Inside/Outside: Emotional Triangles and Leadership

A Bowen Family Systems Theory Workshop

After “differentiation of self” the concept of the emotional triangle and its applications is widely considered the most important of the eight concepts of Bowen’s theory. This workshop of seven two-hour sessions will study triangles and self-differentiation, their relationship and application for emotional maturity and leadership. This workshop offered by Systems Coaching LLC (W. Thomas Soeldner, coach/consultant) is open to those who have a working knowledge of Bowen Family Systems Theory, and will be limited to the first eight persons who sign up. Sessions will be scheduled every two weeks beginning on Thursday, January 16, 2014, 1:30 p.m., at Salem Lutheran Church, 1428 W Broadway Ave, Spokane, WA, through the first week of April (dates and location for subsequent sessions will be determined by participants at the first session). To express interest in the course or for questions leave a comment below.

The first session will be a thorough review of Bowen’s concept of the emotional triangle, which he called the basic molecule (the smallest basic unit) of any emotional system. The next five sessions will each consist of a short presentation on an aspect of emotional triangles and their relationship to self-differentiation followed by a consideration of case studies brought by participants. The final session will be case study work and a final summary of the triangle and self-differentiation concepts.

Triangles and interlocking triangles are the primary way emotional process is transmitted and stabilized in an emotional system. This concept has particular importance in considering a system’s multi-generational aspects. The triangle concept is usually recognized quickly, even intuitively, by those who study Bowen theory. But real and practical understanding of the concept requires serious study in using this lens for seeing an emotional system and its operation as well as for recognizing one’s own part in a system.

In addition to the core theory of emotional triangles the workshop will consider the regulatory function of triangles, the use of triangles for increasing one’s differentiation of self, multi-generational triangles and unresolved emotional attachment, triangles in marriage and extramarital relationships, the basics of detriangling, and mental construct triangles in society.

Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” Through a Bowen Systems Lens

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010, 2011 W. W. Norton & Co.) by Nicholas Carr is a thoughtful and well-documented study of how the negative side effects of the Internet encourage us to reassess the value of its advantages. Carr acknowledges the usefulness of the Internet, which provides us with an array of information as wide as the ocean, but he demonstrates that such access trades intellectual depth and contemplation, those things which most distinguish us as human, for “the shallows.” Carr quotes playwright Richard Foreman, who says we risk turning into “pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button” (p. 196).

You may or may not agree with Carr, but the book and its argument are worth your attention and response. Those of you who have been engaged by Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) may have some responses to the book related to your understanding of self-differentiation and emotional health. I will respond to two aspects of Carr’s work with some reflections on them that grow out of my understanding of BFST.

Please understand, what I share here does not cover the range and application of Carr’s argument, nor does it even do full justice to those parts that I address. Therefore, I encourage you to read the book and draw your own conclusions. I invite you to consider two important aspects of his argument that I think offer grist for the BFST mill.

Number one, Carr says that the Internet has returned us to our “natural state of distractedness,” i.e. the state we knew before the development of reading, writing, and books. Our human ancestors had to shift their attention all of the time in order to survive. Carr laments that the Internet presents us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with, seizing our attention “only to scatter it” (p. 118).

Prolonged and solitary thought, Carr suggests, is an aberration in intellectual history that emerged with the technology of the printed page. “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object….[People] had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another. They had to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter their instinctive distractedness, applying greater ‘top-down control’ over their attention” (p. 64). A book requires sustained thoughtfulness rather than simply emotional or physical reactivity. In addition, I propose, a book invites a reader to a thoughtful determination of who he/she is in relation to the text; it invites a reflective self-differentiation which then may get exercised beyond the pages of the book. The Internet, on the other hand, is a medium of distractions which invites us to react, and usually without much thought and to be all things to all people. It does not encourage thoughtful self-definition and emotional self-regulation.

