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

What to do when two members of my family won’t talk to each other

What can one family member do to bring some maturity to a system where ‘cut off’ is occurring?

I received the following question via Facebook. I have changed some of the details in order to write up my reflections as a public blog.

“My question relates to my mum and my younger sister who have been in conflict. My mum is avoiding my sister because she doesn’t want to have a difficult conversation and also believes my sister is in the wrong. I’ve encouraged her to try and stay connected to my sister and to have another conversation with her to see if they can resolve things, but she isn’t willing. She still feels very hurt by things that were said in the past. Any ideas of how else to encourage her to resolve things with my sister? What’s a mature action I can take in this situation?”

It can be heartbreaking to witness ruptures within our families – to have 2 people that we love dearly not talking to each other. The more that they avoid each other the stronger the ill-will seems to grow. Both family members can triangle us into their complaints about the other and we can find ourselves impossibly sandwiched in the middle. We can try hard not to take sides and to encourage each family member to reconnect and talk through their misunderstandings but predictably this mediation effort hits dead ends. Neither party is willing to give up their position about the wrong they feel has been done to them.


What can a family member can do towards peacemaking?

Observations of such circumstances reveal that the effort to change others and convince them to make amends is rarely productive. Relationship hurt and the resultant anxious defensiveness is unlikely to shift in response to another’s pressure. If there have been intergenerational patterns of people cutting off in the face of disagreements it will be especially hard for such programming to change. Distance and avoidance has become the default in the face of tension.
A family is an emotional unit – like a single organism. This means that any change one person makes will affect other’s experience of the family. So what can one family member do to bring some maturity to a system where ‘cut off’ is occurring? The following are some examples of options. It must be remembered however that each family has some unique ways of playing out tensions and alliances. Hence each of us has to work out what particular adjustments are useful to make in how we respond to each family member in the strained side of the triangle (in this instance the sister and mother are the strained side of the triangle with both aligned with the person who asks the question about the dilemmas they face). None of this can be rolled out as a technique.

Rather any change effort needs to make sense to the person seeking to make adjustments; and it needs to connect with their inner convictions if they are to contribute to the wellbeing of the unit.

  •  Keep contact with each family member who is not talking to the third.
  • The effort is to relate from self not in an effort to change another.
  • Ensure the contact is person to person and not a vent about the third person. If venting begins it may help to say: “I know you are grappling with how to deal with your upset with X but I’m committed to our time together to be a catch up on each other.”
  •  If the push to complain about the other continues it may help to say something like: “Mum when you talk angrily about my sister it affects me quite negatively. I care deeply about you both. Your venting about X leaves a vacuum in our relationship. I find the focus on my sister is making it harder for me to really connect with you the way I want to.”
  •  If the protest comes again it may be helpful to speak from conviction saying: “I’m not willing to go there Mum. I don’t want to be part of creating frustration in our time together.”
  • In response to one family member not being invited to a family event it may be useful to say: “I understand you are making this call based on what you feel but I’m not OK about fully participating in a family gathering when my sister not invited. I will drop in briefly to acknowledge the event but won’t stay for meal time while ever this is the situation.”
  • Another option is to make transparent that each party in the tension is communicating with you about the other. Such openness about how each expresses their challenges to you can be a gesture of handing the issue back to the relationship where it has opportunity to be worked out. It’s a kind of reversal of the direction of communication. An example might sound like: “I heard from X last week that they are a bit stuck knowing how to move things forward after the fallout. I let them know how you are also sharing a similar impasse. I conveyed that I have no idea what it will take for the two of you to get unstuck but that I am interested to see what solutions you eventually come up with.”

Back to the original question: “What’s a mature action I can take in this situation with my mother and sister not speaking?”

The key is to remember is that ‘cut offs’ are a common way of relieving intense negative emotions in a relationship. A period of distance is just predictable in families with a tendency to handle offences with stonewalling. The distance provides substantial shorter term reduction in anxiety and over whelmed emotions. If you get caught in being the triangle ‘meat in the sandwich’ you contribute to fuelling the ‘cut off’. Similarly if you participate fully in events and conversations that exclude the other you are accommodating to it. Above all be patient – these patterns are embedded in the ways previous generations dealt with transitioning from family of origin to family of creation. There is no quick fix to a pattern that has helped (albeit not maturely) families to cope with relationship stress over centuries.

