Societal Reaction to the Killing of Nine People in Charleston SC . Are We Blindsided by the Emotional System? 


These ideas were generated by the first summer session for Navigating Systems and Murray Bowen’s Concept of Societal Regression.   http://www.navigatingsystemsdc.com/

bowen chalk on finger tips

Each day we are bombarded by the difficulties we as a society face: random violence, wars, mass migrations, acts of terrorism, senseless murders, posturing politicians, our decreasing attention span, increases in autism, breakdowns in relationships and many other challenges. How can we understand the essence of these societal problems? And what will it take to make a difference?

This week Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old man, joined a prayer meeting at the historic African-American Church Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. Cool and deliberately, he killed nine people there.

“A drunken Dylan Storm Roof boasted one night about an unspecified six-month plan “to do something crazy”. This weekend Roof’s sister was to be married. Roof had repeated the ninth grade at the Lexington County High School, and was described as “very transient,” he “came and went.” In a Washington Post interview, Roof’s uncle, Carson Cowles, said his mother “never raised him to be like this.” “The whole world is going to be looking at his family who raised this monster,” Cowles told the Post. “I’d be the executioner myself if they would allow it.”[1]

Only a few things are known about Roof now. But there will be analysis of his environment and his family, as there has been for the others who slay innocent people. Once again we will learn more about the profile of a loner who had as much difficulty relating to others as they had relating to him. All the mechanisms are engaged; distance, conflict and projection.

This is another example of family emotional process, intensifying and impacting society. The family patterns of relating create intense polarizations and blaming over the generations. It is these patterns of reactivity that draw “fault” lines in a family that become more and more deeply imbedded in that family and in society.

Systems Thinking is Hard to Do

Can we become more objective about the primitive mechanisms that influence us? Faster than the speed of light the our automatic response is to feel upset and “know” that so and so is to blame, that guns or “lone wolves”, etc. explains these frightening phenomena.

Thinking systems can enable us to go beyond good guys and bad guys even though it’s just not “natural” or automatic for us to see and deal with the emotional system. Although our tendency is to buy into a particular story line to explain what has happened, when we do that we limit our objectivity and become more emotional, focusing on short term fixes. Bowen called this the force for togetherness. It allows us to be popular and agreeable and not think as hard.

Being careful of “group think” around any emotional area is probably very wise. After all societal regression occurs when large numbers of individuals come together, with high emotions and not much thought. Under stress and the pressure to be a part of the upset group, people lose the ability to become more objective and thoughtful. It is automatic to be controlled by the stress and fear generated by the emotional system.

In societal regression there is anxiety produced by many threats including but not limited to the loss of new frontiers, land, water supplies and other basic resources. The inability to manage self under increasing stress is seen in the withdrawal of some individuals and/or in frustrating and stressful interactions between individuals.

When one becomes more objective, one can both increase the ability to relate to one another as separate individuals and can take the time to deeply analyze new trends in society. One example can be seen in Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. Here we see how there are many long terms trends that are changing slowly, making our society less functional. We have to see these trends as important in order to address them.[2] But we are often blind to the patterns in the emotional system.

 

Like our forebears who thought the earth was the center of the universe, so does the conventional wisdom suggest that the individual is “the problem”. What will it take to understand the influence of the family and the larger social systems on all of us?

When we understand that heightened emotions and criticism harms and doesn’t help, perhaps we can be better at monitoring how we communicate. If people understand that being able to relate to others is the highest priority, then they might be able to tone down the polarized talk.

I am not sure the mayor of Charleston has any idea he may be making the situation worse in using his emotional reactions as a city leader. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the suspect was “filled with hate and with a deranged mind.” “The man is a “no-good, horrible person,” he said. “Of course we will make sure he pays the price for this horrible act.”[3]

Family Reaction to Death

It is somewhat easier to see a system in action if it is your own family. It is harder to see that society is a system. Perhaps if you thought of news organizations somewhat like your gossiping aunt, then you could see how an emotional system be it the family or society, can be driven by anxious perceptions.

