Growing up through the life cycle – these podcasts are deigned to prompt thinking about one’s own life adjustments as well as reflecting on the experiences of members of the broader family.
To listen on iTunes, click HERE.
Growing up through the life cycle – these podcasts are deigned to prompt thinking about one’s own life adjustments as well as reflecting on the experiences of members of the broader family.
To listen on iTunes, click HERE.
Given how much my book is about applying Bowen’s theory to understanding the commonalities of the families we all grow up in, it’s timely to use this excerpt (from ch. 3) as a mini blog to provide a crash course in family systems concepts. You will recognise them, described in everyday language, all the way through this book.
Bowen researched his own family over the generations and came to see similarities in coping patterns with those families with more severe psychiatric symptoms. He noticed that there were two forces at work in relationships that drive predictable patterns of behaviour: these are the togetherness force and the separateness force, which are both essential for individuals in their relationships. The core concepts of Bowen’s theory describe the ways that family members react to the threat of loss of togetherness and explain the variations in how different families and individuals manage life challenges. These core concepts are: triangles, which describe how tension between two people gets detoured to a third party, such as when a wife discusses marital grievances with a friend rather than their husband or when a parent discuss parental grievances with a child rather than their partner; differentiation of self, which describes the extent to which family members can stay in their own skin — maintain their individuality — while relating to each other and still being part of the family group; fusion, the opposite of differentiation of self, where boundaries are lost in the pull for family togetherness; the nuclear family emotional system, which outlines the three ways that one generation of a family can reduce individual relationship discomfort — these are the conflict-and-distance pattern, the over- and under-functioning exchange between spouses, and the anxious detour onto a child. The family projection process explains how insecurities in adults can be managed through shifting the focus to the next generation; the multigenerational transmission process describes how parents’ anxieties are not transmitted equally to each child as each gets varying degrees of a parent’s worry focus; emotional cut-off is a common way that family members use distance to reduce the sense of loss of individuality in relationships; sibling position was seen by Bowen as formative in an individual’s relationship sensitivities; and societal regression process showed how the same anxious patterns in families can be seen in institutions in the broader society. All of these ideas, linked together, help show how every individual is part of a much bigger stage of actors in the same improvised play, building a storyline through their interconnections.
To see things from a systems perspective requires getting out of a ‘cause and effect’ way of thinking to seeing how every person’s impulses are part of a circuit of reactions that flow like electric currents around relationships. It’s as if relationships are a kind of dance, with each person responding intuitively to the dance steps of another. These circuits of emotional and behavioural responses in relationships shape how each individual develops. Hence getting real about ourselves in our original families requires us to get honest about how our emotional responses and behaviours flow onto others and influence how they appear to us. The good news, from a systems way of thinking, is that changing our emotional reactions and behaviours eventually flows onto changing the entire circuit of the system. That is if we can hold onto the principles that drive our change efforts in the face of others’ anxiety. This is how we can make a positive difference over time, not just for ourselves but for everyone we’re connected to.
Photo with permission: A Schara
This blog began as a casual conversation in the kitchen at our office between Lily Mailler and Jenny Brown. It was prompted by the site of Lily’s golden Labrador sitting in the back of her car for over an hour while Lily was working. She was sitting quietly and calmly on her blanket with a breeze cooling her through a partly open window. Lily had organised for her to be picked up by a family member some time that afternoon.
Jenny: “Lily, I was quite struck to see your Labrador sitting so patiently in the back seat of your car. Two things struck me. Firstly I can’t imagine my cocker spaniel Hendrix sitting so calmly knowing I was in the building and secondly, I can’t imagine myself being comfortable leaving him confined for an hour or so. I would be working in the office with an ear out for his wining. Neither of us would be as calm as you and your dog! What do you make of this?”