Note about Emotional Cut Off – 1 of Bowen theory’s 8 concepts

Emotionally cutting off to relieve internal discomfort has its roots in the way people leave home. If they distanced from their parents in establishing their adult life- not being real and open in negotiating this life transition with each parent- the foundations for future impulsive ‘cut offs’ are laid down. (We all have varying degrees of this with our parents – Bowen called this: unresolved emotional attachment) Working on meaningful relating back to parents can reduce the likelihood of this pattern being repeated in the current generations.

Dr Bowen writes: “The concept deals with the way people separate themselves from the past in order to start their lives in the present generation (FTCP : 382).”

Dr Kerr writes: “People reduce the tensions of family interactions by cutting off, but risk making their new relationships too important. For example, the more a man cuts off from his family of origin, the more he looks to his spouse, children, and friends to meet his needs.”

For a full description of this pattern read: Bowen Theory Eight Concepts or Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000. 

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

 

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

Knowing when to ignore our children

ignoring-regressive-behaviourHow does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression

How does a parent respond to a child slipping backwards in their functioning? – When children manage a new developmental task and then regress to behaving in an earlier more childish manner. I was chatting to a Mum last week about her 7 year old who was crying about not wanting to do swimming lessons in the school holidays. She had been learning swimming with her older sister throughout the year, and while she hadn’t been enthusiastic, she was making progress and participating.  On the cusp of the holiday swimming program this little girl declared that she was afraid of the water and didn’t want to be made to do swimming. I explored with the mother her possible responses to this protest. She was clear that swimming lessons were important due to the family’s proximity to the beach. For her it was not just an extra-curricular activity, it was about ocean safety. She did reflect that this younger child tended to become anxious and slip backwards just as she was making some maturing progress. Her responses had often been to sit down with her daughter and try to talk through her worries. She would suggest strategies for managing her fears but found that the more she reassured her daughter the more her daughter seemed to express her apprehensions.

In this current climate of anxious focus on children, giving attention to a child’s anxious or regressed episodes can happen automatically.  It often just seems the right thing to do. A parent can try to get to the bottom of their child’s setbacks by focussing on their fears and feelings. It can be quite disillusioning when the child then regresses further in response to such attention. A parent may then get frustrated with the child or teen and shift their positive attention to more negative cajoling: “Come on you can get yourself to swimming lessons; you’ve been doing it all year. You’re just being difficult!” The negative attention often leads to more ‘stuckness’ for the child and parent and the tone of their interactions easily becomes tense.

I recall a period in my own parenting, after an inter country move, when my then 3 year old began showing distress when I left her at her nursery school. She had previously been very happy to have me leave and had commenced her new ½ day pre-school with excitement and confidence. When she showed her 1st sign of separation distress I recall the staff becoming anxious about the child who had travelled all the way from Australia. They strongly encouraged me to stay with her to assist her in the transition and this synced with my own concerns about by child’s vulnerability. Some weeks later I was still sitting beside my daughter in the welcome circle joining in the children’s action songs and assisting with the afternoon activities. I often think I should have been put on the pay roll. Predictably my daughter did not increase her autonomy but became habitually distressed with the first inkling of separation. At the time I did not see the part that I had played in reinforcing her regression.

Bowen observed that when a child is focussed on anxiously they respond with increasingly impaired behaviours. This can happen in families, in schools, in psychological treatment. It is predictable that as a child reaches a new developmental milestone of more independence and mastery of skills, that they exhibit episodes of retreat to an earlier stage of dependence on caregivers. This is part of the growing up trajectory. The challenge for the parent is to provide encouragement for the child’s growing capabilities and refrain from reinforcing their gestures of regression.  In essence, they ignore the child’s reversion behaviours and invitations for the parent to treat them as if they were back in a more dependent stage. When the child resumes their age appropriate functioning, the parent attends to the child with calm reassurance.

