A frequent goal of therapy with my clients is to shape a new framework and approach to their problems and/or symptoms. One method that I often use could be called “developmental thinking.” This method re-constructs problems in a different context – and what they mean – in terms of how people grow and develop.The ‘gridlocks’ they experience, individually or in relationship, are milestones in a development process, painful though they may be.
Self-Esteem Is Really Accurate Self-Awareness
Problems in “self-esteem” stem from problems with accurate self-understanding. It doesn’t make much sense to try shoring up your self-esteem when the ‘big picture’ is off. Self-esteem is not a separate, sealed-off piece of your mental pie. It’s one element of a larger growth process. The “self” is not static, and therefore neither is self-esteem.
When we think differently about our personal and relationship development and growth, we can begin a higher level of self-acceptance. That competes quite well with how we criticize, censor and tear ourselves down. We can start thinking in different terms, so that emotions don’t completely run the show. Sounds simple, I know. It isn’t.
Committing to Relationship Development
When we understand types of personal and human development, we create a more accurate picture. Life decisions that turn out for the better or worse, responsibilities taken or not, the emotions brought to a situation – are not solved by assigning blame, feeling guilt or making various diagnoses. Once a problem can be seen differently, it can be acted on differently.
- A 20 year old man and his 53 year old stepfather have been in a reactive battle over the stepson’s decisions in the last two years. The stepson complains that his self-esteem is being damaged, while the stepfather feels like a parenting failure. Therapy developed how the could interact as peer adults, not just parent-child, a transition they must inevitably face. Both began to function better.
- A financially successful couple in their late 40s who parent and cooperate well cannot understand why their sexual life has disappeared. The deadlock has caused them to treat each other very poorly. We approach how committed relationship brings us the remarkable challenge to want the partner(s) we choose, unless we want to begin again with wanting others, a very different path.
In these two examples, my clients were able to see the bigger picture of their personal and relationship development in ways that link to the kind of people they want to be. That engages them in an atmosphere of joint responsibility instead of individual blame – no matter what they decide to do relationally.
One of the keys to understanding relationship problems this way is to see them as a question: “What is the next step for me (us) in my (our) development suggested by this problem?” Monica McGoldrick, the great family therapist and theoretician understood this; so did a father figure of 20th century psychology, Erik Erikson.
Solution Is Embedded In The Problem
One additional “tool” that I suggest to clients is “the solution is always embedded in the problem”. So when you are beset with your personal or relational problems, the most important first task is to define the problem in a way that doesn’t set up fruitless conflict. I humbly submit that seeing the problem in “developmental” terms allows us to see solutions that do not have to be at your or your partner’s expense.