At this point, some may suggest that the book-like digital technology of an e-reader would qualify as “book,” and in some regards that is so, at least for those who persevere with the text. But let me suggest that e-readers offer their own forms of distraction, i.e. digital tools that move one easily and enticingly away from the text and the flow of the book’s subject to the tool itself. In addition, e-readers do not provide the physical actions and sensory stimuli of holding and turning the pages of a book or magazine. Ample research has suggested that the cognitive act of reading a book draws on our sense of touch as well as sight. There is a link in our brains between the material sensory-motor experience and the cognitive processing of the text that influences the degree of attention we devote to the text and the degree to which we are immersed in it.

Number two, and in my mind more significant, Carr notes that the depth of our intelligence depends upon “our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas” (p. 124). Typically working memory is able to process just two to four pieces of information at any given time. These information elements vanish from working memory if they are not rehearsed regularly. Information coming into working memory, i.e. cognitive load, is limited for us. And if not transferred into long-term memory information in working memory is lost and not available for drawing connections and new insights.

High cognitive load amplifies distractions, because our ability to maintain attention depends on working memory. When our working memory is overloaded, any distraction becomes more distracting. As we reach the limits of working memory it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from the irrelevant, signal from noise. “We become mindless consumers of data” (p. 125). What determines what we remember and what we forget is attentiveness.

Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory. ‘For a memory to persist,’ writes [biologist Eric Kandel], ‘the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.’ If we’re unable to attend to the information in our working memory, the information lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge—a few seconds at best. Then it’s gone, leaving little or no trace in the mind” (p. 193).

“The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it also makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted—to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. … Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stories may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.

“The changes in our brains happen automatically, outside the narrow compass of our consciousness, but that doesn’t absolve us from responsibility for the choices we make. One thing that sets us apart from other animals is the command we have been granted over our attention. ‘Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,’ said the novelist David Foster Wallace … ‘It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.’ To give up that control is to be left with ‘the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’”(p. 194).

Already in the 1950’s and ’60’s Marshall McLuhan observed technology’s numbing effect. Carr suggests we see it already in Psalm 115 of the Hebrew scriptures in terms of a much earlier “technology.”

      “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.  They have             mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not     hear; noses, but do not smell.  They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but         do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.  Those who make them       are like them; so are all who trust in them.

The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation” (p. 211). Mechanical clocks compromised our sense of nature’s flow of time. Maps weakened our ability to comprehend a landscape and develop a mental perception of our surroundings, and GPS devices dramatically reduce our geographic knowledge base, not to mention our brains’ capacities. The toll can be particularly high with intellectual technologies. The tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities—those for reason, perception, memory, emotion” (ibid). Technologies numb the very faculties they amplify, to the point even of “autoamputation” (McLuhan). Technologies change our relationship to the world—almost always alienating us from it.

There is no question that we are being molded by our new information environment and new technologies. Many of these adaptations are good and well-suited to our circumstances. However, we should consider the perils as well. Martin Heidegger warned of the “frenziedness of technology.” Carr wonders if “we are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls” (p. 222) “What matters in the end is not our becoming but what we become,” says Carr (ibid). He thinks Stanley Kubrick’s dark prophecy in 2001 Space Odyssey might have been spot on: “… as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence” (p. 224).

In reading Carr I was reminded of Dr. Edwin Friedman‘s thoughts on how the proliferation of information can paralyze one in making decisions. He suggested that the search for information has become something like an addiction, or “a form of substance abuse.” In A Failure of Nerve (1999, 2007, The Friedman Trust) Friedman said:

As long as leaders … base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever. … data gathering in a society oriented toward pathology [rather than strength - WTS] eventually winds up, like the very nature of pathology, as a process that is unable to set limits on itself. In contrast, … the categories of strength are well defined [by EF in this book – WTS], and the pursuit of information in this area promotes the self-differentiation necessary for harnessing the data deluge.

“Developing new criteria for judging the importance of information, therefore, is not a matter of changing one’s ‘database.’ What is required is a fundamental reorientation of our thinking processes, one that allows leaders to evaluate information in the context of emotional variables, along with the leader’s self-differentiation. Ultimately, the capacity of leaders to distinguish what information is important depends less on the development of new techniques for sorting data [or for accumulating more of it – WTS] than on a leader’s ability to avoid being driven by the regressive anxiety that is often the source of the unregulated data proliferation to begin with” (p. 97).

