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

Averting Workplace Burnout

Is this heading towards workplace burnout – what are the contributing factors?

workplace stressRelationship disruption may well be the central unaddressed theme behind people’s burnout experiences. How many of us attend sufficiently to addressing relationship patterns that may be draining our energy, resources and those of others?

The past couple of months at work have been as demanding as any period of work I can remember. With computers crashing and key administrator’s leaving I’ve had to wear multiple hats and extend my working hours to ensure no major balls were dropped. I’ll admit it’s been exhausting however I have known throughout that it was a time limited stress. It was always clear that there was going to be a resolution as our business IT issues were addressed and a new employee had time to settle into their role.
This has prompted reflection on work place stress and what goes into burnout. While a period of overwork can be tremendously challenging it does not take the same toll that relationship disruption and sustained seemingly unresolvable stress does. A leader’s potential for burnout is certainly heightened, if the loss of a team member erupted from relationship discord and the ripple effects of this were infiltrating the organisation. In my recent scenario, the loss of the key staff member was predicted. They had completed part time study and had been open with me about looking for work in their field. The other stressors, while beyond my control, were solvable problems. This is very different from a sense of chronic repeating patterns of people complaining and leaving or of work systems malfunctioning.
I wonder what you think of when you hear of workplace burnout. Usually people associate it with too high a workload. In literature into burnout in ministry positions the most commonly noted contributing factors are: over work, role demand Vs capacity, demands of interpersonal complexity, reliance on solo/self-care and a belief system of selfless service.* Looking into such factors reveals much more than a problem of too much work and not enough leave. The demands of relationship strain and relationship patterns of over – functioning (or over- controlling, – helping) are core elements to the burnout picture. I hear that many overseas mission/aid placements are prematurely ended, not due to cross cultural strain, but to team conflict. Relationship disruption may well be the central unaddressed theme behind people’s burnout experiences. How many of us attend sufficiently to addressing relationship patterns that may be draining our energy resources and those of others.
I well remember some years ago the impact of a tense collegial relationship on my workplace coping. Unlike the recent high work load this earlier period of relational upheaval was infiltrating my sleep patterns and thinking space. The more I focussed on the other the more drained and negative I became. I realised how important it was to see my part in the troubled dynamics and to responsibly attend to the ways I had played a part in mutual misunderstandings and reactions.
For some who are edging on workplace burnout it may be that unaddressed relationship discord at home is driving the intense investment in work. When exhausted collapse occurs it is easier to point to the work load than to the relationship strain that is being bypassed by spending increasing hours away from home.
For myself I have learned to ask the following questions to avert potential burnout at work:
• Is this a factual problem that can be solved in the foreseeable future? If so how can I patiently manage my priority tasks and tolerate the disruption until things are resolved?
• Is this a chronic pattern that repeats and seems to have no foreseeable resolution? If so how can I ascertain my contribution to this?
• Am I contributing to the chronicity by continually worrying about what might happen as opposed to addressing the facts of what is happening?
• What relationship patterns are behind this stress? Is distancing, blaming or over functioning happening? What is my part in this? How can I take the lead in maturely addressing issues with the person/people I am tense with?
• Am I using work as a detour from addressing insecurities in my family relationships as a spouse or parent? How can I ensure that this does not get hidden by my very high workload? Am I being responsible in all my important relationship domains?
I am relieved that the worst of my work stress is now behind me. It was valuable to see that there was no call for panic or reactivity that would spread the stress throughout the team. It continues to be valuable to remember to always address my part in relationship patterns that can drain energy from self and others. This period has also been a welcome prompt to reflect on how I am going to gradually move towards some semblance of semi-retirement and free up space for projects beyond my current work. I am committed to a better balance in how I spread my God given energy around the various domains of my life.

Dr Bowen and different versions of stress & anxiety:

A key variable of family systems theory is the degree of anxiety – this includes the intensity and duration of different types of anxiety. “All organisms are reasonably adaptable to acute anxiety. The organism has built in mechanisms to deal with short bursts of anxiety….When anxiety increases and remains chronic for a certain period, the organism develops tension, either within itself or in the relationship system, and the tension results in symptoms’ or dysfunction or sickness.” P 361-2

* e.g. of burnout literature and clergy
Grosch, W. N., & Olsen, D. C. (2000). Clergy Burnout: An integrative account. Psychotherapy in Practice, 56(5), 619-632.
My literature review in this area comes from the master’s thesis of psychologist Amanda Mason (which I hope will be published at some time)

‘Averting Workplace Burnout’ – Jenny Brown

Triangles at Work


‘I’m grateful for a theory that gives me a road map for tackling the inevitable triangling process at work. I’m reminded that when a negative report comes via a third party it’s likely to be exaggerated by the listener. Hearing things directly from another creates a clearer space in the relationship. It’s less likely that anxious negativity gets cultivated.’

