Thursday, February 5, 2009

Family Therapy ideas for Individual Therapy

Long ago I found that ideas from the theory and practice of family or group therapy could be well-applied to individual therapy.

In family or group dynamics, individuals can find themselves in particular types of roles (e.g. observer, leader, critic, outsider, social butterfly, scapegoat, etc.). Sometimes these roles can be "typecast", entrenched through repetition. Such entrenchment of roles may not allow a person's full range of emotion & personality to flourish.

Similarly, within one's own individual mind, it is possible to "typecast" oneself, through repetition of assumed roles.

The same tactics that can help in a group or family setting (e.g. encouraging a deliberate exploration of entrenched roles, and experimenting with taking on different role styles) could be beneficial for an individual.

Another dynamic which is explored in family therapy is the type of boundaries that exist between different members, in conjunction with the strength of the bond between each different member.

There may be "detached" relationships (a weak bond and little involvement), or so-called "enmeshed" relationships (in which people are extremely involved in each other's affairs, sometimes not allowing the individual to have an experience of autonomy).

Boundaries may be weak, absent, or atypical (in different cases, leading to different types of abuse, or to young children taking on the role of parent or confidante with their mother or father). Or boundaries may be extremely rigid, lacking flexibility (perhaps leading to an uncomfortable authoritarian atmosphere in the relationship or household).

In family therapy, reflection and work can be done on building healthy relationship bonds, encouraging a relaxation of enmeshments, so as to permit more individual autonomy. And work can be done to encourage healthy boundary formation.

Similarly, in an individual therapy setting, personal boundaries and "inner relationship bonds" can be a source of problems. "Enmeshments" may occur on an inner level, perhaps in the form of ruminative or obsessive preoccupations. "Detached" inner relationships may occur, in which parts of self or behaviour are held separate, and leading to a non-integrated sense of self, or a sense of self consisting of numerous independent facades or personas. Boundaries could be weak (perhaps leading to impulse control problems), or inflexible (perhaps leading to an inability to adapt easily, or to adjust to another person's style in a relationship).

In individual therapy, similar work can be done to build healthy "inner bonds", and healthy "inner boundaries".

I consider this comparison between family/group and individual therapy to be metaphorical. In the theory of so-called "object relations" such metaphorical ideas may be considered quite literally, i.e. that external relationships become literally "internalized" in the formation of a healthy self.

In practice, I think some of the ideas from family therapists can be imaginatively applied in an individual therapy setting.

As a concluding--but practical and concrete-- tangent, an exercise in one form of family therapy is to research your family tree, and to collect information about the life stories of different members of your family tree. This would include immediate relatives, but also more distant ancestors.

I think this is an interesting exercise in individual therapy for a variety of reasons:
1) because psychological symptoms, problems, personality styles, etc. are substantially influenced by genetic factors, it can be interesting to examine the life stories of those who are genetically related to you. It may also be true that the SOLUTIONS that work best for various life problems are also influenced by genetic factors (e.g. there is some evidence that a particular medication, if it works extremely well, has a higher chance of working extremely well for another person who is genetically similar). In a broader, "life story" sense, you may find stories in your family of various adversities that are similar to your own, and you may come to understand how these different ancestors coped. Some of these stories may be cautionary (i.e. warnings about how NOT to cope with certain problems), but some of the stories may be inspiring, and may guide or reassure you in your own pathway to solving your life problems.
2) the process of examining stories from family and ancestors can increase your sense of connectedness, identity, and meaning. Many families in our modern culture have become quite disconnected, and perhaps this disconnectedness fosters loneliness, materialism, or a cultural vacuum. As you gather information about these family stories, you may end up re-connecting with distant cousins, etc. and this could expand or enhance your network of friendships.
3) If many of the stories you find are very negative, this type of information could be upsetting, traumatic, or exacerbate more recent post-traumatic symptoms. If this is the case, such an exploration may need to be taken very slowly, if at all. But sometimes, if you feel ready, the process can become part of healing from the trauma. The exploration of a full story--even if the story is very negative--can sometimes be a prelude to healing. This task encourages the exploration of stories from distant relatives, as well as immediate relatives--this increases the likelihood that you will find some positive, inspirational stories, even if many of the stories are traumatic or turbulent.

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