Subsequently Friedman asks,

Could contemporary American society’s ‘fix’ on data and technique in the denial of emotional process and personal being actually affect the way the pathways of our brains will evolve? And is it too far-fetched to assume that a civilization that teaches its leaders to rely on data rather than maturity would also produce a similar evolutionary change that is transmitted to the next generation? … What will be the effect on the brains or nervous systems of succeeding generations who have been nurtured in a civilization where its leaders have become addicted to data as a way of avoiding the problems of maturing?” (pp. 116-17).

And we might add: What will be the effect on the brains of individuals for whom distraction is the modus operandi for information gathering? And ultimately what will be their effect on their culture and society? New technologies have always shaped our culture both positively and negatively. It is important for us to consider both sides of the changes.

In BFST “differentiation” refers to the ability to be in emotional contact with others and yet maintain ones individuality, i.e. be autonomous in one’s emotional functioning (Kerr and Bowen, “Family Evaluation,” 1988, p. 145n). It is the capacity for a person to be self-defined and emotionally self-regulated in relationship with others and to be thoughtful and calm in the face of anxiety, particularly the anxiety which arises from the demands of close (most often family) relationships. I suggest that the Internet discourages–not prevents, but discourages and undermines–self-differentiation. It promotes and values a flood of information and a glut of the opinions and values of others. It encourages us either to adopt its propositions and values (speed, exposure, self-disclosure) or to react to them without much thought. We tend to become one of a largely mindless crowd or dedicated reactionaries. Both betray a lack of self-differentiation.

I understand that to suggest a relationship between Carr’s concerns about the Internet and its relationship to Bowen’s central concept of self-differentiation raises as many questions as it answers. The questions are likely the most valuable contributions for those who use the BFST lens on life and relationships. In what ways does the Internet and its distractions impact ones efforts at self-differentiation? Would the Internet’s use differ for a well-differentiated person as compared with its use by one who was not well-differentiated? Does the Internet’s focus on information facilitate or hamper wise decision-making? Does the Internet make us more, or less, human? What effect should we expect on relationships within families, and ultimately within societies, when the usual mode of communication is tweeting, texting, and Facebook posting?

It Is (Is Not) All About You

We have all experienced somebody who regales us with non-stop comment either on their achievements or on their problems. And we would like to, and perhaps do occasionally, have the spunk to say, You know, it’s not all about you.”

Life, or for that matter any particular situation in it, is not only about you, or about any one person. We are part of endless systems, most clearly the family or caregivers who raised us from birth to adolescence, but also many other human systems consisting of schoolmates or church friends or work colleagues. All have played a role in who we are, how we respond to others, and how we react to stress or success. Many continue to have a role in our response to daily events and challenges throughout our lives.

I am sure that my mother was proud of me and my accomplishments. And yet, if I raised opinions or conclusions from my study or experience which challenged her closely held conservative political or religious views, she would frequently dismiss them, and me, with something like, “O Tom, you don’t know what you are talking about.” For many years I felt anxious around people who would argue with me about matters in which I had a considerable advantage in education and experience. My emotional reaction was not “all about me,” any more than was my mother’s response to me only about her. We are all products of our lives with others, especially our families, and the emotional affects of our past interaction with them is always present. Our past is never really past.

On the other hand, dealing with a past that continues to live in my reactions in the present is “all about me,” as addressing your reactions is “all about you.” The emotional inheritance I have from past relationships, especially those of my family of origin, will continue with me throughout my life and will exert its influence. However, the degree to which that influence is determinative of my emotionality or behavior today depends on my recognition of it, my ability to define myself as I choose, and my persistence in living out that definition.

So I recognize that my mother grew up in the household of very traditional parents in which gender roles were closely circumscribed and with a father who was a conservative Lutheran pastor. My mother and her sister, despite the fact that they were intelligent and made high marks through high school, were required to go to work in order to help pay for the higher education of their four brothers. Even after marriage the two sisters never were completely fulfilled as “homemakers.” They knew as much and were as competent as their brothers … and husbands and sons, by the way … though they did not have the educational advantage of the family males.