Lily: “Yes, I have observed that my dog Bella has less separation anxiety than other dogs I know, for example she comes with me to the beach every morning and I tie her to a post at the surf club whilst I swim and do my thing, she does not whinge or bark like other dogs that are also tied up and waiting for their owners to come back. I think though that she does have a level of sensitivity to me, for example I have observed that she watches me intently whilst I swim and refuses to walk with someone she does not know when I am around. I agree with Dr Bowen that no one is totally free from the sensitivity and attachment, I kid myself when I think that I am not disproportionately attached to my dog, recently I have found myself feeling a sense of panic when she did not bark at my arrival at home and found myself rushing outside to see if she is ok. , I believe her hearing is not as sharp as it used to be”
Bella came into my life at a time when I was too preoccupied with making a living and surviving. I did not particularly want a dog as I felt that it would be another demand upon me. My eldest son and his girlfriend got the dog and they assured me that they would be responsible for it, of course things did not work out that way, they broke up, my son left to work in the Whitsundays and I was left with the dog. I learnt to love Bella but I made sure she was not to be another imposition on me, by making a conscious effort to be clear about what I would and would not put up with from her. I believe that as a consequence she is not demanding and she knows I am top dog. The kids do not understand how come she is so loving and obedient to me when I do not show her the level of attention they show her.
Jenny– “Isn’t it interesting to think about what else is going on in our family’s at the time a dog enters? Hendrix came along at a time when I was adjusting to adult children leaving home? There is no doubt that he filled something of a void for me in terms of being needed and enjoying my attentions. We have certainly developed reciprocity of sensitivity to each other. He is so alert to me giving attention to our older dog. Our much older dog was quite self sufficient and non- demanding. I agree with you that our pets are a part of our family emotional process. After all emotional process is what we humans share in common with lower life forms…the limbic part of our brain that is instinctual rather than making thoughtful decisions. The position they occupy has a lot to do with what is happening with shifts in other relationships.
Lately I have been working on being a bit more functionally differentiated (less fused) and more thoughtful about my responsibilities as owner/pack leader with Hendrix. May be seeing your calm with Bella and Bella’s calm with you, is an additional bit of a wakeup call for me?! I had been coming to realise that I was to some degree drawing from Hendrix’s attentiveness and affection to steady myself during a time of change in our family. I’ve been focussing more on being a leader to him—not letting him jump on our bed, or walk in front of me, or come through the door first. He’s becoming a much calmer dog as a result. Ironically I can enjoy him more when I’m not so wrapped up in him. This sounds similar to what you observe with your relationship with Bella in contrast to your children.
I’ve been wondering if those of us who are vulnerable to a disproportionate child focus are also prone to a more fused projection onto their pets …especially when children are less present in our lives? I can also see how Hendrix can be part of a triangle in my marriage.
Lily- “ My capacity to stay in my own skin with Bella does not mean that I have the same type of reciprocity with my children, I actually was so focused on my kids that there was less of the focus left for Bella and I believe that as a result she has functioned much better than all others in my immediate family system. It is interesting to note that Bella has not had any physical symptoms during the 9 years of her life but for the odd tick she has picked up from the bushes. It makes me wonder about how the relationship variables expressed in levels of sensitivity may be important predictors of her good health, besides her biological predispositions. Her brother, who belongs to another member of my extended family, has had a number of physical ailments. There is plenty in the writings of Bowen and Kerr around this issue although the evidence is not conclusive”
Jenny– “ I’ve heard an very interesting presentation at a Bowen Centre conference on triangles and domestic dogs, presented by Professor Barbara Smutts, University of Michigan. She studies the dynamics of social relationships in dogs (and other social mammals) by observing video-taped interactions in fine detail, using frame-by-frame and slow motion analysis. Imagine being able to study our family process in this way!
There’s an interesting chapter in Peter Tiltelman’s (ed) book on triangles by Linda Flemming on triangles in a human, canine pack. She describes the formation of an emotional triangle with 2 dogs with the dynamics of insiders and outsiders. When she starts dating her future husband, new interlocking triangles are evident. When one of her dogs becomes quite symptomatic, she draws from Bowen theory to deal with the system instability. Her first step was providing more leadership, which helpfully shifts focus from the reactive pack member to managing self in a steadier manner. She resisted focussing on the symptoms in her dog. She writes, “As long as I was focussed on Shayne (dog) as the problem, we made no progress in changing behaviours. When I began to see the problem as residing in the system rather than on Shayne, we began to make progress.” p237-8
Isn’t it interesting the parallel to applying Bowen theory when there are symptoms in a child? I wonder if sometimes it’s easier to see an effort towards more differentiation (more autonomy in relating) in our relationship with our dogs than with our children. It’s a notch harder to make objective observations of ourselves in our own species. It would be great to hear other’s observations about their dogs in their families.”
