Interview with Sharon Renfro
by Linda Barnett-Johnson
Q. Hi Sharon. Thanks for chatting with us. Please tell our readers a little about yourself. Do you have a website? Books?
Sharon R. Renfro is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and author of: I Didn't Know That! The Basic Ideas for Successful Relationships
Life events bring us to pivotal points where we make a choice that impacts the remainder of our life and influences others. I can think of no more powerful way to influence others than to write a book. The events that accumulate to allow a person to gain enough experience and knowledge to author a book are far too numerous to tell another person. And yet, each event is important to the story. One settles for the highlights with the realization that many people who contributed to your growth and maturity will be left out.
The earliest memory I have of knowing that one person can make a difference was in my elementary school library. Biographies informed me that single individuals had the capacity to change the situations for others for the better. Becoming a social worker was not a giant leap.
My father said to me in my early thirties that he knew why I had become a social worker: I was trying to solve my own problems with my family. He was accurate, and he was surprised when I asked him, “How long have you known that is what I am trying to do?” By my early thirties, I was involved in post-graduate training at Georgetown University with Dr. Murray Bowen studying Bowen Family Systems Theory. The details of what I was trying to work through with my family matter little: we all grow up with challenges and “dysfunctional” families. We all are emotionally immature and have to find a way to “grow up” as best as we can. Growing up was what I was working on at Georgetown.
Dr. Bowen spoke openly, and this was a new experience for me. I always had been able to please others—a strategy I used to keep conflict down. The strategy failed miserably with him. He demanded I think and to use critical judgment. Suddenly, I found myself developing a sense of Self and thinking for myself. I realized I was bright and capable. The most important part of the process was defining my values—what is important, coming to know what I believe—the understanding of what is accurate, and living my principles—the guidelines to behavior based on values and beliefs. The formula provides me a strong place to stand.
The years between then and now have been filled with life events, but it has been the process of learning how to deal with my emotions that has been my life’s work. The rewards have made every life lesson worth it. My book, I Didn't Know That! The Basic Ideas for Successful Relationships deals with what I have learned. The book is the first book in a series of six and translates the complex concepts of Bowen Systems Theory into everyday language, so I can give to others what Bowen gave to me.
I live with my two daughters in Western North Carolina, maintain a private practice, and work part-time as a Wellness Coordinator for a corporation. My life is vastly contented and graced with long walks and the beautiful scenes found in these Blue Ridge Mountains. I am home. I discovered a new joy during this past year: watercolor. An exhibit of my art is scheduled for The Arboretum April through June of this year. My primary love is my children, and my second is my commitment to Bowen Systems Theory. I often times think of all those biographies I read as a child. When one has been gifted something really special, that gift must be passed along. That is my hope with my book and my life.
Q. How long have you worked as a clinical social worker? And, what exactly do you do?
My social work career spans some twenty-five years. Social work offers varied career opportunities. I have worked in the field of mental health, medical, school, and organizational social work. Currently, I practice privately seeing individuals, families, and couples in psychotherapy using a Bowen Family Systems Theory approach, and I work as a Wellness Coordinator for a major corporation, essentially coordinating their wellness program designed to prevent and address chronic health issues. I am also starting a business offering training for organizations to address physical, emotional, relational and social problems using a blended training approach. The training is designed to address assessment of need, training, and mentoring for trainers in the organization to provide an on-going support for change.
