Non-anxious presence. I have heard people use this phrase many times over the past four years but I cannot recall hearing it even once before then. The first time I encountered this rock-bed idea (articulated with those particular words) was in a book by Edwin Friedman entitled Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. I am not sure if Dr. Friedman coined the phrase, but I am inclined to think that its prominent usage today is due largely to his teaching and writing. The book was first published in 1985 so, of course, Friedman’s use of the expression has been working its way through hearts and minds for at least three decades now—slowly transforming the way we think about agencies of change in various relationship systems.
Among his many hats, the late Edwin Friedman was both a rabbi and a psychologist. Regarding the latter, he ascribed to a particular field known as family systems therapy. Perhaps chief among the features that distinguish family systems therapy from other approaches is the conviction that whole systems should be taken into account when providing therapy for individuals.
For example, if a child is suddenly having trouble at school, acting up, becoming depressed, rebellious, or careless—or if they adopt any other number of behaviors that provide occasion for concern—the traditional therapeutic approach places the focus of therapy on the child.
But family systems therapy takes a step back from this and considers those features of the system in which the child lives that may have encouraged and produced this “trouble” in the first place. The system—the characteristics of that web of relationship itself—may be what needs to be changed if the child is ever going to lead a healthy life.
So, family systems therapy prioritizes process over content. A content-approach asks, “What is the issue and how can we resolve it?” A process-approach asks, “Are there features of the system itself that gave rise to this issue? How can we change the way the relationship-process is set up so this issue becomes, in effect, a non-issue?” Family systems therapists see the traditional approach as akin to beating a dead horse. No matter what short-term “progress” one makes with a “patient” the same issues (albeit in different disguises) will keep popping up in the long-term—because the system itself which gave rise to the issue has remained the same!
For example, among ministerial leaders it is common to encounter the problem of burnout and chronic anxiety or depression. The traditional approach treats the leader: “How can we help the leader rest, worry less, and/or take a vacation?”
So, the leader finally takes a vacation or, even better, goes on a sabbatical. They are given four months to rest. And they return. One year later: they are back in the same situation they were in prior to the rest period. This is why family systems therapy asks: “What is it about the system that nurtures burnout, anxiety and depression in our leaders?” If we can change “the dance we do” in this environment, we will change the fruit borne of it.
One key, then, to nurturing healthy relationship systems is healthy leadership. And the core of healthy leadership, Friedman asserts, consists of non-anxious presence. Healthy leaders embody non-anxious presence which, in turn, fosters non-anxious environments—which, in turn, provides a context in which people can thrive.
Sounds simple, right? “If we can practice this so-called non-anxious presence, we’ll all be okay.” It isn’t easy to do this, however. Here’s why:
Everyone is different. And those differences make us nervous, especially when it means those differences in people equate to change in our systems.
See, we prefer things to stay the same. That is where we feel most comfortable. Even our bio-systems prefer this. The precise term for this preference-for-things-to-stay-the-same is homeostasis. When a change is introduced in one part of a given system, other parts of that same system adjust/react in an effort to restore the system to its previous state. Think of it as a desire for balance and stability.
“But, what’s wrong with stability? I thought that is what we were after in all this. Nurturing healthy, stable people.”
Sort of. Healthy and “stable” are two different things. See, healthy things grow and change. And there is no change or growth without “stretching”, discomfort. As long as we are content with the same-old, same-old we will never be truly healthy.
So, we need to kick our homeostatic habits in the rear. We need to make our peace with change, to befriend "difference". This is precisely where the tension lies.
An example: I am married to a woman who is…well, let’s just say…very different from me. And her differences challenge me. Since I am a self-centered individual, I naturally think she should be more like me.
But, my wife is a strong, healthy person so she is very well differentiated from me. She is her own person. And there is nothing I can do to manipulate that in my favor. But it makes me uncomfortable because seeing that she, in effect, does not need me means she could leave me if she wanted—and be perfectly fine. Her identity is not dependent on mine. So, if I am to put it bluntly, our relationship—if it is going to be an authentic one—is truly out of my control.
The tension of all authentic relationship arises, then, out of the choice to remain together knowing we are two entirely different people. The question is: How do we go about being “different-together”? It is, of course, easier to be “different-apart”. In that scenario I would feel no tension. Conversely, it is also easier to be “the same-together”. In that scenario, too, I would feel no tension. The difficult part involves putting “different” and “together” in the same room.
For about a quarter of a century now.
For about a quarter of a century now.
The key to doing this well is to make my peace with it. In essence, to “let her go” and trust she will not entirely “go” but will choose to remain “together”.
The irony is: if I do not “let her go” she will feel inclined to “go” anyway. And I could inadvertently drive her away by my insistence to “hold on.” See, she will continue to be her own person. And no insistence on my part to “keep her close” or “make her more like me” will change the fact that she is, indeed, her own person. Identity is so impressed in her, it is bound to show its face. If not, any oppressive control I introduce into the system will yield all manner of dysfunction in the whole system (including among my children).
So, this “making peace with difference” involves being “non-anxious”.
This is where Friedman’s train of thought really caught me. He cites “playfulness” as a way to foster “non-anxious environments.”