What might this look like? Drawing from the example of the 7 year old’s protests about swimming lessons: Firstly the mother will recognise her own uncertainties and steady herself so as not to inject her sensitivities into the child’s situation. When the objections arise the Mother can demonstrate with a brief comment that she will not entertain such protests. This is followed up by ignoring continued winging/wining from the child. The parent does not give attention to the child’s upset in the form of concern, advice or stern lectures.  Any parent will find this challenging and will need to attend to their own discomfort in reaction to their upset child. It is predictable that the child will up the ante of their upset for a time. They will give this up when they can sense that the parent is going to maintain their resolve. When the child moves back into participating in their swimming classes, as they previously had been able to do, the parents acknowledge the child’s efforts and show interest in what they have mastered. They take care not to ‘over- focus’, through exaggerated praise or reward for what is simply the child’s appropriate engagement in their life activities.

Looking back on my own nursery school internship with my then 3 year old I can see how helpful it would have been to ignore the initial displays of separation distress – To give the usual loving gestures of good bye and to leave calmly. At the afternoon pick up I would show an interest in her activities but not give my attention to discussing her earlier upset. With the passing of 25 years it is much easier to see a way through. At the time I was working through my own separation challenges from my extended family and I can see how this made it difficult to distinguish between my insecurities and my child’s emotions. Growing ourselves up as parents (or carers) requires managing our own insecurities so as not to allow them to spill over into our relating with our child.

The current tide of parenting is all about attending to a child’s distress and showing sensitivity to their needs. Challenging this ethos guarantees emotive counteractions from many ‘child experts’ and conscientious parents devoted to the path of tuning into their child’s emotions. Of course there are apt times to listen well and support a child as they face real challenges. This is different to attention that reinforces a child’s natural moments of resisting steady steps towards increased maturity. A parent who can see their part in these patterns can be the very best resource for their child’s resilience.

Key questions for reflection

  • How do I respond to my child when their behaviour is a step back in age appropriate maturity? { e.g. might be tantrums, thumb sucking, sleeping in parents bed, separation distress, refusal to do tasks or participate]
  • Do I attend to such regressions either positively (reassurance, affection) or negatively (lectures, threats)? Am I reacting to the other parent by attending with the opposite tone?
  • What do I observe of the effects of such attention over time on my child’s resilience?
  • What are my own internal struggles in the face of seeing my child’s increased neediness or immaturity? How can I keep myself calm and thoughtful? Can I recognise when my child’s increased neediness of me steadies my own insecurities?
  • What ways do I support my child’s steps towards more autonomy? – With acknowledgement and interest that encourage progress or with exaggerated praise, and rewards that promotes immature entitlement?

________________________

To read more see: p 106 – 129 in Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Jenny Brown

If you’re going to assist your child to grow their resilience, the first step will be to increase your own resilience in tolerating your child’s upset without feeling compelled to rush in and smooth over everything for them. The grown-up parent, who really wants to be a loving resource to their child, is prepared to work on themselves and not make a project out of their child. P 108

Relevant Quote from Murray Bowen MD

The process begins with anxiety in the mother. The child responds anxiously to the mother, which she misperceives as a problem in the child. [The father usually plays a role – he is sensitive to the mother’s anxiety, and he tends to support her view and help her implement her anxious efforts at mothering] The anxious parental effort goes into sympathetic, solicitous, overprotective energy, which is directed more by the mother’s anxiety than the reality needs of the child. It establishes a pattern of infantilising the child who gradually becomes more impaired and more demanding. Once the process has started, it can be motivated either by anxiety in the mother, or anxiety in the child. In the average situation there may be symptomatic episodes at stressful periods during childhood which gradually increase to major symptoms during or after adolescence. P 381 FTCP

‘Knowing when to ignore our children’ – Jenny Brown

What does it mean to be mature?

GYU-front-cover-2011Sept600pixRelational maturity involves being able to hold onto our inner direction when the pressure is high. It involves staying connected to others in a meaningful way while also staying aware of one’s responsibility.

