Growing Yourself Up by Jenny Brown
Who’s Willing To Work At Growing Up?
What was the moment for you where you were just like a kid again on your summer holidays? I don’t mean in a gloriously liberated way, I mean in a totally immature way. Where you lost it and said things you shouldn’t have said. Or when you stayed silent and agreed to go along with a plan while inside you were seething. Or where you were confronted with the relationship that always stays in the same pattern of unbalance and awkwardness, leaving you frustrated that things aren’t different. What were the moments you wish you could snatch back? The words you wish you could reel in and undo. Or the words you long to have the courage to say. Keep those moments in mind then as we open this book together.
What I particularly love here in Jenny Brown’s Growing Yourself Up is that the hard moments are the time for real work. It’s in those moments, if you can get a purchase on your awareness, that you have the opportunity to show some self-control. Or courage or wisdom. Or simply have faith and clarity of thought to try a more mature way of relating.
The Only Person I Can Change Is Me
It’s easy to read a self help book and think, “I need to get this into the hands of my husband / friend / mother / adolescent daughter”. However Brown quotes Harriet Lerner, “The only person we can change and control is our own self.” And you might have heard that before but have you also wondered why we persist in wishing others would change for us? Lerner continues,“Changing our own self can feel so threatening and difficult that it is often easier to continue an old pattern of silent withdrawal or ineffective fighting and blaming.” (p.11)
So, if you can relate to any of that, and are feeling ready to try to change some of those old unhelpful ‘stuck’ patterns, this book is for you.
A Christian Self-Help Book?
Jenny Brown is a counsellor and psychologist who also happens to be a Christian. This is not a Christian book per se, it’s a self-help book. The Christianity in it is gentle and softly explained so far as it gives background to Brown’s own efforts at ‘growing herself up’. But beyond that it’s extremely respectful of different beliefs and is a book that any thinking person who wants to work on their personal maturity can benefit from. If you are wondering why this book has been particularly embraced by the Christian community I would say that it’s due to the connection between theology and life. We can understand what the Bible has to say about all kinds of relationships and stages of life but still miss the practical fundamentals of how that might play out in our own circumstances and the ways in which we’ve become stuck.
This book takes in the whole sweep of what it means to grow up at the various stages of life: from childhood, to leaving home and establishing yourself as an independent adult. It contains ideas for embracing singleness, through to the challenges of marriage, surviving crisis such as separation and divorce, illness, midlife and old age. It’s a book that’s worth reading and working through and having on the shelf to return to at different stages.
What Exactly Is The Theory Here?
I come to this book with a good degree of skepticism and ambivalence around psychology aware that trends come and go. I also come to this book knowing the enormous benefit good counselling and psychology has had on me personally when I was first married and coping with that transition and to my parents following the death of their teenage son. I can see that done well, counselling and therapy can make a really positive difference.
Brown’s book is set in the context of Bowen theory. Bowen was not a Christian but truth is still truth, as Augustine said, wherever it is found and Brown believes his theory to be extremely helpful. She writes:
Most theories of mental health categorise people into types of illness, with non-symptomatic people deemed to be healthy: you either have a diagnosis or you don’t. Bowen theory doesn’t see emotional health in terms of illness categories. It views all humans as sitting on a continuum from relatively high differentiation of self, with pretty good functioning, down to low differentiation of self, with collapsed functioning. (p. 174)
There is a fair bit of technical language here which will take some unpacking. At its most basic, the term ‘high differentiation of self’ is where a person can separate their thoughts from their feelings. ‘Undifferentiated people’ can’t separate feelings and thoughts. When asked to think, ‘an undifferentiated person’ is flooded with feelings and has difficulty thinking and responding logically. If you stop to think of yourself for a moment in a high pressure scenario - think of those ‘summer holiday immaturity snapshots’ for example - you can see that all of us will have times where we struggle to separate emotions from thoughts. Bowen theory brings another layer of complexity to this definition by adding the idea of family systems and the way each person’s family system will have embedded within it certain ways of behaving and relating that promote the survival of the family. People with ‘high differentiation of self’ will be able to ‘balance their emotions and their intellect, and to balance their need to be attached with their need to be a separate self.’ (p.5) How well were you going in those moments at separating your feelings from your thoughts and standing up for yourself despite a strong pull for unity from the family dynamic? It’s quite a big definition to hold together but it gives a very helpful way of getting to the heart of our problems. Brown writes:
This means that all of us have the same problem but in different degrees. We all could use more differentiation of self, which means we could all go up a notch in both our ability to keep our emotions and intellect in sync and our ability to stay an individual while present in our relationships. (p.174)
In the next post we’ll dig further into Bowen theory and in particular explore what the family system is and our place in it. I hope these posts might help us think through and pray about moving up a notch on the maturity scale so that we can be a blessing to the people around us.
Meet Katie Stringer
Katie loves books, baking and beaches. She leads a Bible Study with young mums at her local Anglican church in the inner west community of Sydney. She also teaches the Bible at two local High schools and enjoys hearing what teenagers think about Jesus. Please pray for Katie as she starts studying at Moore College this year.