Once we are triggered into becoming more anxious, then we tend to follow the crowd and cling to short-term solutions that reflect some ancient value (like revenge or forgiveness). It is easy to be overwhelmed by problems in society. It seems somewhat more rational for us to respond and find solutions when our own families become symptomatic.

Back in the 1970’s, Bowen spelled out the emotional confusion and anxiety in describing the family reaction to death. When you take a family history you often see clusters of symptoms around the loss of an important family member. In these cases, it is easier to see that the family is an emotional system, where threat spreads from one person to another in a predictable almost deterministic way.

When families (and larger social systems) have good contact and tolerance or a deep appreciation for one another, then they have more resilience to deal with loss. Families where people are unable to talk cannot prepare well for death.

Any family can be impacted by multiple symptoms following a death.

The opposite can also happen when someone dies and others have a renewed sense of the importance of life.

The behavioral patterns that are generated in emotional systems regress into blame, polarization and distance resulting in symptoms. If on the other hand there is a pattern-breaking leader who is able to have enough awareness and insight to break patterns, the system will be influenced to move towards progression.

Awareness and understanding of what it is that one faces makes it possible to use our intellectual system to deal more effectively with the automatic emotional system. We can develop creative solutions for old problems when the emotional system settles down.

One of the most challenging things is to notice when you are being unduly influenced by the people around you. If you are feeling highly emotional (think sad, mad, disgusted, fearful, blaming, guilty etc.), then the family emotional process might just be controlling you. Can you be more separate? Can you let the emotions calm down? Take a deep breath relax for a moment, let the storm subside. Pay attention to what it takes to get out of an emotional reaction. Somewhere in the emotional upheaval there might just might be useful information. But in a storm you can also be swept away.

Losing open contact among family members is a storm warning that you may be under the control of the family emotional process. Without contact there is little ability to cooperate and to care for one another. Once we get stressed one of the early warning signs is you no longer want anything to do with “those people.”

Be it in our family or as a reaction to what goes on in our society, our brains “automatically” respond to stresses, producing cortisol, damaging connections in the brain, even if we are not aware of the growing threats and pressures.   By studying the human family Bowen saw that even as the family was at its lowest point, one person could become more differentiated and slow down or stop a regression in the group.

Bowen’s observation was that those who are more differentiated are not regulated by the emotional system. At higher levels of emotional maturity, they are more capable of thinking for self and sustaining ideas that are unusual without attacking others. They are not bullies trying to get others to agree. Instead they are good listeners and creative in considering a wide range of ways to solve complex problems without letting the disapproval of others stop them.

Greater differentiation allows one to notice and respect others while maintaining one’s own direction. A focus on self and managing as best one can to relate to others can promote greater cooperation and less anxiety in relationships.

Murray Bowen:

One principle about differentiating change is probably more important than all the others. Differentiation begins when one family member begins to more clearly define and openly state his own inner life principles and convictions, and he begins to take responsible action based on convictions.

 

This is in contrast to principles derived from the rest of the family. It may require months or longer for this one to become reasonably sure within himself.

 

The remainder of the family opposes this differentiating effort with a powerful emotional counterforce, which goes in successive steps: (1) “You are wrong,” with volumes of reason to support this; (2) “Change back and we will accept you again”; and (3) “If you don’t these are the consequences,” which are then listed. The accusations commonly list indifference, meanness, lack of love, selfishness, coldness, the sadistic disregard for others, etc.

 

When the differentiating one defends himself, or counterattacks, or falls silent, he slips back into the old emotional equilibrium. When he can finally stay on his own calm course, in spite of the togetherness forces, the accusations reach a peak and quickly subside.

 

The opposition then expresses a single statement of appreciation at the conviction and strength of the differentiating one and the entire group pulls up to the new level attained by the first.