Q. Can you tell us a little about your book?
I Didn't Know That! The Basic Ideas for Successful Relationships provides readers the first lay insight into Bowen Family Systems Theory. BFST describes an alternative view of human behavior differing from conventional theories by dispelling the pathological paradigm. BFST suggests that human behavior is the result of confluent factors of nature and nurture. Nature entails the inherent characteristics that protects the human being with adaptive strategies "wired" into the person. Nature is the learned characteristics that dictates which adaptive strategies are available to an individual. Hence, one person may be more emotional while another is more thoughtful in their strategy to solve problems. Nature gifts the individual a range of behaviors from which to use, and nurture limits the range available to a specific person. The theory assumes that it is our family that functions to limit this range of behavior based on the limits of the past--resulting in a multigenerational process. The book talks about the theory in lay person's terms. Change is seen as a three step process that includes gathering of accurate information about functioning, understanding how the information forms a system and determines behavior, and utilizing our most recently evolved adaptive strategies to define novel ideas, and thus new behaviors to approach challenges in life. It is a book of simple ideas that offer powerful solutions.
Q. What kind of challenges and behaviors do you find interesting in people?
I like observing people: I find human behavior intriguing. Conflict is my least favorite thing in relationships, however, I am beginning to distinguish between what is to be gained from conflict when it is handled in a less emotionally reactive manner. Conflict erupts when two or more people see a situation differently, and at least one of them interprets the situation as threatening to him/her.
I find "falling in love" fascinating. The more deeply I understand love, I see it as a by-product of sensing safety in a relationship. I am intrigued that we fall in and out of love so quickly with minimal stimulus, except that if we sense that we are safe we are more apt to love, and if we sense threat, we are more apt to not love. That makes us simplistic creatures who have minimal understanding of our own Selves.
I am also in awe of our ability to accept a point of view as being the "truth". When we look back on human history, we have been in err about our understanding of our world, and yet we become very reactive when our "truths" are challenged, regardless of the evidence before us.
I am taken by human kindness: acts of authentic caring. It is a rare and dazzling occurrence.
Q. What kind of challenges do we all face in our relationships?
The primary challenge we all face, in my opinion, is the simplistic notion that our emotions and feelings should guide us in major decision making. Even professionals stress this when they are "helping" a person. In fact, what we are lacking is the ability to think and make decisions based on a thoughtful response to a situation. Thought involves the part of our brain that allows for logic, understanding, and genuine consideration of another person. I am much more comfortable when someone is making a decision that influences my life if they engage thought instead of making a decision solely on a feeling. Feelings are effervescent--we can sense a feeling very strongly only for it to dissipate with time. When we are using our feelings as guides, it is easy to be selfish or selfless. I think the more we function from a strong sense of self that includes the genuine consideration of another person, the more likely we are to live responsibly and from a position of contentment and ethics. It is hard to imagine happiness being an outcome from unethical and irresponsible behavior that is selfish or selfless.
Q. How can our readers benefit from your book?
Readers can move from a pathological based understanding of human behavior to a natural systems understanding. This releases us from guilt and pain and guides us to a more thoughtful process. With thought we can utilize novel solutions, problem-solve in a creative manner, and make meaningful connections rich in authenticity. The book also helps readers know that they are not alone--we are all human beings caught in the same emotional processes. Readers will find ideas about how to behave differently based on a new understanding of Self and the other person. The book encourages the use of logic, reason, and consideration of Self and others to promote principled behavior in relationships. Learning to define Self through clarifying ones values, understanding the basis of those values through beliefs, and distinguishing life principles for guidance for behavior can be achieved by reading this book and doing the end of chapter work. The book requires something of the reader.
Q. Can you explain the difference between right brain and left brain thinking?
No, I cannot. I do not think in terms of right/left brain. From my point of view there are three separate and distinct brain functions. The ancient part of the brain called the reptilian system parallels fairly well with what Bowen described as the Emotional System--that part of our brain that is charged with constant vigilance to protect us from threat. The second part of the brain, the limbic systems, generates subjective impressions or feelings. I see feelings as moderators for the emotions. We sense a threat, and if our feelings reinforce that threat, we are much more likely to take protective action. The third part of the brain, the neo-cortex houses our ability to think. This is our creativity, our play center, our logic, and very importantly for relationships, the part of our brain that pauses to consider another person. Relationships that are stable and promote the well-being of both persons exist when two people are capable of thought. How the left and right brains work together has not been an interest of mine, although I would imagine interesting facts tell us much about perception, and thus, behavior.
