Interventions and Confrontations – REPOST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowen on confrontation in a family system:

ON CONFRONTING FAMILY MEMBERS

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

Family Therapy in Clinical practice P 484

ON RELATING TO A PERSON IN THE SICK ROLE

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

P 86 ‘Interventions and Confrontations’ – Jenny Brown

What are the dominant forces of sensitivity in my relationships?

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions to consider:

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

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

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

The surprising link between dental hygiene and relationship maturity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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