The Nuclear Family and the Rabbi

sunset in fall

JSB EDITS 10/29/14 8:30 AM

The Nuclear Family and the Rabbi

As part of the Navigating System’s ( monthly webinar to discuss the basic ideas of Bowen theory, we saw Dr. Bowen’s video on the nuclear family emotional process. Dr. Bowen describes the nuclear family as two people, in an unstable relationship, putting pressure on one another so that eventually one person impinges on the other. I wondered about the implications for society if we are each born into emotional systems where we naturally and automatically impinge on one another.

As the nuclear family begins to form, love itself makes it hard to see “reality.”  One wants to spend time with the other warm and fuzzy person. It is so hard to see the beginning of the world of compromise. Hard to see how “wanting” to be with the other could be a part of impinging. Relationship pressure can be as silent as a wink, a smile, or even a sad look. We can be beaten, get sick or just make compromises to keep the peace in important relationships. Without a thought or even a whimper, we distance, we avoid, we may even get sick, or best or worst of all, when impinged upon, we blame others for creating our troubles, seek revenge or go to war.

Everyday we see the evidence of how these very same nuclear family dynamics leak out into society at large. The media and our newspapers show us some horrid situations and proclaim:  We are very busy looking to see who is to blame.  Stay tuned. No questions allowed. Each of us has blind spots that remain unacknowledged and of course, out of our awareness. Some people are unusually good at seeing the automatic emotional system working on us. That emotional system is full of urges, encouraging us to pick on people, to focus on others, to be negative, to worry, to blame to dislike, and finally to polarize (“They are not human”) and to cut off. Lacking knowledge of relationship dynamics often leaves people reacting to others, living in smaller and smaller relationship circles, barricading themselves against the “others” and living in a “social wasteland”.

The headlines amplify the blame game. Take for example the following alert: Washington Rabbi arrested. For the victims of voyeurs, a terrible theft of trust.   Read and be alarmed. One of our trusted leaders arrested for a dirty secret. Look what he did to us, the headlines screech. Not how did this person fall so far down? What leads to these kinds of behaviors?   Are we part of the problem? Is this the primitive emotional system at work tugging at us to follow along? People read the headlines and automatically blame, want the perpetrator to be punished and to suffer for his crimes. Perhaps there is another story that we can all learn from? Perhaps the rabbi was blindsided, not seeing the emotional nature of the pressure in his own marriage and in the synagogue?


The Georgetown rabbi arrested for allegedly hiding a camera in the mikvah pool area where Jewish women take sacred, private ritual baths, the Baltimore gynecologist who secretly filmed his patient examinations, the freaks hacking into celebrity mobile phones and even creeps snapping photos up women’s skirts all have easy access to plenty of porn. The turn-on here is about power, subjugation and humiliation. It’s about men getting what they want, despite what women say. Members of the local Jewish community were stunned this week by the news that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a renowned scholar and a towering figure in the Kesher Israel Congregation, had been charged with six counts of voyeurism and could face up to six years in prison. Investigators say Freundel, 62, recorded women in the mikvah area using a clock radio that contained a hidden camera. This is the wise man who guided women on their spiritual path, who helped them through times of tribulation or urged them on to further enlightenment. ….Twitter: @petulad.[1]

Understanding what happened here is not to excuse anyone. (People must be held responsible for their actions and breaking the law.)   The need is for us to understand, to gain knowledge in order to intervene early and to see who is vulnerable.  It is already an automatic behavior not to hold leaders responsible for their actions or the actions of their colleagues.  The question is how do we get beyond this? What could the family, the rabbinic council or the congregation have done differently?

People want to know how this man with so much talent and so many gifts become obsessed with crazy ways to stabilize himself.   How will the wife of this man understand her part in his acting out, if as I assume, everyone has a part in the nuclear family dance? She might have noticed and been fearful to act, or she may have been unaware. At this time there is no way to know what might have been useful to her or to the rest of the family, the rabbinic council and the congregation, although the rabbinic council had, according to news reports, information about the rabbi’s misuse of his office, e.g. asking potential converts to do clerical work for him without pay and the council had told him to stop cease and desist on those counts.

Right now we do not know enough about the situation to be useful.  But we can become more aware of the difficulty of understanding others.   Not just the Rabbi and the terrorist, but all of us, are to some degree relationship blind.  We are blind to the way we see ourselves, the way others see us, the way we see others and of course how each wishes others would see us. For a few it is worth the time and effort to untangle relationships and to learn to function rather than be swept along the emotional stream of life.

But do not give up on the media because sometimes they do follow the clues and turn towards the family for understanding. After the recent terrorist act in Canada, the press looked at the family.  “Details of Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s life are hard to come by. But his radicalism seems only to have strengthened as his grip on ordinary life grew weak. And his hold appears to have begun to slip in the late 1990s, when his family fell apart.”[1] Just one fact as to the intensity of cut off: he had not seen his mother in 5 years.

Explanation/speculation 101 – Now back to the nuclear family. Often people do not like the behavior of their spouse and so they distance, hoping to keep the marriage or the family going. They are impinged on by the way the other is, and have little ability to come back and relate well. Anxiety rises and each individual in the relationship looks for relief. One wants closeness to feel better. The other wants distance. Over time each pretends to be something they are not, and to compensate in some way that is sustaining or possible. Probably both are cut off or compromised by distance in their own families.

It all begins in the two-person relationship, when one innocently impinges on the other. “Please take out the garbage. After all you have more time than I do.” It is so subtle as one person begins to impinge on the other and the other begins to look for a way out, “OK I will do it,” or “You’re so maddening,” “In a minute…” or “I feel sick.” And then of course, “You and I can make the kids do it.” The intensity of these mechanisms (conflict and winning or losing, distance, sickness and projection) have been highlighted by researchers like John Gottman and others, as one of the central causes of marriages ending. But just suppose you can find a small place to hide and feel better and save your marriage and pretend….for awhile.

Is it possible this man’s behavior began a long time ago, when the need for distance crept into the synagogue, infecting and overwhelming all his wisdom? Was this rabbi psychologically blind or knowingly revengeful or malicious? Was this synagogue different from any other organization, where peace and comfort is prized over disruption, where differences and disruption are frowned upon? Darwin shined the light on diversity but differences in families and organizations make people uncomfortable. To understand the way the system distributes anxiety onto the weak, and what one can do, requires a new way to think about how to function in social systems with differentiation in mind.

What can I do? If the only one I can change is me, then how do I see what is going on in the relationships around me in order to change the social system around me as it accidently impinges on me? What does it take to recognize the automatic nature of threat? Can I get to the middle kingdom so to speak by at least describing what is going on?

Can I create a “no blame, but hold them responsible zone?”

Perhaps evolution will provide us with a periscope that peeks out and sees our part in relationship compromises? Perhaps Jiminy Cricket could stop by, sit on our shoulders and tell us what is going on in the “no blame zone”. While we wait for evolution to provide us with an easy out there is another way to deal with these automatic mechanisms that govern life, the fifth way, differentiation of self. I believe that by observing and commenting on the system you can create opportunities to be more for self and less reactive to “perceived pressure.” Of course in so doing, you run the risk of upsetting the others. There is no risk free zone.

Of course all kind of events stir our biochemistry, even turning on and off our genes, as we try to cope with the outside world. From the time we are born until we die we are influenced. We are almost pre-programmed to attack, to defend, and to seek comfort without awareness of what we are doing and why.

Choices can be made about the way we react to others.  We can learn about our automatic behaviors, and in so doing we can rise up to relationship challenges and offer the system a bit more information. This is not always fun, but it does promise a bit more emotional freedom for each of us and for others.



begins sunset fall fall stone wall

What are the Costs and Benefits of Leadership along the Border with Mexico?


October 10, 2014 I presented at a conference in El Paso, Texas honoring Louise Rauseo’s retirement.  I have known Louse and admired her work since 1976. Her team asked me to present on my new book, Your Mindful Compass, and talk about the cost and benefits of becoming a leader in your family and in your community. My overall theme was that one can know that people play into problems of all sorts and still stay focused on being more separate and less reactive in social systems, and at the same time build strength in individuals, families and communities.

The four points on the Mindful Compass are about the process of decision making: 1) This is what I am going to do, 2) this is the resistance I might encounter, 2) this is my level of knowledge to deal with the problems and 3) this is my ability to stand-alone.

Bowen and Family Diagram

Dr. Murray Bowen died 24 years ago on October 9, (1913-1990). His theory was the first to point towards the family as an emotional system that “governs” the behavior of family members. He was a mentor for both Louise and me in learning how families “work.”  Bowen’s view of the significance of relationships to change human behavior is a long, long way from our current worldview of diagnosing the weaker ones and fixing their symptoms.

Bowen was a visionary who could “shock” people into seeing how they just might do more with their lives if they were willing to become more aware and self-defined. Changing self became more of a knowledge adventure than a fixing answer.  This was the road that Louise took.  I am fortunate to have been able to walk alongside her on several of her adventures along the border.

Louise has a life long fascination with families who have endured emotional cut off. She has brought the phenomena of cut off into people’s awareness, clarifying how past generations’ actions impinge on people’s current lives.  The question of cut off and its consequences is “in your face” along the border as many people come here to leave the past and search for a new life. Louise has pointed to the question- what is the cost of leaving your extended family? How are people prepared to deal with transition from rural to urban and factory life? What are the important things to keep in mind in order to maximize the chances for success in such moves?

Many have followed the allure of jobs and money to come to the border and found there is no infrastructure to support the basics of life.  People have torn themselves away from their roots to start over.  How many of these folks know it might be useful to stay connected to their extended families?  Who among these emigrants/immigrants really knows the difference it makes to manage themselves in their own family over a lifetime?

To be cut off from the family also occurs with emotional, not just physical distance.  Way back in 1989 Louise organized a meeting bringing Dr. Bowen to give a talk to the Winnebago Indians who were caught up in an epidemic of drug abuse.  First the chief spoke. He was an old man whose voice still carried strength as he spoke of the old ways with hints of wisdom and suffering.  The chief told the story of the modern era, how few were interested in the old ways or spoke the native language of the people. Tribal and family culture were being abandoned and along with them the identity of the people. Tribal members had become cut off from their history while living in the middle of it.

The chief was perhaps the only one in the tribe who could see this and talk about it. It was more than the problem of alcoholism.  It was the problem of those who had lost their history and who now did not know who they were.  In 1989 the tribe spent its time negotiating rights with the federal government.    Dependent on the federal government, the tribe was trying to regroup around the right to have casinos on reservations. The chief speculated that the loss of his peoples’ identity had opened the way for drug abuse and that abandoning one’s history was a problem that casinos would not solve.

Bowen was interested in the man’s wisdom. Rather than focus on the drug problems, which he noted were “squishy”, Bowen said that trying to make alcoholism better will only make it worse because “the strategy” is so focused on FIXING OTHERS.

Given these issues in the tribe (and in all of our lives to some degree or another), how do you hold someone responsible who is acting out or impinging on you?  How do you bring what is going on into awareness? How do you focus on self and not participate in blame or shame to control others? Are symptoms a part of one’s multigenerational family history? It is far more complex to understand a problem and relate to others when you do not want to get caught in the trap of telling others what they “should” do.

Bowen and the chief became fascinated with how you might rebuild a Winnebago nation once again.   Bowen explained that family systems theory was a way of thinking about a problem that allows people to know more about science and the world around them. With most serious questions, the answers are not immediately available as it involves changing self and not changing others.

Well, this was a difficult message to hear and understand for people who had come to the conference seeking answers.  A woman got up and said she just wanted her husband to stop drinking and then things would be better… wasn’t that the way everyone sees the drug problem?  (A hundred thousand people around the world were nodding their heads in agreement.)  But Bowen said:  “I hear you saying mostly the men have drinking problems. What about the woman? What kinds of problems do they have?”  “Weight,” the woman said.  “Well”, Bowen replied, “if the women worked on the weight problem then maybe the men would do better.”

