Reducing Families’ Self Blame During Times of Adversity

Capilano Suspension bridge smaller 2(2)

As family therapists we have the advantage of systemic thinking. It liberates us from categorizing and pathologizing.

Families who face adversity often blame themselves and/other family members. They think in terms of “what’s wrong with me?”

This blaming compounds the problem even more. It is a waste of energy that could be utilized to find alternative resolutions and healing. While judgemental thoughts may induce guilt, blaming others in the family raises defenses and blocks communication. As we know communication is a key to work together for a desired outcome or healing. Blaming ourselves and others can be due to the cultural training we have absorbed from people in authority: parents, teachers, mass media, and religious leaders to mention a few. From a very young age, we may have learned that others decide who we are and we may be under frequent evaluation. Even positive evaluations can be limiting: it can lead to conformity rather than creativity.

Blaming can be easily detected by being alert for words such as “should” “must”, “have to” “no choice but”. As well, dichotomous and judgemental thinking is revealed by expressions either implicit or explicit: “good/bad, caring/non-caring,   responsible/irresponsible, mature/immature, affectionate/ cold, caring/non-caring, cooperative/non cooperative, bright/stupid.    For example, we evaluate ourselves as we do our inner dialogue: “How stupid of me. I should have known better”. Judgemental thinking creates rigidity and leads us to focus away from creatively resolving complex issues. These labels represent a rigid way of thinking. As we know, one important element of resilience is flexibility. Flexibility can reduce stress and lead to new directions.

In order to direct clients towards flexibility we express curiosity for what is beyond these judgements, labels and evaluations. What are the feelings, expectations and unfulfilled needs? Very often these needs are not in full awareness and therefore not honored. Not honoring our needs and those of others can lead to lack of connectedness with loved ones.

How emotional presence can reduce blaming and stress in families facing adversity

The family therapist can help family members in stressful situations acquire flexibility through his/her emotional presence. By being emotionally present we aim at being catalysts for clients to create an emotionally safe atmosphere and connect with themselves around their needs.

What is emotional presence of the Family therapist?

Emotional presence is experiencing empathy for the client’s pain; it is about allowing ourselves to experience temporarily in our body what the clients goes through. As Sue Johnson states “the neurons allow us to read intentions and emotions, to bring another inside us”. Next, by listening for labels the family members either articulate or imply, the therapist can utilize these labels as a departure point to focus on facts, on feelings and on fulfilling the needs. The latter ones are considered to be the desired outcome. The alertness of the therapist for labels and dichotomous/judgemental thinking can be helpful in coaching families towards flexibility in thinking and working out the needed resolutions.

There are times we empathize non- verbally. Usually however, as we hear the evaluations we translate them into feelings and needs that could be fulfilled as well as staying with the facts.

During the presentation some scenarios from my professional experience will be described. Following the presentation, the participants will be asked to share their own professional experiences and practice emotional presence.

Magdalini Agrafioti
MA in Counselling Psychology, OAMFT Clinical Fellow

About Magdalini:

M Agrafioti picture_1 smaller (3)-2Magdalini Agrafioti, MA is a graduate in Counselling Psychology from the Adler School of Professional Psychology, Chicago, Illinois. She received her family therapy training at George Hull Center for Children and Families, Toronto.

Magdalini is in private practice in Toronto, conducting couples and family therapy for over 25 years. She has a strong interest in the school community as an emotional system and has worked for the Student Services Department at the TDSB for 12 years. Has given numerous workshops and seminars to teachers and parents aiming at promoting children’s mental health and their resilience both at home and school.

November 11, 2014

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