conversely the reactive, less mature responses of gossiping (triangling), avoiding, taking too much control, blaming and being defensive, all contribute to others getting stuck in their problem issues.

All this focus on maturing self does, however, beg a valid question. Is it sufficient just to work on growing ourselves up in our relationships? Surely there’s a place for being a counsellor and helper; a place for guiding and supporting others in finding ways out of troubles?

Indeed there are many circumstances when the role of helper is needed. Many of us are in positions where we are called on to lend a hand to others in distress – as helping professionals, pastoral care workers, volunteers in community organisations. Or perhaps we often find ourselves in the role of ‘accidental counsellor’ in our communities and workplaces. People seem to open up to us or we just happen to be sharing an office space or place waiting at the school gate with another who tells of their trying circumstances. In such situations it is senseless and probably selfish to simply say to ourselves: ‘I am just working on being the most mature person I can be.’

Some of us are prone to running away from people in distress. I think of those well known to me who learnt to stay out of the way of family member’s problems and to allow the worry to be managed by others. For many people they lowered their own stress by distancing and staying well clear of other family member’s upsets. They became accustomed to the over- responsible family members taking this on. For such people the effort to be a more mature helper will involve being more attentive to others who are struggling. It will require tolerating their strong emotions without jumping in to give strategies or change the subject; and maintaining genuine ongoing contact with people in their seasons of anguish.

For others, including myself, the most comfortable place was to be in the middle of helping others. Distress in another was a signal to move in and make things better. This place in the family earned a sense of importance and being appreciated. As a confidant to my mother I learned to be helpful by letting her vent about her worries about my siblings. I would join in the triangle dance by discussing ways to assist the absent 3rd parties. On one occasion I recall going into one of my sister’s bedrooms to open up to her about personal details of my life and in turn to see if she would open up to me. I didn’t do this of my own accord. My mother suggested this strategy I order to prevent my sister from distancing further from the family. I was learning to help by creating indirect communication in my family. I didn’t realise at the time that this was not helping at all (Although I do recall it being a very awkward interaction with my sister). Rather it created more confusion and stress in relationships.

As a helping professional I can look back and see that much of my early counselling was via triangles as I had been primed in my helping role in my family growing up. I would join the client in focussing on their worry about another person – for example their child or spouse. I would listen to their descriptions of the problem behaviours in the absent third party and give possible explanations for this. I would join the client in strategizing about how to change or straighten out the other. Added to this I would offer my client empathy for the hard time they were having caring for or putting up with the other. People appreciated all of this help and I was validated as a novice helping professional. I have come to see however that even help that people are grateful for may not be helpful in the bigger picture. Help that bypasses a person looking at their own responsibility will not assist to make genuine change in a relationship. Help that focusses on what one thinks another should change will inject pressure into the relational space of this person which will not promote thoughtfulness. It will predictably promote resistance or increased neediness.

If you’ve previously thought that helping is a simply natural human instinct, you may well be asking yourself why add all this complexity? Does the business of helping others need to be so fraught and messy? Sadly the anxieties that flow in all our relationships can complicate natural processes of caring for others. Over the coming weeks my blogs will explore help that is helpful. What are the ways to best lend a hand to another who is struggling in their relationships or in dealing with life challenges?

‘The Grown Up Helper’ – Jenny Brown

A Focus on Functioning not Fixing

img_4120Working on best functioning promotes the building of a more resilient and less dependent self. This is a different emphasis from a focus on trying to fix symptoms, such as depression or low self- confidence.
Last week I chatted to a young woman who said: “I just have to find a way to improve my self-confidence.” She had experienced many periods of low mood and had struggled to find energy to establish herself as an independent adult. She hadn’t managed to get her driving licence, or complete her university courses. Since her school days she had shifted back and forth from dependence on her parents to dependence on a religious or social group. I asked what she would work on if her goal was to function for herself a bit better each day. We chatted about how working on best functioning, such as her idea that she could cook daily simple meals, promotes the building of a more resilient and less dependent self. This is a different emphasis from a focus on trying to fix symptoms of depression or poor self- confidence. It got me thinking about Michael, another person who had worked to improve his day to day functioning and reduce his dependence on his wife Shelley to manage his life. Here is an excerpt of his story:

Being more real rather than feeling better (From Growing Yourself Up, J Brown. Ch. 12 Symptoms & Setbacks P 176- 179)
As Michael came to see the correlation between his dependence on relationships and his sense of wellbeing, he could shift his focus from trying to fix his symptoms to trying to grow himself up. This growing-up process was going to need to be taken one step at a time as the wiring to react to others was deeply ingrained. When he had focused on how badly he felt, how anxious he was, and how hard it was to sleep, he found that he would become increasingly overwhelmed. His symptom focus left him feeling helpless and looking to the ‘experts’ to come up with a solution. However, when Michael started to work on himself and not his symptoms, he took his focus off his feelings and started to work on his day-to-day adult responsibilities, such as getting to bed at a reasonable hour, eating three meals a day, doing daily light exercise and getting himself to work on time. These efforts were focused on using his inner resources at a basic level rather than looking to others to motivate him with praise and encouragement.

Prior to tackling his own self-management, Michael had fallen into a pattern of allowing Shelley to treat him as the patient. He was letting her manage all his appointments, as well as allowing her to remind him to take his medication and cook and clean up for him. Shelley talked through how she could return to treating Michael as her husband and not be a caretaker for him. This meant she started asking for his help again and shared with him her own daily ups and downs. She worked to even up the lopsided relationship rather than to focus on trying to fix Michael.
As Michael worked to better understand himself in his family he began to consider ways he could make contact with his father and begin to get to know him as a person rather than continue to write him off as a villain. None of these efforts was easy for Michael and his progress in managing himself and staying in contact with others was often slow. His anxieties about letting people down at work, and his consequent drain in energy and sleep disruption, were also slow to improve. Michael did, however, report feeling stronger as a person, with a growing acceptance of the sensitivities generated in his earlier relationships.
I recall Michael speaking about the struggle to accept how hard it was to function without lots of approval At times I get so discouraged with how consumed I get with my awful thoughts. I can see that both Mum and Dad, in different ways, struggled with their confidence and looked to others to boost them. I guess it isn’t any wonder that I struggle as well.
I wish I had been given a better deal from my family patterns but I get that I have to do the best I can with what I’ve got.
For Michael, and others like him who struggle with disproportionate fears and discouragements, it’s helpful to take the focus off feelings and to look at doing things that strengthen maturity from within. Following are three guidelines that can assist with this in the midst of challenging symptoms.

1. Function rather than fix
Look at the things you can manage to do each day that keep you responsible for yourself. When life energy is at a low ebb this might not be much more than feeding yourself three decent meals and getting out of bed when the alarm goes off.

2. Be a person rather than a patient
Take care not to allow others to take over basic responsibilities for you. Even when receiving medical advice stay involved in your choices and keep managing your own diary.

3. Keep in contact with others

The easiest thing to do when the pressure is high is to avoid others, especially those who are most challenging to your confidence. The more you are able to maintain some contact with a variety of people, the more you are able to experience yourself as a solid person. You can see that the focus is on taking small, realistic steps to be more of a self. It isn’t the same as a purely medical approach to mental illness which focuses on fixing the symptoms. Rather than analyse the severity of symptoms, the premise is that when a person can lift their functioning just a tad, their symptoms start to become less overwhelming.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other
To grow up in the face of the energy drain of anxiety and depression can be an enormous challenge. The most important principle is to not give up your responsibility for managing yourself to the best of your current ability, no matter how compromised this may be. The more you fall into becoming a patient, who is dependent on others and medication to solve the problem, the more you contribute to an increase in helplessness. This doesn’t mean medication isn’t sometimes a helpful choice but it should not be at the expense of working on managing yourself in the basic responsibilities of each day. And if you can see that a family member is taking on the role of managing your condition, it’s timely for you to step up and get back in charge of your own health care. This is not easy when you feel so lacking in personal resources but it will assist you to hold onto enough adult self to be able to keep moving forward wisely and compassionately.

‘A Focus on Functioning not Fixing’ – Jenny Brown