That was not a happy moment in the room and the muttering began as the opposition in the group to the idea that you work on self rather than just blaming others, gathered steam.

The woman continued by saying that there were some problems that did not involve responsibility for each person as in sexual abuse, but Bowen kept the focus on each one’s part. It went something like this. Some believe that sexual abuse is only the responsibility of the abuser and that the “victim” has nothing to do with it. Yet woman can be playing some part in the problem, if only by being fearful of the man and then staying in the relationship, or by cutting off from her own family to join his, making herself more isolated and vulnerable.  Well, as you might imagine, things went from bad to worse and only the chief seemed to regard Bowen as worth listening to. Louise and I were glad to get out of town with our heads still on.

And that was the way it often was with Bowen. He focused like a laser on the way people influence each other.  He said what he saw, that the focus on others to be “fixed” or to do things “the right way”, was automatic, instinctual and out of awareness.   And such focus only intensified the symptoms because by focusing on fixing others, people didn’t have to think about working on self.

Both Louise Rauseo and Dr. Bowen found ways to refocus from what is “wrong” with others or identifying pathologies, to building awareness of emotional process and managing self in relationships.  The importance of this kind of leadership is the life long accumulation of knowledge with a focus on defining self while relating well to others.

Louise may not have made much progress that day but she has a way of taking on gigantic problems that start with self.  I am privileged to walk alongside Louise on some part of her journey of the challenges of seeing and understanding emotional process for those of us on both sides of the border.

Other who came from far away to participate in the conference and who helped make it a success: Victoria Harrison, Katie Long and Dan Papero.  Each has made a significant difference to the border programs over the years. The time with these important people, dedicated to making a difference in their communities, was a genuine celebration for all that Louise has accomplished.  It was also great fun. I so enjoyed the good questions from Louise’s husband, Nick, who has been a mainstay in this adventure in El Paso that began way back in 1993. We will see what these years of good work might produces in the future.


The Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family (CSNSF) Border Programs sponsored the Mindful Compass meeting this year.  It was the last meeting for 2014, and as noted, honored Louise Rauseo as its retiring director.

Three people have volunteered to take over the job that Louise did. Ada Luisa Trillo, Anita Ochsner and Liza Richardson will develop future programs and projects to bring Bowen theory into the larger community.  Each woman has a history of working with Bowen theory in her own family, her field of work, and in projects such as understanding violence and resilience at the border (Ada Trillo), relationships and emotional process that have an impact on contemplative practice (Anita Ochsner), and the impact of anxiety on health care organizations (Liza Richardson).

The day before the conference I crossed the border into Mexico with several nuns and Rosa Villeela, the director of Centro Santa Catalina, to support this programs in Juarez, which enables families to function better.


This is a woman’s center with programs for women, a school with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten for young children and a sewing cooperative that allows some of the women to support themselves (  Sister Donna Kustusch, OP, started this organization and Louise was glad to lend her a hand.  Now Ada Trillo is helping them in several ways, including the fundraiser she kindly invited me to where I signed copies of my book, Your Mindful Compass.

I am looking forward to seeing how each of these leaders develop programs that are important and useful in the years ahead.   This past conference was an example of how each person took responsibility and worked together effectively and creatively. Stay tuned, as further programs will be announced as they are developed.

Louise Rauseo will continue to serve on the Board of Directors of CSNSF and will continue to travel to El Paso for her own research and teaching in the Border Programs there.  Victoria Harrison, Katie Long, and Ada Trillo are the other members of the CSNSF board.

Family Systems Forum, the quarterly publication of CSNSF, has published several articles by Louise Rauseo on migration and family emotional process, on violence and resilience, and on spirituality in the context of differentiation of self.

The latest two issues include an interview of Louise Rauseo by Katie Long, editor in chief of Family Systems Forum (FSF).   Back issues of FSF that include articles by Louise Rauseo can be located under Please contact Victoria Harrison at if you want to discuss buying the collected works of Louise Rauseo.

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Decisions, Decisions – from Ants to Humans-

In this blog I have tried to demonstrate one way that scientific research can enable us to consider how our families and other social system function.

Traveling along the road of life even ants know when it pays to make decisions as an individual, and when it pays to follow the signals from the group.

isa and tree walk

When you see streams of ants at a picnic they may be uninvited but they stream in as though they know exactly what to do.  They display the fine coordination of the group mind. There is no individual standing up to say, “Follow me”, or “Retreat, these people have anti-ant spray in the wicker basket!”

The group mindset of the ant may resemble fans watching an athletic competition. All eyes are on the players and the crowd responds.  They are not thinking for self.  In the sports world, team building is up to the coaches and that often works out well.

However this group mindset is also present in families, where people are afraid to differ or are always differing from the rest of the family. When we humans are surrounded by influential others it becomes more and more difficult to make decisions for self that is different from the “political correctness” of the group.  What are the circumstances that promote greater ability to make decisions for one’s self in ants and humans?

The usefulness of individuals who can define self to others may differ from one circumstance to another but the importance of individual decision-making appears across many species including ants and bees.

Social systems seem to promote a great deal of groupthink.  That is, we have eyes and so it is easy to look and see what others want or need, and under anxious conditions to either 1) just do  and give in, 2) react like hell and get mad, or 3) get sick or get distant (literally and figuratively) from the needs of others.   “What are the others doing?  OK, that tells me what I should do (depending on my wiring to react or to be more of a Self).”

In the extreme, this kind of dependency on others’ behavior, forcing the other to behave correctly, leads to con-fusion and the ongoing inability to take responsibility for self. For ants it just comes down to making poorer decisions.

However we also have evidence that there are times when making decisions by one ant all alone, far from the pressure of the crowd, has a pay off for the group.  Perhaps this evolutionary trait, decision-making based on one’s ability to “see” the environment more as a single individual, is one of the basic components of differentiation of self.

Much of the time ants are influenced by what the other ants are up to.   See the Ted talk by Deborah Gordon on “The Emergent Genius of Ant Colonies”. 

“By studying how ant colonies work without any one leader, Deborah Gordon has identified striking similarities in how ant colonies, brains, cells and computer networks regulate themselves.”

We are not like exactly like ants because we can (with an effort) observe ourselves and communicate to one another after reflecting on the state of the relationship system.  But like insects, we too are sensitive to what the other members of our family and social communities want from us and direct us to do. We too are often guided by information generated by the relationships system. 

Think about making decisions against doctor’s orders if you happen to be in the emergency room far away from family and friends. Consider trying to buy a car? How about getting married when the in-laws do not seem to like you? These are familiar experiences for me and you can name your own.

Perhaps the lowly ants are the best at using information from others to make decisions that enable the whole colony to adapt. They rely on chemical messages.   No words that might be interpreted the wrong way will emerge from the ant.

Unlike ants, humans have the ability to communicate about the macro view of the system.  In order to communicate a “different” viewpoint to others who may be following ancient habits of communication, a human has to be somewhat “immune” to the signals from others.  If a single individual opposes or interrupts the state of the social system, they are likely to be stung by the system.

Ants and some humans live in a hypersensitive, stimulus-response world. Here sensitivity rules. The more sensitive an individual is, the more one reacts to what others say and do, and the less opportunity the individual has to make a decision based on thinking well for self. 

How would it be if humans became more aware of their sensitivity to others and enhanced the ability to think for self and communicate about the state of the system to others? Yes, there are those who can observe the relationship system and even take the bold move of commenting on the way the relationships are going.

There is a push and pull among people.  Like ants we can join coalitions and march forward with those who believe as we do, or those we need, or those who frighten us.

The question is how does one become aware of the communication that is flowing around one’s self and learn to distill the information and to communicate in a way that promotes a bit more autonomy.

As individuals observe the state of the system, a few can describe it to others without stirring up reactivity and opposition.  This is a skill that Dr. Bowen demonstrated in his book Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1982) in the chapter: “On the Differentiation of Self”, pages 467 – 528.

Now we have evidence, from ants no less, that being a lone observer who is a more separate individual from others in the social jungle can lead to better decision-making.  But it is still a leap for humans to note how the relationship system is acting to pressure us for better or worse.

When it comes to making decisions, bees and ants can act against stereotype says Robert M. Sapolsky in the September 19, 2014 issue of the WSJ.   (I added bold to highlight a few ideas I thought were particularly worth noting.)

Social insects excel at what we’ve come to call the “wisdom of the crowd,” in which a group of moderately informed individuals is more accurate than a lone “expert.”

Suppose two bees each discover a different food source. As research beginning almost a century ago has shown, each bee then returns to the hive and “dances,” communicating the direction and distance of the food; when a bee in the hive encounters a dancer, she investigates that source. How does the hive figure out which is the better resource?

Suppose site B has twice the food as site A, and as a result, the scout from that source dances for twice as long. The other bees in the hive will encounter the site B scout dancer twice as often as the other bee; soon, twice as many bees investigate and return from site B as from site A, and they dance for twice as long, too. This results in four times as many bees checking out B than A, then eight times as many, then…everyone. No bee investigates both sites, yet the better site is chosen.

Work by Takao Sasaki and Stephen Pratt of Arizona State University and colleagues, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explores something similar in ants. Given two nests, how does an ant colony determine which is preferable (in this case, which has a darker interior)? 

A scout returns, and the better the nest, the sooner she leads a second ant to it, causing that exponential shift of colony preference for that site. Ants sometimes move randomly, so this system can amplify a wrong choice; still, it works much better than chance.

To test the limits of this method, the authors had groups of ants and single ants pick nests. The choice was either easy (major lighting differences between the two nests) or difficult (subtler distinctions).

For difficult comparisons, ant groups were more effective than singletons in selecting the best nest in a set time. But critically, for easy tasks, it was the other way around. For one thing, by the time a lone ant had made the obvious choice, the group was still forming subcommittees to write the Environmental Impact Statement. And for easy choices, a single ant is likely to be more accurate, since it isn’t vulnerable to random fluctuations amplifying the wrong choice.

Ants are a well-coordinated group.  They adapt by paying attention to signals. But even ants realize that communication signals can be “noisy’ or wrong. The colony is wired to benefit from a single ant making a decision (for self and for the colony).

Ants do not define a self in important relationships.  We humans have the ability to be more separate in relationship systems and to reorganize our response to the social group. 

Yet, understanding how other social systems function gives us a deeper understanding of circumstances surrounding decisions made for self and when and how one might “choose” to go along with the group’s decisions.

The goal of this effort to notice social pressure is that individuals will become more aware, objective and self defined thereby creating greater autonomy or even greater wisdom in the social system.

During harsh conditions, or even chaotic times, the ability of a lone ant or a lone human to make good decisions, allows these “leaders” to give accurate and more understandable feedback to the group and this can redirect the behavior within the social system.

Humans, like ants, are wired for herd behavior and can be manipulated by emotions.  The importance of problem solving and decision-making is crucial to survival and can be found in ants and bees, organisms millions of years old. We can certainly learn from these insects about the importance of individual decision-making and autonomy in communication and problem solving.

We have the ability to understand just how sensitivity functions in reactivity (obedience or rebellion).  We can learn what it takes to manage self by seeing the social forces pressuring others, and us and take action as a more mindful self.

The complex and messy communication styles of humans

Clearly humans have trouble untangling the message when communication gets anxious and intense.  The following are two letters from my brother reflecting back on his childhood. I thought they were informative as to the challenge of seeing and understanding social pressure.  There are a few questions to think about after the letters.

Other Focused Confusion 

When we were children my parents and even grandparent’s made me eat foods that we didn’t like: “Just try one spoonful, you’ll like it…. “ Ad nausea! The food might change but the thought or lack of process is the same “eat your carrots Megan…. Umm good, mommy likes them.”

Of course she wouldn’t make you eat your peas like her narrow-minded mom did. Why would we somehow feel vindicated if our child likes what we like?  Is this what makes us right? 

Has any mother, grand or great grandmother stopped to consider that Christopher Columbus went to find the east rounding the corners of our square earth, while mothers were still coaxing and coercing veggies down reluctant pallets. Unless you’re an Eskimo mother and your child doesn’t like seafood, then relax; treat your children the way you want to be treated as a child.