I also recognize that I grew up disappointed that my mother seldom acknowledged the intellectual growth I was proud of. So when I run into others who question informed decisions I make or carefully considered positions I take it is up to me to decide whether I allow the emotional residue of the relationship I had with my mother to keep me stuck in reactivity, or whether I will respond to such detractors by being self-defined and self-regulated.

My emotional reactivity is not all about me; it grows most clearly out of the experience of relationships with family during my childhood and adolescence. But how I deal with that emotional inheritance today is all about me and my willingness and ability to develop a well-defined presence that is able to regulate emotional reactivity when it arises. We are an emotional product of our families of origin, but we need not be entirely determined by them. Through the hard work of being present and well-defined with our families and others we can forge our own emotional identity today, and subsequently find ourselves healthier and at peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and the world in general.

Bowen Family System’s Theory (BFST) provides a natural, constructive, and scientific way of seeing our lives and relationships, and it offers a holistic and systematic way both of addressing the relational issues that challenge us and of building on the strengths that support us. BFST is neither technique nor magic. It is a way of seeing, a way of understanding, and so finally a way of growing healthier in our relationships.

Relationship Anxiety & Lowered Immunity

Check out the link below for an interesting article on the relationship between relationship anxiety and lowered immunity, i.e. increasing vulnerability to illness.  It is a reminder of the importance of self-differentiation and self-regulation in the context of our most important relationships.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130211110847.htm?goback=%2Egde_1050447_member_213419600

Societal Regression and Leadership

I have been trying to make sense of the nonsensical policy debates and public statements with which we are bombarded these days. “Nonsensical” not because the issues are unimportant—many are vital issues with a critical impact on society—but because so many of the arguments make no sense at all. And I have been trying to discern what my job is in the midst of this confusion.

There is a very interesting quotation of Ed Friedman which has made it onto the Internet at a number of places. It resonates with leaders who seek to motivate or change the mind of other people. I remember Friedman saying something like it on one or a number of occasions when I was present, but I have not been able to find a published source for it.

The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to hear you when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

I offer it here because I think it addresses the natural inclinations and frustrations of many in the face of the foolishness (and often serious damage) produced by the societal regression we have been experiencing in the United States. Murray Bowen described societal regression as a society’s loss of the ability to cope with change. He said it is characterized by a chronic anxiety developed as a society is overwhelmed by the quantity and speed of change at a time when the institutions and leaders traditionally used to absorb such anxiety are no longer available. Regression, i.e. emotional regression, is one way of dealing with anxiety, albeit a counter-productive way. I think the character of our public policy debates is strong evidence of such regression.

You may argue that rather than being in regression our society is in its greatest period of scientific and technological progress. But regression doesn’t mean going back scientifically or historically. It means going down.” There may still be “progress,” i.e. impressive development, in a society, but to the extent that a society is in emotional regression such development will be put in service to emotional immaturity. In many ways technological and scientific developments have allowed people to be less mature emotionally.

The signs of societal regression are the same as those in chronically anxious families: reactivity that trumps the instinctual drive toward self-regulation; irrational arguments sustained by emotional appeal; herding that calls people to adapt to weakness, i.e. to the crowd and its pressures to embrace togetherness rather than self-definition; scapegoating or blame displacement which is a refusal to take responsibility in the face of challenge; a quick-fix mentality that refuses to allow time for processes to mature and situations to be clarified; and the failure Friedman so strongly emphasized, the failure of nerve in leadership which involves all of the above.

Eventually societal institutions pick up the anxiety (reactivity/herding/blaming, etc.) of people and families, and magnify it. Public media are particularly good at such magnification. The media don’t cause problems/anxiety; they amplify it. They tend to focus on pathology in society rather than on strength, and in response to pathology on the search for certainty and security.

Regressive societies and their leaders will always focus on information, technique, and security. Safety and the reduction of mistakes are the greatest goods. In this sort of climate challenge and adventure are casualties. Mistakes are acceptable in the context of adventure; we learn from them. But mistakes are magnified and punished in the context of safety.

