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:
“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.”