An overview of Bowen family systems theory – a different way of thinking

Given how much my book is about applying Bowen’s theory to understanding the commonalities of the families we all grow up in, it’s timely to use this excerpt (from ch. 3) as a mini blog to provide a crash course in family systems concepts. You will recognise them, described in everyday language, all the way through this book. 

Bowen researched his own family over the generations and came to see similarities in coping patterns with those families with more severe psychiatric symptoms. He noticed that there were two forces at work in relationships that drive predictable patterns of behaviour: these are the togetherness force and the separateness force, which are both essential for individuals in their relationships. The core concepts of Bowen’s theory describe the ways that family members react to the threat of loss of togetherness and explain the variations in how different families and individuals manage life challenges. These core concepts are: triangles, which describe how tension between two people gets detoured to a third party, such as when a wife discusses marital grievances with a friend rather than their husband or when a parent discuss parental grievances with a child rather than their partner; differentiation of self, which describes the extent to which family members can stay in their own skin — maintain their individuality — while relating to each other and still being part of the family group; fusion, the opposite of differentiation of self, where boundaries are lost in the pull for family togetherness; the nuclear family emotional system, which outlines the three ways that one generation of a family can reduce individual relationship discomfort — these are the conflict-and-distance pattern, the over- and under-functioning exchange between spouses, and the anxious detour onto a child. The family projection process explains how insecurities in adults can be managed through shifting the focus to the next generation; the multigenerational transmission process describes how parents’ anxieties are not transmitted equally to each child as each gets varying degrees of a parent’s worry focus; emotional cut-off is a common way that family members use distance to reduce the sense of loss of individuality in relationships; sibling position was seen by Bowen as formative in an individual’s relationship sensitivities; and societal regression process showed how the same anxious patterns in families can be seen in institutions in the broader society. All of these ideas, linked together, help show how every individual is part of a much bigger stage of actors in the same improvised play, building a storyline through their interconnections.

To see things from a systems perspective requires getting out of a ‘cause and effect’ way of thinking to seeing how every person’s impulses are part of a circuit of reactions that flow like electric currents around relationships. It’s as if relationships are a kind of dance, with each person responding intuitively to the dance steps of another. These circuits of emotional and behavioural responses in relationships shape how each individual develops. Hence getting real about ourselves in our original families requires us to get honest about how our emotional responses and behaviours flow onto others and influence how they appear to us. The good news, from a systems way of thinking, is that changing our emotional reactions and behaviours eventually flows onto changing the entire circuit of the system. That is if we can hold onto the principles that drive our change efforts in the face of others’ anxiety. This is how we can make a positive difference over time, not just for ourselves but for everyone we’re connected to.

 

Photo with permission: A Schara

Interventions and Confrontations – REPOST

Interventions and Confrontations – Are they the most helpful ways to respond to severe problems in a person we care for?

Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. 

Last week a relative called me to talk through their ideas for an “intervention”. They wanted to challenge a friend to admit to their symptoms and agree to get some professional help. I appreciated the deep care behind this request. I heard about how a long term friend had been exhibiting increasingly severe symptoms that were threatening many aspects of their wellbeing. I was happy to be a sounding board for my relative and to share some of my principles for communicating such important concerns to someone we care about. The term ‘intervention’ usually refers to the effort to gather a group of people together and confront a person about their need for help. It is often used in the case of serious drug and alcohol dependence. Web sites on how to do interventions describe the context:

People with serious addictive behaviours are often in denial that they have a problem. When heart to heart talks and other attempts to help prove ineffective, you can join forces with friends, families and a professional interventionist to confront the person with the truth and a detailed plan of action.

Many years ago I was a participant in such a strategy and experienced a long term fall out in the relationship as the years progressed. In more recent years I have come to a different view of such strategies. Because I view a person’s symptoms as part of their system of relationships I now focus on expressing my own position in the relationship rather than focus on the problems in the other. Here are the key principles – some of which I shared with my relative:

  • The goal is to express to the other that they are important in my life as opposed to challenging how they are living their life.
  • Rather than confront the other with the problems in their life – which evokes intense defensiveness – I want to express my wish to have them as part of my life well into the future.
  • In conveying my care for having them as a living and important part of my life I will share some of the observations I have had that have triggered my concern.
  • I use the language of “I” rather than “You” in describing what I have observed and what fears for their wellbeing have been activated.
  • I describe the effects on me and our relationship and how this is different to the strong loving bond I am committed to as we continue as part of each other’s lives. This is different to describing my view of the effects on their life – positioning self as the expert overseer of another’s life can be heard as patronising and drive a wedge into the relationship.
  • I aim to talk one on one with the person rather than pull a group together to confront them. A group confrontation easily leaves a person feeling ganged up on.
  • I commit to ongoing contact with the person to show that my care for them is more than words. I don’t expect that just a conversation will change anything. I am committed to addressing my part in any unhelpful aspects of the relationship pattern over the long haul. This means I will not resort to distancing.
  • I will be truthful and not accommodating but my effort at honesty will be from my perspective and principles rather than a dogmatic declaration that I am an expert about the other. My effort towards speaking honestly will be grounded in real examples not in my subjective judgements and opinion.
  • I will watch my tendencies to be an expert about others rather than staying mindful of my own immaturities. I will stay clear of treating another person as a ‘diagnosis’ but rather will view them as a fellow human being who can be an important resource in my life.
  • If I were to focus on just a diagnosis in another it is all too easy to hand them over to an expert program as a way of reducing my own sense of distress- and my responsibility to work on myself in relationship with the other.

I appreciate that it isn’t easy to know how to address serious concerns about another’s life course or symptoms. Are there exceptions? I certainly conveyed to my relative that they know their relationship with their friend and will find their own way to deal with it best. Every situation is different and there may be occasions when a more direct intervention is the most caring thing another can do. At certain times it may be most loving to call in an emergency assessment service. Even in such cases I would aim to be transparent about my willingness to do this if I ever thought that my loved one’s safety or those of another were under threat.