Refs-Flemming L. “Observation of Triangles in a Haman-Canine Pack”. Ch 9 in Titelman, P. (Ed.) (2008). Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives. New York Haworth Clinical Practice Press
See also the section in Jenny’s book “Growing Yourself Up” titled= lessons from puppy management. P119-20. www.growingyourselup.com
Original post on The Family Systems Institute website: http://www.thefsi.com.au/2013/01/20/dogs-family-systems/
Gathering with extended family for any holiday season or milestone event reveals both what we share in common and the significant differences between us. I wonder if you’ve ever sat at the family festive dinner table and listened to a relative express a viewpoint that really irritated you. Do you walk on egg shells waiting in expectation for that relative to take offence? Have you observed how challenging it is for a family member to participate in the socialising? Perhaps you have observed how much a family member relies on alcohol to manage the occasion? Or do you have a relative who uses humour (somewhat inappropriately) as their method of conversing?
I often hear people declare that they just don’t like their sibling or aunt/uncle….. They consider that their life and values have taken a different direction and they would prefer to not have to continue an effort to be in contact.
A family systems view opens up a different way of thinking about the variations amongst family members. The young person in the family who was most focussed on (negatively or positively) will be the one who absorbs more of the immaturity of the whole family system. The more anxiously focussed on child may be the one born at a particularly intense time for parents, or is the same sibling position as a parent (or a parent’s troubled sibling), or who was the only child of one gender, or was a sick infant. Not all siblings leave home with the same capacities to cope in life. In turn, this means that others enter the challenges of adult life with greater or lesser emotional resources. The sister or brother who seems so different from you may simply represent what could so easily have been your own path if the family circumstances were a little different.
Can you see how this opens up compassion and grace towards the more challenging family members. It also enables us to reduce our reactive responses to the apparently more immature members of our family – previous responses which have contributed to fixing oversensitive patterns in place. If you are the member of your family that others seem to struggle to accept, it may be useful to understand how your position, in relation to your parents insecurities, have added to your heightened sensitivity to others. It can make sense of how quickly you take things personally when you are with family and how others distance when you get upset. This awareness of us and others can be helpful to refocus on managing our part and to shift away from blaming others.
Perhaps a good gift to yourself and your family at this year-end is consider your extended family as part of a system that has enabled some to manage stress and relationships more effectively than others.
You may wish to re- read Chapter 3 of my book Growing Yourself Up, titled:
Family ties that bind: Understanding our family of origin
In particular the section- Each sibling experiences a different family
Have you ever paused to appreciate that each of your siblings experienced a different family to you due to the variations in the degree and tone of attention each received from your parents? Some siblings get a balanced amount of attention and assistance in line with their logical needs, while others get an exaggerated degree of positive or negative attention….
The useful thing to appreciate in your growing-up efforts is that you can’t have the same expectations of each sibling that you have of yourself. Each family member’s pathway to maturity is inevitably different from your own.
Before we move into blaming our parents for any challenging siblings, it is worth remembering the influence of our parent’s family systems:
Much of a parent’s reaction to each of their children comes out of an unconscious effort to relieve their own uncertainties and anxiety, not from a deliberate attempt to mess up their children. Our mothers and fathers came out of their own families with a level of tolerance for upset, discord, involvement and demands. In turn this is played out in their marriage and their reactions to each of their children. None of us, or our parents, has any say in the hand of maturity cards we are dealt as part of the inheritance of generations of families.
(Growing Yourself Up p.39-40)
Whatever your family heritage and tradition for gathering at this time of year,
I wish you a Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, filled with grace for each family member.
*A CHRISTMAS REFLECTION: Systems theory assists me to cultivate more compassion and understanding towards other family members. Additionally and even more importantly, the Christmas message of God’s grace shown in coming down into our struggles as the son, Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrates an extravagant dose of undeserved favour and compassion towards us. In response to this I am compelled to nurture the same compassion towards others.
Once in Royal David’s City – Mary Chapin Carpenter.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor and meek and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.
We can’t survive without them but at the same time it’s in our relationships that we can so easily get unravelled. Either we feel like we lose ourselves or we feel burnt out from futile efforts to make things right for another. In our relationships we can experience the very best of ourselves and the very worst.
