Lately I’ve been thinking about how difficult it is to assess a person’s level of maturity. 2020 has been a lesson in what happens when you dial up the stress and take away all of the relationships and other variables that tend boost our functioning and self-esteem. For many of us, our capacity to think, solve problems, and direct our lives has taken a nosedive in this more anxious, more isolated pandemic world.
How people react to us affects so much of our functioning. If you don’t believe me, how productive are you after you get a mean email or a positive one? How well do you perform when your boss praises you, or after your team wins the championship? Some people are energized by conflict, and others function better when they’re far away from the drama. Regardless, these are all external variables—they have little to do with “self.”
Our pseudo-self (a Bowen theory term for part of us that is changeable due to relationship pressure) can make us appear more mature than we really are. And the functioning of the pseudo-self can be enhanced by a number of boosters that can temporarily make us more capable, less anxious, and generally happier. Do any of these sound familiar to you?
Being very busy
Living hundreds of miles from your family
Living next door to your family
Relying on a therapist’s approval or advice
Having an impressive job title
Getting good grades
Being perceived as apathetic about grades
Receiving attention on social media
Not using social media
Being perceived as a rebel
Being perceived as selfless
Getting constant reassurance from your partner
Having a partner who will take on an undesirable task
Having a partner who will let you control everything
Being picked as the leader
Over-focusing on a child’s successes
Over-focusing on a child’s struggles
Having a child depend on you
Obsessing over a celebrity or other interest
Avoiding family conflict
Engaging in family conflict
Living in a neighborhood where everyone is like you
Living in a neighborhood where no one is like you
Having friends who share your beliefs
Having friends who disagree with your beliefs
Being the most experienced person in the room
Being the youngest or oldest person in the room
Being the most attractive person in the room
Being the first in your family to accomplish something
Being the first in your family to not do something
Drinking or getting high to feel more social
Needing caffeine to be productive
Achieving a certain weight
Using superstition to make choices
Having a buffer at a social gathering
Converting to a religious group
Leaving a religious group
Needing a friend to worry about
Needing a partner to “fix”
Being seen as a mess
Being seen as unflappable
Playing the peacemaker in a group
Playing the troublemaker in a group
Being seen as a mentor
Getting praise from critics
Having your political candidate or sports team win/lose
Hearing your name was mentioned in a conversation
What else comes to mind? ____________________
The items on this list can make us temporarily stronger, calmer, and more capable. But they don’t necessarily make us more mature. None of them are good or bad. It’s only human to feel great when someone praises you, or more comfortable when people agree with you. It’s just that over-reliance on these boosters can make life feel like a rollercoaster ride of intoxicating highs and excruciating lows. Or like a video game, where we need a certain number of points of approval, attention, or agreement to begin to set goals and go after them.
So what does it look like to get off this rollercoaster, and to work on building a more solid self? I think it looks like making decisions that are guided by your values, beliefs, and principles, instead of decisions that are guided by relationship pressure (aka those pseudo-self boosters). This requires you to:
A) Know what you believe, what you want, and who you’re trying to be.
B) Put that thinking into action, especially in emotionally intense situations where others might disapprove.
So if you’re an overachieving student, who would you like to be when you get a C? If you and your spouse love focusing on your kid, what do you want your marriage to be like when the kid moves out? If you love to drink at social gatherings, how do you want to relate to people when there is not a drop of alcohol in sight?
These are the moments where the self can shrink back, or it can step forward and learn to dance with the anxiety of progress. This is when we are challenged to use our internal navigation system to find a way forward, instead of relying on a nod or a frown from the audience.
As long as you’re breathing, you’re going to borrow a little bit of confidence, calmness, and capability from what’s around you. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But consider what it might look like to begin the slow work of learning to define yourself, and be guided by yourself, so you can keep moving forward on the days where there’s nothing you can borrow from others.
News from Kathleen
Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with Rev. Dr. Andy Burnette on his podcast, The Long Haul. We talked about Bowen theory, navigating holiday drama with family, & not letting social media manipulate our brains.
Read my latest essays at Medium’s Forge Magazine:
Want me to speak to your group? I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on managing anxiety during the pandemic. Contact me for presentation options.
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Check out my website for past newsletters about anxiety and relationships. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about my therapy practice in Washington, DC. Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about Bowen theory, as well their conferences and training programs.