My view is that a group or individual confrontation of another is almost never constructive. It sets up a one- up/one- down relationship where the person feeling challenged is evoked into high reactivity rather than being able to listen. They hear judgement rather than heart-felt concern. They can be fixed into the postion of a ‘patient’ in their relationship system. My system’s lens reminds me that people get into vulnerable symptomatic places in life via their position in their relationship/family systems. This means that if I change how I relate in that system I can contribute to a less regressive and anxious field for the most vulnerable person.

Bowen on confrontation in a family system:

ON CONFRONTING FAMILY MEMBERS

‘As an oldest son and physician I had long been the wise expert preaching to the unenlightened, even when it was done in the guise of expressing an opinion or giving advice….During my psychoanalysis there was enough emotional pressure to engage my parents[others] in an angry confrontation…At the time I considered these confrontations to be emotional emancipation. There may have been some short term gain…but the long term result was an intensification of previous patterns.”

Family Therapy in Clinical practice P 484

ON RELATING TO A PERSON IN THE SICK ROLE

‘In those families in which both parents could eventually tone down the sickness theme and relate to the ‘patient’ on a reality level, the ‘patient’ changed. After one family had emerged from their unreality, the ‘patient’ said, “As long as they called me sick and treated me sick, I somehow had to act sick. When they stopped treating me sick, I had a choice of acting sick or acting well.”’

P 86 ‘Interventions and Confrontations’ – Jenny Brown

Adopting a research attitude to your life in your significant relationships: a template to guide you

Dr Murray Bowen wrote, “A goal of this therapy is to help the other make a research project out of life” (Bowen, 1978, p. 179). What do you think of this as a counselling goal? – Not to fix, but to motivate a person’s learning journey about themselves in their family system. Nurturing a posture of curiosity through gathering as many facts about your family challenges and life course as possible is a worthy effort in growing a more aware and resilient self.

The personal research project below has been developed by a teaching psychologist in Washington DC, Dr John Millikin. It appears with his permission in the Appendix of the second edition of my book: Growing Yourself Up. I think it is a helpful template for learning to understand self in the bigger picture of one’s family of origin. It is a very different direction to the conventional mental health approach to focussing on symptoms. My own experience in life and clinical practice is that the effort to gather data about family is much more productive than investing in “fixing” effort directed at an individual or a relationship. Paradoxically the bigger picture approach can actually result in sustainable reduction of symptoms.

Perhaps you might like to begin your own family systems research project using the example below as a springboard. It requires a patient effort over time but may be one of the most growth enhancing projects you will undertake:

Another example of an excellent self -research template is:

Appendix 6

An overview of human development across the lifespan from a Bowen family systems perspective

A learning project for individuals and academic groups. Adapted from curriculum developed by John Millikin, PhD, LMFT, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Department of Human Development.

Cast of family and important people

  • Referring to the attached guideline in Appendix 5, construct your family diagram.
  • List other significant (positive or negative) friends, family friends and professionals such as therapist, lawyers, clergy.
  • Name other important or influential people.

Nodal events (births, deaths, illness, leaving home, marriages, divorces)

  • What were the nodal personal events that happened?
    • How did you respond to them? How did other key family members respond to them?
    • What were other nodal family events that happened?
    • How did you respond to them?
    • How did other key family members respond to them?
    • Describe any change in you and the family as a result of nodal events.
    • What were the family circumstances around the time of your birth? (Answer in the appropriate phase)
    • What was leaving home like for you? How old and under what circumstances? (Answer in the appropriate phase)
    • What was leaving home like for your parents? How old and under what circumstances? (Answer with the question above)

Stressors

  • What were general personal stressors (e.g., money, work, relationships, friends, school, sports)?
  • What were general stressors for others in the family?
  • What were significant stressors in the extended family?
  • Rate the intensity of stress and emotion in the family from 1–10.

Other changes and emotional events

  • Describe any abrupt changes personally and in the family.
  • Were there legal issues?
  • Were there sudden or chronic illnesses?
  • Were there episodes of abusive behavior?
  • If so, what were they?
  • Were there infidelities?
  • Describe any other extreme behaviors or events.

 

The Family Emotional Unit Relationship System

The primary triangle (parents/self)

  • How emotionally close did you feel to each parent? (Answer on a 1–10 scale)
  • How were you involved with each parent? (Also think in terms of conflict, distance, over- and under-functioning/involvement)

How were they involved with each other? (Also think in terms

of conflict, distance, over- and under-functioning/involvement)

»»Who did you take sides with more? (Your common triangle position)

»»Did you help one parent in difficulties with the other? How?

»»Who generally gave you positive attention? How much?

»»Who generally gave you negative attention? How much?

»»Who gave you approval? How much?

»»Who did not provide attention or approval?

»»What was each parent’s involvement like with their own parents (briefly)?

Siblings and sibling position

  • How was your sibling position and functional role in the family different?
  • How did sibling/s relate to you?
  • Were you or any sibling over-focused on? Labeled as a problem?
  • How did this affect your interactions (or perception of your sibling/s)?

General family emotional process (nuclear and extended)

  • Describe major conflicts in the family (blaming, criticism, hostility).
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major distance(ing) in the family.
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major cut-offs in the family.
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major over- and under-functioning in the family (imbalanced taking care of or being taken care of).
  • Who was involved and what was it about?
  • Describe major over- and under-involvement in the family.
  • Who made important decisions?

Together and separate

  • Who was closest to whom in the family?
  • Could you be alone for long periods of time?
  • Could you be together with significant others for long periods of time?
  • How were you responsible for other family members?
  • Did other people get involved in your problems? How?
  • Who would typically bail you out of difficulties? Relationship difficulties?
  • Who were you most dependent on? (How would you scale it from 1–10?)