Societies, like families, in regression tend to bind their anxieties around certain individuals—almost always either the most responsible or the most vulnerable person or group in the system—or around certain issues. Note how the President is blamed (or praised) for almost everything: he appears to be responsible for everything from grandma’s lack of medical insurance to wars around the world. At other times it is immigrants or a minority or welfare recipients (the vulnerable) who are spotlighted.

Ed Friedman said that one knows that a society is in emotional regression when society becomes so anxious that the toddler is in charge. These days there is evidence of “the toddler in charge” in most every news cycle. Friedman suggested that the vital question for us is “How does one get distance or perspective to reduce anxiety?” The issue is not how we convince others of our wisdom, or of a particular course of action, but rather, how we can get perspective, define ourselves, and then regulate our behavior in terms of that perspective and self-definition. Friedman again, “Insight is being aware of self in relation to one’s environment.”

So what is a leader to do in the face of a regressive and disoriented society? A leader’s first job is always to understand her/himself. That involves knowing where one has come from, i.e. the context, relationships, and challenges in one’s family of origin. It also involves a clarity about one’s identity and commitments and a willingness to articulate and live them out consistently. This will require a leader to take some time outside the emotional climate of the day, i.e. to allow her/himself a context within which to see things differently. A leader needs a sense of where she/he begins and ends and of her/his distinction from others. Of course, this means leaders will be “exposed and vulnerable.” In fact, Friedman says, “Leaders must not only not be afraid of that position; they must come to love it.” Leaders require “persistence in the face of resistance” and “stamina in the face of sabotage” (A Failure of Nerve, p.188-89).

A leader’s primary effect has to do with his/her presence and how that presence affects the emotional processes in the systems he/she leads. That presence is an outgrowth of how the leader understands him/herself and takes responsibility for his/her words and actions. A leader is responsible for his/her own functioning in a system, not for that of others. For a leader to take responsibility for the functioning and relationships of others is to take on the kind of stress that finally undermines his/her leadership even as it compromises his/her health. Communication depends upon the “emotional context,” as I noted above, and its variables of direction, distance, and anxiety.

I know there are some, perhaps many, leaders who believe that they are called to speak a particular word that will bring clarity to our national or local malaise. There are a great many who have tried and have found in the trying great disappointment and frustration. Others think it is a matter of finding new techniques for our time. And still others believe that some special action or a mass movement will bring society and its disparate population, or their particular portion of it, out of this regression. I would like to be able to offer such formula for healthy change, but there are no easy answers, new or old.

Societal health or the health of any organization is a function of a much more complicated systemic landscape. It does not depend upon charisma, how-to manuals, political deal-making, or leaders who depend on them. The closest we can come to an effective intentional force for societal and organizational health is leaders who know themselves, define themselves, and regulate their emotional reactivity. Such healthy leaders will be persistent in the face of opposition and have stamina in the face of sabotage. Healthy leaders will be able to get enough distance from their systems to observe and make objective judgments while staying connected with those they lead. Such leaders will open the door to increasing health for organizations over time—the extended time that it almost always requires—and eventually, I trust, for the societies those healthy leaders and their organizations serve.

What do you think? What are the questions this raises for you?

Pastors (other leaders too) & Health

In an article dated October 22, 2012, written for the Christian Century under the title “Fit for Ministry” Amy Frykholm reports on recent research by the Clergy Health Initiative (CHI) funded by the Duke Endowment. The article, if not the CHI, tends to lay the blame for poor clergy health on the job rather than pastors, who are portrayed as poorly differentiated servants to the expectations of others. While CHI “believes that the motivation for changing behavior must come from the pastor” the head researcher suggests that the one cultural change that would make the most difference for clergy health would be a shift in “the way that congregants think about their pastor.”

The article is peppered with comments offered in support of its conclusion, e.g. “The schedule of church work is clearly an impediment to clergy health.” “…eating is a major part of doing one’s job.” Clergy see their work as divinely ordained, and so think that “whenever they act on behalf of their congregations, they are living in faithfulness to their vocations.” “Self-determination is impeded on several levels.” “Decisions about what and how much to eat or when to exercise often seem outside a minister’s control” (emphasis mine).

