Updated: Mar 6, 2021
Can you recall times in your life when you have experienced a sense of accomplishment? Perhaps you felt pride in what you had been able to do or a sense of relief at the completion of a task. How did you understand these emotional reactions? It is structure that makes this possible. Structure is a means to measure our emotions in relation to our experiences. It is our way of navigating our interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Structure can present itself in many ways, including moral codes, schedules, task lists, etc. It incorporates the boundaries we put around our emotions and behaviors that enable us to understand ourselves and one another. Structure can be understood as a language we use to understand our emotions.
It is often easier to understand the need for structure when we think about the experience of children. If we simply give a child everything she or he asks for, will this child ever understand the self-confidence that comes with accomplishment? Through limit setting around expectations for behaviors we instill in children a sense of self and an ability to begin to process their experiences of the world around them. They begin to value what they can do, who they are, and how they can relate to others.
These are not needs that reside solely in childhood. Likewise, adults also need structure in order to achieve balance in their sense of self and in relation to others. As adults, often without acknowledging it, we rely on or reject structure in many forms. In our previous articles, “The Importance of Nurture” and “The Need to Play”, we discussed how the nurture and play legs of the Nurture-Play-Structure Stool bring us a sense of emotional safety and joy. It is not uncommon for adults to forget the importance of nurture and play. When this happens they, by default, rely too heavily on structure.
Let us introduce you to Beth. She is in her late 20’s and grew up in a family that valued productivity and accomplishment. In her formative years, she was often only praised and validated for what she did (grades, sports, volunteer work, etc.). Although she was loved, her parents struggled with nurturing her outside of what she was able to do.
Because this is where she found herself to be valued, she began to neglect her needs for nurture and play. She began to see these needs as indulgences that had to be earned. For Beth, it was all about attaining goals to receive love. She did this by staying organized, developing an internal list of “should’s” and “have to’s”, and focusing solely on what she could demonstrate through structural standards and expectations. While this enabled Beth to become successful and accomplished by society’s standards, it handicapped her when it came to relationships with others and to understanding her own needs. Because she developed a belief system that says love must be earned, she learned to devalue herself and her needs. Over time Beth began to experience the absence of joy and emotional satisfaction, in spite of the fact that she continued to be outwardly successful. As she met each goal she set for herself, she realized that accomplishing these goals began to feel less satisfying. Therefore she continued to raise the bar on her goals in the hopes of obtaining emotional contentment. For example, at first A’s and B’s in classwork were enough. Over time, she began to negate her own internal value if she made anything less than an A. That grew into a belief that anything less than perfect (100%) was a failure. This belief system then followed her into her adult relationships.
Due to her inability to recognize the need for a balance of nurture, play, and structure, Beth struggled to feel accomplished in her relationships. If she felt she had not “done enough” she struggled to accept any nurture that was offered to her, because she did not feel that she had earned it. Likewise, she would withhold nurture if she felt others had not met her own expectations for relationships.
As we see with Beth’s story, it is easy to find ourselves out of balance when it comes to structure. Many of us rely too heavily on structure or we reject it outright. Because structure allows us to quantify and scorekeep, it is easier to focus on. Nurture and play are not measurable in the same ways. However, we must remember that we cannot appreciate the emotional safety that comes from nurture or the joy for life that we receive through play without structure. Structure is an essential leg of our Nurture-Play-Structure Stool, and like nurture and play must be attended to and maintained. In our next article we will address the emotional and relational impacts on our lives when nurture, play, and structure are out of balance.
Phillip Bass, MDiv, ThM, MA, LPCMHC, NCC, Licensed Qualified Supervisor
Kristin Mastro, MA, LCMHC, NCC, NCC, Licensed Qualified Supervisor