Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Self-Care-in-Context: A Brief Systems-Perspective Guide for the Overwhelmed


So yesterday I wrote a post on Facebook with some thoughts about this present social/political moment in light of something called "systems theory." Several people expressed an interest in more information, particularly in relation to feeling overwhelmed, so here's a longer post with some thoughts. Some of this will be a re-iteration of the FB post, with some added detail, so you don't need to have read the post to understand this blog.

Before I start: anything I know about systems theory I learned from Dr. Cedric Johnson at Wesley Seminary, first as a student in his class "PC-111: Pastoral Care and Counseling in Contexts," and then as his TA for two semesters. So this really isn't my original thinking at all. I'll put a little mini-bibliography at the end of this piece, which will include Dr. Johnson's book. Also, while he's not mentioned by name, this article about seminary courses and #BlackLivesMatter references Dr. J's "Pastoral Care Post-Ferguson" class at Wesley.

In this post, I'm going to do 3 things:

I'm going to flesh out my original FB post a bit.

Then I'm going to add a few more thoughts on systems theory.

And then I'm going to share a few thoughts on taking care of ourselves and each other, with particular attention to that feeling of being overwhelmed that I see many of my friends sharing.

But first...

A Note on Personal Context

As I write this, I'm simultaneously mindful of two things. One is that I bring a lot of privilege to this conversation. I'm white, so I can "take a break" from paying attention to race in a way that people of color can't. I'm a cisgender male (that means I think of myself as male and also that, at birth, I was assigned the gender of male), so I can stop thinking about gender in a way that women and trans folk don't have the luxury of doing. So if I'm not careful, I can write about things like "self-care" in a way that's too glib and too dependent on personal privilege. (Though we should also be careful tp not discount the powerful resiliency and modes of care that exist in marginalized communities.)

The second thing is that I'm someone with a mental illness, someone who's experienced the truly shattering effects of going from "overwhelmed" to "complete breakdown." So this stuff is really important for me, and if I'm not careful, I can do real damage to myself and others. I've written about that in more detail on this blog, if you're interested.

These two things inform and affect each other. They aren't independent of each other. Which, come to think of it, is a great segue to talk about systems....

A Brief Overview of Systems Theory in this Present Moment:

So, to re-iterate what I said yesterday on FB, but fleshed out a bit more:

I've seen a bunch of social media posts recently which, roughly summarized, fall into three categories:
(1) "I feel overwhelmed and depressed by everything that's happening. There's nothing I can do. I give up."
(2) "If I see you at X march/protest/action, then I better also see you at Y march/protest/action."
(3) "While you were distracted by X, this thing Y that you should *really* be worried about happened. Pay attention!" 


Just to be clear, this piece isn't meant to shame or call out anyone who has said or thought any of these things. I've said or thought all three.

But all these posts did get me thinking about Dr. Johnson's class because in it, we talk a lot about systems theory.

Here's a few relevant tidbits about systems theory:

(a) Everything happens in the context of systems -- family systems, congregational systems, macro-systems. Something that happens in one part of a system affects other parts of the system. None of us are atomized units. For better and for worse, we are inextricably connected to our families, our contexts, our communities.

(b) At the same time, while everything happens in systems, no individual is completely identifiable with a particular system. I am deeply affected by my family, by my community, by my participation in systems of race and gender. But at the same time, I am not my family. I am not my gender. I am a complex person in a complex context. Being able to remember that "I am me" in the midst of all the systems that effect me is referred to as "self-differentiation."

(c) The system affects individuals within it, but conversely, individuals within a system can affect the system. If my family system is in chaos, that affects me. Conversely, my actions and level of anxiety can amplify or absorb some of the chaos of the system.

(d) Because of (c), intervention in one part or level of a system affects other parts of the system. This means that, when we are thinking about an intervention -- be it a counseling session, an educational program, an organizing strategy -- we need to do two things simultaneously:

1. Keep the whole system in mind 
 ... AND ALSO ...
2.  Don't allow the complexity of the system to paralyze us into inactivity
Take, for example, an individual who asks for counseling. Many traditional counseling approaches would have focused entirely on that individual, and in particular on any pathology shown by that individual, rather than taking into account their family system or the effects of macro-systems like race, class, or economics. This isn't particularly effective. At the same time, no single counseling session, or even series of counseling sessions, can move every single part of every single system affecting the individual. So you have to pick a place to start given your understanding of the context in which the individual is operating

A Bit More Theory

I want to say a few more things about systems theory, but if you're reading this and thinking, "Wait, this is overwhelming! I came here to be less whelmed, not more whelmed!," then skip this and go to the next section.

The language of systems theory largely originates from a guy named Dr. Murray Bowen -- you can read more about him and his theory here. Bowen was interested in family systems, in the way that we all become emotionally interlocked with other members of our family and in the generational patterns that tend to occur in families. But systems theory has been applied to all sorts of other areas. One guy, named Edwin Friedman, applied the theory to leadership -- here's a neat-o little video about that:


The key concept from Friedman's work is "self-differentiation," which I mentioned in (b) above. The idea is that the best thing I can do for a system is to self-differentiate: to have good boundaries, to avoid being sucked into other people's anxiety, and maintain a  non-anxious presence.

A few caveats are worth mentioning. One is that self-differentiation is different than individualism. Self-differentiation assumes a systems perspective. That is, the assumption is that we are all in systems, all interdependent, and that's the context in which self-differentiation is important.

A second related point is that self-differentiation is not the opposite of empathy. It's an ability to hold the tension between the necessity of empathy and connection and the temptation to get wholly pulled in to the anxiety of my family/workplace/congregation/society. Good boundaries and good empathy are actually mutually reinforcing, not contradictory to each other. Dr. Brene Brown's work is a good place to learn more about that -- I'll reference in the bibliography, below.

