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A project to change long-term interpersonal patterns: background

I have just got back from a rather wonderful two week holiday in Kerala with my wife, Catero.  It was very special ... and one of the interesting spin-offs was the perspective one can get looking back at one's everyday life typically played out over 5,000 miles away.  I'm immensely lucky ... happily married, close to our children & grandchildren, healthy, blessed with precious friends, and committed to work that's a vocation more than a job.  Of course, old age, illness and death lie in wait for me and for those I love.  Of course this sunlit period of our lives is temporary.  And that can make it all the sweeter ... see, for example, Frias's study "Death reflection enhances gratitude".

Looking back though, I notice with some regret the way I have "bumped" up against several friends over the years ... falling out with them in one way or another.  Happily in most cases we have got closer again.  However I do wonder about my patterns.  Why do these occasional "fallings out" occur?  Does it just go with the territory of close longterm relationships?  My sense is that, when we're really close to another person, it makes it more likely that we'll occasionally tread on each others' toes.  Despite this though, I do wonder in what ways have I contributed to these difficulties?  And most interestingly & importantly, what can I learn from the bumps? Normally I'm so happily focused and busy that I don't give these issues much thought.  The two weeks away though encouraged me to review ... to wonder what I can do better.  In most areas of my life, the message seems to be to "Keep on doing what you're doing", but with these "friend bumps" I would like to look at what's happened a bit more closely.  This is partly because I want to learn and maybe do things better.  It's also because, as a therapist myself, exploring personal difficulties more deeply seems often to help me be more useful for clients who may be struggling with somewhat similar issues.  I even hope that writing about this in a public blog ... that's mostly read by other therapists ... can illuminate some of this territory from "underneath" in ways that usefully complement our typical experience of "looking down" at this sort of material through the lens of theories & academic training. 

This is part of what led me to a feedback project nearly three years ago.  It was a bit of a "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" initiative where I contacted twenty to thirty of my friends and acquaintances (not all selected because they liked me!) ... see "Compulsory multi-source feedback is coming or has already come to the health professions & to many other jobs as well""Lessons from a personal multi-source feedback project" and "Some suggestions for giving and receiving helpful feedback" for more on this.  I wrote at the time: "Really fascinating.  Initially I found it hard to read through the dozen or so pages of feedback and make much sense of them.  There was so much information here.  In the end I looked for common themes and then put together a table with the three or four main appreciative themes and the three or four main challenging themes.  I then copied and pasted a whole series of comments into each of the relevant boxes in the table.  This helped me begin to see the overall patterns better.  Some of it was painful.  Of course feedback from someone else potentially says as much about them as it says about you.  A great advantage of getting feedback from a wide range of people is that it gives context.  Some challenging comments were very idiosyncratic and not mentioned by anyone else, or even contradicted by the comments of several other people.  This "outlier" feedback I "accepted" more tentatively, suspecting it said more about my idiosyncratic relationship with the feedback giver than about my general behaviours. 

Other areas of celebration or challenge were mentioned by several people, in varying ways of course.  This more mainstream material seemed more significant and important to learn from.  I found it helpful to use therapeutic writing and especially to speak to good friends about what had emerged.  Gradually over days I was able to chew over and digest what I'd been given.  At times it felt bleak & painful, at times heart-warming & deeply affirming.  I've never received so much concentrated feedback in my life before and I'll probably never do so again.  What an extraordinary opportunity!  This I found very helpful ... to remind myself why I'd asked for feedback in the first place.  To know how central it is for me to live open-heartedly, courageously, questioningly.  These comments from others can very much support me in doing this more fully.  As Jennifer Crocker showed in her paper "Two types of value-affirmation", reconnecting to our core values can be a particularly helpful way of staying open & available when the going gets tough." 

I smile when I remember Franklin Jones's quote "Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger."  Yes it's true and so too is Burns's "O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!  It wad frae mony a blunder free us, an' foolish notion."  The main, interlinked set of difficulties that some people experienced with me involved at times feeling judged by me as not good enough, of feeling that I'm too in control/not showing my vulnerability enough, that I sometimes act too dominantly or too competitively, and that sometimes my caring can come across as a bit patronising.  It is true that I'm mostly very self-disciplined and self-directing.  Actually, most of the time, this is a quality I'm so grateful for ... see, for example, the series of posts starting with "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - whatever word you use, it's sure important to have it".  But there can be costs ... for example the sense of emotional distance commented on in "Self-control, conscientiousness, grit, emotion regulation, willpower - possible adverse effects".  Happily the feedback also highlighted qualities that many people said they often particularly appreciated in me ... a sense of warmth, generosity & love, a good deal too about fierce, rigorous, intellectual curiosity, and some comments on courageous, self-determined path.

So I would like to look again at how I sometimes bump against friends, and try to learn from this pattern. Maybe with some aspects, it makes most sense to simply be aware of them and accept that they may go with the territory of living in the ways I choose to.  For example, if I decide to leave a party early ... having not drunk much ... so that I can get up in good time to exercise, study & meditate, some people may have a mix of reactions to what I've done (feeling "rejected", reckoning I should get out more!, feeling judged in their behaviours, accepting of our differences, celebrating my clarity, tempted to act in similar ways themselves, and so on).  At the same time, maybe some aspects I will want to look at again and try to alter.  After all, I work as a psychotherapist helping people to make personal changes (both inner & outer). Practising a bit on myself definitely sounds interesting & very likely to make me more useful when supporting others who want to tackle the often very difficult challenge of changing longterm behaviours. 

For more on this, see the next post "A project to change long-term interpersonal patterns: at a residential group".


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