Feelings, reactivity and sensitivities

  • What were you anxious about?
  • How did you work with it?
  • What were others anxious about?
  • Did anyone worry about you? Who?
  • Who did you worry about?
  • What did you typically get reactive about?
  • What were you sensitive about?
  • What were some of the labels made about you?
  • Who said those?
  • Describe the basic impact of labels.
  • Did any family members think poorly of you?
  • Did any family members not pay enough attention to you?
  • Who got the most attention in the family?
  • Were you able to meet key family members’ expectations?
  • Did you feel you were a disappointment to others?
  • Were others upset with you or you with them? Did you feel responsible for their upset?
  • Who else was generally upset with whom?
  • How did you regulate and work with emotions? Go to someone? Cope by yourself?
  • Describe any other emotionally challenging events or interactions?

Medical, health and addictions

  • List any medical/health issues and major health issues for all family members. Did you have unhealthy habits, addictions?
  • Did any member have unhealthy habits, addictions?
  • Were there developmental issues for you or anyone in your family?
  • Were there any (standard) psychological issues or diagnoses?
  • Who showed more symptoms/disrupted behaviors? What were they?

 

Autonomy, Effectiveness, Principles and Defining a Self

Autonomy and acts of self

  • List areas of self-directed activities/pursuits.
  • What were self-directed activities not necessarily chosen or supported by others?
  • How much autonomy did you have in achieving goals?
  • Did you generally have space to be yourself with others?
  • How open were you with others about your core thoughts and
  • beliefs?
  • Did parents and siblings have a good sense of direction?

Personal and interpersonal effectiveness

  • How did you respond to the personal challenges in your adolescence and leaving home phase? To what effect?
  • How was the family a resource for you in meeting your challenges?
  • What were your talents? How were they connected to family?
  • How effective were family members in meeting challenges, especially parents?
  • What did the family do well as a group?
  • What did the family do well in encouraging autonomy?

Principles and defining self

  • How could you have functioned better in this growing up phase?
  • What do you see now as your responsibilities to yourself during this phase?
  • How can you have taken better responsibility with significant others?
  • If you could now change something about self in this phase, what would it be?
  • What were some the guiding principles involved in your interactions?

Keeping a gracious view of family this Christmas/Holiday season


Gathering with extended family for any holiday season or milestone event reveals both what we share in common and the significant differences between us. I wonder if you’ve ever sat at the family festive dinner table and listened to a relative express a viewpoint that really irritated you. Do you walk on egg shells waiting in expectation for that relative to take offence? Have you observed how challenging it is for a family member to participate in the socialising? Perhaps you have observed how much a family member relies on alcohol to manage the occasion? Or do you have a relative who uses humour (somewhat inappropriately) as their method of conversing?
I often hear people declare that they just don’t like their sibling or aunt/uncle….. They consider that their life and values have taken a different direction and they would prefer to not have to continue an effort to be in contact.
A family systems view opens up a different way of thinking about the variations amongst family members. The young person in the family who was most focussed on (negatively or positively) will be the one who absorbs more of the immaturity of the whole family system. The more anxiously focussed on child may be the one born at a particularly intense time for parents, or is the same sibling position as a parent (or a parent’s troubled sibling), or who was the only child of one gender, or was a sick infant. Not all siblings leave home with the same capacities to cope in life. In turn, this means that others enter the challenges of adult life with greater or lesser emotional resources. The sister or brother who seems so different from you may simply represent what could so easily have been your own path if the family circumstances were a little different.
Can you see how this opens up compassion and grace towards the more challenging family members. It also enables us to reduce our reactive responses to the apparently more immature members of our family – previous responses which have contributed to fixing oversensitive patterns in place. If you are the member of your family that others seem to struggle to accept, it may be useful to understand how your position, in relation to your parents insecurities, have added to your heightened sensitivity to others. It can make sense of how quickly you take things personally when you are with family and how others distance when you get upset. This awareness of us and others can be helpful to refocus on managing our part and to shift away from blaming others.
Perhaps a good gift to yourself and your family at this year-end is consider your extended family as part of a system that has enabled some to manage stress and relationships more effectively than others.

You may wish to re- read Chapter 3 of my book Growing Yourself Up, titled:

Family ties that bind: Understanding our family of origin

In particular the section- Each sibling experiences a different family

An excerpt:

Have you ever paused to appreciate that each of your siblings experienced a different family to you due to the variations in the degree and tone of attention each received from your parents? Some siblings get a balanced amount of attention and assistance in line with their logical needs, while others get an exaggerated degree of positive or negative attention….
The useful thing to appreciate in your growing-up efforts is that you can’t have the same expectations of each sibling that you have of yourself. Each family member’s pathway to maturity is inevitably different from your own.
Before we move into blaming our parents for any challenging siblings, it is worth remembering the influence of our parent’s family systems:
Much of a parent’s reaction to each of their children comes out of an unconscious effort to relieve their own uncertainties and anxiety, not from a deliberate attempt to mess up their children. Our mothers and fathers came out of their own families with a level of tolerance for upset, discord, involvement and demands. In turn this is played out in their marriage and their reactions to each of their children. None of us, or our parents, has any say in the hand of maturity cards we are dealt as part of the inheritance of generations of families.
(Growing Yourself Up p.39-40)

Whatever your family heritage and tradition for gathering at this time of year,
I wish you a Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays, filled with grace for each family member.

*A CHRISTMAS REFLECTION: Systems theory assists me to cultivate more compassion and understanding towards other family members. Additionally and even more importantly, the Christmas message of God’s grace shown in coming down into our struggles as the son, Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrates an extravagant dose of undeserved favour and compassion towards us. In response to this I am compelled to nurture the same compassion towards others.

 

Once in Royal David’s City – Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Verse 2:
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor and meek and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

Resilience: all about relationships

“Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?”

