Togetherness and Individuality are Fundamental Life Forces
As recently as this June I had been anticipating a relatively laid-back summer. No big plans on the horizon after a lovely summer vacation. The Yiddish expression for what actually happened is, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht.” (“Man plans and God laughs.”)
Instead of weeks of imagined leisure for the family there was a move to a new residence (all good) simultaneous with some health issues (not so good, but manageable). There’s been a lot to deal with and coordinate. Consequently, I’ve been provided many opportunities to observe my stress reactions.
This is what I’ve realized:
Every time I get tense or upset (so, so rarely) my reactive thoughts fit into one of two general categories:
- You Are Not the Boss of Me.
- You Don’t Care About Me.
Often, I’m thinking both thoughts simultaneously!
Husband’s request, “Please don’t close the refrigerator door with your foot.”
Son’s statement, “Sorry I can’t come over today Mom.”
My thought reaction: You don’t care about me.
A girlfriend shows up late for happy hour.
You don’t care about me.
Mother tells me to change the radio station.
You’re not the boss of me.
I say I’d like to go out for Indian food, my husband says he doesn’t like Indian and wants seafood.
You don’t care about me and You’re not the boss of me.
Both reactions make sense when viewed through the lens of Bowen family systems theory, (and revisiting this topic discussed in my last newsletter at https://mailchi.mp/
These energies operate in every living thing at every moment and at every level of life. Even a single-celled bacterium needs to “know” what is self and what is other. It must be able to sustain itself and protect itself, while relating to other cells through the exchange of information and resources. The forces operate in dynamic balance.
The way I see it you’re not the boss of me is a reaction to a feeling of impingement on my autonomy or individuality. When the reaction is you don’t care about me, I’m perceiving a threat to stabilizing togetherness. Unlike the bacterium (smarter than I am?) both sides of the duality are triggered by my subjective perceptions and, frankly, usually have little to do with objective reality.
My mind can go to either place in various situations, like being cut-off on the freeway, (you don’t care about me) or being told to stand behind a red line to wait for a prescription, (you’re not the boss of me). The intensity of the reaction, however, is largely dependent on two factors: 1. The emotional importance of the relationship to me, and 2. The amount of chronic anxiety affecting my physiology.
Like every other human, I was programmed in my family of origin to orient toward a certain amount of comfortable psychic space and connection. Folks from more mature, less anxious families tend toward flexibility in terms of individuality and togetherness, meaning they have more tolerance for either position, moving quite easily between them. Those from families characterized by higher levels of chronic anxiety and lower levels of emotional maturity have more difficulty finding and maintaining the ideal individuality/togetherness balance.
The careful reader may make inferences about my levels of maturity and anxiety based on the reactions I have described!
How is recognition of the You Are Not the Boss of Me/You Don’t Care About Me dichotomy useful? With increased awareness of my mental and physical reactions to tension, I am in a better position to take responsibility for my behavior and my impact on those around me, those who have their own sweet spots on the individuality/togetherness continuum.