What is possible when we transform the language of complaint to the language of commitment?
Yesterday, a client who sent a desperate email request for a session signed Barely Breathing had a breakthrough.
I can’t take credit. I credit Robert Kegan. I used his Immunity to Change model to have her look at her suffering as the intersection of two competing commitments.
She is committed to a loving, harmonious relationship with her teenage son who wanted to trade in his working truck for a newer, fancier model before leaving for college, AND, she was committed to doing what was “in his best interest” as she interpreted it: saving money until he completes his studies.
The arguments and pleading (and the resulting bitterness) had worn her out. She felt under attack – both by her son and her own exhaustion. She was ready to surrender to an action she saw as unreasonable and wasteful.
We began with a centering exercise. When conflict ( competing commitments) is embodied, moving into a place of calm and clarity requires some clearing space and grounding in the body.
Then we surfaced the two commitments that were mobilizing her actions (lengthy arguments followed by withdrawal, exhaustion, restless sleep, avoiding the subject of college, pulling inward, pretended indifference). She shared that this was not the way she wanted to interact with her son. She felt him “pulling away” and felt “helpless” to do anything about it.
I asked her to explore the assumptions behind both commitments: the relationship and doing what was “right”.
She discovered an assumption that if she didn’t “give in” to her son’s vehement demands for a truck (his heart’s desire), she would permanently damage their relationship, especially as he was leaving for college next year.
Also, she assumed that if she allowed him to spend all his money on a new truck, he would run short of money for college for textbooks and necessities, be strapped upon graduation, be forced into jobs when he needed to study and ultimately ruin his chances for success and happiness.
Yet, her BIg Assumptions had been invisible to her. They turned out to be larger than she initially expected as we began to uncover them. Though invisible, they were compelling – motivating her behavior and fomenting distress. Examined openly however, she began to work with each one.
She shared that while committed to her relationship with her son, she realized that she was the parent, (while not “all-knowing” she had more life experience than her son), the responsible adult, and could therefore take a stand for “reason”. In addition she had a responsibility to demonstrate her love through making decisions that supported his long-term goals and well-being. And to modeling to him that some decisions are hard but necessary as part of her parenting.
And feeling into that commitment, she felt grounded in the years of loving they had shared and would hopefully continue to share despite this current impasse.
She stated that if she could be clear in and calm in explaining to him that she was making her decision from this loving place, he would “get” her commitment to him even if he was angered by her refusal to buy a new truck. And, she could “weather the storm”: live with the consequences in the meantime.
And while she realized that the assumption that buying a truck would be the ruin of his life, wasn’t one she would continue to hold, she did assume it wasn’t in his current best interests.
She was amazed at the relief she experienced by making the invisible, visible, and felt ready to look at her situation from this deeper understanding. Furthermore, she felt able to look at other commitments with fresh eyes.
As we ended our session, she said she was breathing deeply and freely, once again.
There is a lot more to Kegan’s Immunity to Change model than touched upon in this brief case study. It is well worth researching and learning (as it applies to both organizational learning and) individual growth.