Recreating the Healing Tribe
By Bob Murray, PhD
8 February 2005
Truly supportive relationships bring out the best in us. Unfortunately in our society many of our relationships are actually quite dysfunctional and can lead to depression, anxiety, stress, and even illness.
But a network or "tribe" of supportive relationships can actually help overcome these pervasive modern ailments. In hunter-gatherer bands which we and other researchers have studied, long-term depression and generalized anxiety disorder are virtually unknown and most researchers put this down to the strength of their communal and individual bonds.
Of course you need to know whether your relationships are part of the solution or part of the problem, and how to make so-so or even emotionally dangerous liaisons into supportive "tribal" relationships. In our book, Creating Optimism: A Proven, 7-Step Program for Overcoming Depression, we show you how to do just that.
Many adult emotional problems, such as depression and its neurological twin, anxiety, originate with problematic relationships with caregivers in childhood. Almost certainly, our parents, older siblings or kindergarten teachers didn't mean to set us up for pain later on. But if they criticized us, were absent or emotionally distant, didn't get along well, or abused us physically, our brains may have become wired for pessimism and depression.
And we often perpetuate these awkward relationship patterns in our choice of friends, marriage partners, or work associates. Because our brains became accustomed to coping with such people, we tend to seek out people who remind us of them and then "cope" by retreating into familiar emotional patterns.
So how do you know whether your connections to others are healing, those--based on your real emotional needs--or problematic, reflecting your difficult or abusive childhood?
Eigth Danger Signs
- You feel criticized or whatever you do for the other person, it's never enough.
- You argue about things that don't matter.
- You don't share the same worldview or belief system.
- You feel guilty a lot of the time.
- You feel afraid to ask for what you really want.
- You quarrel over who does what.
- Nothing seems to change, even after you've talked about issues.
- You feel pessimistic or hopeless about you and/or the relationship.
If some or all of the above ring true to you, it's time to give your tribe a makeover.
Five Healing Actions
- Never criticize or accept criticism. There is no such thing as "constructive criticism:" Like abuse, criticism is always about power.
- Instead of talking about what one of you did wrong, work out concretely what you need the other person to do or not to do. Be sure not to use generalizations like "I need you to love me," but specific actions such as "I need you to hug me when I come home." Stated in this way, your needs help to set boundaries and, if agreed to, become the "rules" of the relationship.
- Talk together often about your beliefs and goals and find out what you have in common.
- Assign each of you clear roles and be very specific about who does what when.
- Develop a set of bonding rituals that are particular to the relationship.
Every time you use one of these tools you are telling your brain that you are a worthwhile person and are combating the stresses of modern life. And, in a short time, you'll have a relationship network that supports you in ways a real tribe was meant to.
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About the Author
Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
Disclaimer: The diagnosis and treatment of medical or psychiatric disorders requires trained professionals. The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. It should NOT be used as a substitute for seeking professional help.
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