Interview with Jenny Brown

I was asked the following questions in an interview for a community magazine piece. I appreciated the opportunity for reflection and thought that others might find it useful food for thought:

I’ve read your book ‘Growing Yourself Up’ as well as your blog and found them very helpful for understanding my part in relational dynamics. What would you say is the main insight of the book?

It’s hard to pin down a central insight. The central premise is that if we can get our focus off blaming or trying to change others and work on our responsibilities in our relationships we can contribute to healthier relationships.

 What does it mean to be mature?

Family Systems understands that all of us humans have inherited various levels of maturity in relationships from our intergenerational families. Relational maturity involves being able to hold onto our inner direction when the pressure is high. It involves staying connected to others in a meaningful way while also staying aware of one’s responsibility. Immaturity is when we are shaped by relationship tensions – either by putting aside principles in order to be accepted or by distancing from important others when feeling under pressure.

How do we change to be more mature, and what are the obstacles to maturity?

The starting point is learning to see our immaturities and be realistic about the relationship sensitivities we’ve brought from our families of origin. It’s not really an appealing project to confront our maturity gaps but it is essential to improving the way we function in relationships. Helpful awareness grows from good observation of ourselves in relationships – especially during times of stress. Do I distance? Do I avoid by venting to 3rd parties? Do I become over adequate or controlling? Do I give up my problem solving and allow others to take over? Do I over invest in the life of another – perhaps one of my children? These are the common patterns for managing relational demands without bringing a more mature self to these pressures. Being aware of our predictable patterns is the key to slowly adjusting the way we behave.

The obstacles to maturity in this anxious world are many. A key one is the pull to focus on others at the expense of seeing ourselves honestly. Stress and busyness gets in the way of building improving our ability to observe self in relationships. It’s also extremely difficult to get objective about our-selves when our emotions are highly charged. Symptoms or problems in others draw our focus to ‘fixing’ efforts rather than addressing our part in contributing to a more health generating environment. Individual thinking, rather than seeing how all of us affect each other, is another obstacle to growing maturity.

How can we help each other grow ourselves up?

We help by being meaningfully connected to each other in open and honest relationships. We help by addressing our issues in the relationships in which they have arisen, as opposed to taking our issues elsewhere. We assist by not rescuing or over- helping others. In other words we respect the other’s space to find their own way through their difficulties, while demonstrating that we care and are ‘side by side’ with them. We listen well and share our own experiences rather than telling others what to do. We allow others to hear about our own journeys of joy and sorrow in a way that promotes mutual compassion and a deeper knowledge of each other. We stay persistent in prayer for others.

I know you’ve done a lot of training of people in ministry – what’s your biggest piece of advice for people doing Christian ministry?

Christian ministry, because of its imperative to serve others, has particularly intense challenges to not get caught up in others expectations. One of the most common dilemmas I hear is: how do I truly love and serve those in my community without getting burnt out? I think that the path of genuine contact with others without going into ‘over functioning- controlling-pleasing’ is a biggie. Avoiding triangling is also useful – to not rely on 3rd party lines of communication – as this will distort how one views others and generates unnecessary negativity or exaggerated worry.

What’s the most interesting feedback you’ve received about your work and how have you seen it affect people?

I do find it interesting that many people perceive this family systems approach to be uncaring. To me it is a different way of caring that is committed to the best for others.

I am regularly surprised at how people report being able to change the way they operate in their life and relationships by turning their attention to changing themselves and not others. People report that this lifts a huge burden from their experience of relationships. I admit that I am surprised that people are able to make shifts just from reading a book – I find that system’s thinking is complicated and difficult to apply. I have endeavoured in this book to make the ideas more accessible. I am truly encouraged that some people have found this effort useful.

‘What does it mean to be mature?’ – Jenny Brown

 

Growing Self or Borrowing Self

Borrowing selfGrowing Self or Borrowing Self – an important distinction in growing up efforts.

Generating goal directed activity from within is quite different from being motivated by external factors. We can ask ourselves if we are dependent on factors outside of us – such as relationship attention – to produce results; or we can consider if our productivity is generated from our inner clarity about our priorities, personal ethics and life balance.