The topic of resilience has been getting lots of attention over the past years. It seems that many have realised that it is more helpful to aim for improved resilience than increased happiness. The core of resilience is seen in how well one deals with life’s setbacks. Think about it for a moment: What will be more useful in equipping a person for life’s daily challenges? Will it be striving for positive feelings? or will it be nurturing the capacity to bounce back after disappointments?

Definitions of the concept of resilience abound! I think it’s helpful to think of it as: The capacity to stay on track with goals and tasks in the midst of challenging environments. The majority of approaches to promoting resilience focus on the individual. They describe how a person can mobilize certain mindsets that allow them to see failure as opportunities rather than as a personal condemnation. This individual cognitive reframing and techniques for self-soothing can certainly be helpful in learning to not be crushed by disappointments; however they leave out the importance of relationship dynamics to our resilience. It’s easy to see external events like loss of job or an illness as the greatest threat to resilience but it is important not to underestimate the way that relationship dynamics can subtly drain a person’s capacity to manage life effectively. A useful question to ask is: Are more of my energies going into reading and trying to manage relationships than going into my responsibilities?

I recently spoke to a woman I will call Leanne, who was increasingly stressed at her workplace. She had taken on a job in a community organisation and was looking forward to making a real contribution. After just 6 month in the job however, she was losing the ability to focus on her work tasks because all of her energy was consumed by trying to work out the relationship dynamics. She sensed that one colleague didn’t value her and had started to seek reassurance from others at the office.  Her boss had initially been available and supportive but she was now sensing a withdrawal of his involvement. She began imagining that he doubted her capabilities and that her colleague might even be bad mouthing her behind her back. Leanne had gone from an enthusiastic confident worker to an anxious and self-doubting person within a short time.

As with so many of us, Leanne’s sensitivities to relationships were a huge part of her lowered resilience. She was able to be productive when she felt valued and validated but any sense of disapproval and loss of attention would derail her from functioning well. All of us have emerged from our families with varying degrees of sensitivity to relationship undercurrents. The most common sensitivities are to approval, expectations, attention and distress in others. Which of these are most likely to destabilize you in your relationship contexts? What perceptions of others are most likely to distract you from managing life’s tasks? Is it seeing another upset and feeling that somehow you are responsible? Is it when you lose a perceived sense of importance or a shift from getting attention?

Here is a summary list of the common relationship patterns (drawn from family systems theory) that can impair people’s resilience.  Each of these patterns deserves a blog all its own but a brief checklist might open up more ways of understanding how relationship context affects us all. See if you can recognise any of these going on in your life at the moment:

 

  • Through too much togetherness: When people invest in needing to be close and connected all the time it is hard to get on with life’s responsibilities. Sensitivities to being connected, through approval and validation, start to take over all other important tasks.
  • Through too much distance: When people use distance to deal with tensions with others it increases the awkwardness in relationships. Negative distance and avoidance skews people towards blame and superiority. This distracts people from their own responsibilities as well as getting in the way of sharing resources and good team work.
  • Through over functioning for others: When people start to be overly helpful in telling others how to think and behave it can get in the way of them solving their own problems and can promote dependency and reduced competency.
  • Through being part of triangles: When people experience tension and distress in one relationship it is all too easy to find a 3rd party to vent to about this. Venting, complaining and gossiping to others about an absent party can seem to reduce our angst and worries, by having someone align with our point of view. The initial problem is prevented from being addressed in the relationship it belongs in. Detouring relationship tension also reduces resilience as we don’t get good practice at expressing differences and working them out person to person.

 

Leanne was able to see how her dependence on others being warm and attentive towards her was threatening her capacity to manage in her job. As an individual she had all the competencies necessary to do her work well but in relationships she could so easily lose her sense of capacity and become consumed by feeling left out. It was helpful for her to consider how this developed in her relationships in her original family. She realised that it would not be an easy pattern to adjust but that she could re- build some resilience by taking the focus of trying to get steadiness through relationships and instead get back on track with performing her job duties well. She could stay in friendly contact with her colleagues without getting caught up in figuring out what they thought of her.

We all inherit different degrees of relational and emotional resilience from the families we grow up in. there are many variables that go into this complex process that help make sense of the different capacities family members and people from different families have to cope with the fortunes and misfortunes of life. Bowen theory provides a way to grapple with this and to research in our own lives the ways that we interact within our relationship environment and its impact on our moments of apparent strength and episodes of greatest vulnerability.


This blog originally appeared on the Family Systems Institute Website 

To read more from Jenny Brown, you can purchase her book Growing Yourself Up here.

The FSI runs interactive groups promoting relational resilience for parents and adolescence, for more information go here.

New group schedules will be released in the coming months, if you are interested in attending please let us know by emailing us: info [at] thefsi [dot] com [dot] au or calling (02) 9904 5600

Where is my energy directed as a parent?

Parents and family

As a parent where is most of Pam’s energy directed?   Is it to trying to handle her son? -Or reacting to Bill her husband and son’s step-parent? – Or towards managing herself in relation to her son and husband?                 

It’s useful to think back over an example of interacting with the child you are concerned about. Typical interactions reveal where most of our efforts are going?