 

Later, another member of the group will start his or her own effort at the better definition of self. The togetherness opposition to individuation, or differentiation, is so predictable that differentiation does not occur without opposition from the togetherness forces. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 437). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting-suspect/index.html

[2] Robert Putnam lays out a case for a societal regression in his book: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.   Putnam shows us the disintegration of fragile families, the crumbling communities, the increase in child poverty rates, the increase in prison populations, the decrease in jobs and shows is how both kin and non kin networks have shrunk in the last ten years. Americans are disengaged. (Putnam page 211) Even the upper classes have lost social trust. In the 1970’s 78% of people in the most educated agreed with the statement “most people can be trusted.” (Putnam page 220) By 2010 people’s ability to trust others was down to 25%.

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/18/us/charleston-church-shooting-suspect/index.html

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If You Open Your Mind Can You Open the Door?


 

Andreas Lubitz poses at the Golden Gate Bridge in his Facebook profile photo.

Andreas Lubitz poses at the Golden Gate Bridge in his Facebook profile photo.

A tragedy of ignorance unfolds as more evidence comes to light about the relationship between a vulnerable person and society.

How much do we know about how a seemingly relatively well functioning person can become psychotic/suicidal and crash a plane into the French Alps killing150 people? How much do we see him in isolation?

What are the chances that when the pilot yelled “OPEN THE DOOR!” this command from an authority decreased the chance that any useful outcome would occur?

Using Bowen’s systems theory we can find a deeper understanding of the emotional pressure that blindsides us and can turn vulnerable people into revenge machines.

If you watch the news shows you can see the emotional reactivity spread as pundits, news anchors, pilots, and psychologists, etc. focus on and “analyze” the “depressed” co-pilot. People react to the threat that there could be other depressed pilots out there. Some pilots joke that they are happily married. They pick up the importance of relationships. More worrisome are the comments like, “There is nothing we can do”, or the suggested quick fix, “Make that door open from the outside or put a stewardess in there.” And so goes the emotional responses to a threat.

What would it be like to hear a TV pundit say, “I need to back up and take a broader systems view of this tragedy”? This might require the pundit to deeply enquire as to the different variables influencing this situation. No diagnoses alone will enable us to understand what this individual was up against. A broader view may.

There is limited awareness and no talk about how emotionality spreads through a social system. People react and cannot notice how infectious and other focused their reactivity is. Some are so relieved that is wasn’t a terrorist plot that they are willing to dismiss this as a horrid act by just another “crazy” person. To some degree we have all become part of the reactivity to this event, creating the possibility of more emotional reactivity aimed at the vulnerable.

Just as in so many of these senseless and violent acts from Columbine and Sandy Hook to the Boston Marathon, there is the initial confusion which eventually gives way to helplessness (“There’s nothing we can do…”) or an angry reaction of blame towards those with depression and mental illness. It takes deep awareness not to be swept into a reactive state where the media (and our family and friends) overly influence the way we think and feel.

Unanswered questions for us as a society

  • How factual is the press portrayal of the problem?
  • What are the emotional reactions of the public?
  • How does reactivity recreate the same problem?
  • How can information about this incident promote learning?
  • What are the limits of current psychotherapy treatment?
  • Is a family approach needed to reorganize a stressed social system
  • Can we learn from the co-pilot’s family about his early years?
  • What was his recent relationship like with his family?
  • Did he have relationships with people in his extended family?
  • What were his relationships like with his friends?

How do people communicate and the downside of controlling others

The conventional wisdom or posture of the current psychology/psychiatry establishment is: “I will figure out what the problem. You are depressed. Please follow the doctor’s orders and take your medication”. (Even though following doctor’s orders could make you more depressed). The co-pilot was faced with a maddening bind: “Do as I say. Take the drug, lose your job.”

Doing what others want can lead to less self for a vulnerable person. Telling someone who is weak and confused what they must do can lead to a lack of compliance and increase the possibility of rebellion. This probably happened in his family, at work with his girlfriend and in the doctor’s office. The co-pilot tears up his prescriptions. The doctor feels that he did the right thing. The co-pilot is lost to anger, revenge and throws himself towards death.

The pilot yells at the co-pilot demanding that he follow orders, but the co-pilot is allergic to following orders and the pilot has not been trained to deal with emotionally disturbed people. Even if he had been, could he have figured out how to get the co-pilot to cooperate? What if he said to the co-pilot, “I need help. Please, please help me”? It is hard for the one in charge to see the big picture. Little can be done once the door to our fellow human being is locked. Can we know more about understanding the emotional tone in language?

