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In Defense of Introspection, Part 2

In Defense of IntrospectionAll families are happy alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

-Leo Tolstoy

Last month, I wrote about the common factors that contribute to our experience of the world and our relationships. Though this does not always necessarily mean they are bad or wrong, a lot of us have not taken the time to really look inward and ask ourselves the tough questions.

Which makes sense.

We act and think the way we are because it has served a purpose for us - it has helped us make it through a difficult situation, or ease our anxiety, or comfort us when we were lonely. Last month, the discussion was primarily around how these reactions to our experiences can lead to certain patterns and actions in life that are destructive. It makes intuitive sense that if you were to experience abuse in relationships, your existing relationships likely suffer from certain false beliefs or patterns that developed out of that.

But what if you had a “normal” life?

I was talking to a friend about some of the things bothering him and at one point he stopped and said, “It would almost be easier if I had grown up in a broken family, with tons of really bad things that happened to me - then I could explain why I struggle so much more directly.” He was expressing what a lot of us can often feel: do I really have a good enough reason to feel the way I feel? Was my life really bad enough to warrant what I think?

A couple of telling pieces of this kind of thought process:

  • You actually had a pretty decent upbringing without any major trauma but have less understanding of yourself.
  • You had some experiences that were difficult, but so does everybody else - that’s life! - but you fail to acknowledge your pain.
  • You had significant and traumatic experiences but have rationalized that you deserved them/or they were so out of control you cannot even think about why they happened. In doing so, you have internalized this into shame.

There are obviously other options here and you could come from some combination of the above...but it remains true for all of us: in the stories we have lived, there is no baseline metric that dictates whether it was adequate enough to merit our pain.

Another way to say it: if you have pain that was formative from experiences that others would maybe classify as “not that big of a deal” or “pretty normal” - that pain is still there. And more importantly, if that pain gets in the way of you connecting in healthy relationships, or seeing yourself in a healthy way - then it is a big deal.

The Power of Group Therapy

One way to tune into these dynamics is through how you experience people and how they experience you. This is the brilliance of group therapy.

When 8-10 individuals sign up for group therapy and meet in a room with the therapist, a microcosm of society is formed. If you have a difficult time with negative emotions in your daily life, you are going to have an especially hard time sitting across from someone in the group expressing a negative emotion. If you tend to act as a caretaker for people’s emotions, you are going to run to a group member's aid when they express sadness, trying to soothe their pain regardless of whether or not it is needed.

It is fascinating and terrifying to watch. It often begins outside of the group’s awareness, but slowly (and this is the effectiveness of group therapy) individuals start to experience each other and honestly talk about it - and insight begins.

But let’s say you don’t have time or interest in joining a therapy group, what does this mean for you?

Becoming Aware of Your Relational Patterns

The way you relate with people comes from the experiences you had growing up. The pains you experienced as a child in your attempts at intimacy are the same pains you act out of as an adult. It’s not always a one-for-one relationship, and there are a lot of factors, like the ones I wrote about last month, but without really processing the depth of our relational brokenness we will continue to act in the archaic patterns of our youth.

I may have lost some of you - don’t get caught up in Freudian lingo about youthful urges - what I’m talking about is those of you who would otherwise claim a “normal” upbringing. Even healthy individuals struggle with emotions and relationships due to the learned patterns of their upbringing...and one of the best ways to see where these struggles exist is to see how others experience you.

To illustrate: Married couples have conflict. The source of these conflicts can range from serious infidelity to someone never putting their dishes in the dishwasher after they use them. Our reactions in these moments come from our learned ways of dealing with conflict and pain. That is why some couples struggle with seemingly “small” issues and others don’t ever lose their cool even when something egregious has happened.

Let's say you grew up in a house where your parents gave you everything you needed, assured you that you were safe and loved. But when dad comes home late, you can see mom getting upset with him. He shuts down, does not engage in the argument, and instead sits down to watch TV. What did you just learn as an 8-year-old? You could have learned that, like your dad, conflict is not worth it - it’s best to shut down and avoid it. You could have learned by watching your mom that you have to really go after someone in order to get them to hear you.

As you age, you may say things like, “I don’t want to repeat my parents' mistakes” or the opposite, “My parents had a good marriage." Either way, you are reacting to what you have learned and begin establishing these patterns in your relationship. Your husband comes home late and you think about your mom’s reactions and fear becoming her so you stay silent, hoping he will address it. Or, he comes home late and knowing that your mom could never get through to your dad, you decide to make sure your husband knows he’s in the wrong by going on the offensive even more severely than your mom.

And we’re only talking about one person and their learned patterns in this scenario - see how it gets complicated when you have another person reacting in this scenario with their learned patterns?

Those of you who had this “normal” life, without any major problems, still learned certain lessons as you watched your family interact (or not interact). How much sense can be made by an 8-10 year old as they witness conflict happening/not happening, being resolved/not resolved? Not much. And unfortunately a lot of those things we learned go unchallenged - affecting all of our relationships.

In order to understand some of these patterns ask yourself:

  • When there was conflict in my family, what role did I play in it?
    • ”I don’t remember any conflict…”
    • ”I tried to lighten the mood, make people laugh, distract…”
    • ”I got involved even if it wasn’t mine, I escalated it…”
    • ”I avoided it at all costs and pretended it wasn’t there…”
  •  When I got in trouble, what was my reaction? And what was I looking for by having this reaction?
    • ”I shut down...I felt so terrible and hated that I made a mistake...”
    • ”I escalated it until I got my way...I really wanted them to pay me more attention...”
    • ”I was passive-aggressive and pretended to be sorry...I really wanted them to hurt too…”
  • What did I want relationally that I didn’t have growing up?
    • ”I never had a best friend…”
    • ”I wanted my parents to communicate their love more directly...”
    • ”I wanted more boundaries instead of being able to get away with everything..."
    • ”I wanted my parents to respect my boundaries instead of constantly running over me…”

There are hundreds of other questions you can ask, but the point is to begin understanding what you learned in your family and how that plays out in relationships today. Sometimes people get hung up on the fact that their parents never argued in front of them, always gave them what they needed, and never yelled at them or shamed them. I get it. Not every family has huge skeletons in the closet, but you still learned something from even those experiences that stayed with you into adulthood. You approach relationships in similar patterns. You expect the same things from others that you got in your family. You are hurt when you experience something else that feels foreign.

Lastly, in order to discover some of these patterns, one of the most helpful tools to illustrate it is a genogram. Pioneered by Murray Bowen, genograms are a more detailed version of a family tree. The genogram gives an individual or couple the ability to chart out not only what has happened in the family (“Uncle Ned divorced Aunt Betty in 1993”) - but also the relational dynamics that have been passed down from generation to generation (“Aunt Betty never spoke to the family again, which meant we never saw our cousins again, which influenced how my parents interacted with us and focused more attention on us, which meant…”)

Because we lived these patterns, to a certain degree they feel normal to us. But as you begin to understand your role in the patterns and how the influence of what you learned impacts you now, you can begin to discover some of the relational pieces of your identity that are broken.

The work then is about identifying what patterns get in the way of relating authentically and intimately with others, and challenging those pieces with people you trust and love. This is not easy work! But it is important work, and the kind of work that takes us to a deeper level of intimacy with one another, allowing for lasting connection.