Gina explained to me that she is a perfectionist. She is happy when she is delivering on challenging assignments. Good outcomes at work give her a sense of satisfaction and steadiness.  She relishes being given challenging projects; however when she is left to initiate her own projects she finds it challenging to find motivation. In contrast to the energy of delivering designated assignments, when left to her own devices she feels lazy and inefficient. With this come feelings of guilt about not being adequate.

When I asked about her experiences growing up Gina recalled that she always felt driven to work hard in contrast to her siblings who were unmotivated with their school work. She remembers her parents worrying about her brothers and providing them with incentives to work harder. Gina didn’t need incentives to study. She was sensitive to her parent’s anxiety about poor performance at school and was constantly anxious about whether she was doing enough work to succeed. She recalls her sensitivity to her parents setting a high bar for her school achievements. In particular she remembers her father suggesting ways she could work harder and smarter. She didn’t hear her parents ask her to consider her own ways to measure what a reasonable effort is or to consider her balance of down time to work time. Rather it seemed that her parent’s postures about succeeding academically set a measure for Gina’s own efforts. Her measures came from outside of herself and relied on external direction.

So much of our hard work is driven by ‘borrowing self’ from our relationship processes. We act in ways to avoid upset in others or to sense their approval. We either invite others to fill in our gaps in being able to fulfil our adult tasks or we rely on others to set our tasks for us. Gina borrowed her internal drive from being distinct from her brothers. Her brothers borrowed their functioning from their parent’s external rewards to propel them to study. Gina sensed that hard work would please her parents and avoid generating worry. Of course all members of her family played their part in this process. Her parents were unknowingly loaning self to Gina through their advice giving and ways of pushing her to work harder.

There are many variations on how a person comes to rely on external relationship forces to generate their motivation. Generating goal directed activity from within is quite different from being motivated by external factors. We can ask ourselves if we are dependent on factors outside of us – such as relationship attention – to produce results; or we can consider if our productivity is generated from our inner clarity about our priorities, personal ethics and life balance.

Here is a table that compares the difference between borrowing from external factors to function, compared to directing our daily tasks from our inner guidelines.  It isn’t exhaustive but may assist in recognising activity that is dependent on the external relationship circumstance with activity that is generated from our internal regulation. What is missing from the list is the way other loan self-direction and emotion-regulation to the borrower. It may be helpful to ask if you are the one loaning self as you read through the Borrowing Self column. There are always relationship circuits at work in shaping a person’s functioning. Consider how this is playing out in all important relationships: parenting, marriage, siblings, friendships, work teams.

 

Borrowing Self Building Self
Needing cues from others to take initiative

 

Building an alternative positive identity via comparison with the negative focus received by others

 

Drawing on other’s approval and attention to

perform well

 

Working to measure up to others expectations

 

Allowing others to calm us down and solve our problems for us

 

 

Seeing other’s high achievement as a justification for our under-achievement

 

Drawing on other’s disapproval to bolster our sense of distinct identity (the rebel)

 

 

Initiative comes from a sense of inner priority

 

Managing life tasks is directed by principle and not driven by a comparison with other’s lesser functioning

 

Performing well because of own commitment to bringing our best and not needing to be praised.

 

Having realistic expectations for ourselves

 

Being responsible for noticing signs of stress and tension and changing our physiology to become more thoughtful and relaxed

 

Not allowing other’s successes to discourage our ongoing focus on our best efforts.

 

Being able to stay on a steady track and in connection with others even when they express  disapproval

 

Murray Bowen on reciprocal exchanging of ‘selfs’ in relationship

The exchanging of selfs may be on a short or long term basis. The borrowing and trading of selfs may take place automatically in a work group in which the emotional process ends up with one employee in the one- down or de- selfed position, while the other gains self. FTCP : 366

The ‘losing’ and ‘gaining’ of self are examples of the fluid shifting of strengths and weaknesses that occur within the family ego mass. FTCP:111

Teenagers can still have the ability to dissolve the selfs of parents. It is easy for parents to yield to meeting excessive demands for money and privileges, in the hope that the youngster has finally changed. FTCP: 431