Creative Procrastination

The act of waiting till the last minute always being late or barely on time are not sinful. However if the one about coveting your neighbor’s wife had been replaced with  “they shall not dillydally,” I would be headed straight down the heated highway.

After being respect fully late for National Guard meetings, my sergeant had some questions – he growled, “I don’t get it, if the meeting is at 6 o’clock you get here at 6:15 if it’s at 7:00 you arrive at 7:15. It is the same; you are always 15 minutes late.  I just don’t get it. ” Shrugging my shoulders I honestly reply, “I don’t get it either, Sarge. “

  • Would it be useful to know more about what goes into sensitivity to others?
  • Would it be useful to know the circumstances under which a nuclear family becomes so intense that the suggestion of what food to eat becomes a threat?
  • Does an individual need a more neutral view of the family from someone outside it, to see the pressure put on him to conform?
  • How do people get over this pressure from the family to “do and be” for others?

If you took a detailed family history you would find evidence of the nuclear family intensity increasing as our parents were struggling after World War II and became more distant from the extended family.  Finding comfort in focusing on and making children more obedient, when the world around you is disintegrating, is a great anxiety binder.

Can seeing how ants function enable us to see both the tendency to be influenced by the crowd around us and how making a decision for self can enable us to adapt to changing conditions?  Should I be guided by listening to you (whoever you are) or make up my own mind and stand-alone?

My thesis is that to see the pressure applied in a relationship system, one has to observe the state of the system. This requires being motivated to enter a discipline – becoming more neutral about what one sees, and to communicate well with others.  This is a very handy skill to have, enabling the ability to decrease spiraling anxiety.

Increasing awareness may part of the trajectory of evolutionary forces that have been developed since the beginning of life on earth and we humans are benefiting from riding on the forward thrust of increasing awareness.


Thanks for reading





Learning to be a more neutral observer gives us tools to decode the family emotional system as it marches through time, encroaching on one and all.

At its most pressured the family system “uses” one or two people to automatically absorb anxiety. At its best the family system allows for courageous leaders to transform the system. People CAN learn about the automatic nature of the system.

In this blog you will see how people begin to pull self out from the maturations of the system and to see the automatic pressuring.

There is a continuum of learning as one “acts” to interrupt the automatic nature of the system. Once one decides that the system can function at higher levels- but I have to be more aware and more thoughtful – then amazing, even biochemical, changes can occur.

The path to understanding human behavior is not always easy or fun. It is a social jungle after all. Uncertainty is at the heart of the enterprise, but one is willing to risk and to guess.
There are times when clusters of events in the family can retard progress or even sink the effort.

There is no guarantee, but there is an emotional process you can see, perhaps bringing understanding action.
There is a spectrum along which people begin to discover the emotional system and to take a stand to be more separate.

This blog is long, but gives you several examples of people making the effort to discover the family as a system. Following are questions and thoughts from four people about the effort to discover the emotional process, which guides families over time. The effort ranges from a couple that just started, a five-year effort and then two people who have been at it for thirty plus years.

Does a systems perspective enable people to function better? You decide….

Transcript: The 3rd Session on Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies for Navigating Life/Work Relationships in Any Social Jungle

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C – I find it difficult to think systems without ongoing contact with a course or a coach. Usually I think from a fix-it mentality and from a systems view things are never really fixed. I find that I am thinking now but not perfectly. It’s been five years that I’ve been involved with Bowen Theory in different groups.
When I came to Bowen theory I had been raising two children on my own, and my son had challenges. At 16 he had dropped out of school. I was taking him to psychologists to get him fixed. Finally, I met a person who talked with me about my family and not just about my son. I was intrigued and begin to think about the larger system and my part in things. This led to taking a course on Family Systems Theory. As I learned about the larger system, I begin to see the emotional process. Then I started to learn about my mom’s history and things started to shift and change in the way that I thought and acted. Now my son is 23 and is doing remarkably well.

Using the theory has enabled me to resist the blame game. I’m more aware each day that the automatic for the family unit is to absorb the anxiety and act out the family problem. So I do not go with that automatic feeling that so and so is to blame. I refocus on managing my reactivity and find this is a far healthier focus for me. Once I started to see the system I was less inclined to blame others or myself and to see how the histories in the system lead to certain sensitivities and tendencies in the way people related. Once I could see this as a process then things began to shift and change.

I also try to use systems thinking in my business and focus on my reactivity. But it’s hard as I still find I have the anxious focus and may not connect with my staff. It’s difficult because I can see I’m not making the bridge from my family to my work.

AMS – Often I hear people say that the main issue in both family and work is that you are often in it by yourself, as no one seems to get it. Your not connecting with your staff or family the way you once were. Is it anxiety or resistance?

The way you see things is not the way others see it, and so it’s challenging to maintain your observations and knowledge in the face of the reactivity from others. One motivated person sustains the effort to change. Only over years do they become surer of the observations of the system and get better at altering their part in the system. But because you are doing it on your own it is always a challenge to know if you are doing it right.

J –There is an advantage to learning systems when you have your own real time example. A year ago our youngest daughter decided to cut off contact around seeing her child. Its taken 6 months to plan for a mediated meeting. So I am thinking about this problem as I am reading the book, and that motivates me to read with more acuity.

AMS – How hard is to make a personal problem impersonal? How hard to really see and feel that the family unit during periods of high anxiety will focus on one or two as a problem? Can you get curious and not defensive or want to fix things? Can you wonder look at the family system over time and question- how did this come to be now?

J- In the study of consciousness there is talk of a global connector that allows billions of people to have different experiences of our one consciousness. It’s personal and different but in the big picture we are similar. It’s interesting to see for example science as operating like a family. Science reacts with anxiety to new ideas that are different from what has been. At times when new inventions or new ideas are introduced, the people and the work they produce are resisted and they are left to deal with the anxiety. There can be enormous resistance to change. on any scale from the individual to the family to science itself. General system theory seems to also address this.

AMS – Hopefully I will not get too caught in the distinction between general systems and family systems Theory but they are different way of understanding systems. General systems is looking for a way to use observations from many different disciplines to have a common language and understanding of principles, whereas family systems is the observation of one system – the family. General systems theory does not observe emotional cut off but rather identifies general principles across systems.

I think they are not studying what an ant colony does but they might break down the parts to understand the feedback principle in ant colonies and other “systems” and how those principles may operate in many different systems. Bowen was interested in looking at the human family and as in the title of the book Family Evaluation Bowen wrote the family is the unit that governs the individual’s behavior and development.

You can see something like emotional cut off as it operates in families and society whether in Israel, Palestine or Mexico. These mechanisms operate because we are all human. There may be confusion around an issue like the drug problems in Mexico but you also see this tremendous loyalty to Mexico, even from those who have emigrated from other countries. Do we understand issues from a family systems perspective or from a general systems perspective, because they are two very different perspectives?

M – I am just beginning to think about the family as a system. Growing up in my nuclear family there were four of us siblings and mother held us tight as to our behavior. My typical way is to withdraw if there’s a conflict. So it’s been a real learning tool for me to consider a strategy like staying connected and being involved despite conflict.

AMS – That is interesting how the past can influence the future. So in this generation your daughter wants control. Could that be a similar pressure as the one you experience with your mother but this time it comes from your daughter? Could it be an insidious pressure to be together in the “right way” and then that pressure backfires. Your daughter wanted you to move closer to her and then she objected to your behavior and began to control you more or less like your mother did.

M- the other strange thing is that my daughter also cut off contact with her mother-in-law and then we were shocked that she wanted to separate from us. The message seems to be “we don’t like you”, but initially she wanted closeness. Now I can see some of how the family history may be impacting us.
In my dad’s family his sister never liked him but instead she became close to my mother. His sister was stubborn and had a child outside of marriage and then she had three marriages.

AMS – People seem to need alliances in order to maintain self in a cut off. Is your daughter trying to make an alliance with her sister? Would she be aware of the stories of cut off in your family history?

M . Not sure that she would be aware.

AMS – In my book I recommend that people write up their family stories. It is a good way to think and reflect and to put out your ideas in a different sensory modality than talking.

J – I was adopted and have to work hard on the cut off part as to knowing more about both my families. So its not shocking that there is cut off in the younger generations.

AMS – Do you think that experience has helped you to take this latest upheaval less personally? It’s a challenge to get outside your own experience and to be more neutral. Where would you put you effort so far? On a ten scale, with ten being objective and zero being totally anxious, where are you?

J – Probably I am somewhere between a 5 to a 7. There is hope that we will be able to work things out. Since March I have had a better handle on things. People seem to have to go through something like the stages of grief as to a loss. The family was drifting into cut off and now we are beginning to see hope for reconnection. I realize things can happen to neutralize the effort to go forward., therefore I do not want to answer letters and phone calls that might distract or create reactivity.

AMS – Yes, the emotional system is an ancient reactive system and it can eat you alive if you try to escape from its control. How does one go about changing with out creating too much reactivity? A little reactivity is needed for change to occur. One way that I worked on getting more information out and making contact with the broader system was to write stories about the past. In my family, my father died early in his fifties. My children knew little about him. So I wrote up a view of his life and invited many people who knew him to come and tell stores about him at a luncheon celebrating my father 20 years after he had died. Of course I had a reaction from my uncle, his brother, who was negative about him, but that was not as important as doing it for my children and for me.

There are always reactions to forward progress. There are people who act like jerks in your family and on your staff, but so what? How will you deal with the problems? What is the strategy? In this strategy you are writing the story to make things less personal and you do it to stay connected and put your viewpoint in. Others can object and they are free to have their own viewpoint.

How do you stay connected to people who do not want to stay connected to you?

The emotional system can eat you alive and control your life, if you go along with the way things are. How do you maintain your curiosity and keep making a bit of progress for you being you?

C – What I am dealing with concerns my father and stepfather. When I was 17 I found out that my stepfather was not my father. It was a relief as my stepfather had been the source of all problems. So I created an imaginary dad. He was amazing. He taught at a university and was well regarded by all. Just in the last couple of years I made contact with my biological father’s brother. He was easier to find than my father. It turned out that my biological father was very similar to my stepfather, who died 23 years ago. My biological father’s wife was negative and wanted nothing to do with me. I found out I had a half brother and a sister but I was not going to be allowed to see them. Now this next weekend I’m going to meet my cousins, the children of my uncle. I thought that I had made progress in becoming more neutral but then I am talking to my sister and saying the same things like I used to say – “Dad is a jerk.” I really thought I had gotten beyond that.

AMS – These kinds of emotional set points are hard to alter. The reoccurring issues have to do with being triggered in triangles and level of anxiety and not so much with learning. Perhaps it is as primitive as smell activating patterns and responses. Its still a mystery as to how these patterns repeat and repeat and just what it take be aware and to be able to change.

C – Here is an interesting example of patterns repeating. My mother breaks up with the man who is to become my stepfather. Then she gets pregnant with this other man (my biological father) but she does not want to marry him, so she goes back to my stepfather and they decide to go talk it over with his parents. His parents report that the very same thing happened to them. She too was pregnant with another man’s child but this man still wanted to marry her. It is very strange how these patterns repeat.
One of the things that was very powerful was that one of the consultants I went to listened to my story and said “You have really been caught in a tsunami.” This comment freed me of the blame and gave me a way to continue to explore the system. When I saw the issue with my son in comparison to the issue with my father and stepfather I thought – this tsunami is not as bad as the last one.

I am going to see my cousins and I do not feel threatened. I am going to ask them what they know of their Polish grandparents. A while ago I went to Poland on a visit and was stopped by people who asked if I was related to so and so? I learned that my family had a hard life coming form Poland and my uncle does not want to talk about it but I’m hoping my cousins will. It’s a different generation. The wife of my biological uncle is also reluctant to have me around and it may be related to a family secret, who knows?