Pam is a mother of a struggling adolescent son. She described a recent morning scenario with son Hamish and her husband Bill. Over the past year Pam’s concerns about Hamish anxiously withdrawing from peers and the family were increasing. Just last week Pam had set Hamish’s alarm the night before to help him get to school. When she woke she headed straight to his door to listen for evidence of any movement. All was quite. Pam’s stress levels increased. She knocked lightly on the door and asked if Hamish was getting dressed for school. She heard him mumble: “I’ll get up in a minute”. Pam went to the kitchen and started making his lunch. Her partner Bill (Hamish’s step father) told her to not get so uptight. Pam responded saying: “You don’t understand how anxious and down Hamish is. He needs all her support to get better”. After 10 more minutes Pam knocks on Hamish’s door, enters and sees him still in bed. She sits by his bed and asks if he’s OK. Hamish says that he has a bad stomach ache and just can’t get to school. Pam offers to make him a detox smoothie to help calm him. She gets out his school uniform and places it next to him. She packs his bag and leaves for the kitchen again. Bill sees how worried Pam is and says: “I can’t believe the stress he is putting you through!”  He calls out loudly and angrily to Hamish: “Get yourself up and come to breakfast now – Or I’ll come in and drag you out!”. Pam rushes to Hamish and sees him curled up in a ball and becoming quite distressed. She reminds him to do his breathing exercises to avoid a panic attack. She does the deep breathing herself and coaches him to follow her cues while sitting beside him and rubbing his back. Hamish begins to get shaky and says that he feels really sick. Pam gives him a rub on his back trying to help calm him down. Bill comes to the bedroom door saying firmly: “What’s going on here? Why are you still in bed? You’ll make your mother late for work again!” Pam asks Bill to leave saying: “You are not helping!”  She tells Hamish he can stay in bed until morning tea time and can go to school late. She writes him a late note to take to school and leaves it beside his bed with his bus pass. Bill vents his frustration to Pam about Hamish being lazy. Pam defends Hamish saying he has bad anxiety. They both leave for work. Throughout the morning Pam sends texts to Hamish encouraging him to get to school. Hamish doesn’t text back and doesn’t make it to school.

It was very helpful for Pam to describe the details of this scenario with a factual description of how each person responded.  Such descriptions assist people to see ways that each person is affecting each other. Pam identified that her primary energy is being directed towards Hamish:  worried thoughts about his anxiety, what he might be feeling, what might fix his symptoms, how to make Hamish feel better about himself and be happy about going to school.

Pam could see that her secondary energy was directed towards Bill and what she saw as his effect on Hamish. As Bill ups his criticism of Hamish, Pam increases her nurture for her son.

It was difficult for Pam to consider directing her energy towards herself as a parent. She had become increasingly concerned for Hamish over many years. She was allowing her worry to shape her parenting; and to shape her interactions with Bill.  As a step towards reclaiming some parent leadership Pam began to grapple with:

• What am I in control of? What is beyond my sphere of control?

• How can I convey what’s important to me as your Mum?

• How do I want to contribute to my child growing their own coping capacities?

Pam didn’t quite know how to answer these questions but was willing to work on it.  She saw that the more she invested her energy into trying to change Hamish she was losing her clarity as a parent. While pleased that she wasn’t getting caught in a futile power struggle with Hamish by trying to drag him out of bed, Pam saw that her helping efforts were contributing to her beloved son’s increasing helplessness. The patterns of a child becoming increasingly entitled, or increasingly dependent, are years in the making. Hence the path to improved wellbeing occurs gradually, is often bumpy and requires plentiful stores of patience.

*Upcoming blogs will show how Pam answered these questions and reshaped her parenting accordingly.

The Family Research Behind Bowen’s Theory

This blog summarises key research of Dr Murray Bowen that shaped his theory. It was a key part of my PhD discussion of results. Hence it is timely to post it. I recommend that any who are interested in family and relationships have a read of the quotes from Bowen’s research (this article was originally posted March 2014 www.thefsi.com.au)

A feast of key quotes:

“Anxiety is inevitable if you solve the problem. When anxiety increases, one has to decide whether to give in and retreat or carry on in spite of it. People can even grow and become more mature by having to face and deal with anxiety situations.” p119

The Origins of Family Psychotherapy – Unique insights into the development of Bowen systems theory

Blog post by Jenny Brown

What a satisfying experience to read: The Origins of Family Psychotherapy, This book contains the key research papers from the NIMH* project led by Dr Murray Bowen in the latter 1950s. (Edited by Jack Butler PhD)

Family Systems Institute, Bowen

Why, you may well ask, was this high on my summer reading list? Don’t I know how to switch off with some good beachside appropriate fiction? Well I did manage to also enjoy a satisfying piece of fiction but I found Bowen and his team’s research papers totally engrossing.  They took me on an excursion into how a new paradigm emerged from carefully constructed observational data. It was such a unique vantage point to see how Bowen and his collaborators, over a 5 year period of observing 18 families who were in hospital (averaging a year) with their highly symptomatic young adult member, began to see and document clear evidence of how the family is an interdependent unit. (additionally data was gathered from a number of outpatient families)

I have written copious notes from this book but thought I would try, for this blog, to pick some highlights. It’s not easy to edit out any of my standout quotes but I have chosen some that I think best express the key themes that stood out for me:

Focussing on the family as a unit – more than a group of individuals and beyond the “sick” one:

The observations reveal how the symptomatic individual is wired to the responses of all family members.  In the same way each family member, whether responding with distance or with intense helping efforts, is continually shaped by each other. While this research involved people with severe forms of psychosis, the term schizophrenia could be replaced with the term “symptoms in offspring”.

There was “A shift from seeing schizophrenia as a process between mother and patient or as an illness with the patient influenced by the mother to an orientation of seeing schizophrenia as the manifestation of a distraught family that becomes focussed in one individual.” P25

“It was possible to see the broad patterns of form and movement that had been obscured by the close up view of the individual. ….The family view in no way detracts from the importance of the familiar individual orientation. …..the individual orientation can be more meaningful after it has been possible to see the family patterns.” P 158

“On one level each family member is an individual. But on a deeper level the central family group is as one. Our study was directed to the undifferentiated ego mass beneath the individuals.” P 109

Seeing how helpers can become part of the family’s helplessness or alternatively, facilitators of family’s problem solving efforts:

There are valuable insights in these papers about the way the workers can be inducted into being rescuers or experts and the effect of such postures. The worker’s self-awareness comes to be seen as of equal importance of the family’s problem solving efforts.

