We don’t make personal changes in a vacuum. We have families, we have significant others, we have friends, colleagues, acquaintances. Once we have initiated and begun to make changes in ourselves it will have effects on the others in our lives.
Change will almost invariably create anxiety to some degree. How best to help, how best to minimize conflict and anxiety, how best to keep together the "good" in our relationships without allow the natural anxiety of change from pulling it apart?
What follows contains edited excerpts from Chronic Anxiety and Defining A Self ČŘ” An Introduction to Family System Theory by Michael E. Kerr, published in The Atlantic Monthly, September 1988.
Dr. Murray Bowen, a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, sees the family not as a collection of autonomous entities, but rather an interlocked emotional unit. He developed the concept and perspective of family systems.
The emotional interdependence of families means that we function in reciprocal relationships. One example is where one member will act "strong" in the face of another’s “weakness”. One member becomes anxious about a problem or perceived problem in another. This anxiety then exaggerates the demeanor, appearance and attitude of the anxious one and further escalates the Problem/Anxiety/Caretaker cycle. This then results in a greater "caretaker" role which further enhances the “weakness" of the other. Each person becomes an emotional prisoner of the other while giving a pseudo sense of togetherness.
When making personal changes, focus attention and have strategies in place to address the family unit. When one person makes a change in the system it will have effects on the other person's role. Those effects may be subtle or intense, and will create stresses.
The goal derived from the family systems theory is to gain differentiation or individuality while maintaining togetherness. Differentiation is our desire to be an individual -- to grow to be an emotionally separate person. Togetherness is also an equally strong force to keep families emotionally connected and operating in "concert"--and these desires are often in conflict.
At one end of the spectrum are people that live in a feeling world.
Some however may be so sensitized that they become numb. In general, people at this level are so responsive to others' opinions and what others want from them that their functioning is almost totally governed by their emotional reactions.
At the other end are people directed by goals and principles.
They have certain characteristics which we can consider emotional goals to strive for:
* While sure of beliefs and convictions, they are not dogmatic or fixed in their thinking.
* Capable of hearing and evaluating the viewpoints of others, they can discard old beliefs in favor of new ones, can listen without reacting and communicate without antagonizing.
* Secure -- functioning is not affected by praise or criticism.
* Respect the identity of another without becoming critical or emotionally involved in trying to modify that person’s life course.
* Able to assume responsibility, but do not try to become overly responsible for others.
* Realistically aware of dependence on others and free to enjoy relationships.
* Do not have a "need" for others, and others do not feel used by them.
* Tolerant and respectful of differences; not prone to engage in polarized debates.
* Realistic in assessments of themselves and others, and expectations. Not preoccupied with their places in the family hierarchy.
* Tolerate intense feelings well and do not automatically act to alleviate them.
Most people wish to be individuals but are not willing to give up togetherness altogether. Sometimes we are only willing to express our individualism to the extent that family members permit or allow it. Giving up togetherness does not mean giving up emotional closeness. One simply becomes less dependent on the support and acceptance of others.
Some degree of rejection predictably occurs when a person embarks on a path of "change’. The rejection is designed to restore the balance--regardless of how healthy that previous 'balance' was. Most people have a natural aversion to change, in themselves and others. Consciously planning for this resistance, and tolerating intense emotional reactions, makes us less likely to just give up on enacting change....
These intense feelings are fed by the "fear of what might be". Here arises the trap. When people become more anxious, the pressure for togetherness increases.
During high anxiety periods human beings strive to think and act alike. This is true in societies as well as families! Expressing your desire to be an individual is even more likely to meet resistance during highly anxious periods. Others become more intent on getting you to do things their way, often resulting in disappointment and anger.
Feelings of being overloaded and overwhelmed increase when we try to be individuals, to separate ourselves emotionallyČŘ¦.Addictive behavior can be seen as a form of emotional separation; a numbing of our emotions, withdrawing, and simply giving up.
When we try to get others to change it can escalate--they feel criticized and defensive, and often counterattack. Each blames the other. Projecting one's feelings and attitudes onto another may relieve your anxiety -- it allows you to view another as the problem, but this can be a mixed blessing. It may increase the anxiety in others.
Efforts at stress management often include outside or group activities--simply turning away from the family unit. These efforts can be useful adjuncts, but the problem with using a group in this way is that your improvements may depend on maintaining the group relationship. And this may overlook the cause of the stress.
So, how to break this natural cycle?
* You can become more aware of your own part in whatever problems exist, become willing to assume responsibility for that part, and become more able to act on that basis.
* Recognize that your functioning within the family is not contingent on others absorbing their share of the family’s immaturity.
* Remove your personal "demandingness" even when the problem is not yours.
* Recognize the desire for emotional closeness and act toward that goal, yet maintain separate and individual responsibilities.
* Accept others, yet support and encourage change.
* Recognize this process may contain events of intense emotion and reactivity.
All of this helps you become a calm, accepting, responsible individual who has a gradual calming effect on others. People are keenly aware and sensitive to the emotional states of others and make automatic adjustments in response to yours.©1998 Hank Robb Reprinted from www.skysite.org.