One of the most common maturity blocks in our relationships is to lose sight of our part and to focus on changing, blaming or comparing ourselves to others. It’s common to think that others are the ones who need to “Grow up!” We try to push them to be more mature only to discover that our efforts just don’t work and can even intensify the relationship challenges we are struggling with. It’s a huge step of maturity to appreciate that relationships and dealing with others will become more rewarding when we work on ourselves. This growing up effort goes into=
It’s an interesting and rewarding experience to learn to see how to shift our less mature responses in relationships. Learning to recognise when
Recognising such patterns enables us to make new choices that enable us to bring our best to our relationships.
Genuine maturity is about deepening our understanding of our self in all of your key relationships – from the family we grew up in, through periods of singleness, in the intimacy and trials of marriage, in the vulnerability of our sex life, in the daunting task of raising children, in the midst of competition and performance pressures at work, and adjusting to aging. While the effort is on self and not others, growing up does not happen in isolation but in the pushes and pulls of complex relationships. It’s our important relationships that provide the very best laboratory for growing up. They also provide the best motivation to work hard at being a mature resource for those we care about.
I wonder if this all sounds a bit too much like hard work in your already hectic life; yet if there’s the chance that this effort can unveil a very different picture of yourself in your relationships, it might just be worth giving this journey a go.
In a previous blog we met Pam and saw how she was interacting with her anxious son Hamish to try to get him to school. She described the details of her morning pattern with Hamish and her husband Bill (step dad to Hamish). Pam identified that her primary energy was being directed towards Hamish: worried thoughts about his anxiety, what he might be feeling, what might fix his symptoms, changing Hamish’s feelings about himself and making him willing to go to school. Can you hear all those “Fix My Child” efforts? With all this “You” focus, Pam was left feeling increasingly hopeless as a parent to her struggling son.
Pam’s first step to recovering her confidence was recognising that the more she invested her energy into trying to change Hamish the more she lost her clarity as a parent. She began to change herself as a parent by refraining from getting caught in a futile power struggle with Hamish leading to the distressing scene of trying to drag him out of bed. It was evident to her that such coercive efforts were contributing to her much-loved son’s increasing helplessness.
It was difficult for Pam to consider directing her energy towards herself as a parent. She had become increasingly concerned for Hamish over many years. To her, Hamish seemed especially reserved and at risk of severe depression. Hence she treated him as fragile. She was allowing her worry to shape her parenting. As a next step towards reclaiming some parent leadership Pam began to grapple with what she was factually in control of? And what was beyond her sphere of control?
This important project for relationship discernment enabled her to ensure that her parenting activity was fruitful rather than futile.
Here is what she came up with as things she could have agency with and things that were outside of her realm of control:
✓I can be in control of responding to Hamish and husband Bill in a calm manner.
✕I am not in control of getting them to be calm and thoughtful – although my tone and demeanour can be a positive influence. I am not able to control Hamish’s mood or confidence.
✓I can be in control of what I will do to support Hamish and what I won’t do for him that will keep him dependent. I can ask him each morning if he wants a ride to school, I can have breakfast out on the bench if he wants to help himself, I can be interested in what is happening in his favourite streamed TV drama.
✕I am not able to guarantee he gets to school or eats a good breakfast.
✓I can restrict the access to internet Wi-Fi at 11 pm each night.
✕I cannot make Hamish get lots of sleep.
✓I can treat Hamish with respect and warmth
✕I can’t make him feel good about himself.
✓I can be attentive and interested in son’s dreams for a career in music video.
✕I can’t promise that he will achieve all that he hopes for.
✓I can offer to be a sounding board for any assignments Hamish has. I can ensure that I don’t do his work for him. I can refrain from helping out until Hamish has begun to make his own inroads into the school work. I can ensure I hear his ideas before I offer my own ideas.
✕I can’t make him more motivated and focussed on his school work.
✓I can share with husband Bill How I am managing to not let my parenting be so driven by worry. I can allow Bill to work out his own way to relate to Hamish and not interfere.
✕I can’t change Bill’s parenting style.
As Pam could distinguish between what was and wasn’t within her control she could change the way she expressed herself to Hamish. Previously her communication was full of suggestions and affirmations directed at fixing Hamish:
“You can get yourself to school: You are going to have an OK day at school; You are going to be able to follow your dreams; You need to eat a healthy diet; You need to get at least 7 hours sleep. You have to start that assignment.”