The therapist aims “to be helpful while staying detached from the other person’s immaturities…It is helping with a problem without becoming responsible for the problem….Our greatest philosophy I would say that our greatest help is in helping people to define their dilemmas. Our greatest energy goes into preventing staff from trying to solve dilemmas.” P 54

“When I feel myself inwardly cheering the hero, of hating the villain in the family drama, or pulling for the family victim to assert him/herself, I consider it time to work on my own functioning.” P 116

The senior social worker/case worker on the research project Ms B Basamania writes:

Anxious family members “didn’t deal with each other but turned to therapist as ‘expert’. The higher the anxiety and tension, the greater they turn to the outside as though the tension decreased with distance.” P141

“The philosophy on the project was based upon a regard for the family and its capacity to nurture human growth…. Therapeutically a guiding principle was to respond to the families in a way that would promote growth.” P143

Seeing how growth comes about from within the family:

The research papers describe the detail of the ‘action dialogue’ of the family member’s reactions to each other (both psychologically and physiologically). The emerging theory is seen in descriptions of repeating patterns such as “the interdependent triad” of parents and “patient” (it was a number of years before Bowen clarified his concept of the triangle), the circuitry of the “over adequate/ strong one and under adequate/helpless one”.  There are some clear descriptions of how growth occurs “in-situ” of the family and not in the restorative (healing) relationship with the therapist. This paradigm shift in therapy approach was a direct outworking of the paradigm shift from individual thinking to seeing the family as an interdependent unit.

“The families present a group picture of helplessness and inadequacy. They deal with many life problems as burdens to be endured rather than problems to be solved. Therapeutic emphasis is directed at this helplessness. When either parent is able to become active in solving such a problem, the emotional adjustment of the entire family changes.”P39

“Families are not really helpless. They are functionally helpless. When the family is able to become a contained unit, and there is a family leader with motivation to define the problem and to back his(her) own convictions in taking appropriate action, the family can change from a directionless, anxiety-ridden floundering unit, to a more resourceful organism with a problem to be solved.” P118-9

The parent’s sureness of themselves may be almost more important than what they do. If they are filled with doubts and apologies, the patient resets adversely; whereas, if they feel sure of themselves, they can behave in bizarre ways without alarming or disturbing the patient, or without upsetting the patient.” pP97

At the heart of systems change is finding a way to tolerate anxiety: If I had to summarise this important research project and its findings it would be:Managing self in relationships in the midst of arousal. (The concept of Differentiation of Self) Or : How families and workers strive to find a way to operate thoughtfully  in the presence of the inevitable anxiety generated in close proximity to other human beings; especially when some are reacting out of helplessness (and equally out of anxious helpfulness). This finishing quote I have selected from Bowen is a valuable encouragement in this effort:

“Anxiety is inevitable if you solve the problem. When anxiety increases, one has to decide whether to give in and retreat or carry on in spite of it. Anxiety does not harm people. It only makes them uncomfortable. It can cause you to shake, or lose sleep, or become confused or develop physical symptoms, but it will not kill you and it will subside. People can even grow and become more mature by having to face and deal with anxiety situations. Do you have to go on treating each other as fragile people who are about to fall apart?” p119

Reference

The Origins of Family Psychotherapy: The NIMH Family Study Project.  Murray Bowen, MD. Ed Jack Butler PhD. With contributions by Michael Kerr, MD, and Joanne Bowen, PhD. New York,: Jason Aronson, 2013.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Origins-Family-Psychotherapy-Project/dp/0765709740

Note: the proceeds of this fine book are being donated to the work of the Bowen Archives.

*National Institute of Mental Health

The Self in the System: How much autonomy is possible?

Each of us can raise our ‘periscope’ (capacity to observe self and others) a little above the murkiness of human subjectivity. There is always the possibility of the ‘self’ increasing his/her understanding of the part they are playing out in relation to others.

This was the topic of the family System’s Institute’s 14th annual conference; held June 15-16 2017. After listening to the range of informative presentations I asked myself how I would answer the question that our conference topic proposed.

Firstly, how would I define the ‘self’, the individual, from a family systems perspective? 

The ‘self’ is an individual organism who is part of the human species. The human ‘self’ has much in common with other species, as demonstrated by the mirroring of Professor Suomi’s rhesus macaque baby monkeys as they interacted with human researchers. The human ‘self’ is set apart from similar life forms by his/her cerebral cortex with its ability to think, reason and reflect. This enables a limited capacity to manage life in certain areas according to reason. The human ‘self’ struggles to see the presence of chronic anxiety which plays such a significant role in the development of symptoms and the transfer of symptom vulnerability within a group.  I like Dr Kerr’s suggestion that a possible new name for this species could be: ‘homo-dysrationalis.’ This is out of respect for the degree to which emotionality influences so much of what the human ‘self’ perceives and does.

The ‘self’ is born into a multigenerational family with multiple dynamic variables of emotional and relational process. Context is crucial to understanding the development and expression of each ‘self’.

Can the self ever be autonomous?

The ‘self’ is never autonomous among other selves. She/he is both an actor and a reactor in relationships. Such processes influence which of the person’s genes are expressed, over expressed, or under expressed. Each ‘self’ shares a drive to be attached: to be mutually attended to and supported, and to be separate: to operate independently in life tasks and creative expression. These 2 counter life forces guarantee a dance like pattern of movements fuelled by both seeking togetherness and seeking distance for autonomy. The relationship dynamics are always being powered by these pushes and pulls in the space in between different ‘selves’. Each ‘self’ is significantly influenced by the brains around him/her. As such the ‘self’ cannot be reduced to cause and effect thinking where external influences and biological makeup are lineally seen to shape the ‘self’. It is always an interaction.