Emotional Oneness

Early on Bowen wrote about the schizophrenic family exhibiting a kind of “emotional oneness”.[1] The self of the child is never developed so that he or she can think and live independently from the parents. The self is “borrowed” from others. This borrowed self is very vulnerable to being rejected and or invaded by the needs, wishes and demands of others. We all have this vulnerability to our relationship networks to some degree or another. Bowen said there are 100 degrees of difference in the level of emotional maturity. Each of us is influenced by our position in our social networks to be more or less dependent and or reactive.

If the co-pilot found some kind of “self” in his job and it was enough “self” to manage his relationships then he might be able to live a “normal” life. But if the relationship system were disturbed, then he would no longer be able to borrow enough “self” to function. The loss of one’s job could be one threat but there were other relationships threats that add to his vulnerability. By looking carefully at what was going on in his family, with his girlfriend and his social status at work we begin to see what went wrong that pushed him to become a killer.

What do we know so far about the disturbance in the relationship networks that the copilot used to sustain himself?  What do we know about the way in which the copilot tried to control and produce his version of a “family oneness”?

Some have suggested that the relationship with his girlfriend was disturbed by her pregnancy and he was threatened by this addition of a new person in their relationship.   Being on the outside of a mother-child relationship, just like being on the outside of any intense triangle, can make people feel threatened and vulnerable. Current reports suggest that she was actually moving out and leaving him.    Other “reasons” for his actions, some suggest, were his fear that his vision problem would end his flying career. (Yet another report implied that his vision problem was psychological. This would be more evidence of the fragile nature of his functioning. ) And after he crashed the plane, his girl friend and her family fled the village they lived in. Would they be blamed for the pilot’s murderous rage? How will they face the future and make sense of that has happened?[2] How will we?

As more facts are gathered we see the gradual desecration of all the important ingredients that held this person’s life together; his health, his job and his family relationships, were all threatened.

Other Focus

How is it that no one noticed that in losing his relationships and his health, he lost what ever was left of his self. This is what can happen. The emotional process in a social group is sensitized to focus on others and to be critical of others to get them in line. The automatic response is to look at others, focus on them and blame them, thereby freeing the rest of us from seeing our part in how the system is organized. Pause for a moment and consider the degree to which you can see how blaming individuals keeps us from seeing the larger system and this blindness makes events like this more likely to recur.

It has been reported that even the co-pilot wanted to change “the system”.  It would have been better if he had wanted to change himself but he too was focused on “others”. The best case is if this tragedy makes a small dent in the way we think about the individual and social systems and how we deal with troubled people. Perhaps he will help us understand what the “family oneness” is? Can we be more aware of what happens to others if we are too distant, too controlling, too needing of others? It is automatic to pressure others to make us happy or safe, but this “other focus” eventually leads to the erosion of self and to some kind of tragedy.

 

The co-pilot who crashed a passenger jet into the French Alps, killing all 150 aboard, worried “health problems” would dash his dreams and vowed one day to do something to “change the whole system”, an ex-girlfriend told a German newspaper.[3]

Understanding the system and the trapped person

One hypothesis is that the co-pilot felt trapped by the events happening to him and believed, “If you know of my problems you will fire me and that will kill me. I feel that you are against me and I must kill you”. The others around the co-pilot could have reassured him in an unsatisfactory way or been critical, making him more anxious. People feel how others regard them and often find it difficult to think or consider the facts of the situation when they are upset. They hide out, disappear and can then project their worries and negative feelings onto others. (“What I feel you are doing to me I am going to do to you.”) The primitive and reactive part of the brain is in control and the logical rational part is over-ridden.

Effective therapy allows people to be in a positive questioning relationship that enables them to see how they are tangled up and learn to gradually unhook from the emotionally driven reactions enough to begin to alter, improve and broaden their relationships with significant others. Bowen was the first person to notice that by being in good emotional contact with one’s extended family, people were able to make progress twice as fast as those in psychoanalysis.