Notice how the focus of this parenting in on YOU Hamish must change. Clarifying what Pam could change about herself in interaction with Hamish helped her to communicate in a completely different manner:
“I am willing to make it a bit easier for you to get to school but I am no longer willing to bribe you or nag you to get ready for school. And I won’t write notes to the school about you being sick. I will simply contact the school and tell them the facts that you were not able to find a way to be ready on time today.”
Pam’s support for Hamish’s efforts don’t need to be full of “you” accolades or instructions. Instead Pam can define to Hamish the support she wants to offer; and when he shows some self-directed steps of progress expressing:
“I acknowledge the effort it has taken to increase the time you spent at school this week. I admire the determination you have used to take these steps. I’m up for recognising this with a little extra support for your leisure activities this weekend.”
Pam is discovering her “I” position as a parent.
The patterns of a child becoming increasingly entitled, or increasingly dependent, are years in the making. Hence the path to improved wellbeing occurs gradually. It’s often bumpy and requires plentiful stores of parent patience. The shift from trying to change others to just changing how you relate and what you are willing to do and not do for the other enables the parent to have some inner confidence and agency. The young person may appear to be slow to change but a parent with inner clarity adds to a more growth enhancing relationship environment for all members of the family – in particular for their vulnerable child.
Note that the part 1 of this blog is found here.
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:
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
As a parent where is most of Pam’s energy directed? Is it to trying to handle her son? -Or reacting to Bill her husband and son’s step-parent? – Or towards managing herself in relation to her son and husband?
It’s useful to think back over an example of interacting with the child you are concerned about. Typical interactions reveal where most of our efforts are going?
Pam is a mother of a struggling adolescent son. She described a recent morning scenario with son Hamish and her husband Bill. Over the past year Pam’s concerns about Hamish anxiously withdrawing from peers and the family were increasing. Just last week Pam had set Hamish’s alarm the night before to help him get to school. When she woke she headed straight to his door to listen for evidence of any movement. All was quite. Pam’s stress levels increased. She knocked lightly on the door and asked if Hamish was getting dressed for school. She heard him mumble: “I’ll get up in a minute”. Pam went to the kitchen and started making his lunch. Her partner Bill (Hamish’s step father) told her to not get so uptight. Pam responded saying: “You don’t understand how anxious and down Hamish is. He needs all her support to get better”. After 10 more minutes Pam knocks on Hamish’s door, enters and sees him still in bed. She sits by his bed and asks if he’s OK. Hamish says that he has a bad stomach ache and just can’t get to school. Pam offers to make him a detox smoothie to help calm him. She gets out his school uniform and places it next to him. She packs his bag and leaves for the kitchen again. Bill sees how worried Pam is and says: “I can’t believe the stress he is putting you through!” He calls out loudly and angrily to Hamish: “Get yourself up and come to breakfast now – Or I’ll come in and drag you out!”. Pam rushes to Hamish and sees him curled up in a ball and becoming quite distressed. She reminds him to do his breathing exercises to avoid a panic attack. She does the deep breathing herself and coaches him to follow her cues while sitting beside him and rubbing his back. Hamish begins to get shaky and says that he feels really sick. Pam gives him a rub on his back trying to help calm him down. Bill comes to the bedroom door saying firmly: “What’s going on here? Why are you still in bed? You’ll make your mother late for work again!” Pam asks Bill to leave saying: “You are not helping!” She tells Hamish he can stay in bed until morning tea time and can go to school late. She writes him a late note to take to school and leaves it beside his bed with his bus pass. Bill vents his frustration to Pam about Hamish being lazy. Pam defends Hamish saying he has bad anxiety. They both leave for work. Throughout the morning Pam sends texts to Hamish encouraging him to get to school. Hamish doesn’t text back and doesn’t make it to school.
It was very helpful for Pam to describe the details of this scenario with a factual description of how each person responded. Such descriptions assist people to see ways that each person is affecting each other. Pam identified that her primary energy is being directed towards Hamish: worried thoughts about his anxiety, what he might be feeling, what might fix his symptoms, how to make Hamish feel better about himself and be happy about going to school.
Pam could see that her secondary energy was directed towards Bill and what she saw as his effect on Hamish. As Bill ups his criticism of Hamish, Pam increases her nurture for her son.
It was difficult for Pam to consider directing her energy towards herself as a parent. She had become increasingly concerned for Hamish over many years. She was allowing her worry to shape her parenting; and to shape her interactions with Bill. As a step towards reclaiming some parent leadership Pam began to grapple with:
• What am I in control of? What is beyond my sphere of control?