He writes: “…anxiety’s major tone is seriousness, often an affliction in itself. It is always content-oriented. Its major antidote is playfulness, especially with those for whom we feel too responsible.” (209)
He provides an interesting example of playfulness at work in a situation that seemed beyond remedy: “A good husband and dedicated father found that his wife had chronically been having affairs. He took her once to a marriage counselor, but she refused to go again. He continued for two years, desperately trying to make her see the light. He showed anger. He threatened. He tried making her jealous. At his wit’s end, ready to throw in the towel, he heard a discussion at church about how families never teach their members to push one another away. We are trained to hang onto others, or to withdraw (pull away). Pushing people we care about at others, or into activities we don’t care about, is almost inconceivable. When a relationship is caught in a skid, we almost never think to turn the wheel the other way.
“The next day, when the husband came home, he found his wife on the phone. Predictably, she hung up quickly. Resisting the urge to berate her, he said, ‘Listen, honey, I know you want some privacy. I’ll go for a walk around the block.’ Predictably, the wife’s behavior escalated. At the end of the week, she informed him she was going to Miami to visit an old boyfriend. He went to a travel agency and got her brochures on places to have fun in southern Florida, adding some suggestions based on his own experience. She took them without comment and flew off, returned within three days, and announced that she had had a terrible time. The following week she joined him in counseling and continued long after he dropped out.” (51)
Friedman points out that this is not an example of “reverse psychology”, as most of us would be prone to describe it. Rather, he says, it was precisely the husband’s playful disposition that effected the change. Had he used “reverse psychology” in a “serious” way (as is often the case) the effect would have been the same as before. This is because our penchant for using “reverse psychology” arises out of the inclination to “diagnose” the other person. Diagnostic thinking itself, says Friedman, is a “serious” mindset and, ironically, perpetuates the “problem” that is being diagnosed.
He explains: “The exact opposite of playful functioning, that which is most likely to heighten the seriousness in a system, is diagnostic thinking…Diagnostic categories are inherently antisystemic. They tend to increase polarization…Diagnosis intensifies anxiety, and is its natural manifestation as well.’”
So, playfulness is a mindset, not a method. If we can learn to approach life with a playful posture, we will be able to lead a healthy life ourselves and nurture life-giving environments around us.
Friedman explains: “The seriousness with which families approach their problems can be more the cause of their difficulties than the effect of the problems. Efforts directed at the seriousness itself often will eliminate the problem.
“Seriousness presents a paradox. If family members are not serious about their responsibilities, the family may become unstable and chaotic. But seriousness can also be destructive. Seriousness is more than an attitude; it is a total orientation, a way of thinking embedded in constant, chronic anxiety. It is characterized by lack of flexibility in response, a narrow repertoire of approaches, persistent efforts to try harder, an inability to change direction, and a loss of perspective and concentrated focus.
“Families that evidence such seriousness are as if surrounded by volatile fumes of anxiety, and any small incident can cause a flare-up. They will always assume that it was the incident that created the problem, but it is the way they relate and think that gives any incident its inflammatory power. The family, thus, tends to overlook the cause of its misery by focusing on the object of its discontent. On the other hand, if changes can be made in such a noxious atmosphere then the fumes of anxiety disperse, and the sparking incidents of life (that are necessary for creative existence) lose their explosive potential.
“The antidote to seriousness is the capacity to be playful, which is not to be equated with making jokes. Some of the world’s greatest humorists led personally tragic lives; and it is not unusual for the office wit to lose his timing in the presence of his wife. What gives to any playful response its remedial power is its relational affect and not its cleverness. This notion of playfulness has less to do with ‘one-liners’ than with the concept of flexible distance; it has less to do with good ‘come-backs’ than with the ability to distinguish process from content. Ultimately, it is more connected with responsibility for others than with being light-hearted. When playfulness is introduced into a ‘serious’ relationship system, family or congregation, it can break the vicious feedback cycle that is keeping a problem chronic. In the family field, it is often called ‘paradoxical intervention.’ If we assume that any chronic condition that we are persistently trying to change will, perversely, be supported not to change by our serious efforts to bring about change, then it is logical to consider the possibility that one way out of this paradox is to be paradoxical.” (50-51)
These concepts have far-reaching implications. In Generation to Generation Friedman demonstrated the application of these ideas in extended family fields as well as various faith-community systems. After writing this book, however, Friedman went on to help others apply these principles in both business and governmental contexts.
For my part, these concepts changed my life. The book was given to me by a member of a church I was pastoring in 2009. (Thanks, Lydia!) She told me I might find it interesting. Well, “interesting” is too mild a word to describe my response. Yes, “life-changing” is a better expression to use. It is largely because of what I learned in this book that I felt an inkling to begin PlayFull. Reading this helped me articulate the belief that playful people are healthy people and playful systems are healthy systems. And it is because of this belief that I sincerely hope I have the joy of dedicating the rest of my days “helping people play from the inside-out”. More than an activity-we-do, play is a way-of-being that can truly make the world a better place.
Citations above are from:
-Friedman, Edwin H. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1985)