The investment of self, or fusion, exists in all levels of intensity ….Once a child is ‘programmed’ to a certain level of ‘giving and receiving’, with mother (parents), this level remains relatively fixed throughout life. The child can have an ‘open and loving’ relationship only when conditions for that level of investment of self in each other are met. FTCP: 429

It is factual that dysfunctioning and over- functioning exist together. …the over- functioning one routinely sees this as necessary to compensate for the poor functioning of the other. FTCP: 155

FTCP : Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

‘Growing Self or Borrowing Self’ – Jenny Brown

Watch Out for Inconsistent Maturity

large(excerpt from Growing Yourself Up : How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships. Ch 2. P 27- 30 J Brown)

To varying degrees, all of us have a disparity between what we know is best and how we actually live. Rather than address our immaturity, it’s often easier to just focus on doing what brings instant validation and ignore the areas where we have to face up to the disapproval or challenge of others.

One of the best ways to test the genuineness of your maturity is to see if the characteristics of solid adult functioning are displayed in each part of your life. Many people appear to be quite mature in their public profiles yet struggle to lift themselves above childish tendencies in their home lives. An example of this was Jerry, who came to counselling reeling from the distress of his wife Sally walking out on him. This shockwave came after 30 years of marriage and the raising of four children to adulthood.

Jerry said in a somewhat stunned state: ‘I have always been an optimist, believing that nothing bad would happen to me and if a problem arose I’d always be able to find my way through it. I can’t believe that Sally is refusing to come back and to work on our marriage!’

In his current circumstances Jerry was reduced to a distressing state of helplessness. Sally had told him that in her heart she had left the marriage years ago and she had only remained for the stability of the children. Jerry described his desperation in pleading with Sally to try to work things out, only to be met by her resolute declaration that it was too late now as she had lost all motivation to try. Jerry could not come to terms with the lack of options he had in trying to pull his marriage together.

In desperation he asked, ‘How could she do this to me, and to our kids? Doesn’t she realise how much this will damage us all and the family’s reputation? At least she could have given me some forewarning!’

As Jerry began to reflect on himself as a husband, he started to acknowledge that he had neglected his wife in many ways and had taken her commitment for granted. The biggest conundrum for Jerry was that intellectually he knew that a good marriage required regular times to talk, attention to a healthy sex life and working together on managing the household and parenting; yet Jerry had behaved in ways that contradicted his own beliefs. He had been a high flyer in his law practice and was admired by many. Over the years he had mentored younger associates with marriage problems, and he had even given them advice about how to get a better work–life balance.

As Jerry emerged from behind his shock and denial he started to ask himself, ‘How could I have been so wise with others and so stupid in my own marriage?’

Jerry was facing the jarring realisation that his seemingly mature persona in the outside world had not translated into a depth of principled living in one of the most important arenas of his life. He expressed his heartbreak in realising this now, when it appeared it was too late to turn things around in his marriage. Of course, there were many patterns of immaturity in his wife Sally that led her to being secretive about her discontent. It was appealing for Jerry to focus on his wife’s failings but when questioned he could acknowledge that this would do him no good in addressing his own immaturity.

Jerry is not alone with this problem of inconsistency. He knew how to function with responsibility in some parts of his life but neglected his responsibility in other important areas. When he had a public audience he was able to feed off the validation this gave him to build a strong façade; but when he was behind the scenes he was unable to find the drive to pursue his values. His behaviour was directed more by what was rewarding and comfortable in the here and now than what he believed was important and would bring longer term satisfaction.

Staying where it’s uncomfortable in relationships

To varying degrees, all of us have aspects of Jerry’s problem: a disparity between what we know is best and how we actually live. Rather than address our immaturity, it’s often easier to just focus on doing what brings instant validation and ignore the areas where we have to face up to the disapproval or challenge of others. In this way, we borrow a pretend maturity from relationships that validate us rather than grow our inner maturity to become more balanced and responsible across the spectrum of life. We gravitate to the people who admire us and don’t threaten to expose our vulnerabilities, and distance ourselves from the important people with whom we have difficult issues to work through. Choosing to avoid tension and stay in situations where we experience more positive energy from others is an attractive path to follow. But it’s a path that will restrict our growth, and that of others, towards real maturity.