AMS – One strategy that I use when entering a negative, fearful system is to spread positive rumors. You can say all kind of positive things out in the system once you meet them. It’s not uncommon for the wife to react to your being interested in getting to know your uncle. That is what happened to me with my Uncle. His wife could call me names and say I was just trying to get on his good side like everyone else. I realized I had to make friends with her first, or she was going to chop my head off, as I was just one of “them.” It’s a work out if jealousy gets into it, but you can compliment people on how they look, the food they offer you- there are a million ways to stay positive. You can even go so far as to comment on how much better your uncle looks as long as you give the aunt the credit.

C – I do wonder about my part in it – is my old attitude still there – “Men are no good.” I cut off from my stepfather and from then my husband as they too were no good.

AMS _- I do not think you think these kinds of thoughts or have these attitudes without being programmed by the system. (Consider the possibility that the system needs your reactivity to continue with its patterned ways of responding as to what is right and what is not.) How do you see the way you should feel as programming? Could this viewpoint increase your ability to think your way through these emotional barriers? People will talk to you in a way to raise the old issues. It’s like bait, but you do not have to take the hook, if you can see it as a hook. It’s a fantastic adventure to see the system and to set yourself and others free of its gripping ways.

System seems to need someone to blame, the scapegoat. They are needed to absorb the anxiety. But you do not have to follow the system’s dictates and play your part. People say I am manipulating the system with all my strategies. Well, the system is trying to manipulate me. The bottom line question is – how can I be my best self?

M – I just realized that my two brothers married wives who did not like my mother. It looks like the sons pull away but really it’s the wives. They pulled away and wanted noting to do with her. Most people find her charming but her daughter-in-law wanted distance. In general it’s not that unusual to have problems with mother-in-laws. It takes a lot of strength to resist what some might consider an instinct.

AMS – You are gathering up a lot of family history that you might be able to write up and communicate. If you can do it without a lot of emotion (and keep expectations near zero) it might make a difference. The key things are to let others know there have been tendencies in the family, over the generations, to distance and to cut off but that does not have to be our future.

K – There are three things that I am thinking about that might not be that connected.
First, was the email from you about the bedside with your brother being in the hospital and all that went on. It was so interesting to hear your description of being present but not being co-opted into going along with things you did not see as useful. It was helpful to read how you took a stand – “You can do what you want but if I were you I would not take that medicine again, etc.” What I got were two things, first the importance of description and second what it was you saw and what it was you decided to do, for you, not so much for him.

Second was how hard cut offs are. You think you’re a good person and wonder why they don’t want to talk to you? That was so hard in my marriage and drove me crazy. Now 15 years later we can talk about the past in ways that are easier to hear. It speaks to just how hard it is to bridge cut off. Lately my niece said to me, “No one in the family understood what you were doing. That’s why they cut off.” I said, “Well, that was because I did not know how to explain well enough what I was doing.
Now I see my part and can joke about it. Now I am more able to see the system and so if I feel personally attacked I can work to see another viewpoint as to all that is going on in the system. I have cases where I am trying to describe this in a basic simple way to people. You wonder, can anything that simple describe the system, offer people an opportunity to change? I see it as useful in helping people see another way to be with others. It’s been a real benefit.

AMS – You’re describing the emotional process in the system as an impersonal force. What do you think about writing? You ask people to do this in meetings? I notice that it will take me writing up my thoughts 3 or 4 times before I can get the emotional out and be clearer. It seems like this kind of an effort helps people integrate their thinking and feeling. If you have a goal of becoming more objective and neutral about what you see and experience, it can be very useful.

K – Things just coming at you and you react. My daughter says to me that her son is quiet since they moved and she is worried, he could be depressed. I start thinking, “what is the matter with him? Finally I am able to think, the other grandmother is a psychiatrist and she may think about giving him drugs for his “depression.” After all the whole family looks good except for him. Even in this conversation I find that I am going along with the emotional system. How does this happen?

AMS – It is hard to think on your feet with all the anxious stuff coming at you. That is why I write emails to help me think and reflect on what I just did. I cannot think in the presence of the pressure I feel so I say “I will get back to you. I am confused. I like to confess my confusion. People tend to feel sorry for me and back off. When I have time to think I might say to my daughter… “I am more depressed that the grandson is…” All of this is to draw the focus away from him to get the anxiety up a generation or two.

When my brother, Butch had the abdominal aorta aneurism, he should have been dead in 2 minutes, as most people bleed out that fast. Only one in a million survive. It happened last Friday when he was in the ocean surfing with a friend. He felt the pain and headed for shore and managed to get to the beach and fall in font of a lovely woman with a cell phone. People at the hospital could not get over it and they said how very special he was. He liked that and began to get pumped up. Then they added a drug – prednisone. It is a wonder drug to help you breath and yet on the other side – it impacts your behavior and made him feel high. Butch has a history of enjoying being high, so perhaps not shocking when he left the hospital he told me he was going to do his recovery “his way.” I left the discharge papers on the counter with all the instruction as to what he was to do and left. I knew I couldn’t think so I got out and wrote down what I wanted to say.
“Butch, you are figuring out how to manage yourself. I am not sure if the prednisone is making you feel high. But you are clear you will do things your way no matter. So I will stand on the sidelines and let you figure stuff out.” Butch replied, “Sometimes you are the good sister and sometimes you are not. I am not going to do what the doctor says.” And I said, “I see that you will learn from your experience.”
Within a week he was back in the hospital having had something like a heat stroke, which led to a seizure.

Once again he survived this incident – even though his heart stopped three times. Now he has survived one more thing and is out, planning on playing golf again, but slowing down and figuring out how to make his life better his way.

C – In your book you mentioned the way the brain developed in evolution and that change was costly. Can you explain more about that?

AMS – I’m not exactly sure as to your question but it makes me think about the cost of new behavior for the brain, and for the social system. Change takes a lot of energy, whereas coasting is less expensive, at least in terms of energy cost. It takes a lot of energy to learn to play the piano or relate differently to people.
There has to be a pay off for energy expenditure or people or animals will not make the effort to learn a new behavior. Consider the idea that humans might “learn” to be more differentiated if there would be a payoff for the extra energy it costs to be more defined. The pay off for being more differentiated might be that people can better perceive the environment and solve problems. With the increasing population and complexity of problems in the world, it is more challenging to sort out facts from feelings and to self regulate under fearful conditions. These people might just have a better shot at solving problems. It would then be worth the extra energy it takes to be more defined. Eventually the social system could also learn to support such people, even if they are difficult.

Back up and consider that from an evolutionary viewpoint the family unit has been automatically producing leaders under stressful conditions often at a cost.

Consider that a social unit has a way of learning form changing conditions and altering behavior. Some bit not all ant colonies figure out how to survive and passes on specific behavior to the next generation. In certain colonies when there is no rain, the behavior of the individual ants is altered by the feedback they get from the environment. Some colonies do not change their behavior and keep sending the ants out, while others do not send the ants out as often. We humans also need leaders to perceive the environment more accurately and to adapt to changes and give feedback that will allow others to adapt.
There are four automatic ways to manage stress and anxiety and then there is the effort to learn about the emotional system and to be more of a self. This effort is costly but may be worth it.
Laurie Lassiter, PhD has written about the automatic ways of managing changes in the environment using an example of life in a social colony of cyanobacteria. They have been around for the last 3,000 million years. About ten percent of the cells are altruistic. Under stress they live for the colony. When the hydrogen is low the heterocyst fix nitrogen and this frees the other cells from having to transform nitrogen. (Heterocysts are chosen by the colony to fix nitrogen, as they are more sensitive to nitrogen starvation.) They have given up their reproductive rights, and pass on the nitrogen to the reproductive cells for the colony’s survival. (Others. Page 88 Chimeras and Consciousness: Evolution of the Sensory Self, edited by Lynn Margulis , 2011, MIT )
When you back up and look at the way life forms have interacted with one another to preserve the social group you see some very basic patterns. The process of change and adaptation has an immediate cost (in terms of longevity and reproduction) to certain individuals.
In my family the vulnerable ones, in this generation, have been my two brothers. They were younger when my father returned from the war with serious symptoms and they were boys. Expectations for girls were far lower. As the anxiety increased there was more demand on my brothers to function in a specific way, both academically and socially. My brothers didn’t meet those demands, the anxiety escalated and the result was serious symptoms in both my brothers. The changes in my brothers’ behavior activated my interest in learning about families, eventually going to work in a psychiatric hospital. As one example here the system produced both altruistic individuals (in the specific sense that neither of my brothers reproduced) and a reproducer (me) who is learning to more aware of the tricks in the environment. Both of these functions, reproduction and not, are equally important to the survival of the system.

You can look for this kind of working family unit as part of a process of adapting in families. How many presidents have siblings that do not function as well as they do? Could it be that 80% of families have this kind of a dynamic? You could make a case that some leaders arise through suffering and endure cut offs as part of the price for adapting.

A broader perspective might help people to grow self up and not buy into the automatic way of promoting leaders through scapegoating. A more mature leader might want to grow self up to deal with the scapegoated people, and release them from being controlled by the emotions in the system. Often the leader is a bit freer to take on the anxiety in the system instead of letting it be distributed automatically. Its almost like your kids are caught in a bear trap and now you have to figure out how to undo the trap.
You need a good brain to figure out the traps, and to know more about what you are up against.

In the book I referenced, Paul MacLean, MD ( who described the triune nature of the brain. People differ with the details but in general the early part of the brain, the reptilian brain, in charge of 23 different behaviors like mating and guarding territory, then the mammalian brain evolved which gave us three new behaviors, play, audio vocal communication, and care for the young. The latest is the cortex- the computer, offering us logical decisions without feeling.

People look at the influence of the automatic brain and our tendency to save energy and wonder do we have free will? There is a lot of evidence as to be a function of our saying “no“ as some evidence we can maintain choice about repeating the past or not. There is so much we do not know.

Kathy has said that no one understands the actions she took in her husband’s family. Kathy said, “I might have done a better job of explaining it so there would be less reactivity. But it took 15 years for the relationship system to be calm enough for understanding of some type to take place.” Kathy, what was it you were trying to learn?

K – I needed to find a way to be myself. Perhaps there was no way to say I needed to change my part in the system. But overall I could have died if I hadn’t taken a stand for myself. The effort was to be surer of what I thought and to not give in to the pressure to go along with what others wanted me to do. I am may have been lonely, at times but I am alive. I just kept saying, “I see it differently than you do.” I am getting better at saying what I see but I can still get hooked by the emotional process in the system and repeat my old patterns.

AMS – You see better but you are not above the social pressure? If someone you love like your daughter is worried you can get hooked again?

It is such a common experience. Sometimes I try not to look directly at someone who is emotional, I look at the forehead. It’s hard for family members to take in new information about their behavior. It’s like we are not supposed to notice what we are doing and we certainly should not talk about it. We can take in other kinds of information – like there are 120 newspapers in France all with a different viewpoint but it is not about our own behavior. The way we are with one another, the way we interact with each other, that’s what is so hard to see and hear.

M – I can say I see it differently but when they reject me I withdraw. I realize I have to do something about that. My daughter actually writes me back sending along a short video of the grandson making a noise like the Morning Doves in the background. That activates all my emotions.

AMS – You have an opening about Morning Doves as a way to continue the conversation at a different level. Can you keep up a funny conversation about birds and not focus too much on wanting to see your grandson? Your daughter is reaching out and that is a good sign. How do you focus on being less reactive and less vulnerable and still being partially acceptable to the emotional system? How do you keep thinking at a systems level, see what people are up against and not take what people say to seriously. If you can do it you can keep relating.

I see that our time is almost up and we have covered a lot of subjects today. The last session will be next month, see you all then.

Is the family social system an ancient emotional system directing, influencing and or governing our behavior?

Welcome to the second online discussion of the book, Your Mindful CompassBreakthrough Strategies for Managing Yourself in any Social Jungle.   The following is a transcription of the participants’ viewpoints on managing self within our very human families. We considered how the family unit is an ancient emotional system directing, influencing and/or governing our behavior.