All ‘selves’ sit on a continuum from almost ‘no selves’ who have become lost in the merging of anxious involvements with others; to selves who have a sense of where their responsibilities begin and end, while maintaining meaningful involvement with others. All ‘selves’ in their family systems are qualitatively similar but each ‘self’ and their family is quantitatively different in levels of merged boundaries with each other.

Can a person grow a bit more ‘self’ on this continuum?

There is a platform of hope for such progress where reversals of anxious interactions occur at both relational and biological levels. Each of us can raise our ‘periscope’ (capacity to observe self and others) a little above the murkiness of human subjectivity. There is always the possibility of the ‘self’ increasing his/her understanding of the part he/she is playing out in relation to others.

Those in a helping role can assist such small steps of growth of more ‘self’ by patiently asking non-judgemental and non-pushy questions about interactions – the “who, what, when, where and what next”? This may assist another ‘self’ to gain more awareness of the affect they have on others and other on them. As a result of this knowledge a ‘self’ may shift from instinctively controlling or being controlled by others, to better control of ‘self’. This will involve either less eclipsing others or giving way to being eclipsed. The progress of growing more ‘self’ will entail choosing to think in terms of years rather than just the day.

Autonomy is not possible given relationship interchange is always at play. The ‘self’ can slowly increase responsible autonomy but is wise to never underestimating the strength of human interdependence.

A thought I posted on Facebook prior to the conference:

Self in Bowen theory is NOT about self-actualization or selfishness autonomy. Rather it is all about the ways in which an individual is affected by the relationship environment and the way they affect others within their system. How much is each ‘self’ dependent on relationships to function?

Some relevant quotes from Dr M Kerr’s presentations:Self, Family Systems Institute

“Each person’s emotions not only reflect their internal states, but also function to change each other’s internal states and functions.”

“It is a nonsense to blame one another because they both help create changes in each other to which both react. Blaming the other amounts to blaming oneself.”

“Poorly differentiated people are not good at acting based on long term reward versus automatically opting for instant gratification….Reasonably well-differentiated people may feel like taking the easy way out, feel like acting to relive the anxiety of the moment, but can fall back on fact and principle to stay the course.”

“Awareness of chronic anxiety (subjective, persistent sensitivity to imagined threat [my definition of Chr. Anx. JB]) can be important because of its apparent role in supporting the chronic inflammation that plays an important role in many mental, bodily, and behavioural symptoms. Chronic inflammation is one of the potentially silent killers.”

What makes for healthy disagreements?

It’s not always about compromise

I was asked if the outcome of a constructive disagreement always involves compromise. It’s interesting that many people assume that resolution requires a degree of compromise or giving up something. When disagreements are managed maturely with good contact, avoidance of triangles and people expressing their own experience and perspective, there are a range of possible outcomes.

I asked a group of community group leaders: What they think makes for a healthy disagreement? I frequently ask this question of couples in counselling who are usually a bit taken aback that I think this is a more useful exploration than what makes for harmony.

Responses at my talk included: being willing to listen well and creating trust. People found it much easier to answer the question: What things get in the way of constructive disagreements? Responses included: our pride, believing that we are right, a desire to not give in, pushing our point of view, anger and attack and talking over the other.

I suggested 3 guiding principles from Bowen family systems theory that may be helpful in dealing with conflict well. Of course with generalities it is wise to appreciate that specific conflict situations need to be thoughtfully examined to determine ways to manage self within it. This caveat aside, see what you think of these guidelines:

1: Stay in good contact with the person with whom tension or disagreement has arisen. In the face of relationship tension, we humans are primed to use distance as a quick way of reducing discomfort. While avoiding conflict can feel like an attractive option, distance predictably increases negative projections. The less contact with the other the more we tend to exaggerate differences and imagine negative motives. When 2 people avoid each other after a tense interaction it is highly likely that they each begin to escalate a negative emotion circuit.

It isn’t easy to stay in good contact in the face of tension but tolerating this discomfort is a key way of being able to work things out in a thoughtful way. Even the act of demonstrating a warm greeting after a tense encounter can calm things between people and lay the groundwork for talking out differences.

2: Resist detouring tension to a third party. As well as distancing in the face of relationship discord it is predictable that people go to another person and vent about the person they have had tension with. This triangling process seems so natural and yet it can reduce the chance of being able to resolve the difficulty in the original relationship. When we find a person who validates our experience of the “difficult” other we immediately calm down and are less inclined to go back to the upset relationship to hear each side of the situation.

Triangles also provide a mechanism for spreading the original relationship tension as the person who has been vented to is now more cautious and tense around the person they have heard complaints about. I am always asked about the value of seeking counsel from a third party which on the surface sounds like a reasonable strategy in the face of conflict. The key question to ask is:

Am I seeking someone to take my side and expecting them to validate me?

or am I wanting someone to help me get my emotions in check and to think objectively about how I am managing the relationship upset?

Gaining more of a factual view about how we contributed to the misunderstanding is valuable bit conversations directed at describing, analysing and diagnosing/blaming the other person is actually adding fuel to the intensity of the discord.

3: Stay responsible for representing yourself not changing the view of the other. When our energies go towards changing or blaming the other we are contributing to a defensive response that amplifies their own stance; However when we can express our own thinking and experience of the situation we are more likely to be heard by the other who will be equally listened to by us. Our listening is in order to learn about the other’s experience from where they sit in the relationship system that we share (family, workplace, community group etc.).

At the end of this presentation, I was asked if the outcome of a constructive disagreement always involves compromise. It’s interesting that many people assume that resolution requires a degree of compromise or giving up something. When disagreements are managed maturely with good contact, avoidance of triangles and people expressing their own experience and perspective, the outcome will be one of 3 possibilities:

  • Each person will maintain their own position with an appreciation and acceptance of the others different stance. This is not just agreeing to disagree but an informed choice to operate from different positions. Respect is maintained.
  • One person will discover and acknowledge that they did not have adequate information to make a judgement and that they were wrong in their position and will back down from it. And conversely one person will choose to maintain their position having explained it to the other and remaining convicted of their view.
  • One or both people will thoughtfully choses to adjust part of their position in light of what they learn from the discussion with the other. Compromise is not a kind of pretend harmony but something worked at through respectful dialogue.