In a recent meeting to review our training program, a remark was casually made that a team member (not in the meeting) was unhappy about a decision I had made.  Immediately I recognised a triangling process – when a problem between two people is detoured to, or through, a third person.  A genuine, concerned third party was conveying a message on behalf of another. It happens so naturally when there is some level of unease in relationships. The issue doesn’t get expressed between the two people with whom it belongs but gets conveyed via another who is instinctively acting as a mediator. It’s easier to express concerns indirectly and in turn to calm down if we sense that the third party shares our view. Hence Bowen proposed that the triangle is the most comfortable relationship (not to be confused as healthy), with the inevitable differences between two people making it inherently uncomfortable.

I responded to the detoured message with a tweak of frustration. Why hadn’t this person come to me directly? I expressed my concern about needing to work out how to deal with this triangle information to the 2 people in the meeting. They each suggested that I ignore the comment as if it had not been spoken— a withdrawal of the remark.  The problem with this is that once the concern is expressed, it is in the system of relationships and will consequently affect the way I relate to this absent person.  When we next connect, it’s likely to be a little edgy, with me perceiving a tension attached to the complaint that wasn’t expressed directly to me. Even if nothing is said, the impact of the detoured message will create some instability in the relationship – silence does not fool a relationship. The other person will sense that something has shifted and will not know why. They in turn will add their own reactive interpretation to this.

I determined that the best way to de-triangle was to let this colleague know how I’d heard about the upset regarding allocation of some training work. This is a way of putting whatever the issue might be, back into the relationship in which it belongs. I reflected that I had not been making sufficient effort to be in contact with this colleague. Our busy schedules meant that we were rarely in the office on the same days. I needed to address my part in increasing the likelihood of triangled communication by making better contact. As soon as possible I arranged a time to catch up over lunch. Over our casual catch up I made every effort to share updates about each of our lives; to hear about her recent travels to visit family and to share some of the non-work related things I had been up to. I know how important it is NOT to attempt to bridge distance by raising a potentially stressful issue.  A relationship needs to be sufficiently relaxed to be able to tackle points of difference. After our conversation moved to chatting about various professional endeavours, I mentioned how I had heard about her concern about the training related matter. She conveyed that while she had initially been taken aback by the information, she was comfortable with the situation when she heard more details.  Any tension between us that could have festered was simply cleared up in this exchange. Whether or not my colleague was reporting the situation factually is not the issue. The whole point of the effort is to ensure a more open, person to person relationship.

I left the lunch grateful for a theory that gives me a road map for tackling the inevitable triangling process at work. I was also reminded that when a negative report comes via a third party it is likely to be exaggerated in the listener’s psychology (in this case my own). Hearing things directly from another creates a clearer space in the relationship. It’s less likely that anxious negativity gets cultivated. As a leader I’m reminded once again of the importance of remaining in good enough contact with the people I work with. – Contact that is calm, not intensely self-disclosing and that best facilitates others being able to focus on their job duties. While distance is an issue, so too is intense monitoring that will just as surely trigger anxious relationship patterns such as triangle detours that can spread quickly through other triangles. I don’t always get this right but I do have a way of recognising the effect of triangles and in turn having the option to address my part. My goal is to relate in an open way to those I work with and to put detoured issues back where they belong.  A quote from a talk by Dr Michael Kerr has stuck with me: that differentiation of self/ maturity is having the capacity to keep a problem in the relationship from which it is trying to escape.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Can I recognise when information is being conveyed through a third party?
  • Do I notice when I feel compelled to share something about another to a third party?
  • When I hear a third party’s complaint about another how can I do my bit to get it back into the relevant relationship?
  • Is my distance from a person I work with increasing the likelihood of triangle communication?
  • What was my predictable triangle position in my family growing up? Was I quick to jump in and listen to the detoured concerns of a parent/family member? Was I a ‘distancer’ who made it hard for a parent to talk directly with me? Was I a mediator who was often overly sensitive to disharmony between parents or siblings? Was I a reactor who deflected receiving direct feedback from a parent?
  • What ways can I work at connecting with others without needing to discuss absent third parties?

Key quotes from Bowen

‘A “differentiated self” is one who can maintain emotional objectivity while in the midst of an [anxious] emotional system, yet at the same time actively relate to key people in the system. …Gossip is one of the principle mechanisms for “triangling” another into an emotional field between two people…..’ FTCP p 485

‘A two person relationship is unstable in that it forms itself into a three-person relationship under stress. A system larger than three persons becomes a series of interlocking triangles….As tension mounts in a two person system, it is usual for one to be more uncomfortable than the other and for the uncomfortable one to “triangle in” a third person by telling the second person a story about the triangle one. This relives the tension between the first two and shifts the tension between the second and third. ‘FTCP p 478

‘When there is finally one who can control his/her emotional responsiveness and not take sides with either of the other two, and stay constantly in contact with the other two, the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease and both will move to a higher level of differentiation (maturity)’ FTCP p 480

‘Triangles at Work’Jenny Brown