As we read in The Mindful Compass, much of our behavior is automatic and takes place out of our awareness. It is only with effort that gradually we become better observers of our automatic programming, our responsiveness and sensitivity to others. The better we are able to understand and manage our deeper emotions, the more mature our interactions with others. Truth be told it is a difficult project to see one’s self in a system.

“Know Thyself” turns out to be a very difficult thing to do.  A lot of pretending goes on about how we think we are and how “they” are.  But truth be told, often we are floating in a sea of interactions that are hard to comprehend.

My grandson Alex drew the picture below, which gives me the sensation of floating in the primal social sea. Here we float thinking, perhaps hoping that we are being mature.

Bowen used to challenge people to see if they were up to figuring out how to stay married to the devil or just wanted to complain about the spouse they got in the lottery.

Much of this shifting of blame is an everyday affair but when lives are at stake or a family business is poised on the edge of confusion and or destruction, then understanding how emotional process works in families’ matters.

alex drawing

Perhaps we can learn more about the influence of the system by listening to those around us tell of his or her experience. The assumption is that by a disciplined effort to observe, learn and then think about how to better define self in any social system, while predicting the possible obstacles, one is able to alter his or her automatic programming.

The Mindful Compass encourages us to become more knowledgable, neutral and open in relationships. This effort gradually promotes more mature ways of interacting. People are less controlling of others and more genuinely connected, so that eventually the entire social system becomes more resilient.

People often learn Bowen theory the best by listening to other people who are reporting on his or her experience. This is the reason that it may be worth your while to read or skim over these stories of learning theory. This meeting was held as a webinar in July.

Today Anne, Cheryl, Priscilla and Kathy are here. Deb will come in later. The others had conflicts but can see the video to catch up. I’ll just start out with one question. Is it useful to meet online like this to talk about the book? How about you Cheryl?

C – Yes, it encouraged me to read more thoughtfully.

AMS – OK, I know the last time Anne and I were the only two on. It was her job to keep me calm. I thought it was a pretty good session. What did you think of the summary, Anne?

AH – I thought the summary was pretty accurate. I have a couple of clients now reading the book. They are working in family businesses. Their feedback to me is that they can read about 10 pages at a time. The book is dense. You know a lot from your years learning family systems theory. You’ve packed a lot into the book.


One of my client says it’s hard for her to get past all the things she has done wrong. She starts thinking about that as she reads the book. We talked about reading the book in terms of seeing that there are systems everywhere and we are all part of many systems. For many this is all new information. It becomes more useful when people can think, “How am I managing myself now, at work, with my daughter and with the soccer team that I’m coaching?”


AMS- I wondered as I was writing this book whether it reads as though I’m trying to enhance the reader’s knowledge or I just sound pedantic and authoritarian?


AH – The people who are reading the book are on a journey of mindfulness. It’s something like self-discovery for them. They are interested in knowing “how can I do this differently?” People realize that without awareness we will go the way the automatic system wants us to go. People know that at some level.


AMS – Yes, that’s part of what I’m trying to get to in this book. We are all part of an ancient emotional system that guides us automatically, and of course, we are not supposed to see it. When we do see how we’ve been guided, none of us are going to come out smelling like a rose. There is a lot of instinct and reactivity in these ancient systems.


AH – I was asking people to become researchers of the system they are in, and to decrease their judgment. I talked with my clients about a system’s view not being about judging people. Instead it’s about being a better observer and being curious and working on being more neutral.


One of the people I asked to read the book is a man whose son has been focused on as the problem in the family business.  The son started to act in a strange way, and the family reacted by wanting to find someone to diagnose him. Now, with a few ideas from the book, they’re beginning to talk about this issue as part of the system. In my opinion people have to be open to seeing things differently.


In this example, the current president of the company and his wife could see the similarity in the behavior of the son to the grandfather’s behavior. It was not however easily apparent how the grandfather’s behavior had been transmitted to the son partly through the escalating worries in the parents about the son’s behavior.


Some people are able to be open and to observe the system and the flow of anxiety from one generation to another. But they cannot always see how they fit in the system. I think about the challenge of taking responsibility as to one’s part in the transmission.


Hearing similar stories from others in the Navigating Systems course has been extremely useful.


The three of you have such different ways of communicating your experiences. It is very interesting and useful to learn how you apply your ideas to various situations. Your viewpoints, Andrea, are far more playful, and that helps me to cut down on the serious feeling that “I have to do this or that to fix my clients’ problems.”   It just takes time. I do see how motivated people can understand the broader system.


AMS – Bowen used to say he would go to a meeting and present systems ideas to people who had been trained to find and fix problems in the individual. About 10% of the audience could hear and do something about the situation. Then things would change in the family. People would get better and after a few years they would drop off systems thinking. He noted that only about 1% of the thousands of people he talked to would stick with it for a lifetime.


Of course that was back in the 70’s. Now there’s more knowledge about systems thinking everywhere and so people find it somewhat more compatible with other things they’ve learned.


It’s very easy and even automatic for people to go back to blaming the individual as pathological. We all have eyes and can see what’s wrong, and naturally blame people without thinking that they are following ancient programming, just as are we in focusing on them.


AH – I have another family in which the husband and wife run a business. They are part of a many year planning program for the larger multigenerational family. When they met, they were shocked and concerned about the amount of anxiety and emotionality in the larger family group. The emotionality about all kinds of things comes into the meeting, seemingly from out of nowhere.


The husband and wife have worked on self for 20+ years and now they have 20 people, husbands and wives and cousins from other generations, and these people have not put in the work on self and tend to be more emotional.


AMS – So you see this primitive struggle between people for power and influence, and often it can be directed to over throw the elders. People can get very worked up when things are not going their way. As you watch it can seem almost Freudian. It is easier to see people are problems as you listen to the degree of upset that people have towards their parents and/or grandparents, even though they recognize their elders were founders of a company and at some level deserve respect.


It is hard for the elders to think, “we are on the developmental train and we’ve had a chance to learn a lot that the younger ones have not had a chance to learn. Now somehow I have to bring them along.”


AH – Questions in these meetings are often focused on “what does it take to be present without reacting to the differences? What is my vulnerability to taking sides?” It is important to know, “I’m reacting to others.” I have to know this vulnerability and to see it in how I react in my own family.


AMS- Much of the book is about blindness and reactivity. One may not see how their experience in their nuclear family leaves memories, and so even fragments of memories may make people more sensitive to specific situations. Of course people can get over the reactivity or fear response. It helps to know that the memories are influencing us.


In my family my parents fell apart after WWII. You could say that as a function of that I am often concerned about authority figures and the correctness of their decisions. We are all vulnerable to falling apart with enough stress.   Performance degrades depending on the severity and the duration of the stressors.   Our vulnerability is also connected to our genetics, as not everyone who fought in WWII had PTSD, etc. It may also be that a general kind of emotional process can be activated, as to the way people deal with authority in the family. This tendency to go along or to object becomes automatic in the family and in the social group.  The more emotional the group becomes, the harder it is for people to not get swept up in the emotions of others.


Another problem is the way people align self with others. When the meeting includes the spouse, people can feel and act very protective of their spouses. An in-law spouse doesn’t have much of a choice but to go along with their spouse, unless they are ready for a fight or criticism. The usual thing is to vote with the people you sleep with and this is a real quagmire as to differentiation of self.


How about the rest of you?  Do you all have ideas?


C. I definitely tested myself in my marriage. I handled the anxiety with cut off and distance. I still overuse distance, but I am learning. I decided to move back to my family’s hometown. I would like my brother to help me renovate the house I bought, but I think my sister-in-law might get mad.   So I find myself reacting to her and to him.


The urge in me is to go along with the others and it is so powerful. I thought I would be in a Zen place and I see I have a long way to go. When I am with my brother the urge to go along and not make waves is strong. The book is useful in trying to manage myself. I usually read books easily but this is a very dense book and I might just read a few pages.


What sticks out is how challenging it is to see and how long it takes to understand this ancient emotional system. The book helps me to just shake off all the expectations.


Mother and I get along okay and then out of nowhere we get into a big fight. Why I’m not sure.   What goes on, is it the expectations? What are the triggers that ignite reactivity? I thought about it and decided what to say. I said to her, “I’m going to move into your town, but I am not going to be the daughter that you want.”


AMS- Yes, the ancient emotional system is doing its thing and trying to get out of the expectations makes sense. A strategy that bumps into the automatic might bring some laughter or get them to rethink.


The ancient emotional system creates an automatic tendency to respond to cues and to agree or disagree.   It produces a kind of a Ping-Pong game interaction. Every once in a while you see it pressuring you to be with them, to be fused, and you try not to respond the way they want you to do it. Sometimes you might just catch the Ping-Pong ball and look at it for a Zen moment.


AH – At a family meeting all the pieces of the ancient emotional systems are all working on each other. I hadn’t really thought about the fusion in the couple. I see now that it is evoked when people come to the family meetings. I need to be more aware of this and manage it better.


KW – I had a few thoughts while I was listening to you all. After attending three very intense multigenerational family meetings and working with these families I come back into my own family and I’m tired, and I’m not as alive, so I can just listen. It is better. I don’t have as much to say because I’m tired. I’m thankful to have a way to think about all that has gone on. Talking like this is wonderful, as I need the regular contact with systems thinking. It’s like a shot in the arm.   Being back with my own family is like watching a movie, but I’m in the movie. I’m watching the family projection process and I’m just saying, “Oh well, there it is.”


The first family meeting was with a new family. There were 25 people and the two family leaders who needed to manage their own anxiety. They managed their anxiety by talking a lot. I tried to put in a broader view of what the meeting could be. It takes hours to prepare for a meeting of this nature. I am looking for the questions that fit the situation. If I have done anything it’s to manage the togetherness pressure between the people who come to these meetings. If I’m reasonably good at it people can be themselves.


I hadn’t thought about it till you (AH) mentioned that some of your families were reading the book. If you go for individuality you get to hear all the talk and watch the triangles. I watch how I get caught in the long and often old disagreements that people have. I was thinking there should be a vacation package where people can call in and get a systems shot in the arm, so that they don’t get so caught up with all of these problems. People are sensitive and they can make such a big deal about it when things are not going well.


AMS – Kathy how did you manage the side taking in the meeting? I hear a different approach? What is it that you’re doing?


KW – First of all I don’t see people who are sitting in a circle group, as they make too much eye contact with each other to think for self. I asked them to look directly at me so that each may have the opportunity to talk directly to me and others can listen carefully and maintain their ideas.


Secondly I ask each person to speak for self and highlight the differences between his or her thoughts and those of others. I support the notion that it’s difficult to speak for self but that the differences around the edges are what make these meetings so useful.


By setting things up this way it allows for a different energy and people don’t seek consensus. Instead the focus is on, “here’s how I see it differently and this is what causes me to think differently”. The emotional tone is to reach out for similarities – a forced consensus.   That’s what I try to impede. People being able to speak up does not happen rapid fire. If it does happen fast, then it is often due to pressure. Under such pressure, people can speak but lose their ability to talk and think more as an individual, and rather react as a group member. It is almost as if people are afraid to speak out about differences because they might get rejected.


So I had two meetings very close together and then I came here to my family. This is such a gift. Of course none of this comes without a price and right now I’m taking a lot more naps. It takes a lot of energy to think.   I had an “aha moment” listening, trying to get family members to think differently. I was thinking what are the problems we face when we have to listen intensely?


AMS – I’m curious as to how you create a platform that is not judgmental?


KW – What I see is that people can agree on an idea but see things differently on various agenda items. Then over time they clarify, not judge, the various viewpoints as to what is important.   It’s a kind of “consensus” that emerges from respectful listening and thinking about each individual’s personal ideas.


You know where people are coming from because of the pre-meeting work with family members.   Meeting with two or more people gets intense. They want the others to agree. That is emotional but what’s most valuable is to hear the differences between people.


