When I first talk with potential therapy clients, I have two favorite questions that I like to ask:

  1. How would you know that things were getting better?
  2. How would you be functioning differently than you are right now?

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Most people can do a pretty good job at listing their complaints, discomforts, and symptoms. Describing a higher level of mature functioning, however, takes some thinking.  In a few weeks I’m giving a presentation about how I’ve worked on my overall functioning. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I have measured my own progress as I work on myself. I’ve asked myself those two questions—how do I see things improving, and how have changes in my functioning contributed to this?

Increased Connectedness and Separateness

If you asked me where I’ve made the most progress in working on myself, without a doubt I would say my relationship with my father. My mother’s sudden death in 2005 really ratcheted up the anxiety in my family system, and it sent my dad and me careening into a level of over-responsibility for each other. My dad would call me about a crisis, or I would call my dad, and the other person would immediately step in and try to direct the other person. We were close, but this over-responsibility led to high levels of distress when the other person inevitably didn’t follow this direction.

After six years of practicing on the phone and in person, I have finally reached a point where I can listen to my dad talk about challenges and not offer advice or criticism. In other words, I can LISTEN.  I don’t have to jump in and direct, and I don’t have to distance myself by saying, “You’re stressing me out. Can we not talk about this today?” Because I’ve gotten better at managing my own reactivity in these conversations, I’ve also noticed that my dad is less likely to offer me advice or direct me. My calmness helps my dad sense that I’m capable of handling my own challenges as well. We’re more connected than ever, but also more separate than ever.

Patience with Progress 

I truly believe that it takes years of observation before one can get really good at interrupting what one normally does when anxious. So rather than beat myself up for experiencing distress and reverting to those mechanisms we all use, I’m getting better at simply paying attention and thinking, “Hmm. Well, that was interesting.”

I’ll give you a simple example. As a writer, I’m constantly pitching ideas to editors, which means I’m also constantly getting rejected. Sometimes a rejection will rub me the wrong way and throw my whole day off while I tend to my wounded ego. Sometimes I’ll try to put the responsibility on my husband, requesting that we talk or get out of the house as a means of distracting me from my distress. If he’s not around, I might turn to garbage food or garbage television. At the end of the day, I try to look back and make a note of how I choose to handle my distress. I try to ask myself, “How could I be a little bit more responsible for myself the next time this happens?”

We all have a certain level of distress where we will inevitably revert to doing what’s automatic to us. No one in their lifetime will ever reach a point where they can 100% override this automatic functioning. Remembering my humanness helps me be more patient with myself and also become more curious about how I can get just a teeny bit better at it.

Reading the Room

It’s so easy to walk into a work meeting, a crowded store, or a family gathering and absorb the level of anxiety without realizing what’s happening. If I start to feel my pulse increase, I try to “take the temperature” of a group of humans. By looking at people’s body language and also listening, I try to estimate the level of anxiety on a scale of 1-100. Once I get a reading, my only job is to try to be at least 10 degrees less reactive. Okay, if I’m being honest, maybe 5 on a bad day?  I’ll do this with clients as well.

It’s easy to forget that while we can’t control the thoughts, emotions, or behaviors of others, we can change our own physiology and functioning in response to them. This doesn’t mean being a Zen master. It’s just slowing my breathing a little. Or sitting up straight and relaxing my shoulders. Also thinking for at least two seconds before I speak. It sounds so simple, but remembering to do this in the moment is incredibly difficult. I consider myself a winner if I can engage this thinking maybe 10% of the time.

I think all three of these measures of maturity could be summarized as the simple act of staying focused on myself in relationship to others. And that’s differentiation of self at its core—separating my thinking from others’ thinking and separating my thinking from my emotional reactivity. These elements are fused in so many complex ways—they are a giant tangle that I’ll never fully unravel in my lifetime. But boy does loosening a knot here or there make me more flexible and help me breathe easier.

So let me ask you the same questions this week.

1. How would you measure the progress of your own maturity?

2. What would you be able to do a little bit better than you can do now?

3. Where in life (what environments and relationships) would you need to start paying more attention to your functioning?

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