• How can I convey what’s important to me as your Mum?
• How do I want to contribute to my child growing their own coping capacities?
Pam didn’t quite know how to answer these questions but was willing to work on it. She saw that the more she invested her energy into trying to change Hamish she was losing her clarity as a parent. While pleased that she wasn’t getting caught in a futile power struggle with Hamish by trying to drag him out of bed, Pam saw that her helping efforts were contributing to her beloved son’s increasing helplessness. The patterns of a child becoming increasingly entitled, or increasingly dependent, are years in the making. Hence the path to improved wellbeing occurs gradually, is often bumpy and requires plentiful stores of patience.
*Upcoming blogs will show how Pam answered these questions and reshaped her parenting accordingly.
Each of us can raise our ‘periscope’ (capacity to observe self and others) a little above the murkiness of human subjectivity. There is always the possibility of the ‘self’ increasing his/her understanding of the part they are playing out in relation to others.
This was the topic of the family System’s Institute’s 14th annual conference; held June 15-16 2017. After listening to the range of informative presentations I asked myself how I would answer the question that our conference topic proposed.
The ‘self’ is an individual organism who is part of the human species. The human ‘self’ has much in common with other species, as demonstrated by the mirroring of Professor Suomi’s rhesus macaque baby monkeys as they interacted with human researchers. The human ‘self’ is set apart from similar life forms by his/her cerebral cortex with its ability to think, reason and reflect. This enables a limited capacity to manage life in certain areas according to reason. The human ‘self’ struggles to see the presence of chronic anxiety which plays such a significant role in the development of symptoms and the transfer of symptom vulnerability within a group. I like Dr Kerr’s suggestion that a possible new name for this species could be: ‘homo-dysrationalis.’ This is out of respect for the degree to which emotionality influences so much of what the human ‘self’ perceives and does.
The ‘self’ is born into a multigenerational family with multiple dynamic variables of emotional and relational process. Context is crucial to understanding the development and expression of each ‘self’.
The ‘self’ is never autonomous among other selves. She/he is both an actor and a reactor in relationships. Such processes influence which of the person’s genes are expressed, over expressed, or under expressed. Each ‘self’ shares a drive to be attached: to be mutually attended to and supported, and to be separate: to operate independently in life tasks and creative expression. These 2 counter life forces guarantee a dance like pattern of movements fuelled by both seeking togetherness and seeking distance for autonomy. The relationship dynamics are always being powered by these pushes and pulls in the space in between different ‘selves’. Each ‘self’ is significantly influenced by the brains around him/her. As such the ‘self’ cannot be reduced to cause and effect thinking where external influences and biological makeup are lineally seen to shape the ‘self’. It is always an interaction.
All ‘selves’ sit on a continuum from almost ‘no selves’ who have become lost in the merging of anxious involvements with others; to selves who have a sense of where their responsibilities begin and end, while maintaining meaningful involvement with others. All ‘selves’ in their family systems are qualitatively similar but each ‘self’ and their family is quantitatively different in levels of merged boundaries with each other.
There is a platform of hope for such progress where reversals of anxious interactions occur at both relational and biological levels. Each of us can raise our ‘periscope’ (capacity to observe self and others) a little above the murkiness of human subjectivity. There is always the possibility of the ‘self’ increasing his/her understanding of the part he/she is playing out in relation to others.
Those in a helping role can assist such small steps of growth of more ‘self’ by patiently asking non-judgemental and non-pushy questions about interactions – the “who, what, when, where and what next”? This may assist another ‘self’ to gain more awareness of the affect they have on others and other on them. As a result of this knowledge a ‘self’ may shift from instinctively controlling or being controlled by others, to better control of ‘self’. This will involve either less eclipsing others or giving way to being eclipsed. The progress of growing more ‘self’ will entail choosing to think in terms of years rather than just the day.
Autonomy is not possible given relationship interchange is always at play. The ‘self’ can slowly increase responsible autonomy but is wise to never underestimating the strength of human interdependence.
A thought I posted on Facebook prior to the conference:
Self in Bowen theory is NOT about self-actualization or selfishness autonomy. Rather it is all about the ways in which an individual is affected by the relationship environment and the way they affect others within their system. How much is each ‘self’ dependent on relationships to function?