AMS – I focused on the con-fusion between how much for me and how much for you, in chapter 7. Con-fusion happens when two or more people fuse into an emotional oneness and individuality is run over in favor of “we-ness.” I wrote about it as redirecting the con-fusion at home. I should have left it open and not just said in your extended family, because it’s everywhere.


What makes it so hard? People have every reason to be for each other. But if they put out their differences from each other, they might not sleep well that night.


KW – I’m going to San Francisco with my four sisters in August and my brother-in-law Jeff wrote us to say he will arrive three days early. In the note he explained his decision. He and his wife will have time to be with each other, and then spend time with the sisters. That sounds innocent enough but my youngest sister was so upset. She said Jeff doesn’t want to come to our house with all of us.


For the first time I saw it differently, as to the position the husband and wife were in. I could joke with her as to what it took for Jeff to deal with all the female estrogen carriers. The house will be full of estrogen and he’ll be the only male. So what if he wants four days with the sisters, and only three days with his wife? Good for him. Without understanding it might be easy to run with the younger sister, and get all anxious and upset. But I told my sister I was pleased that he could say what he wanted. It takes your head to kick in to see things beyond side taking and systems theory helps you to think for yourself and to stay connected with the others.


We are all in the middle of the side taking things. Napping helps restore self. The amount of energy needed to allow for differences might be something to bring up in these family meetings. Anxiety goes up and then the tendency to exclude others and to be close to your spouse could become very evident.


C – I’m moving into a town with my two sisters, brother, sister-in-law plus my mother. There are multiple triangles. I have not lived near them for 30 years. I’ve used distance as a tool and have been chipping away at it. I asked myself, “Are you aware, can you see the triangles?”


Last winter we were all in the same room, then all of a sudden my Mom said something to my son. I reacted and I got mad at my mom. Almost immediately my two sisters got up and sat on either side of mom. I’m confident I will be better at seeing alignments and triangles and finding someway to make more room for me September 1st when I move to Edmondson.


On another topic I’m trying to finish up my coursework for living systems. I attempted a research project for my company. Reading this book and talking to other people who are involved with complexity theory and social justice I was thinking about how you said cause-and-effect doesn’t take into consideration the many factors creating the situation.


For example, I decided to move, and then the key staff person decided to move right after I made my announcement. It was a surprise and seems like there was a kind of an unconscious energy I didn’t know how to predict.


AMS – Instead of looking for a cause or even a correlation you can just gather the facts around shifts in functioning. There are no motives that you need to understand. Perhaps it is just the pressure people feel in relationships shifts.   And then motives are used to explain. Initially you’re just looking at how the system is functioning. You are just noticing what happens when you do something. The system reacts. You just write down what happens to the various people without trying to ascribe motives, or pretending that you should or can predict the movements of these complex living systems. Just keep track of what happens and then decide how you’re going to talk to the person.


In other words, being open tends to lower anxiety if you can talk to people reasonably. Not too much and not too little. You are the only one who can decide. Should I put in two or three ideas?


Then you listen to them as to what they think and how they react.   If someone doesn’t say anything to you about their moving, right after you say you’re moving, then you can mention that. You can even say stuff like, “Hopefully if I’m free to move you’re free to move too.”


I’m not sure what difference it will make but you can also go back and talk about old events in order to close the loop or let people know what you’ve observed. For instance you might go back at some point and say to your sisters, “That was so funny when I got upset with mother and the two of you got up and sat on each side of her.”


Clearly they don’t have to agree with you. You’re just telling them what you think you saw.


C – I am mindful of the cost of taking a stand or communicating more openly. It often results in people leaving when I don’t want them to go. What are my options when it’s going to cost me to be more open and is it worth it? How can I be more open without upsetting people?


AMS – There are a lot of unknowns.   When you make a big move you are taking risks as to the future. You’re hoping there will be more strength and maturity in the relationship system but there is no way to know. It’s risky business.   You may hope your house will be your castle but others might not want to change. They can resist. They can put effort into keeping things the way they are. You could think about one person deciding to change and then the others going along eventually as a phase shift in the system.


One person decides to make a big move and it has ramifications on many other people.


C. – Yes, I can see this. I told my son I’m tired, I can’t help you, and then he changed and he started being more responsible, and doing more things. So in this case I became less active, and he became more active. The system went through a re-balancing act. I don’t want to be the strong one all the time. My son has an ancient emotional system and I see that.


AMS – He might think things like “I have to be the man for my mom.” Or “I refuse to be the man for my Mom.”   How do you bring up the triangle that your son might be in?


C – Well this is not a family business but the main concerns are still the main concerns. How to be the best leader you can be? There’s always room to go at being a more open person.


AMS – There are some similarities between family and business, as people in small businesses become more important to one another. Then when anxiety goes up, the people in a business or in a family are less sure of self. Then the confusion and the gossip increase.


Dr. Bowen would come into my office with a provocative question? He would ask me things. He would talk about things I didn’t have the courage to talk about.


The boss can lead and decrease anxiety to be more self or less self.


People can back away from each other or engage be it in a family or in a business. How do people handle it when real challenges appear?


C- I read and think I understand but sometimes I don’t get it. Just the other day I realized I was using triangles to manipulate other people to get along.


AMS – It is different if you are building cooperation by saying and or doing more positive things in order to influence the group to think well. The problem with triangles is when negative and disparaging things are said about or to people and all this gets to be the way the relationships system dumps anxiety on a few. The information or gossip is never used to help you deal with the problem.   It’s used to avoid the problems and the people.


C –It is in the practice of relating well. The point is that I am in business to enable greater autonomy in others. How do I do it a thoughtful way?


AMS – Let’s go back to Kathy for a moment. What do you see as the biggest challenge and is there an easy method to promote seeing the influence of relationships on people’s autonomy? People do not just ask, “Are you susceptible to love and approval?” You might ask, “How objective do you think you are?” There are lots of questions you can ask to find out how neutral or objective people are? You can ask questions to find out how much of a backbone people have and what people are up against?


KW – if there’s one thing you want to teach high potential leaders it’s too be less anxious and less dogmatic and to know that you have taken time to deeply think and be thoughtful about life and its challenges. How do you teach someone to be there for others and at the same time to be his or her best self? How do you pass on stretching and growing and supporting each other? I think you give people what you know so they can go beyond you.


AMS – What kind of a name would you give this process?


KW – Opportunity. People show up because they want to grow.   How can one be and give their best and at the same time make mistakes and use those mistakes as learning opportunities?


Openness is the word, open and competent but not overconfident. .

Is there a way to take those principles and set up management opportunities?

Cheryl you seem a lot clearer about management and organizational principles.


D – [Joins the meeting.] Sorry I’m late but one job ended and I feel a weight has been lifted. I had been working three jobs.


AMS – Good for you. We have just been exchanging ideas about what it takes to be a self when you are part of a couple, or when you’re in a family meeting or in your own family. Kathy was putting out her method as to asking people directly to allow for differences as they talk.


AH – C was also asking how do you allow people to make mistakes? There is fusion in a family line and you can see it operate and it can create division between people. These families might not allow for people to share their differences. Somehow they think they know more, and don’t want others to express a different viewpoint.


So how do you encourage people to step out of the comfort zone? A leader has to be willing to do that.


KW – You can ask people who are attending a meeting to write down their ideas and then bring them into the discussion. A thoughtful leader or a facilitator can keep a few people from taking over others. Sometimes there are impostors. They are the know-it-alls.


AMS – Often you can see the primitive emotional system expressing itself. The group has a certain number of people who will conform, and others who will rebel. Do they have a choice or are the just doing what is demanded of them for the group to function?


Dr. Bowen used to say, “I will listen. I might not agree, but if you have the courage to talk it will help me to think better.”


D – I see a family where the youngest son takes charge. He doesn’t see how he takes charge and then the others back down. What if he asked, “Am I paying you to back down?” I’m interested in how Kathy promotes time for people to think differently.


KW – I’ve had some success with families I have worked with for a long time, allowing them or promoting the ability to express different viewpoints. It’s something for people to stay in room and say, “I think differently about this or that.” We give each person time to 1) think about a subject, 2) to come to a position and 3) speak for self.


At one of these meetings a son-in-law had been struggling about whether he had the “right” to express his view since it was not his money.   But eventually he was able to say, “I don’t want the trust to be written this way for these reasons.” I try to allow some time for people to think differently.


D – So you frame it, “I want you to think of ways your thinking is different from others.”


KW – There is a way to do it that promotes a level of listening to others. I try to do a story to demonstrate how this might work before I bring in the request to focus on how people think differently. The togetherness pressure is so overwhelming you can’t think.


I did this in my own family asking people to think differently. It wasn’t the words but rather the process that allowed for more people to express self.


D – OK, I think I understand what you were doing. It’s amazing that people can say what’s on their mind and can appreciate the differences.


KW – An example from one of these meetings.   I said we need a larger room so people can walk around. The person who was setting up the meeting said that the last consultant had just pushed people into the boardroom. It was a very small room and he thought that would be for the best. Can you imagine the intensity that promotes? People are crowded together in a small room. They probably can’t think. If you push them together some people think it’ll be better if they can’t think. Perhaps they will come to a quick conclusion and the consultant will be pleased.


AMS – Perhaps it is easier for people to get run over and get any decision made. You can put them in the small room, and just go along with the fusion and the instant agreement.   Its very different if you are trying to create space for learning by stretching the room out.


Another small point is that yes, the leader gets energy from the group, but sometimes the group eats up the leader. It’s good to know the difference between what it is “I” want to do and what it is “I am doing for the group.”


Perhaps people only can see “this is what leaders can do for us” and not “what is the group doing to the leader?”   The leader can be sacrificed. The leader can become a scapegoat. It doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault. Anxiety is expressing itself. It’s just the way the system is now, but anyone can begin to tone down anxiety and people will be different.


KW – I’m doing better in the middle of my family. I’m not sure if it’s helping others but I’m doing better. Often I am amazed how Bowen could see this order of things.


AH – I had a meeting where one of the women was a corporate person.   She would stand and put her arms out like Abraham on the Mount. I am going to get a larger meeting space.

AMS – I wonder, does she feel the group pressuring her to be the leader? It is not always just the leader taking over. She might pick up the anxiety in the group and do all of this holding out of her arms and pontificating for them.


I could see the influence of the group on the leader when Obama had to participate in a presidential debate on his wedding anniversary. Yes, he was running for president, but he didn’t want to be there. He told the audience both in his words and his body language. He told all that he had said to his wife that never again on their anniversary would this happen. He seemed to be trying to be there for his group but he didn’t want to be there for himself, he wanted to be with his wife.


C – I understand leaders can do things for the group. Someone can always be scapegoated, but is it possible to have a group in balance?


AMS – For how many generations can any group or family maintain balance? We have to adapt to changing conditions and therefore balance cannot be maintained for long periods of time.


D – Two things to say, one to celebrate being an individual, and to remember as a leader that the group may not want you to think. You can’t lead without followers and so you can easily end up in one of these over and under functioning situations.

I was a woman with three jobs and not doing anything about it. Now I have quit one of the jobs and think I am being a more responsible person.


So thanks for this time, and how interesting it is to be talking with you all again. See you next month.

One Way of Consulting to Families: A Possible Model for Training Families to See and Think Systems

buddha at pond

When the observing lens is opened to include the entire family field, there is increasing evidence that man is not as separate from his family, from those about him, and from his multigenerational past as he has fancied himself to be. This in no way changes what man is or has always been. He is as autonomous as he has always been, and he is as “locked in” to those about him as he has always been. The family focus merely points to ways that his life is governed by those about him. 

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 289). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


After writing several blogs about families with very serious problems, (such as the families involved in the Sandy Hook killings and the Boston bombing incident) I was challenged by readers to discuss how families, in the middle of serious problems, can be educated about family systems theory. After all many people do not want to go the normal mental health route or do not find useful treatment models focused on the individual.

Is there a different model we can consider?

Would it be possible to provide a learning experience, a way to enable motivated family members to understand the development of symptoms and to learn to alter his or her part in the increasing intensity around serious symptoms?

