KEEP CALM and SELF-DIFFERENTIATE
“Anxiety can be reduced in many ways that do not depend on the development of more of a self” (Kerr, & Bowen, 1988, p.127).
There are a multitude of ways to reduce anxiety, we only have to google ‘how to keep calm’ for literally hundreds of thousands of results to pop up: get enough sleep, reduce sugar and alcohol, exercise, meditate, do yoga, do EMDR, eat whole foods, take deep breaths. While all these techniques and practices help with self-regulation, they do not help grow a more mature self.
When people first consult with me, they frequently ask for ‘strategies’ to lower their anxiety and stress. We instinctively think that if we remain calm our problems will diminish. My usual response is that I do not work with symptoms, but rather with the underlying causes of symptoms. If I worked with symptoms I would give people techniques to work with, some of which I practice myself and have confidence in. However, while I think anxiety-reducing practices are complimentary to growing a self, they don’t do the job.
Bowen family systems theory examines the relationship between anxiety and growing a self, this is a complex relationship highlighting in essence, that nothing much is learned from being calmer in the moment if we are not also aware of how we are contributing to the anxiety, how we can assume responsibility for our part, and how we become more able to act on that basis. In short, the aim is not to lower anxiety but to develop more of a self.
Bowen family systems theory is not a theory of mental illness, it is a theory of relationships. From this perspective, anxiety (or any other symptom), is born from a disturbance in the relationship system and therefore must be worked on within the relationship system.
If we do not use the calming effect of self-regulation to think about our values and how we want to behave according to them, then we are not growing a self, we are simply reducing anxiety whilst repeating the same behaviour over and over again the minute we are no longer mindful of calming ourselves down.
How we decide to be our ‘best selves’ is mostly gleaned from observing our interactions with important others in the very moment we interact. This self-observation will quickly reveal how we contribute to the production of anxiety in relationship to others.
A mother realises she raises her voice with her son every time he misspells a word while they do spelling homework together. She goes to bed at night feeling guilty. The guilt guides her decision to be calmer next time around. Some days she can stay calm and others she can’t. When she stays calm she feels good about herself, when she raises her voice she feels bad about herself. She has not yet observed the relationship-dance, how she reacts to her son and how he reacts to her, in a cyclical pattern. She has only paid attention to her physiology and how to calm herself down. In other words, she has been working with the symptoms and not the underlying causes. If she was to work with the underlying causes she would be paying attention to the emotional system her and her son are embedded in and the reciprocity between them, to how and when she reacts, to what she is reacting to exactly (The fact that she perceives her son not to be academic? The whiney tone in his voice? The helpless look in his eyes?). She has not observed how her son’s behaviour impacts her, how that connects to her family of origin, how it sits in the relationship between her and her parents. She has not yet paid attention to the tone in her own voice, the words she uses, and how her behaviour impacts her son.
In working on growing a self she would have to do some thinking about her guiding principles (outside of the heat of the moment): how she wants to respond, what her limits are, when she thinks helping her son is useful and when she thinks it isn’t. She might decide for example she is only willing to help her son with spelling when she doesn’t also have to take her daughter to dance class. This aligns with one of her parenting principles: ‘saying no when I am pressured for time’.
This work of observing what we do when reacting to others, taking time to think through our values and principles, getting clear about how we want to respond, what our part is, and how we want to act accordingly, is not simply the work of calming down. Sure, calming down helps us to think through it all but it does not position ourselves thoughtfully in relationship to others. Taking advantage of self-regulation allows us to do the real work: developing more of a self.