Seeing anxiety at work.
The challenge for many of us is being able to see anxiety operating in relationships. There is a back and forth that goes on as anxiety is passed from one to another. It’s as if there are channels between us through which anxiety travels. I have an energy ball I use from time to time to teach kids about the important connections of community. The ball is small and has two metal tabs on the top with a very small battery on the inside. I ask the kids to hold hands in a circle, completing a circuit. I then ask the last two kids on either side of the ball to touch the tabs with a finger. With the circuit complete, the ball lights up and makes a sound. I once had a whole congregation, about 200 people, do this exercise and it worked!
I’ve come to see this experiment as an example of anxiety. There is an anxious “charge” (however unnoticeable) that flows from person to person. Like the energy ball, anxiety flows from things like tone of voice, the expressions on the face, gestures with the body, and posture. As each person senses the anxiety in others there are automatic ways they either absorb the anxiety or pass it along. As in the example of the energy ball, anxiety can be passed along from one person to the next, but it takes a system of relationships to complete the circuit.
It takes time to be able to see the flow of anxiety in a relationship system. Like the energy ball, the flow of anxiety can seem invisible. What’s required is the ability to step out of the emotional field of anxiety.
Getting out of town.
I recently drove out of town for an all-day event. On the way home, I noticed something different. For several days my thinking had been cloudy; what I would describe as reactive to others. I just wasn’t at my best. At some level, I was aware that my struggle had to do with other people. I had been under some stress at work, and there were some changes taking place in the family.
As I drove home, I experienced clarity of thought. I suddenly found creative solutions to problems I had been struggling with for days. My thinking was freer. It lasted most of the drive home.
But then, as I drove into town, I watched my thinking become fuzzy again. I was able to recall the solutions I had come up with just hours before, but now I had less confident about them. Dr. Murray Bowen describes a similar process as he recounted his time at Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas.
“I noticed that when I was away on trips I was much clearer and more objective about work relationships, and that the objectivity was lost on returning to work. After it was first noticed, I made more careful observations of the phenomenon. The objective could come by the time the plan was an hour away. On return, the objectivity would be lost as I went through the front door returning to work. It was as if the emotional system “closed in” as I entered the building.” Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, page 485.
There is something to be said about getting out of town. Not in the sense of needing a vacation, but to be able to think more clearly outside the emotional constraints of a relationship system, whether it’s a congregation or a family.
Mindfulness and Differentiation
The Center for Family Consultation hosted a conference on mindfulness. The purpose was to explore the relationship between current day research on mindfulness and the theoretical concept and application of differentiation of self posited by Dr. Bowen. Mindfulness and differentiation of self are not the same things. While it’s possible for those who work on differentiation of self to experience something like mindfulness, those who practice mindfulness are not necessarily working on differentiation of self.
Mindfulness is an effort to create a state of awareness. As one begins to work on differentiation, there is an initial effort to become more aware of one’s internal responses to others and how others respond to you. Differentiation is acting on new levels of awareness as one moves towards individuality to counterbalance the forces for togetherness. Mindfulness does not automatically lead to differentiation.
When used as an effort for differentiation, mindfulness is one way temporarily to step out of the tension in a relationship system. If one can’t get out of town, meditating and developing a sense of awareness are alternatives. Finding space at work or at home to practice a mindfulness technique can help one step outside of the emotional process long enough to activate thinking in the brain.
But just as Bowen noted in his example of leaving town and coming back, the real work of differentiation is being able to sustain a thinking oriented mindset while engaging the relationship system. How long can one maintain thinking while surrounded by anxious others? What does it take to engage thinking when one is anxious? Mindfulness meditation, getting out of town, neurofeedback, and other efforts can increase awareness. But it is the effort to be more of a self, a thinking self, in the presence of anxious others that distinguishes differentiation from other approaches.
I’ve discovered that I’m at my best when my thinking is engaging the thinking of others. It may require me to set aside intentional time to think about how to approach a relationship system that stirs my anxiety and reactivity. But it is not until I engage the relationship system in a different way that I begin to make lasting shifts from being reactive to becoming more thoughtful.
How to tell the difference between reactivity and thinking.
The best advice I give is to think systems. I’ve been at this work for over 13 years, and I still get caught up in reactivity, struggling to be a good thinker. I find it useful to distinguishing between those times when I’m thinking and when I’m reacting to anxiety. How does one tell the difference and what leads to clear thinking as one gets outside of the relationship system? The answer varies from person to person. One knows it when they think it. A good coach can show the way.