One possibility is to bring the important family members into a relaxed environment, far away from a medical/treatment atmosphere. Here people might be more relaxed and be encouraged to think about the issues as they have developed over generations.

By having a more objective and historical viewpoint people can become less reactive and are better able to take responsibility for their actions and reactions. Of course it is important to have someone trained in family systems theory to guide discussion and to enable people to keep from getting too emotional with one another. In addition, if the relationship system itself can be observed and discussed, far greater possibilities exist for people to resolve tensions and learn new ways to relate to one another. The overall effort is to become more self-defined or more of a differentiated individual.

Following are a few ways to track one’s effort to become of a self in a system.

 Becoming a better observer of relationships,

Understanding your impact on others and others impact on you,

Managing stress in relationships,

Noting times of increasing stress and the system responses,

Considering who am “I” and who are “you,” and whose responsibility is what?

Attending family functions.

Developing a 50/50 balance in relationships.

Focus on changing self rather than trying to make others change.

How am I using the words “I” and “you.”

Becoming more neutral as to content that leads to side taking and blaming.

Holding other people responsible when they bring you their problem.

Learning about your family history.

Being in contact with others in your three generational families.

Understand the family as a unit and how behavior is influenced by past habit. Developing more mature cooperative and well- defined relationships. 

Work on being more independent of the system and one’s own needs. 

Noting how the system changes as you change.

 A number of facets of the human phenomenon come into view in observing family members together that are obscured with any composite of individual interviews. Any person who exposes himself to daily observations of families as they “relate to” and “interact with” each other is confronted with a whole new world of clinical data that do not fit individual conceptual models. I use the terms “relate to” and “interact with” because these are a few of the inadequate terms that have been used to describe the family phenomenon. Actually, family members are being, and doing, and acting, and interacting, and transacting, and communicating, and pretending, and posturing in such a variety of ways that structure and order are hard to see.   

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pp. 152-154). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.

“What am I doing now?”

This is a challenging question as it is hard for us to perceive our own reactions and actions adequately. The possibility exists that in the future there will be greater use of a community model to “train” family members to become observers and reporters.

Mindfulness of one’s actions is a difficult task.

We are tasked with the job of observing interactions and becoming a self-observing researcher. This alters the focus from an effort to manage one’s behavior in interactions with a symptomatic individual, rather than today’s “treatment” mode, designed only for “fixing” the symptomatic person.

Currently, the mental health delivery system is built on “fixing” the symptomatic person while other family members are left in the dark. This is understandable but regrettable.

The consumer has become part of what I would call the “therapeutic industrial complex.” The growth of mental health since WW II has lead to a focus on pathology in the individual, backed by the “pharmaceutical industrial complex” focus on a quick fix.

The belief is that we must “fix” the symptomatic person. And what has been neglected is a thoughtful understanding of how the family relationship system participates in and deals with symptoms in individuals.

Mental disorders were one of the five most costly conditions in the United States in 2006, with expenditures at $57.5 billion. (AHRQ) (PDF, 615KB) Among the 8.9 million adults with any mental illness and a substance use disorder, 44 percent received substance use treatment or mental health treatment in the past year, 13.5 percent received both mental health treatment and substance use treatment and 37.6 percent did not receive any treatment. [1]

Family system training involves one or more family members learning how the emotional system functions, enabling people to see interactions between people more objectively and neutrally. Such training helps individuals learn to recognize the ancient mechanisms that distribute anxiety automatically and often unfairly.

A systems understanding of families allows individuals to take more neutral and different positions in relationships to others. This can tone down reactivity and lead people to better see how they get reactive and how they can control their own reactivity.

Individuals learn to be more for self, while still maintaining an active interest in and relationship with members of the larger system.

Becoming a more responsible self and learning to function from an “I” position is the crux of this effort.

The families that seem to do the best are those in which the individuals realize that they have been sucked into some kind of intense and automatic reactivity with their son or daughter or other close family member, and are willing and able to be disciplined and work on their part of the problem.

These families have often gone through all kinds of individual-oriented mental health treatment and have become aware that focusing on what is wrong with people is not helping them make progress in the relationship with the person.

In general I believe that intense fear is alive in the relationship system. People react to one another. Often they cannot thoughtfully talk or discuss hot topics. Instead they are afraid or quick-tempered, blow up and refuse to listen to the other without feeling some kind of a threat.

Often there are reality issues that seem like it’s the other’s fault/problem, e.g. drinking, acting out, refusal to go to school, etc. The challenge is how to see one’s fear and “focus on the other” is a big part of the problem. One parent will say it’s the other’s fault (the symptomatic one’s) and the symptomatic one needs to change. With this view, the “other focus” is fixed. “They” are the ones with the bad behavior or bad biochemistry and their symptoms/behaviors have nothing to do with me

How do people become more objective and neutral in these highly charged situations?

It almost seems counter intuitive to go from an “other focus” on the symptomatic person to look at one’s part in the symptoms that are showing up in another person. It is terribly hard, when feeling panicked or threatened, to take the time to look at the big picture.

The challenge is for people to think about how long it has taken for the identified symptomatic one/s to get where they are, and what each individual can do to unwind their part in the relationship quagmire.

Through an experience in my own family I have found a model that has been useful to other people.

See -(

My cousin Liz Eitt and I developed the Zen Farm as a model for others to use in their communities. As noted in the article, we were trying to allow family members to come into better contact with one another in a relaxed atmosphere where everyone can be learning. Partially because the Zen farm is a very peaceful environment, people feel at ease and far away from the treatment-orientation of hospitals and clinics or the stressed out energy in the home.

The process of learning usually goes like this. People arrive around 9 o’clock in the morning have some coffee, tea and pastries, and then each person talks to the coach about their view of the problem. The others listen in on the conversation and are eventually asked for their feedback. Of course there’s no cross talk or interruptions.

The coach has a researcher’s orientation: try to understand what people are up against and give them family systems theory based-thoughts about what has been said. People get a wide variety of ideas and feelings from listening to the conversation.

Although the main people are the three most involved (mother, father, child), we also have had sessions in which the grandparents, aunts and uncles or other important people, come to the talking part of the day.

Often other folks who have relationships with the family but are not part of the nuclear family, are confused as to what is going on and how they can be of use. This is why larger network type meetings are useful

Larger networks broaden the resource base for the family and decrease the intensity and dependency in relationships over time.

After the initial talking we break for neurofeedback ( and polarity therapy. This is training and relaxation for those who are the most involved in the day-to-day challenges. If there are more than two people doing neurofeedback or polarity therapy, then the others go for a walk or sit in on the sessions, depending on what seems most useful. This usually takes two or three hours depending again on how many people are being trained. These are nine-hour days where the expectation is that there will be an hour each of neurofeedback and polarity therapy with each person. We break for lunch at 1 PM and do some more talking about what people got out of the morning sessions and/or the neurofeedback and polarity therapy. This can go for another two hours until 3:00 PM and again we break up and do neurofeedback and polarity therapy again. We come back for a final session and some snacks before people head out at about 6 PM.

Often people will stay at a bed-and-breakfast in Fredericksburg and sometimes they stay another half day to do some more work with us before they leave.
People are encouraged to stay in contact with me each week for the first few months and may meet again either in three months depending on how well they are managing the situation. Often the phone consults are enough to tide people over until the next session. By talking to someone about a broader view they can put things into perspective and settle down. In addition people can work on reactivity in self by renting the neurofeedback equipment and continuing neurofeedback training two times weekly.

This is a very broad and general overview of one approach and of course each family presents different issues. The main point is that if people can look at taking a weekend out of their busy lives as a way to learn about managing self and learn how to think systems, a lot of amazing changes often occur.

In general I work with families in three different ways:

1) I consult with them at The Learning Space, or in my CT office. This is the least expensive at $200 an hour.

2) I go to people’s office or homes, bring my equipment and often spend the day with them at $3,000 a day plus travel.
3) The Zen Farm
I see a very few families who are motivated and can afford to take the time out to understand how their family is functioning as a system. They see Liz Eitt and myself for a day, during which we have meals, talk over the issues and then do neurofeedback training and polarity therapy. The cost is $4,000 a day. If it were possible to scale up a model like this, the cost would come down, and many more families could be seen. But the principle of a “training to understand the family as a system” not “a treatment for one” would be central.

Families are multigenerational and complex emotional units. However, individuals are capable of understanding the situation they are in and are able to alter their automatic participation in the system

People seem to do far better with a broad overview of just how systems function automatically to bind anxiety. This knowledge can enable people to alter the way they function and this changes the system and the situation. Often people get the idea of defining and managing self, grounded by a few guiding principles and very quickly can alter how they have been communicating with others.


Family Systems Theory is a completely different way of seeing one’s part in the family unit and therefore has very different implications for learning to manage self. The assumption is that without the effort to become aware of our part in the system, we are unable to see the influence of the family unit on our thinking and feeling systems. The family unit governs the behavior of individuals, despite our feeling that we are independent; we remain vulnerable to being a part of emotional problems and benefiting from our blindness.


Almost any natural or man-made “system” can be used to illustrate systems concepts, but I have chosen a biological system, the human body, to illustrate the ideas. The total organism is made up of numerous different organ systems. An intricate set of automatic mechanisms controls the smooth reciprocal operation of vital functions such as heart rate, temperature, respiration, digestion, reflexes, and locomotion.
Systems function at all levels of efficiency, from robust health to total failure. There are healthy compensated functioning states in which an organ can increase its functioning to handle an increased work load.
There are decompensated states in which the organ loses the capacity to increase functioning. These are situations in which one organ increases its function to compensate for the poor functioning of another organ. There are states of dysfunction that range from the short-term dysfunctions of acute illness, through the long-term dysfunctions of chronic illness, to permanent dysfunction in an organ system. An organ that functions for another for long periods of time does not return to normal so easily.

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 260). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.
In our experience, each family member functions in a variety of ways, determined quite as much by the reciprocal functioning of the family members as by forces inside himself. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 18). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.
Among the families who have done well in family therapy, we have seen changes in the usual, fixed, family patterns. For instance, a change in one member would be followed by changes in the other two. It was observation of the changes that led to the description of the “overadequate-inadequate” reciprocal functioning.


Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapyin Clinical Practice (p. 67). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.
The individuality force is derived from the drive to be a productive, autonomous individual, as defined by self rather than the dictates of the group. Any emotional system has an amount of togetherness forces, and a reciprocal amount of individuality forces, which constitute a life style or “norm” for that group at the point in time. Optimum functioning would be somewhere near a fifty-fifty balance, with neither force overriding the other and the system sufficiently flexible to adapt to change.
In an anxiety field, the group moves toward more togetherness to relieve the anxiety, and a new balance would be established at perhaps fifty-five or even sixty on the togetherness side, and a reciprocal forty-five or forty on the individuality side, which becomes the new “norm” for the group at that period.
These figures are used to illustrate the principle and they do not have specific meaning other than to clarify the point. These two forces are in such a sensitive balance that a small increase in either results in deep emotional rumblings as the two forces work toward the new balance.
The presence of rumblings can provide a clue that a shift is in progress even before overt symptoms are present. The balance is sensitive to anxiety.


Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 277). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.


tiger lilly

white purple lilly

purple flower

buddha at pond

liz gardening

butterflu wings open

water lilly

Understanding the social system and o yea, what can I do about me


Photo by Rob Felton

Last month, I began a web-based summer course for consultants and members of family business, using the book, Your Mindful CompassThe course is limited to 6 people and meets four times, May- August. The first time was so interesting that I decided to summarize the ideas for a blog.  Most of those who signed up for the course are involved in taking the navigating System course See


I asked each person to read 50 pages of the book and then presents a question about the book or Bowen Theory or anything of interest that seems to pertain.  My question asks – is the book useful in enabling people to stay focused on managing self in the social system they live or work in?  What follows is an overview of the meeting on May 29. 2014


There are four points on the mindful compass:

1. Taking a responsible “I” position—this is what “I” will or will not do.

2.  Preparing self for the resistance, not taking negative clues from the environment.

3. Using knowledge of people in systems to be able to relate to individuals and not be snookered by the system’s sense of threat.

