bowen theory

Please Behave Better, So I Can Calm Down

Conflict happens when:

  1. Each person believes that the other needs to change.
  2. We see calming down as the goal, but not a part of the solution.
  3. We act as if our functioning/mood depend on people behaving better.

Have you ever had any of these thoughts?

I’ll be happy/calmer if they’ll just. . .

  • Text/call me more often.
  • Not tell me what to do.
  • Help out more around the house.
  • Stop criticizing me.
  • Share more of their thinking.
  • Let me help.
  • Make more romantic gestures.
  • Apologize.
  • Calm Down
  • Grow up.

When we are distressed, our emotional tentacles tend to reach outwards. We direct others in order to manage ourselves. Unfortunately, many of our efforts to get others to change encourage the very behaviors we’re trying to eliminate. A person who checks their partner’s phone can invite more distance and secrecy from them. A boss who micromanages your work doesn’t make you more eager to do it. If a friends demands that you call them more often, it doesn’t make you want to get to know them better.

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I Need You, So Please Go Away

How much time do you spend every day doing these things?

  • Wondering whether someone likes you (or doesn’t).
  • Anticipating negative reactions from others.
  • Worrying about an email or text you sent (or haven’t sent).
  • Thinking about what you “should” be doing.
  • Scolding yourself for not doing enough.
  • Imagining worst case scenarios.

Thank God I don’t get a report on this, like my daily screen time usage. It would be pretty embarrassing.

The more you require positive reactions to regulate yourself, the more time you will spend focusing on others’ reactions.

I think pandemic life has increased this anxious focus on others. It’s easier to assume that people don’t like you over a Zoom call, or that a friend resents you for not keeping in touch. The less you connect with your partner, the more you will personalize their bad moods.

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The Stories That Keep Us Stuck

What are the stories, spoken or unspoken, that you tell about your family? Who is the leader, the victim, the villain? Who just can’t seem to get their life together, and who runs circles around everyone else?

Humans are storytellers. It’s how we make sense of the world. But this skill isn’t always rooted in reality. It often fails to see the bigger picture. Conveniently, it also can overlook the role we play in our relationships.

As a therapist, I try to help people see how these narratives affect how they treat others. Because in relationships, we often act based on the anxiety of the past instead of the reality of the present. Or we assume we know what people need, instead of considering what they really need.

Here are some common stories we tell about family members:

  • She’s too sensitive to hear the truth.
  • Our son needs a lot of extra help.
  • Don’t bother Dad; he works hard and is tired.
  • Mom is only happy if she’s in charge.

These stories can be useful but limiting. The challenge is to zoom out and see how the entire family participates in the pattern. To shift from storytelling to systems thinking.

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Are You Responsible for Others, or Responsible to others?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being responsible for others, and being responsible to others.

Feeling and acting responsible for others often reflects our struggle to tolerate another person’s distress. When we sense anxiety in others, a quick way to calm ourselves down is to calm others. To manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that do not belong to us.

How do you get caught up in feeling and acting responsible for others? When you pick the restaurant, do you need everyone to enjoy their food? Do you avoid bringing up an important topic in your marriage, because it makes your spouse anxious? Do you reassure your child, “It’s going to be okay,” before you hear their thinking about a challenge?

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Please Don’t Upset Me.

We all have topics that bring out the reactivity in us.

Often they are subjects like money, sex, politics, religion, or death. Rather than learn to manage ourselves while thinking and talking about them, we often try to teach others how to not push our buttons. This is because we often rely on others to fill in the gaps of our own emotional maturity.

When I experienced deep anxiety about student loan debt in my 20s, I would become very reactive when other people would talk about their financial challenges. I would quickly change the subject or exit the conversation. I recall snapping at my dad, “I can’t talk about money with you! It stresses me out too much!”

I often have conversations with therapy clients who are trying to teach family members or friends how to avoid certain topics, or how to help make them feel better.

This can look like:

  • Trying to teach a family member not to talk about politics.
  • Trying to teach your mother not to fret about her weight, because it makes you anxious.
  • Telling your partner not to talk about work problems because it stresses you out.
  • Telling a parent not to talk about aging, their death, their will, etc. because it upsets you.
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Are You Directing or Reflecting?

