“The word growth has been so misused during the past decade, that it has become meaningless,” wrote Murray Bowen in his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. “It is common for mental health professionals to consider the disappearance of symptoms as evidence of change.”
Dr. Bowen believed that a higher level of emotionality in a relationship between therapist and patient often resulted in a short-term reduction in symptoms. In short, it was just a quick fix, one that insurance companies especially find appealing. Wary of this process, Dr. Bowen called his own work with patients “supervision” or “coaching.” He wanted to distinguish the work he did from traditional psychotherapy. “The lower the emotionality and the more the relationship deals in reality, the more likely the change is to come slowly and to be solid and long lasting,” he wrote.
But the relationship between a therapist and her client isn’t unique to this rule. A high level of emotionality in a relationship with a love interest, a new friend, a teacher, a doctor, a religious leader, or anyone who has “assumed importance” can temporarily boost your functioning and help you feel better.
Can you think of a time in your life where a new “feel good” relationship had an almost magical impact on your day-to-day functioning? In college, finding a professor who adores you can give you almost a super-human academic strength. Finding a dedicated Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor who gives great pep talks and is available 24/7 certainly helps boost people into sobriety. What’s so bad about that?
Nothing! It’s not about what’s good or bad. To be human is to have a certain degree of emotionality in any relationship. But if your goal is solid, long-term change, then relationships with a lower level of emotionality are likely to help you do your best thinking and promote the most growth.
People might get sober with the help of a good sponsor. But I don’t believe that people stay sober for 30 years because of one. People stay sober because they have clearly defined principles and learn what it looks like to take responsibility for themselves on a daily basis.
This is why I try to be a therapist who gets real honest with herself about how much I can actually help people. I must constantly remember that change is slow, difficult, and boring at times, and that there is no magic phrase or marketing scheme that is going to unlock long-term change in people. My job is simply to stay curious, stay calm, and help people do thinking they might not be able to do in more anxious relationships.
Let me confess a guilty pleasure–I have always loved listening to the Dave Ramsey show. Ramsey is a radio host who is huge in evangelical churches and preaches the value of a debt-free life. I could binge-listen to this show for hours and hours every week, and sometimes I do. Dave is way more conservative than I am, and I don’t agree with all of his thoughts about poverty, but I do think that he is a person who challenges people to operate in reality.
Dave Ramsey is a theatrical guy, who some people would argue is sometimes too abrasive with his callers. So I would say he draws people in with a high level of emotionality. But when Ramsey interviews people who’ve paid off hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and he asks them, “What’s the secret to getting out of debt?”, they don’t say, “It was all you Dave.” They say things like, “Keeping a budget. Making smart choices daily. Staying focused on the steps.”
I think about religious faith as operating similarly. Perhaps you had a conversion moment or a relationship with a high degree of emotionality that drew you to your faith. But the process of growing in faith requires developing a set of beliefs and principles that guide and inform you when these relationships fail or change.
I think this is the balance between individuality and togetherness. We need relationships and community because we’re social creatures. But all togetherness and no “self’ is a recipe for a steep ascent and an even steeper descent in times of stress or crisis. It’s so convenient to borrow confidence, assurance, or certainty from another, but what gets lost when we miss an opportunity to work on self?
Relationships with people who let you take responsibility for yourself are often less romantic, less exciting, and more challenging. But they are also more real, and they’re often the ones we look back on and see as the ground where seeds of change were nurtured.
This week, I’d like you to think about how you can engage in more reality-based relationships with those you love and also those people you hold in esteem. How can you stay connected to people but not depend on them as much for managing your own emotions?
I strive to be a therapist, a friend, and a family member who gives people the space to develop their own thinking and their own capacity to take responsibility for themselves. I also want to be someone who claims that space in relationships where it might be all too easy for me to rely on others for encouragement or reassurance. This is the dance of differentiation, living as an individual while staying connected to others. I’m sure it will keep me busy for the rest of my life.
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