4. The ability to stand-alone and not seek love and approval for decisions— this is the hardest position for people to take.



The basic assumption is that our emotional position in our families and in other social system is out of our awareness.  Therefore, it takes work to see the emotional system.  It seems to be manipulating us for its own reasons.  Knowledge of social systems gives us an advantage. We can see more, we can be less reactive and we can be more curious about human nature.  With systems knowledge, anyone who is motivated to know can enter into some kind of adventure to see the way in which people are influenced and are influencing others.


Each of us automatically participates in ancient relationship processes. When anxiety and uncertainty increase, we are guided to be more for the system than for ourselves.   When a consultant is hired, that individual can easily become just another family member.  They can seamlessly become a part of the system and automatically do its bidding.


Initially, a consultant/family member hears that they have been hired by someone to fix a particular problem.  The problem is partially logged in the relationship with the “boss,” and his or her erroneous perception of the problem.


Subsequently, the consultant/family member discovers the challenge to relating openly to the people in the system—Everyone wants to tell you a secret and, of course, you are not to tell the others. The final bind is you are not allowed to talk to others.  A good consultant will find many ways to wiggle out of the relationships binds and to gain his or her own perspective.


This is not a problem that is only the province of family business. The cordoning off of information is ubiquitous in all social systems. Knowing that social blindness is a property of all social systems allows the consultant some amount of objectivity.  It is not personal what people are doing.


The real challenge is to ignore the social emotional signals and to keep one’s eye on a neutral way to understand and to represent one’s best self.  How do we keep our eyes open to see things differently?


So now the job is to figure out how to relate well to deliver knowledge and to gain knowledge about the parts of the system that your client cannot see and may not want to see.


In the first three pages of Your Mindful Compass there is a description of how Dr. Bowen managed to perturb and often mystify the author forcing her to think for self.  Of course, it is a different matter to perturb your “boss” to encourage them to think systems.  But here is one example of engaging in challenging others by saying and or doing things that push people to think outside the box.  Emotional issues are never solved with logic and rationality and this in itself should give you courage to experiment and to see what might work in challenging others.


Evaluating self and the social systems

Bringing new information to people, asking them to think for self, is really what people are paying a consultant to do.  As to the family member they have to choose to be a leader in the family.  For both family members and consults there has to be a deep and abiding interest in increasing one’s functioning, while figuring out how to offer information and freedom to others.


The first chapter, Bowen Theory 101, shows us the mechanisms of the system as to how roles are assigned, how anxiety is distributed and how to understand the multigenerational family and it’s organization.


It’s wonderful if you can develop a family diagram of your client to get a broad systems view, but in many cases the one, who hires the consultant, may think a family diagram a bit off target.  After all you are hired to “fix” some other smaller problem.


It is almost automatic for people to see others as the problem and leave self out.  When this reluctance to see the broader field is present, most consultants slow down and consider how to listen to the one, who hired them, and slowly gain knowledge of the family system.



After listening to the way the family wants the problem solved, the consultant can begin to develop his or her own perspective and look at the family through the lens of Bowen Theory. By gathering a sketchy history of the family and the business, the consultant has an overview of the emotional forces, which may prove useful.


During this time, the consultant can take a guess at the level of maturity, the potential for leadership in the various people, and how much information they can take in.  It is important to figure out what the current leader’s ability to move towards more differentiation of self is. For example, some people can hear ideas of family emotional process without it being a threat, while others consider bringing up problems as evidence of being disloyal and therefore threatening the status quo.


If the leader is not interested in changing self in relationship to problems then one is left with taking small steps to gather information from others, who are surrounding the leader.


The consultant looks at their own family and how “fits” with the family, who has hired them. Once they understand the fit between the two systems, they are less likely to be swayed by the emotional process.  With knowledge, the consultant can be more objective, neutral and able to ask good questions about another family.


By doing a family diagram the consultant will learn as much as the family members. Often people say they learn so much by seeing the family spread out over time.


They begin to see how people are influencing one another and what kind of roles people are playing out. One can start with simple questions, such as “How does the sibling position of people in a work group function?” This can be a reminder of just how the consultant’s sibling position is important when relating to various family members.


Often, showing the pattern of inheritance in a family can clarify if and how the past ways of inheritance are playing out again. What does the consultant do if such information makes people anxious?


How does the consultant enable people to calm once they have been upset?  There were a few ideas as to structuring time out, reflect.  Some use neurofeedback, meditation or just a time to walk in the woods.  The goal is to create an atmosphere where people feel safe being open.


When anxiety goes up, blame often follows.  People feel justified in their anger and hurt one another automatically.  They are on automatic reactivity.  They react towards real and perceived injustice.  When you enter a family where mistrust and anger are buried under a smooth, well manner surface appearance, get ready to manage yourself.




First Case: Inheritance by the Weak

For most of us, the family system is not easily seen.  Emotional issues or problems are pushed down and smoothed over.  This keeps the happy ship running.  It is only when someone in the 3rd generation, who has been “chosen” begins to drink and succession is threatened, that problems begin to be seen.  The problem can create great anxiety in the family and an automatic rush to fix the problem.


Once you have seen a few families, you are less inclined to jump in and try to fix and save people.  In any social system secrets are kept. People often talk about the one who is the problem and the one who is not there.  So how does all this “focusing on others” help the system?


The system needs someone to absorb anxiety and that will be the one who gets the symptom. They are somehow vulnerable.  They have been impinged on by the way people operate on and around them.


So in this example, the boss is looking for the next leader.  On the surface, it appears that this individual is motivated and wants to learn and take over the business.  But underneath there are doubts.  They never surfaced.  For the leader it is a done deal. He wants to move on. But rumor has it there is some early morning drinking going on.


The leader has all kinds of emotional reasons not to know that the person whom he or she has picked has weakness.   Perhaps this guy is his wife’s favorite?  The list of reasons for picking someone can go from the simple – the oldest male always inherits, to the more complex—the oldest son left me and this is his son and now I get a chance to have someone from that family back again.


Other common problems

  • The system may not “approve” of the chosen new leader.
  • The person who has “inherited” the position may not really want it, but feels he or she must or should at least try to do it, and then gets stressed out.
  • Often people in family business can feel overwhelmed and not able to talk about the uncertainty they experience.
  • People in the family or the business do not know how to bring up problems with the about-to-be-new leader.
  • The new leader sees problems requiring others in leadership positions to rethink strategy.

How do you, as a coach or a consultant, encourage people to understand the system sensitivity and not focus on she or he did this or that?   One way is to gather information about the family history.  Now one can see how over the generations decisions have been made.  One may not want to repeat patterns but without knowledge we can automatically do what has been done in the past. Tradition is a kind of sneaky comfort.



Second case: Inheritance by the Talented

In this second case, the CEO decides that the next CEO will be his son/daughter who is very smart.  But in this case the CEO is out of touch with the board and is shocked at the Board’s opposition.


Even a CEO can take things for granted and not be all prepared to deal with resistance.  Adding to this may be the problem that the son/daughter does not know how to deal respectfully with the board and just wants to get things done, now.

But the board is not on the same page. They see problems ahead and feel responsible to exert its oversight.  They are not sure that this new leader will be reasonable.  What to do?


From the outsiders position we can see that no one is thinking systems and no one has a mindful compass and that a few triangles have formed.


Once the main triangle is seen, the consultant must figure out how to relate to the other sides of the triangle.  The main triangle consists of the consultant, the board, and the CEO father-son team.  The consultant must figure out how to relate to both sides without taking sides.


There seems no individuality, just alliances. Let’s consider the alliances in looking for individuals to relate to.  What does the head of the board think as to taking on or even talking to the CEO?  What does the CEO think about talking to the board members as individuals?   What are the worries and hopes of each individual?


When push comes to shove the consultant can see that there are many interlocking triangles within the board. There are many view points and not all are negative as to the new  “possible” boss.  But, we find that the board is a group and has no idea of how to communicate with the boss or this young, energetic future leader. In all likelihood this will continue until they can stop being a board and start being individuals, who are willing to take things up as an individual. How many boards do that?


The CEO may want a “happy ship” and can find the ship sinking.  For this person to see the system may be hard.  They are used to making decisions and having people go along.  For the CEO to learn about systems, he would have to have a deeper motivation for finding the best leader, and understanding the resistance and not just reactively passing this job onto someone in his family, who not be motivated to figure out how to relate to the board members.  In one ways this is test for one and all to go beyond comfort and to figure out how to relate to the “other” as thought they were important to the future of the company.


If he were talking about his observations, of just how he sees the system functioning, that would be a step forward.  What would it take to see the opposition as part of natural resistance to new ideas?



Acting on principle and seeing resistance as part of nature’s way

If people accept that there is a system, which automatically influences people to act without reflection, then one may find it easier to relate to people as individuals and not as resisters.  Often, we are blind because we are afraid to see but once we can see there is a great deal less fear.


There are many suggestions in chapter three as to how to take action for self and see that resistance is a natural and system phenomena and to not let it rattle your cage.  Once people are able to see that the system itself generates a resistance they do not take it so personally when people do not go along with our amazing ideas and suggestions.


If anyone has the courage to, on principle, communicate observations as to the state of the system, often there will be a reaction. People can then use that information to adapt. (A principle would be: open communication is better for an organism than when people in the system are shut down or are misinformation.)


Communication and information cannot always prepare us for everything. All systems are subject to unpredictable shocks.  However, most of the time we are operating in systems with knowable changes and perhaps resistance to change is the biggest problem for the system.


Knowing the history of a system helps the leader or the consultant to see how people have adapted to changes in the past, to recognize what might be new and challenging and to figure out a position for self.  A systems viewpoint really does help us to be more neutral to those, who MUST automatically oppose us.


The automatic way systems work is that there has to be opposition to forward progress, especially if the action needed is to be a leap forward instead of small step.

Side taking, polarizations and triangles are part of the way people interact once anxiety about a change hits the system.


Usually, you see an increase in triangles when anxiety arises around a change—even if it’s a good change.  Automatically, in response to anxiety, two people gang up to oppose, to put down, to scapegoat, or just pass anxiety onto a third mindlessly.


Why don’t they stop that and just be direct with another, you might ask?


People resist the opportunity to change.  It is expensive and by yourself standing up and saying “I” feels dangerous and it often is.  Our social brain likes being social, and being a self is lonely.


When the leader wants to change, often just like children we resist. It was not our idea.  People are often anxious as leaders can want us to move into unfamiliar territory.  Just think about what the leader is asking.  People are often unsure if the leader is going in the right direction. (Think of Abraham Lincoln as an example of a leader who knew he had to take people slowly into change.) And so people resist. They complain about the leader.  They tell others about the problems and feel better, but no action is taken to deal with problems or to deal more directly with the leader.  The opposition to the leader gains energy by complaining about their common enemy. Complaining is cheap energy.


How does a leader take a neutral position emotionally and not get caught in the polarizations of the opposition?  One answer is if the leader can relate to both parties reasonable well, things will change.


First, the leader recognizes how the resistance is forming. Just to remember it is hard for the comfortable ones to give up alliances and to manage self without the approval that is  gained by “blaming” others.  They will have to get something out of having more open and direct relationships with the leader.


Seeing the system, figuring out how to interrupt emotional and / or disorganized relationships is not for the faint of heart.  Those consultants or family members who want to be a more responsible self, find thinking systems an advantage and find courage in seeing patterns as not personal.


It is a lifetime commitment to self and to one’s family to always be working on developing greater awareness of how complex social systems function both at work and at home.


June 22nd from 4:00–6:00 pm EST, we will start with chapter four: “Systems Knowledge and Standing Alone.”  Please note that on page 65 there are 33 questions to answer as to how to understand and alter your functioning in relationships.


If you have any questions or comments please let me know.