Here we have the wrong-headedness of a church (and society) in regression. The primary problem is that the vast majority of clergy depend on others, from congregations to communities to church authorities, to define them. Without clear self-definition, and then self-regulation, i.e. regulation of their anxiety, in the face of attempts to sabotage their self-definition, clergy will inevitably experience increased stress and with it vulnerability to the multiplicity of health problems that attend it.

The culture of congregations with its ingrained expectations of pastors is a product of congregations’ founding leaders, primarily founding clergy. Change in such culture will only come when new clergy leaders clearly define themselves differently, and persevere over an extended period of years in that definition in the face of congregational and judicatory sabotage of their efforts. The culture was not installed in a day, and it will not be changed quickly. Nor will it be changed without a change in the behavior of clergy.

The nutritional components, stress management programs, and wellness advocates advised by the article are sensible and helpful in the context of the development of self-differentiated leaders. Otherwise, such efforts are only band-aids, i.e. temporary and superficial treatments, on the deadly institutional cancer of poorly self-defined and poorly self-regulated leadership. Being a pastor is bad for one’s health only if pastors allow it to be.

Of course, pastors would do well to seek assistance on the road to self-differentiation and the health and well-being it affords. None of us is free of the inclination to be and do what others want us to be and do at least some of the time, and most of us are expert at fooling ourselves about our own capacities. Pastors need people (colleagues, coaches, friends) who will regularly keep them honest and ask the questions that direct them to their own resources and the development of them. Self-differentiation is hard work; it is the task of an entire life. And that work does not end with retirement. As a matter of fact, it is just as important for one’s well-being at that point as ever it was in one’s working life. “Being fit for ministry” is only a small slice of the larger task of being “fit for life.”

Finally, any non-pastors who may read this, instead of “pastor” read “leader.” It is all true of you, whatever your vocational leadership, as well.

The Fall (and Everyday) Project

As clergy and other leaders are considering a return to regular organizational schedules and a busier time in the Fall, they would do well to remember Michael Kerr’s words (Kerr and Bowen, Family Evaluation. 1988. Page 93.)                 “The higher the level of differentiation of people in a family or a social group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one another’s welfare, and stay in adequate contact during stressful as well as calm periods. The lower the level of differentiation, the more likely the family, when stressed, will regress to selfish, aggressive, and avoidance behaviors; cohesiveness, altruism, and cooperativeness will break down.” (Note this is true for social groups like a family or a working group within a business, school, or public office.)

Ronald Richardson reminded me of this in his recent book, Polarization and the Healthier Church: Applying Bowen Family Systems Theory to Conflict and Change in Society and Congregational Life. (2012) It is an excellent resource for leaders during what we all know to be times of significant polarization in our society.

In your preparation for the Fall consider your personal goals, and then find ways (and perhaps a coach, whether formal or informal) to help you through the inevitable challenges to accomplishing those goals. Let your health and peace of mind be at the top of your list. Here are a few health-promoting goals you might consider in the face of the increased polarization you will be facing.

  • Work to lower your level of anxiety. Plan and take time for meditation, relaxation, rest. You are first of all responsible for yourself and for your inner peace. If you are healthy in that way, there is a good chance others will find their anxiety lowered as well.
  • Consider and articulate for yourself your core principles, beliefs, and convictions; be prepared to share them with others as opportunities arise. That is, know yourself and share that self.
  • Live out your principles. There are ideas and plans and schedules that may call for compromise; principles do not. Principles may be reconsidered, but don’t confuse thoughtful reconsideration with the insistence of desire or the pressure from opposition.
  • Don’t criticize the beliefs of others. Rather, be ready to state your convictions. Be more thoughtful about your position and more accepting of the positions of others.
  • Don’t become involved in emotional debate if/when others react to your stating and living out your principles, i.e. regulate your reactivity. Watch out for sabotage, and when it comes stay focused on yourself and be ready to reaffirm your convictions. Be thoughtful, not reactive.

The only thing you can change positively in ways that will endure is yourself. Stay connected with others, but define only your self. The higher your level of self-differentiation (self-definition and -regulation), the higher will be, over time, the self-differentiation of the system you are a part of, ala the Kerr quote I began with.