All of this is quite easy to write about but in practice it is hard. It requires overriding the rush of strong emotions that are automatically activated in the face of relationship disruption. We can choose to move towards that tension and manage our selves maturely or to avoid it and potentially contribute to more layers in to the relationship tension. It’s hard to accept that being grown up means choosing to do what doesn’t come naturally!

A version of this blog fist appeared on the FSI web page in 2014. 

The bigger picture behind negative self-talk

“I know that my ‘self-talk’ in relationships tends to be negative and full of doubts. I need to work on improving this self-talk.”

I wondered whether there was more to this than a case of negative self -talk.  Together we began exploring the effects of the relationship reciprocity and not Helen’s individual cognitions.

*Helen is a recently semi-retired, professional woman. She had enjoyed a successful work life but was ready for a reduction in work responsibilities now that she was in her 60s. It was a huge transition for Helen who had been with the same employer for over 25 years. She had taken on this full time career track following her divorce. Helen described the way her adult children were stepping up to support her following this significant job departure.  They were all hearing about her fears that she would struggle to manage her finances and have sufficient funds. While Helen had followed sound advice on her investments and had offers of secure part time work, these facts did little to allay her fears.

As Helen reflected on her shifting relationship with her 3 adult children she recognised how much she was venting her worries to each of them. They responded with reassurance, statements of respect for her ongoing achievements and advice about her transition decisions. Helen did appreciate the caring response from each of them but said that she felt unworthy of their praise and encouragement. When asked about the effects of their increased support she replied:

“The more support they give me the emptier I seem to feel about myself, and my money anxieties are not relieved.”

Such an interesting response! I deemed it was worthy of further investigation. I asked Helen how she accounted for her discomfort with her children’s gestures of encouragement and affirmation. She thought that distance had been her main way to manage herself in relationships to her own parents and that this had translated into a comfortable distance with her own children. Not a cut –off kind of distance, as she saw them all regularly. Rather it had been an emotional distance where she refrained from sharing at a deeper, more personal level. She had been concerned not to be an emotional burden for her children. This current transition had prompted a greater connection with her children. Her recent expressions of vulnerability however, were clearly unsettling the previous equilibrium for Helen.

Helen’s next reflection was especially intriguing. She said:

“I know that my ‘self-talk’ in relationships tends to be negative and full of doubts. I need to work on improving this self-talk.”

I wondered whether there was more to this than a case of negative self-talk.  Together we began exploring the effects of the relationship reciprocity and not Helen’s individual cognitions. I asked about the pattern of receiving praise from important others. We explored how the more she expressed her self- doubts, the more her children responded with assurances; and the more Helen received assurances the more she was felt inwardly depleted. This cycle did provide positive connection with her children but it was also setting up a pattern for Helen to under-function. The more she was reassured, the more she feared for her future; the more she was praised, her sense of confidence diminished. The self- talk was much more than an expression of individual doubts. Rather, it was an outworking of a relationship phenomenon.

To investigate the relationship influences further I asked about the specific patterns with each of her children. While the over-all pattern of Helen venting and her children encouraging was apparent, each relationship had some unique features. Helen became increasingly fascinated as she explored the nuances of her interactions with each adult child. This was expanding her lens well past individual introspection. She could see that her eldest son responded with lots of practical suggestions and offers to help her save money by having regular meals with their family. Helen’s response to him was to present as less capable than she was in terms of her budgeting and life management. With her only daughter, Helen experienced a good dose of emotional caretaking. She felt quite overwhelmed by her daughter’s rescuing gestures but could see that she was giving plenty of invitations to be rescued through her expressions of worry.  Her other son was somewhat less responsive to Helen’s worries. He was more laid back in listening to her concerns.  After listening and empathising he would shift the conversation away from her worries to an exchange of ideas. Helen had first thought that he was less caring than the other two. However on further reflection she saw that she felt more solid and less vulnerable in this interaction. Each of the varied patterns with her children reflected differences in the degrees of worry she had for them growing up. The son she worried least about was the son who was now relating more to her capacities. The children who she saw as having more struggles during their growing up and young adult years were the ones that were relating more to Helen’s expressions of incapacity.

Helen began to appreciate how much she was contributing to a depletion of her ‘self’ in her relating – in particular with her eldest son and her daughter. This ‘de-selfing’ in the relationship exchange contributes to a negative internal dialogue.  Helen determined to stay connected to each of her children during her current life transition. She was not going to revert to the previous distancing. She stated however that she wanted to work on connecting in a less fragile manner. She resolved to be open about the impact of the changes to her circumstances. She would share what she was learning about herself during this time. Helen wanted to share in a manner that conveyed she was responsible for managing her worries thoughtfully. She would welcome her children’s gestures of care but endeavour not to participate in unnecessary rescuing interactions. All of this would require consistent observation of herself in each relationship and continued practice at presenting her more open and capable self to the other. It would be a different effort to just endeavouring to correct negative self -talk about her deficiencies.

I think that Helen’s example demonstrates how ‘systems thinking’ is different to individual thinking. The key focus of attention is how is each person is effecting and shaping the other. Each individual’s ‘mind set’ and behaviours are inextricably linked to the back and forth responses in important relationships. The question that promotes maturity is not: How can I change my self -talk and the consequent behaviours? The more constructive growing up question is: How am I contributing to this pattern that is either depleting my confidence, or another’s sense of capacity? How is the relationship dance shaping my thinking, feeling and behaving? How can I alter my part of the dance in ways that promote mutual responsibility?

*Names and identifying details have been changed