When you’re close with someone, it’s easy to treat them like they’re an extension of yourself. You might act as if your family, friend group, or workplace is one giant blob of humanity. Because if the blob is anxious, you feel anxious. If the blob thinks that Bob from accounting is a mess, then yeah, maybe you do too.

The fancy word for this stuck-togetherness is emotional fusion. When fusion is strong in relationships, more of our decisions are influenced by how other people might react (or have reacted). It becomes difficult to know your own mind, what you believe and value. Your choices quickly become about stabilizing the blob instead of following your best thinking.   

The more fusion there is in relationships, the more we tend to treat people like they are ambassadors representing us. You might worry more about your boyfriend’s fashion choices, how your parents act in public, or how well your kid performs in school, because these variables have become a direct measure of your own worth.  

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How We Water Down Our Relationships

This week I’m thinking about all the ways we abandon ourselves to keep our relationships predictable and steady.

In her book Alone Together, psychologist Sherry Turkle wrote, “As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves.”

Turkle is referring to the danger of our online personas, but I’d argue that self-abandonment is hardly a modern phenomenon. People have been changing themselves to please the group since the dawn of time. Most of us can say we’ve changed beliefs to please our families, changed our fashion to match our friends’, or changed a conversation topic to avoid potential conflict.

When our goal is to please others or to avoid upsetting others, our relationships become watered-down versions of themselves.  

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The Quick and Convenient Ways We Abandon Ourselves

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we use quick social comparisons to temporarily boost our mood and functioning. Because in the absence of our own measures, we grasp for the most convenient ones.

I caught myself doing this just last night. Minutes after we had put our daughter to bed, I remembered a story I’d heard about another child’s bizarre sleep schedule. I started to tell husband this story, but then I stopped and thought.

What am I trying to accomplish here? I was trying to boost my mood by comparing my parenting choices to another’s.

Psychologists have studied how upward social comparison can motivate you to achieve more, and downward social comparison can help you feel better about yourself. This is how many people end up mommy-shaming, Internet bullying, and worshipping celebrities. But what gets lost when these strategies become our automatic way of managing our distress or uncertainty?  

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What if your love language. . . is your anxiety language?

Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages has been a constant bestseller for years. People seem to like the idea that the root of marriage problems is a disconnect in how we express love (i.e. one person speaks “words of affirmation” while the other speaks “acts of service”).

Perhaps this is true, but when people come to therapy, I tell them that I’m very interested in learning about their anxiety language. In other words, the automatic ways that relationship systems manage anxiety.

How do you keep things calm in your relationships? How do you expect others to keep you calm? Because you might find there isn’t a disconnect at all—both parties are actively participating in a predictable pattern.

These patterns could look like:

  • One person does too much, and the other lets them.  
  • One person withdraws, and the other anxiously pursues them.
  • Both people insist that it’s the other one who needs to change.
  • Both people worry about/complain about another person (often a child).
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Let People Be in Charge of Themselves

Energy is a precious resource in pandemic life. Most people are worn down, worried, and struggling to do the bare minimum. Yet somehow I still find myself using this scant energy to try and manage the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. This is not surprising, considering it’s what humans do when we get stirred up.    

Recently I was having a conversation with a therapy client who poked fun at his very human desire to have everyone like him. “If I pick a restaurant,” he admitted (referring to pre-pandemic times), “Then I will ask people five times whether they like the food.”

“What a wonderful life goal that would be,” I said. “To be able to enjoy a meal even if other people weren’t completely happy with it. And to let people be in charge of telling you if they didn’t like something.”

We both laughed at this idea, but I think it reflects the challenge of being in relationship with others. We want people to like what we like, think what we think, and do what we do, so we can avoid any discomfort or rejection.

I’ve decided that how much I let people be in charge of themselves is going to be one of the ways I evaluate my functioning this year. Because the more connected you are to someone, the easier it is to treat them like an extension of yourself. When we’re stressed, it’s easy to back away, or to overstep and overfunction. But to be in contact, and to treat that person like a capable individual. . .well that’s a true test of maturity.

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