Over time people can THINK about how automatically they behave. Eventually their thinking can alter their behavior. But if people are too sensitive to tolerate a relationship that calls things into question they can leave therapy in a negative way and may be more inclined to hurt self or others.

 

People are born into a functional position in their families. Some are able to observe how they are influenced by the social system, while others are born more highly sensitive and reactive to relationships. The individuals who take challenges personally cannot see the system as a larger mutigenerational system that influences and impacts all the individuals in it.

The German co-pilot was probably not a good observer of the push and pull in the human social system. Possibly he took things very, very personally and was unsure of himself and pushed people away from him. Bullies are the flip side of this dynamic. They threaten others directly, while a more passive person can hurt self or act quietly to get revenge for real and perceived hurts.

As in the case of the co-pilot social pressure leads to threatening others. As people lose self they are unsure of what they think.   They copy others and mouth the right words and sometimes this pretending works to fool others and to get along. But under stress the façade can crumble because it’s not solid. The language used in families where there are serious symptoms often shows a disregard for the identity of the individual. There is lot of telling others what to do, criticizing them, ignoring them, not letting them get a word in edgewise, using ego merger words like “YOU must, you will, you are, we are the right ones and you are the wrong one”. There are just a few of the indicators of increasing anxiety. The overall message is, “We are not sure of you and you are not sure of you either”.

Many vulnerable people are sensitive to being told what to do and so they go away, fight with you, get sick, blame or worry about others to preserve themselves in a hostile environment. The main thing one can notice is that it is difficult for people to focus on self and talk about self and easier for them to try to get the others to behave.

Once there is an “other focus” it becomes difficult to work on self. There is no “I” position that can help build an emotional backbone. And without an emotional backbone, there is no dealing with challenging relationships. Those who have become focused on can be de-selfed and under pressure they can tumble into psychosis and can do “mad “ and destructive things. When told what to do or when threatened, they seek revenge. These are the few who never had a solid self and who believe deeply that “if you will not agree with me one of us will die”.

What does it take to see patterns of relationships? What does it take for individuals to integrate negative experiences? What does it take to find a more thoughtful way to relate to those who have hurt you? These are all questions for testing levels of emotional maturity.

What would it take to change the system?

We know that integrating one’s thinking and feeling about one’s life experiences takes time and the process is not very well understood. Perhaps as we learn more about the co-pilot and his relationships, this knowledge could be generalized and change the way society understands and deals with emotional problems. But seeing these events differently requires changing the way we as a society understand mental health, shifting our thinking to a broad view of systems and how systems influence individuals, not the other way around. We would have to see the individual as in and part of the system, not as isolated from it.

The Brain

Our brain is not built for interpersonal reflection. Our ancient brain was taught to operate in and preserve hierarchies, no matter the cost to a particular individual. Humans like other animals distribute anxiety unfairly. Without thought, the weak are picked on and the strong get the better deal. This is the emotional system at work. It takes courage to look at our part in problems and to think that even how we simply react to challenges, how we act, talk and think, may be “messing up” others.

Differentiation of self

We have the capacity to lead and to take on the “unfair” nature of the emotionally driven system. In most systems there are one or two who can see that the automatic nature of blaming, shaming and isolating does not improve human functioning. These are the ones who can rise above diagnosis of the individual and think differently about how to increase functioning by managing themselves in relationships.

If one can see the social system and relate to others by being more separate, we know others will object and be upset. But this changes the direction of the “worried focus”. When one person begins to change how they deal with a problem person in the family, a different level of change occurs. One person decides, “I’m not doing ‘this diagnosing’ anymore. I am going to change the way I am acting toward so and so”. This begins to create change throughout the whole system.

Sometimes we may feel that there is only a small chance of finding a more mature leader (in a family, organization or the larger society) willing to change self in the face of a monumental problem. But if you look around there are examples everywhere. There are people stepping up to change some aspect of society that they find appalling.

