Applying Matrix Principles to Families

by Deb Sherer | November 2007

Inevitably, in all of our trainings and workshops, the question arises "How can I apply these Matrix principles to situations in my real life?" At this point, Amina will often say, "Deb has done an awesome job of this with her family system." I believe that, over the past 15 years, my family and I have created a pretty healthy matrix in which to live. In the process of being asked to write about it, I spent many walks along the shores of Lake Michigan thinking about how - how did my family do this? Being a lover of 'maps' of all kinds, I decided that I must have created some for myself while navigating my family territory. Since 1993, I have had the opportunity to sit in many Matrix trainings, as participant, observer, apprentice facilitator and trainer. These experiences have helped me to develop an innate ability to self-reference and trust my felt sense of the 'rightness' or 'off-ness' of a situation and offered me an incredible set of tools I could use to effect change.

First, here's a bit of my family context as background. I have been a mom for 37 of my 56 years. I had my first child at the age of 19 and my last at 35. My children are all currently young adults ranging in age from 22 - 37. I was a stay-at-home mom from age 27 until I was 40. My husband of 31 years, was (and still is) the primary money-maker and a leader in his field (AIDS care). My home was my work place and my children the product I was primarily responsible for. His was the hospital and clinics working desperately hard to keep his patients alive. As a stay at home mom, I was leading a life that was very fulfilling but also somewhat depressing. After years of constant caretaking and being responsible for others, I basically lost my sense of myself in the world and was hard-put to come up with any sense of self-worth when asked. I felt myself getting more and more disempowered and pretty sure that not even McDonalds would hire me part-time. Instead of coming home to a wife and partner, my husband was coming home to not just 4 kids but a pretty depressed fifth one. At age 39, our world blew up around us. We almost lost our marriage (luckily we didn't) and I was forced to wake-up and re-evaluate my life and myself. I became a massage therapist, which led me to Hakomi (a body-centered psychotherapy system) which in turn brought me to Matrix Leadership. I began a spiritual journey into shamanism and also managed to take an Internal Family Systems training.

I was in my early 40's when I finished my Matrix training and was gung-ho to change the world. But, I felt out of integrity with myself when I realized that I wasn't walking my talk at home. On the surface, we looked great-good-looking couple with 4 very bright intelligent kids, 2 boys, 2 girls, nice house and of course the minivan, two dogs and two cats. But something was off. I could feel it in my gut. The sense of connection, compassion, acceptance, the ability to work with differences and the ground of health that I felt in the trainings was not quite there at home. I have heard this articulated many times by participants in trainings. It's common to go into despair and frustration about your real life instead of getting curious about what is different. My advice: identify one element and start to work with it.

Person-to-person & Ground of Health

Ground of health-is it present or not? In order to begin 'mapping' my family territory-or for that matter any context you are living or working in-determining the relative health of the system you are in feels crucial. In the early 90's my family consisted of two 40 something parents, a 24 year old daughter no longer living at home and in her own relationship with her future husband, two teenage sons and a 9 year old daughter. So, what wasn't feeling healthy?

Well, three of my kids weren't really hanging out much together. They were living separate lives in the same house and my eldest was long gone from home. For years I had been the sole recipient of all the emotional expression in the family. I'd hear all their problems and at the end of the day, dutifully fill in my husband. I was too exhausted from being the emotional container to even begin attending to our relationship. He, too, was exhausted from work and caring for all his patients. I realized, to my chagrin that I had unconsciously set up a top-down hierarchy that mostly reported just to me. I'd say to my kids, "Don't bother your dad when he comes home, he's had a hard day." I also realized that I was colluding with each of my children when I'd sit and listen to them talk about their issues with another sibling. I hadn't even imagined that I could encourage them to speak to each other. All my best intentions were, in fact, getting in the way of inclusivity. I was not allowing a true open matrix style system to develop and flourish. Once I could see my part in the dynamics, I could choose to change my behavior, let go of any expectations about others' behaviors changing and yet hold an intention that the flow of connection between us all would change.

One of the first simple interventions was to say to my kids when they had an issue with their dad or each other, "Maybe you should talk directly with ______, instead of telling me." One of my kids even said to me that they were afraid to try that out. Some of our first forays into recreating an open matrix style system were quite painful. At first, my eldest teenage son would sit around with us and could only tolerate being there for about 5 minutes before having to get up and leave. But what a valuable 5 minutes that was. It was a beginning that has evolved over the years to hours and hours including weeks of family vacation time spent together with a deep appreciation for all of our individual needs to come and go whenever.

Roles, Old Stories and Feedback

I realized that I needed to let go of a role I was in: Mother Responsible for all the Emotional Well-Being in the Whole Universe. (Something I worked with in my Matrix training.) This was profoundly liberating for me personally, for everyone else and consequently for the system itself. I began to get really curious about all the other unconscious roles we had each been locked into. I /we started trying to name some of them. Over the years, we have all been able to name, articulate and explore different parts we play in each other's stories. Sometimes we'd sit down as a family and wander through our history together. Naming hurts, anger and misunderstandings, we untangled old stories that were holding us hostage. At other times, shifts would happen in a very ordinary way just in the process of giving feedback to each other.

Useful Questions: I've got a couple of favorite questions I like to ask when I start feeling that something is 'off' in the room. The first is, "So, how are things between you and me right now? Another favorite is "Can we start over, I'm not real happy with my initial response to you? "(This one I used a lot with my teenagers.)
When working with a living system, like a family, it is very important to remember that it is constantly evolving and changing. We move constantly in and out of chaos and creativity. A living system is made up of all of its parts and the connections between them. As each individual moves through life, we are being influenced and shaped and changed and impacted. To expect not to revisit old territories over and over again will result in a paralysis. Maintaining a ground of health requires that we look forward to visiting these territories with each other again and again with love and compassion and curiosity. It requires that we track and name how we are in a familiar territory once again and acknowledge how different we are with each other and in relationship to our self. My family is an ever-changing entity. It is the primary moving target that I track and being a member of it has been the ultimate gift in my life. My husband and my children have been my greatest teachers. I feel very privileged and blessed to have this context to live and learn in, and to have my family as a container from which to do my work in the world.

I'm finding myself curious about other stories about taking Matrix principles back into your life. Perhaps, if some of these could be shared, we could give each other feedback, appreciations and commiserations and support. With the launching of the so-called "back-end" of our Matrix website -coming soon-we will have a forum to share stories and learn from each other. Stay tuned.

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This work has given me new insight into the ‘we are one‘ theme. How very interrelated we are and what we do to one, happens to the entire community. I learned the difference between intention and impact, and to have the courage to check these things out with people. I learned to take back projections I had on others. I learned about the ‘field of love‘ and in this nothing is impossible.
— Debra