Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and family therapist who became one of the foundational leadership consultants in the 20th century. His primary work, Generation to Generation, detailed how communities behave according to generational patterns. Much of his theory about communities was based on the family system. Friedman believed that unhealthy or toxic systems could be transformed, in part, by self-differentiated leaders. For Friedman, self-differentiation meant the ability to separate yourself from your environment, to have clarity in that separation that allowed you to reflect and see patterns, and to be able to engage conflict and risk while maintaining emotional regulation. In some ways, Friedman’s work is so integrated into our understandings of communities that we use his theory without noticing it. Leaders now might talk about the diagnosed patient in a system (the person who is essentially healthy and functions as a scapegoat) or how communities can be conflict-avoidant and enabling of toxic patterns.
Anyone who has ever gone through therapy after growing up in a family with toxic patterns of behavior can testify to the challenging work of becoming self-differentiated. It certainly does not happen overnight, and often, requires on-going therapy and check-ins. The human mind, especially under stress, reverts to old patterns of behavior easily. Even when these patterns hurt ourselves and others, familiarity will often win in the face of stress and chaos.
Friedman utilized a lot of parables in his work to help illustrate how to better self-differentiate. One of my favorite parables is the rope story:
There once was a woman standing at the opening of a bridge. She had a rope tied around her waist. She held one end of the rope in her hand. As a man approached her she shouted to him, “here, here, hold this.” The man took the rope. Suddenly the woman jumped off the bridge. The man strained against the edge of the bridge holding onto the rope with great effort. He started to shout for help. The woman shouted from below the bridge, “Don’t let go of the rope! I’ll die if you let go of the rope! You are saving my life.”
Friedman asks, “so what should the man do?”
Often, people will answer that the man should absolutely hold on to the rope. Friedman asks further questions. For how long? Under what conditions? Why did the woman hand him the road? Can he really save her? What if he can’t hold on?
The moral of the story emerges with each follow up question. Don’t hold a rope that isn’t yours to hold.
It sounds almost harsh to some ears, but Friedman would claim that it is self-differentiation.
Certainly liberation is about fighting against forces far beyond our control. Liberation is also about struggling against the mirror of those forces within ourselves. Sometimes we are the one passing the rope and sometimes we are the one holding the rope. Part of liberation, a powerful part, comes when we move beyond shame for our particular actions and begin to see the rope and what it tethers. Seeing the rope is the first step of a self account that at least allows us to consciously choose to take the rope, to throw it or to put it down. When we put it down, we get to decide what to do with that new rush of energy and opportunity.
As we join in deepening our spiritual understandings of liberation in our lives together this month, I encourage each of us to look for the ties that bind.
What would it be to let go?
With faith and love,