One example of social change

It may be that our mental heath system based on seeing and treating the individual will come under greater scrutiny. It may be that enough evidence will be gathered to say that the surrounding social system must be involved in the treatment of those with serious symptoms. At this point, to go from an individual focus to a family focus seems way too difficult. It would involve way too much social change. But great social change is possible.

The March 29, 2015 issue of the New York Times magazine describes the story of how a few people in Norway changed a prison system from punishment to a focus on rehabilitation: Prison Planet: How do we treat the world’s most dangerous prisoners and what does it say about us.[4] The prison was designed to restore the basic elements needed for humans to grow and develop: exposure to sunlight, to open space, to encourage those in authority to play games with the inmates, to “learn” to interact with people. Halden Prison spends $93,000 on each prisoner, focusing on preparing inmates for life when they get out.   The US spends $32,00 for punishment.[5]

System Theory offers a path to a quiet revolution

Bowen theory allows us to consider the nature of the relationship systems surrounding us and to more deeply understand what is influencing our ability to stand-alone and to be mindful of emotional pressure. There are many things that go into giving up of self and the automatic desire to have an emotional oneness with others. We can notice it in our lives if we are able to see emotional pressure and how often we automatically agree with or fight with or disappear from defining ourselves in relationships with others. We give up a little bit of self when things are not questioned, when we go along with the powerful ones, when we do not put forth our differences with others, and when we cut off from difficult relationships and conversations.

We as a society are blindsided by the power of the emotional system and find it difficult to observe its influence. This is the double bind for us all. The social system is automatically functioning to identify someone as the problem and that individual is done in while we stand by silently participating. This blaming, worried process lets the group survive. And we are part of it as long as we do not see the larger process that is occurring.

In families we see how easy it is to get upset with the one who does not do his or her homework, clean the room, stays out too late and is not obedient. These are the ones who can draw the negative focus.  We have built a lucrative social structure to deal with the vulnerable ones without realizing how we are participating and benefiting from this process.

Bowen theory offers an alternative, an open window, a fresh breeze, a different way to see and understand the suffering around us. Theory offers each of us a full time job. There is a way to be more aware of relationships, and to be a more thoughtful self in the effort to open any door.

…………………………………………………….. Footnotes………………………………………………..

[1] Intensive Family Therapy: Theoretical and Practical Aspects, edited by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, James L. Framo

[2] Kathrin Goldbach, a 26-year-old secondary school teacher, told her students two weeks ago that she was pregnant, and she was planning to marry Lubitz. However, the day before the Germanwings airplane crash, Goldbach told Lubitz, 27, she was moving out of the apartment they shared in Dusseldorf, Germany. Goldbach cited his insecurity and controlling personality as reasons for her decision. Goldbach also believed Lubitz had been seeing another woman. She accused him of having a five-month relationship with a Germanwings stewardess. Newsmax reported that Goldbach’s friends said she was leaving Lubitz because she could no longer live with him because of his erratic behavior. Goldbach had been vocal about the way he treated her. Her friends said Goldbach told them Lubitz tried to order her about what to wear, and who she could and could not talk to. Kathrin Goldbach and her family are said to be so afraid of being blamed for the Germanwings crash – caused by Lubitz after he flew the plane he was co-piloting into the French Alps – that they have fled the town and vowed to never return.

Read more at http://www.inquisitr.com/1969270/kathrin-goldbach-girlfriend-of-germanwings-co-pilot-who-crashed-plane-might-be-expecting-his-baby/#w1KG75wrfWPyj14i.99

[3] http://nation.foxnews.com/2015/03/29/crash-co-pilot-ex-girlfriend-everyone-will-know-my-nam

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/the-radical-humaneness-of-norways-halden-prison.html?_r=0

[5] Currently the prison system in Norway is designed to “ease psychological pressure, mitigate conflict, and minimize interpersonal conflict”. Norwegians have altered the system. If a prison environment can be altered, how hard is it to alter the way we think about treating people with mental heath issues?

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Social Pressure and Differentiation of Self


Social Pressure and Differentiation of Self

Bowen lauging at CC 1979

Yesterday, January 31st, would have been Murray Bowen’s 103 Birthday. 