“Each person’s emotions not only reflect their internal states, but also function to change each other’s internal states and functions.”
“It is a nonsense to blame one another because they both help create changes in each other to which both react. Blaming the other amounts to blaming oneself.”
“Poorly differentiated people are not good at acting based on long term reward versus automatically opting for instant gratification….Reasonably well-differentiated people may feel like taking the easy way out, feel like acting to relive the anxiety of the moment, but can fall back on fact and principle to stay the course.”
“Awareness of chronic anxiety (subjective, persistent sensitivity to imagined threat [my definition of Chr. Anx. JB]) can be important because of its apparent role in supporting the chronic inflammation that plays an important role in many mental, bodily, and behavioural symptoms. Chronic inflammation is one of the potentially silent killers.”
I was asked if the outcome of a constructive disagreement always involves compromise. It’s interesting that many people assume that resolution requires a degree of compromise or giving up something. When disagreements are managed maturely with good contact, avoidance of triangles and people expressing their own experience and perspective, there are a range of possible outcomes.
I asked a group of community group leaders: What they think makes for a healthy disagreement? I frequently ask this question of couples in counselling who are usually a bit taken aback that I think this is a more useful exploration than what makes for harmony.
Responses at my talk included: being willing to listen well and creating trust. People found it much easier to answer the question: What things get in the way of constructive disagreements? Responses included: our pride, believing that we are right, a desire to not give in, pushing our point of view, anger and attack and talking over the other.
I suggested 3 guiding principles from Bowen family systems theory that may be helpful in dealing with conflict well. Of course with generalities it is wise to appreciate that specific conflict situations need to be thoughtfully examined to determine ways to manage self within it. This caveat aside, see what you think of these guidelines:
1: Stay in good contact with the person with whom tension or disagreement has arisen. In the face of relationship tension, we humans are primed to use distance as a quick way of reducing discomfort. While avoiding conflict can feel like an attractive option, distance predictably increases negative projections. The less contact with the other the more we tend to exaggerate differences and imagine negative motives. When 2 people avoid each other after a tense interaction it is highly likely that they each begin to escalate a negative emotion circuit.
It isn’t easy to stay in good contact in the face of tension but tolerating this discomfort is a key way of being able to work things out in a thoughtful way. Even the act of demonstrating a warm greeting after a tense encounter can calm things between people and lay the groundwork for talking out differences.
2: Resist detouring tension to a third party. As well as distancing in the face of relationship discord it is predictable that people go to another person and vent about the person they have had tension with. This triangling process seems so natural and yet it can reduce the chance of being able to resolve the difficulty in the original relationship. When we find a person who validates our experience of the “difficult” other we immediately calm down and are less inclined to go back to the upset relationship to hear each side of the situation.
Triangles also provide a mechanism for spreading the original relationship tension as the person who has been vented to is now more cautious and tense around the person they have heard complaints about. I am always asked about the value of seeking counsel from a third party which on the surface sounds like a reasonable strategy in the face of conflict. The key question to ask is:
Am I seeking someone to take my side and expecting them to validate me?
or am I wanting someone to help me get my emotions in check and to think objectively about how I am managing the relationship upset?
Gaining more of a factual view about how we contributed to the misunderstanding is valuable bit conversations directed at describing, analysing and diagnosing/blaming the other person is actually adding fuel to the intensity of the discord.
3: Stay responsible for representing yourself not changing the view of the other. When our energies go towards changing or blaming the other we are contributing to a defensive response that amplifies their own stance; However when we can express our own thinking and experience of the situation we are more likely to be heard by the other who will be equally listened to by us. Our listening is in order to learn about the other’s experience from where they sit in the relationship system that we share (family, workplace, community group etc.).
At the end of this presentation, I was asked if the outcome of a constructive disagreement always involves compromise. It’s interesting that many people assume that resolution requires a degree of compromise or giving up something. When disagreements are managed maturely with good contact, avoidance of triangles and people expressing their own experience and perspective, the outcome will be one of 3 possibilities:
All of this is quite easy to write about but in practice it is hard. It requires overriding the rush of strong emotions that are automatically activated in the face of relationship disruption. We can choose to move towards that tension and manage our selves maturely or to avoid it and potentially contribute to more layers in to the relationship tension. It’s hard to accept that being grown up means choosing to do what doesn’t come naturally!
A version of this blog fist appeared on the FSI web page in 2014.