Observing is the basis for change
A key aspect of improving my functioning is being able to observe how I am functioning at any moment. This is especially true for how I function in relationships. I can’t make positive changes if I don’t know what it is I need to change. So the first task is to become better at observing my functioning. I’m referring to my functioning because that’s all I can work on. I will not observe my partner in order to change them, as they won’t change unless they decide to, anyway. I won’t change unless I decide to either, but at least I can decide that.
Don’t believe everything you observe.
There are several challenges to being a better observer of how we function in our relationships. We all have biases that influence what we might see or hear. Our brain tries to map sensory information into something we know as quickly as possible. The brain will offer things that have happened frequently or recently first, in milliseconds, which can lead to mistakes in what one hears or sees. (Note – our brain “constructs” what we hear and see from the sound and photons it takes in). If I believe my partner is critical, I am likely to hear or see things as being critical, even if they didn’t mean it that way. Thus, I think I am being criticized and then say something in my defensive. My partner “thinks” I’m are being difficult and starts getting reactive and the cycle continues. So watching how accurate my observations are is important because I can make up stories and then believe they are facts, leading to inappropriate responses.
What you don’t want to know is good to know
Another challenge is that we may not want to “observe” what is being presented. For example, I don’t want to notice that I’m being reactive or jumping to a negative conclusion. I certainly don’t want to notice that something might be my “fault”. This not wanting could be for several reasons, but first I have to notice that I’m resisting accepting what is going on. It’s a ‘the hear no evil, see no evil’ approach to relationships. I’m not evil, but I’m also not perfect and that’s okay because I’m working to be accountable. Being accountable starts with being curious about the behaviour I might not like about myself.
Curiosity is an antidote to stress
My ability to observe can decline when I’m tired, stressed, or upset. Noticing this is useful because then I can begin managing it. A great partner could help me with light-hearted comments such as, ‘did you take a grumpy vitamin this morning?’. Once I know I’m more anxious than I thought, I can reflect on how it affected my level of reactivity. Not being curious, jumping to conclusions, impede effective observation. Most of our sensory inputs are sights and sounds. Our brain recalls items from our experiences to interpret what they mean. For example, I see a look on someone’s face and my brain, in milliseconds, offers an answer. This depends on the person and the context. But, since humans are poor at reading emotional expressions, I can be mistaken. That’s why observing my reactions carefully, with curiosity, is so useful.
Observe Primary Social Cues
“the primary social cues that mediate interactions between people are sensitivities to approval, attention, expectations, and distress,” Dr. Kerr.
Dr. Kerr believes we are all sensitive to what he calls primary social cues. These are powerful forces that can hijack our awareness, albeit for good reason. They evolved to keep us alive, so they operate automatically. I think of them as the four actions of relationships since they are the basis of so many of our relationship behaviours. These are always operating for everyone and are as follows.
- Am I seeking attention / are you seeking attention?
- Do I want approval / are you wanting approval?
- Am I expecting (wanting) something / are you wanting/expecting something?
- Do you notice my distress / do I notice your distress?
I believe these are always operating in real time as I interact with anything that has agency (I’ll stick with people). Unconsciously, if one of these four items is “off”, one or both individuals will get a sense of it. How aware one is of this depends on the person. But the sense can manifest as some level of discomfort, unease, tension, or anxiety. For example, most of us have had the experience of being asked (or asking) – “Are you paying attention to me?”. Or “do you really agree/approve or are you just saying that?”
Be a better observer: three things to work on
So, in order to be a better observer, I focus on the following items.
1. I listen to “me”. I don’t ignore what I am sensing or downplay my experience. This can show up as feeling confused, not following the conversation. Or an eagerness to refute the other’s points, or having tension in my body, or, or, or.
2. I try to stay objectively curious. Do I really understand the other person’s point of view? What are the facts of this situation in contrast with stories am I making up? Do I recognize that my thinking is simply my thinking, and it’s not FACT? (What is factually true is not actually the point here.)
3. I own my reactivity. I don’t believe people push my buttons instead, I believe I have patterns (or reactions) that I decide to run. (Okay, the decision may be automatic, but it is my brain’s choice at the moment.) Over time, these become habitual and so automatic that they are harder to observe at the moment. This viewpoint allows me to work backwards after the fact and track down the pattern. I can change patterns and reactions, but only after I have observed them.
Every bit helps
I believe that with practice, a person can become a much better observer of their interactions. This is the basis for changing how I want to react, how I want to show up in different situations. Defining a self is takes time and effort, but every time I act a bit more mature is a good thing. That’s how I think about it. How do you think about it?
The opening quote is from Dr. Kerr’s more recent book: Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families (pages 5-6).
You can find a review here: https://thecenterforfamilyconsultation.com/bowen-theorys-secrets-revealing-the-hidden-life-of-families-by-michael-e-kerr-m-d-to-be-published-february-5-2019/.
Dr. Kerr is a co-founder of the Bowen Theory Academy which is here https://bowentheoryacademy.org/.
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