Questions for reflection

»»In what parts of my life do I appear most mature? How do I depend on others’ approval to be comfortable in these areas?

»»In what parts of my life am I least responsible? Where could I start to be more of a solid adult in these areas?

Murray Bowen on pretend maturity:

‘It is average for the human to “pretend” a state [of maturity] which has not been attained. In certain situations, every person is vulnerable to pretending to be more or less mature than he or she really is.’

—Murray Bowen MD (in Kerr & Bowen Family Evaluation p 342

‘The pseudo-self is an actor and can be many different selfs. The list of pretends is extensive. He can pretend to be more important or less important, stronger or weaker, or more attractive or less attractive than is realistic.’

—Murray Bowen MD In Family Therapy in Clinical Practice p 365

 

‘Watch Out for Inconsistent Maturity’ – Jenny Brown

 

Speaking From Self Rather Than Speaking at Another

SpeakingWhen we want to be truly heard by another it is useful to speak on our own behalf rather than telling another what to think, feel or do. A focus on correcting or directing another is most likely to me met with one of the 3 types of reaction:

  1. Defend,
  2. Attack,
  3. Withdraw.

In contrast being able to clearly say: “This is what I think and this is how I feel about it and therefore this is what I am going to do”; will be most likely to be heard as coming from your inner conviction.

The following excerpt from my book gives some examples of what speaking from self rather than speaking at another might sound like in parenting (you may wish to reflect on how this might apply to other relationship contexts):

Getting clearer about an “I” position; Rather than a “You” focus on the child:

The key principles for holding an “I” position: The parent manages themself, not the child. They don’t try to control what is beyond their own choice to activate. They don’t expect words to achieve much and are willing to action what they say. They don’t crowd a child’s developmental breathing space by pushing or pulling them into behaving as they desire.

Saying to a child that:

  • “You must stop doing that or I will send you to your room”’ might be replaced with:

“I am going to have to go to another room because I can’t concentrate on this task while there’s so much noise.”

  • “If you stop that screaming now I will buy you a treat at the checkout” is replaced with:

“I’m not going to keep shopping with all that fuss. If the screaming keeps up I will go straight home. I’ll come back and do the shopping later instead of going to the park this afternoon.”

  • “I will give you extra pocket money if you put an hour of homework in each night.” Is replaced with:

“I see it as your responsibility to satisfy the schools requirements, and I will not step in at the last minute if you haven’t managed to get things done on time.”

  • If you don’t stop fighting with your brother I’m going to take away your play station.” Is switched to:

“I expect that you two need to learn how to play together co-operatively and I believe you can find a way to do it.   If I come back in 5 minutes and you still haven’t worked it out, I won’t be willing to keep the computers on for the rest of the day.”

  • “How dare you swear at me? You are grounded!” is replaced with:

“I’m not willing to be generous when I experience so much disrespect.   I am pulling out from giving you that lift to your friend’s house today.”

  • “Ok, I can see from you blank look you aren’t getting far with that homework and its due tomorrow, let me help you out.” Is switched to:
  • “I’m hearing your complaints about this assignment. I’m willing to let you talk it through with me when I’ve finished my task; but I’m not willing to do any of the work for you.”
  • “Will you stop that whinging right now or I’ll stop all our visits to the park this week.” is replaced with:

No reaction from the parent who continues to go about their own business.

  • “Great job! That’s the best drawing of a tree I’ve ever seen. You could be a great artist one day” Is switched to:

“I’m really interested in what you’ve created; I’d love to hear about your drawing.”

 There is no magic in using the words of the “I” position. The impact is not so much in the language but in the parent’s inner conviction and their perseverance to continue to demonstrate this in action. The child senses the difference of the parent’s inner conviction and, after a time of testing, begins to manage them self better. It takes some dedicated time to think things through for yourself to know what your limits are and how you will live by them. Be prepared for your child to test out whether you really mean what you are saying you’re willing and not willing to do. After a time of testing your resolve, they will come to appreciate that they are dealing with an adult who is not having a knee jerk reaction but is clear and trustworthy.

‘Speaking From Self Rather Than Speaking at Another’ – Jenny Brown