Growing Yourself Up by Jenny Brown
Finding Your Inner Adult
All of us could do with a little more growing up, right? It’s easy to assent to that. But what if there’s a lot more work to do? What if you should be a lot more mature by now than you really are? If we were more self-aware, the theory goes, then no one would need therapy. So Brown asks, “How real is your estimation of your own maturity?”
In a recent experiment to show how “Everyone is biased, including you” The Guardian Weekly (25 January 2019) reported on the phenomena known as cognitive dissonance - when our actions don’t match up with our beliefs. In the article, social psychologist Carol Tavris said, “If I see myself as someone who is smart, competent and kind, and you give me some information that I have done something foolish, immoral or hurtful, I have a choice. I can revise my view of myself, or I can dismiss the evidence. Most people take the least painful path and dismiss the evidence.” All of us in our different contexts will face the pressure to fake it. To pretend we’re more mature than we really are. As Christians we know that we should have the fruit of the spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). So when we are selfish, joyless, angry, impatient, mean, faithless, harsh and generally out-of-control, it’s all too easy to sweep it under the rug and go back to maintaining the facade.
This gives some indication for me that Brown is more than heading in the right direction to focus on how we operate in our family of origin as providing us with some reliable data on our maturity and what needs work. It’s also very Biblical to focus on the family. The God of the Bible relates to us in family contexts. Brown writes, “Growing maturity, based on seeing the pattern of relationships we’re part of, promotes more honesty, humility and improved health for us and for those we care about.” (p. 1)
Using Bowen theory, Brown zooms in on the family of origin as the prime place where our different patterns of relating have been established and there is a fair bit of unpicking and work to do here.
As Christians we ought to be good at sober reflection. We are after all familiar with our biggest problem: sin. And the antidote: repentance, which involves turning from our sin, asking forgiveness and turning to Christ. But it is also worth reflecting on the fact that knowing we have a problem doesn’t mean we can see all the way to the bottom of it. And similarly knowing what to do about our problem - ie. repent - is not the same as being able to consistently and effectively do it.
Brown’s book offers helpful and practical tools for getting to the bottom of and shifting some of our worst habits and unhelpful behaviours. One of the ways she does this is through sharing stories, all set within the context of families. These case studies flesh out the ways Bowen theory has helped real people bring greater levels of maturity to their relationships. The most striking of these is Gloria’s story on page 208.
Never Too Old To Dream A New Dream
Gloria is 78 when she comes to see Jenny Brown. She has just had surgery for cancer and has more cancer to fight that could not be removed. “Gloria’s main concern however was that if she were to die soon she knew she hadn’t brought the best she could to her important relationships.” Brown writes, “I recall her saying: ‘I probably don’t have much time left and I know I have some things to work on in my family if I’m going to say goodbye properly.” (p. 209)
What unfolds is an extraordinary story of how one person’s desire to work on themselves transforms the way a whole family relates to each other. Gloria reflects first on her closest relationship, her marriage. And how the intimacy with her husband has been lost over time, to the point where they sleep in separate beds. “Gloria planned how she would use her own initiative to move towards Bill.” (p. 210) Gloria also reflects on the patterns in her own parents’ marriage and the things that she may have unconsciously adopted. She works on the relationship that she has with her daughter and recognises that she has been focussing on the grandchildren as a way of masking the intensity of her relationship with her daughter who in turn has responded by distancing herself from Gloria as a way to cope.
A phrase that comes up again and again in the book is ‘triangling’. This is where a person goes to a second party to offload their frustration about the first and if you look at yourself you may recognise this very common pattern of behaviour. Gloria attempts to get out of her old pattern of “triangling her daughters into her marriage frustrations.” She lets them know how much she values and appreciates their Dad and they respond by going along to some of her treatments with her which makes Gloria feel less alone in the face of dying, and she lets them know that. “Gloria had a good six month period of reasonable health following her course of chemotherapy and she was able to work on being both real and warm in all her key relationships with rewarding results.” (p. 211)
The Ripple Effect
While Gloria’s death is quicker than the family are expecting, the proper goodbye Gloria had longed for had been achieved as baggage was removed and closer relationships were restored. What is also interesting about Gloria’s story is the way her family grieve openly and support each other following her death, something that may have played out quite differently if Gloria hadn’t done all that work on her personal maturity.
The inclusion of Gloria’s story is a great example of the ripple effect of one person working on their maturity bringing positive outcomes to the rest of the family. “Gloria had brought maturity into her family systems through her personal initiatives in her final year of life.” (p. 212) As C. S. Lewis wrote, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” And we might add, to get in there and do the hard work of reflecting on your relationship systems and trying a new way of relating.
I hope you found Gloria’s story inspiring. In the next post we’ll look at what it might take to resolve to be more mature at the other end of the spectrum as a single young adult and what we can take into our own contexts no matter our age.
You might like to pray this prayer with me:
We are sorry for the times where our behaviour and actions do not line up with your word.
We are sorry for the ways we relate poorly to others, especially within our families.
Please forgive us and change us.
Fill us with your Holy Spirit and help us to learn to be more like your son, Jesus.
Give us wisdom and patience Lord as we reflect on our place in our family system and work on changing ourselves.
Help us to find strength to choose maturity instead of insecurity and may it have positive ripple effects for generations, for your glory’s sake.
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.