The Role of Anxiety
Q. I have a good life. A loving husband, healthy kids, a nice house and a good job. Sure, we have money problems and family issues, but overall we’re blessed. I even get along with my parents and my brothers and sisters. But I know I don’t enjoy my life enough. I’ve struggled with depression at times, and am often critical and irritable with my husband and kids. Medication helps a little, but doesn’t solve my problem. I don’t like taking it anyway. I often feel like I’m faking it and just going through the motions. What I really want to do is stay in bed and pull the covers over my head. I must be really messed up, right? Maybe my mother was right and I’m just spoiled because I’m the youngest.
A. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on without knowing your specific family history and other details of your life, which we will gather if you come in for therapy, but there are some principles that apply to all of us:
Individuality and Togetherness
All people struggle with a tension between the emotional forces for Individuality and Togetherness. The togetherness force is a biologically rooted life force that pushes individuals to be part of the group. The togetherness force encourages dependence, agreement, following, and harmony. The togetherness force is always operating in dynamic tension with the force for individuality, “a biologically rooted life force that propels an organism to follow its own directives to be an independent and distinct entity” (Kerr and Bowen, 1988, p. 64).
More pressure for togetherness often exists than room for individuality. When the forces get out of balance, this contributes to Chronic Anxiety. In your case, it may be that the pressures of being a wife, mother, homemaker, daughter and employee are making it difficult for you to honor your need to be an individual among your loved ones. This might explain your desire to separate yourself and “pull the covers” over your head.
Chronic and Acute Anxiety
Differentiation of Self
According to Ed Friedman (Friedman, 1999, p. 183):
Differentiation refers to a direction in life rather than a state of being:
- Differentiation is the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system.
- Differentiation is saying “I” when others are demanding “we”.
- Differentiation is containing one’s reactivity to the reactivity of others, which includes the ability to avoid being polarized.
- Differentiation is maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others.
- Differentiation is knowing where one ends and another begins.
- Differentiation is being able to cease automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes.
- Differentiation is being clear about one’s own personal values and goals.
- Differentiation is taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.
Q. When we first met, my girlfriend and I could talk about anything. Now I feel like I have to walk on eggshells not to upset her. It’s gotten so bad I find myself talking more to a woman friend at work than I do with my girlfriend. A buddy of mine says this is how affairs start and I can see his point. What should I do?
A. Remember how easy it was to get along in the beginning of your relationship? It seemed like you could talk about anything without fear of being judged. You were excited to see each other, but open and honest about all kinds of personal subjects. Now it’s changed between you. You worry more about saying or doing the wrong thing. And you also find yourself being more critical, more easily irritated by what your partner says and does. Maybe you are the kind of couple who argues, or maybe you avoid each other when you’re upset but either way, sometimes you just wish it was how it was in the beginning of your relationship; fun and easy.
It is normal for emotional intensity and sensitivity to develop between two people who are physically and emotionally close to one another. There is always a dynamic tension between the normal human needs for closeness on the one hand, and individuality on the other. Often, one of you will “carry” more of the need for closeness while your partner “carries” more of the need for separateness; balancing these opposing forces is a challenge for everyone in relationships.
Because few of us understand the normal relationship process as it happens, we try our best to manage the growing intensity and sensitivity, but end up getting stuck in repetitive, sometimes dysfunctional, patterns. You should recognize your own relationship in one or more of the patterns described below:
Over functioning/under functioning reciprocity
When you decide you are ready for change you can initiate therapy by yourself or with your partner. If your partner doesn’t want to participate, you can start on your own. It is likely that when the changes you are making become evident, your loved one will decide to join the process.
When I work with a couple sessions alternate between joint and individual meetings. This facilitates the ability to learn from the thinking of the other partner while allowing space for focusing on individual goals.
Q. Help! I am married and have three kids. The middle one, a son, and my daughter, the baby, are doing well. The problem is the oldest. He’s 14 and has always been difficult. He won’t do chores, gets into trouble at school, talks back, and hangs out with kids his father and I disapprove of. But the biggest problem is the arguing between him and my husband. They go at it all the time, and have even gotten into fist fights. No one gets hurt, but as my son gets older, I worry what will happen. I tell his dad he’s too hard on the boy, but he won’t listen. Sometimes I think this is related to my husband also being an oldest. He had difficulty getting along with his father. They haven’t talked for the past 12 years. Will that happen to my family? What should I do?
A. Because there is a lot of anxiety present in your family system it is possible to see several common dynamics at work here:
Family Relationship Patterns
Family Projection Process
Multigenerational Transmission Process
“If the therapist is to develop the capacity to stay relatively outside the family emotional system in his clinical work, it is essential that he devote a continuing effort to differentiate his own self from the emotional system of his own family…” (Bowen, 1978, p. 250).
After being introduced to family systems theory through an academic program, at work or through personal therapy, motivated people take up the formal study of Bowen theory. Once that process begins benefits quickly become apparent. However, no study of Bowen theory through reading, attending conferences, or group consultation is adequate without individual coaching oriented to the family of origin and extended family work.
Other psychotherapeutic disciplines emphasize therapeutic techniques employed by the clinician to treat the client and the therapeutic relationship to provide a healing environment. Uniquely, Murray Bowen maintained that the primary change agent is the clinician’s focus on their differentiation of self.
In addition to her private psychotherapy practice, Lorna offers a yearly small group consultation based on the format developed by Murray Bowen at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Contact Lorna regarding coaching and for information about the consultation group.
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