A third point is that "non-anxious" and "self-differentiated" doesn't always mean "calm, cool, and collected." Sometimes, leadership and organizing means turning up the level of anxiety to make change happen. Non-anxious presence is about being able to handle/manage the anxiety that is always present in systems.

Why is all this important?

Because one of the best things we can do to positively affect systems is to take good care of ourselves!

On Feeling Whelmed, Over and Otherwise

Let me say it again: one of the best things we can do to positively affect systems is to take good care of ourselves!

If you're feeling overwhelmed in this present moment, let me assure you that you are not alone. Many people are feeling like this.

Also, it's not an accident. Oppressive systems are designed to make people feel overwhelmed, and the current administration is doing everything in its power to exacerbate this. So avoiding being overwhelmed -- or at least, as I'll talk about in a second, being able to "ride the whelming wave" -- is really important right now.

So here's a few ways that a systems approach, I think, helps us not be overwhelmed right now:

1) You're not wrong. It is overwhelming. But you're not alone.
Systems theory reminds us that there are big systems that impact us, and that those systems are tough, though not impossible, to change. So it's not just you. This is hard work, and it takes developing a certain resilience for the long haul. But that resilience happens in community, with others also doing work and also feeling overwhelmed. It's not just you.

2) You don't have to do everything.
No one person -- or even one community -- can do everything. But that's ok. Because remember -- as long as we keep an eye on the systems at play, an intervention at one level of the system can effect the whole system. So you can acknowledge the systems at play while also picking one thing to focus on and push on.

3) Self-care positively affects the system.
By caring for yourself and your health and well-being, you help make the system healthier. This doesn't mean, of course, that I can just care for yourself and forget about the rest of the system; rather, it means that self-care is a deeply contextual act, which leads me to...

4) Self-care doesn't have to be individualistic.
Self-care isn't yet another individualistic goal to be achieved. In systems theory, self-care happens in context. Self-care includes checking on on each other, supporting each other, encouraging each other, loving each other. Call it "self-care-in-context," or "self-care-in-community"

5) Internal work and external work go hand-in-hand. Self-care does not equal isolation.
Internal work -- "self-differentiation" in systems theory language, but we can also talk about prayer, meditation, counseling, contemplation -- makes our external work more effective. External work -- marching, educating, organizing, writing, caring for others -- can reinforce our internal work rather than "taking away" from it, and vice versa. "Self-care" isn't an excuse to isolate or give up. It's part of our overall work, just as caring for each other is part of how we care for ourselves. 

6) Anxiety can't be eliminated, but it can be borne.
Systems theory uses the terminology of "anxiety" to refer to the tension or disturbances within a system. Anxiety never goes away; what systems theory points to is learning to manage, handle, or ride out anxiety. In dialectical behavior therapy, there's a technique called "riding the wave" that I've found really helpful. When you're feeling overwhelmed -- a word that literally refers to engulfed or submerged, as by a wave -- you don't necessarily have to fight or eliminate that feeling. Acknowledge that it's there, and that it might bowl you over for a bit. But also know that this particular wave will subside, and you'll be able to right yourself and keep moving. Another wave will come, and it will hit you hard too, but you can learn to ride each wave instead of feeling drowned by each wave.

Why Does This Matter Now?

So, in our current social and political crisis, it's important to keep in mind that whole systems need to change. This means that no one thing is going to be the one thing that does it. It's important to acknowledge this, and try not to get defensive about it. The one or three things that I can focus on today, the protest I can attend, the rep I can call, whatever it is, isn't going to fix everything. AND ALSO, we can't all move everything at once. Care for yourself and for others, knowing that this struggle is both urgent but also long-term. Pick a place you think you can intervene. Do it, knowing that your actions are part of a larger system as well. 

To change whole systems, lots of different loci of resistance are needed.

I love the term loci of resistance. I got that from Dr. Johnson. And I'll end with a quote from him, one of my favorites, something I heard him say each semester:

"I still believe the gospel is the most powerful loci of resistance there is."

A Brief (and briefly annotated) Bibliography

Want to learn more about systems theory? Check out these resources:

-- The Bowen Family for the Study of the Family is a good place to learn about family systems: www.thebowencenter.org

-- Cedric C. Johnson's book, Race, Religion, and Resilience in the Neoliberal Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) is a great overview with particular application to race and class in our current era. It's a bit pricey, but hopefully will be available in paperback soon.

-- Ronald W. Richardson has two books in the Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling Series from Fortress Press that are particularly helpful to pastors and church leaders but offer good overviews of systems theory as well. One is called Becoming a Healthier Pastor (Augsburg Fortress, 2005) and the other is Creating a Healthier Church (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

-- Peter Scazzaro has a series aimed for more of a lay audience with titles like The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Zondervan, 2015).

-- Christie Neuger's Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach (Fortress, 2001) is a great example of the implications of a particular macro-system -- gender -- on counseling. Neuger also has an edited volume, with James Newton Poling, called The Care of Men (Abingdon, 1997), though it's starting to show it's age a bit.

-- John Swinton's book Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Abingdon, 2000) is one of my favorite books, and it's a great example of a systems perspective applied, in this case, to mental health and mental illness.

-- For more on the inter-relation between setting good boundaries and developing empathy and compassion, Brene Brown is the rockstar. Get a copy of Daring Greatly (Gotham Books, 2012), flip to the index and look up "Boundaries," and then read the whole book. Or, if you ain't got the time, check out this short video:

-- There's a lot of sources out there about Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), but here's a quick summary of the "Riding the Wave" skill.

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