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.

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2 responses to “It Is (Is Not) All About You

  1. Agreed–but as we were saying the other night over dinner, it’s when we are feeling most challenged or annoyed or impatient that we revert to our old default settings and reactivity.

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  2. Wonderful post…our present is informed by our past indeed. It is up to us to carve a bit of individuality out of all the togetherness built up through the multigenerational family story!

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