One of the most frustrating things about my work is that I have a thousand comical stories I can never tell. Many of them involve the theatrical lengths that people will go to get a family member into therapy. People will therapy-shop for their adult child, only to bristle when I ask why their child isn’t calling. They will send their spouse or their aging parent with printed instructions detailing what’s wrong with them. And they often disappear when I suggest that they might benefit the most from meeting with me.
I do have empathy for these people. It is only human to turn our focus towards fixing others when we are distressed. To think that additional focus from an “expert” will solve the problem. While therapy can be helpful for anyone, we forget that an entire family benefits when any person is willing to work on being more responsible for themselves. We convince ourselves that it must be person with the “problem.”
There is a shared joked among Bowen thinkers that the sweetest spot in a relationship is to be married to a person who’s working on themselves. This is because you get all of the benefits, with none of the effort. This benefit can be experienced between parents and children, siblings, or even friends. Being “change-adjacent” is a powerful position. Having contact with someone who is working to become more responsible for themselves (and less responsible for you) is incredibly useful. Perhaps even more useful that being dragged to therapy before you’re interested.
Let me give you a few examples of the difference between being trying to fix others and focusing on yourself.
Other-focused: You help your adult daughter find a new job.
Self-focused: You treat your daughter like she’s capable of navigating her career. You express interest in hearing about her challenges and successes.
Other-focused: You beg your spouse to go to therapy.
Self-focused: You go to therapy and think about how you want to respond to the challenges in your relationship.
Other-focused: You lecture your teenager about how to be more responsible.
Self-focused: You reflect on how your responses as a parent influence your child’s functioning.
Other-focused: When your sister expresses interest in exercising more, you email her a list of local gyms.
Self-focused: You ask thoughtful questions about your sister’s goal, and treat her like she can figure it out.
Directing, lecturing, and functioning for others are Band-Aid solutions. They can create temporarily calm, or temporary boosts in mood and functioning. (This is why people often do quite well for a while when a therapist tells them what to do.) But they don’t address the relationship dynamics from which these problems emerge. In other words, the wheels are going to fall off the wagon as soon as you hit another bump. As far as I know, no one has ever become more responsible because everyone in their family was anxiously focused on them.
I once worked with a woman whose brother was battling a heroin addiction. She watched her family shift back and forth between enabling her brother and avoiding him all together. How fortunate they were that she was willing to think about her part in this anxious family dance. Her brother wasn’t ready to change, and her parents were too terrified to interrupt their functioning, but she was one person in the mix who could think about her position in this crisis. She was one person who could ask him good questions, set the appropriate boundaries, and treat him like he was capable of pulling his life together. And that made a difference.
Dr. Bowen said it much more succinctly than I ever could: You can’t control a whole damn family, but you can control you, and any time you can control you, the family is a healthier organism. That is a reason to become a self. The more you can become a self, the more to your advantage, and the family’s.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
When have I been anxiously focused on changing another person?
How has this focus kept me trapped in a relationship pattern?
When has working on myself benefitted those around me?
How might being “change-adjacent” be useful to those I love?
News from Kathleen
Read my latest at Medium’s Forge – “How to Not Look Away”
Listen to me talk about career transitions on the Destination Unknown podcast.
Buy my book. If you haven't gotten your copy of Everything Isn't Terrible yet, you can buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, Target, or anywhere you buy books! But I encourage you to support your local indie bookstore. The book is also available in e-book and audio book form.
Anxiety Journal -The folks at Hachette have helped me create a new, free digital resource to supplement your reading of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible. It’s called Calming Down & Growing Up: A 30-Day Anxiety Journal, and it includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors, using the ideas in Everything Isn’t Terrible.
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