Q. Why are women more emotional than men? I've heard that women 'feel' more than men? What does it all mean?
I love this question--the response I guess we would expect from a woman. I understand the word emotional in a different way than some people do. Oftentimes, when we hear the word emotional we think of feelings. I do not mean feelings when I use the word emotional. From my frame of reference, men and women are equally emotional. Let me make my case.
The word emotional from Bowen Family Systems Theory means the instinctual, instant assessment of everything that happens to us to determine if we are threatened or are safe. This built-in adaptive mechanism is meant to keep us safe in a world in which our physical well-being is threatened. The behaviors we exhibit based on our emotions are behaviors we find in other life forms.
When we sense safety, we are free to attend to other life interests or necessities. When we sense threat, however, we have only four behaviors to choose from. As we look at these behaviors, we know both men and women who engage in these behaviors. As I worked to understand human behavior, I looked to other life forms to give me a frame of reference. We are not other animals, but we do behave similarly at times. We are our most similar to other animals when we engage in emotionally driven behavior. The four behaviors are to Fight, to Run, to Camouflage, and to Play Dead.
It would be hard to imagine that anyone would say men do not fight at least as much as women do. If my definition is accurate, that makes men on the same level as women, if not more so. Men who hit women are not embracing thought as a way to solve a situation that they interpret as a threat. And we can also be assured that the feelings of anger, hate, rage, etc. are coursing through their veins. When we think about running, we can see that men are as engaged in that behavior as are women. Let's say that a man has a feeling, and he sees expression of that feeling as a threat, so he runs from the situation that "creates" the feeling. The behavior of running away from a situation like this is highly emotional. If a person were thinking, the person would know that the discomfort of expressing a feeling can be negotiated and may result in a highly intimate experience that enriches life. When people use Camouflage, they simply are pretending to be someone they are not. Ring a bell about any men you know? Authenticity is not a product of the emotional system. Authenticity is a product of deep thought in which we clarify our values and beliefs and live them through principled behavior. And finally, playing dead is a very clever way of getting people to leave you alone. Have you ever had the experience of trying to talk to a man who is in front of a television??? Men seem to be able to turn off their sensory perceptions at will.....that is a form of cut-off. All of these responses are steeped in emotion.
Except in rare circumstances, when I see any extreme emotion, either safety or threat, I assume that intense feelings accompany those emotions. Positive feelings accompany the sense of safety, and negative feelings accompany the sense of threat. Females may be more apt to verbally express feelings, but emotional reactions indirectly express feelings. We have to know how to understand our Selves. Men are not as different from women as we have been led to believe by conventional theory of human behavior
Q. Any last comments?
Yes, issues related to relationships have interested human beings since recorded history--none of this is new. We tend to think that our moment in time brings us to a novel place, because we remain confused about what a Self is and about what it means to be in relationship with another person. The collection of knowledge paired with an accurate understanding of phenomena can gift us with altered perceptions and altered interpretations. These changes provide us hope that we can experience our Self without having to engage in emotionally driven behavior that isolates us one from another. We plague our own Selves with this isolation, creating physical, emotional, relational, and social problems that seem as if they cannot be solved. Bowen Systems Theory offers us the first real alternative to understanding our Selves and our relationships. I have been blessed with this theory. My book was my attempt to pass it forward, so that others could benefit from a new way of understanding. Today, I received the following comment about a regular news column I write for The Asheville Citizens Times News:
"Your column on relationships is making a contribution to our community. Thank you for doing it. I especially liked the one this week - provided food for thought for George and me".
When I receive feedback like that, I know that my life work is important. I have learned through difficult personal experiences what happens when one leads one's life based on emotion. I have made great effort to live life from a principled position. The rewards are tremendous. And, the great thing is that anyone can do it. What a pleasure to be able to talk about what I think. Thanks for the opportunity.