Bowen smilinig 86

Dr. Bowen left a tremendous inheritance to all of us. His broad grasp of nature, his deep understanding of emotional process, his funny southern humor, his shocking insight and his love of challenging people, all are deeply missed.   Neither Bowen nor his theory was perfect. As he said, his mission was to simply point towards a new way to think about human behavior.  

Family Systems thinking has yet to be integrated into most people’s thinking. So I am grateful for the many people and organizations that both acknowledge and continue his work.

Now I am deeply involved with the Murray Bowen Archives: http://murraybowenarchives.org/. If you Google Bowen Family Systems Theory you will find many other organizations that offer various viewpoints and ways to understand Bowen Theory. (I found about 147,000 results in 0.31 seconds). 

Last month I was honored to speak to the participants in The Vermont Center for Family Studies’ training program. They asked me many great questions about social pressure and how to define a self as a coach and as a family member. http://www.vermontcenterforfamilystudies.org/training-program/

I wrote this essay to expand on their questions and to acknowledge some of what I learned from Dr. Bowen and where his ideas have led me.

If you no longer wish to receive these updates just let me know.

Thanks,

Andrea

Social Pressure and Differentiation of Self

How hard is it to be who you want to be? How much do you conform to what others need or want you to be? How challenging is it to see and act when relationship pressures are intense to go along or to avoid issues?

The effort to define one’s self to important others is usually a tension filled danger zone. Our near and dear can act as part of a system and resist self-definition by anyone.

We are often blind to the mechanisms supporting social pressure. Evolutionary forces have rigged the family to function as a social unit so that some give up self for the group.   Therefore it is challenging but necessary to uncover and understand the mechanisms promoting relationship blindness, especially during times of great change.

It is difficult to say what is really important to you or for others to hear about your principles, or what it is you will or will not do. One needs courage and the ability to postpone the comforts of approval to be self-defined. People are willing to take on this task – to be more self-defined and respectful of others – because they deeply believe that in so doing, they and others will be able to function at higher levels. And they do it because they can accept the moments or months or years of social tension that may be necessary to unwind an anxious family system.

The Slippery Slope of Social Pressure

Bowen noted that as individuals became better observers of emotional process they could often do something about the way they reacted to social pressure. He would often tell stores about how these mechanisms worked to lure others into going along with an “other focus” rather than a self-focus.

One story he liked to tell was about an experience he had one day driving from work in Kansas to his home in Tennessee.   On the several hour drive he found himself wondering about people at work: “What is going on that I am upset with Bob? Bob is a nice enough fellow. I see that the further I get away from the system the more neutral I feel about Bob. Perhaps I just got taken in by all the gossip at the water cooler.” After he returned to Menninger, he found he could relate to Bob pretty well for a couple of days. Then he would find himself going along with the majority viewpoint of Bob. As he became aware of these automatic mechanisms, the triangles, he developed strategies to deal with the gossipers and Bob.

Bowen called this the automatic and out of awareness joining of one’s self with others – fusion. It’s a natural state for a youngster to join with others and to believe what their parents or teachers say, but taken to an extreme some people can be so highly fused they are unable to separate from others. They react to social pressure from parents and others and are unable to determine their own separate identity. Their emotional growth is stunted and they are vulnerable to all kinds of physical and emotional symptoms.

No one knows how these fused states come to be. There may be a genetic vulnerability to becoming fused with others or it may be purely psychological phenomenon.

My own experience with fusion into the undifferentiated ego mass of my family of origin is remarkably consistent with what I have observed in a broad spectrum of reasonably well-integrated families with whom I have worked in my teaching and practice. I have never seen a family in which the “emotional fusion” phenomenon is not present… There are others so intensely “fused” they probably can never know the world of emotional objectivity with their parents. Few people can be objective about their parents, see and think about them as people, without either downgrading or upgrading them”.[1]

Perhaps the first step in defining a self is just to acknowledge the problem of perception. We are under evolutionary pressure to act as part of a social unit and that pressure overrides the inclination to be an individual. The togetherness force is common to all social animals, and for good reason. The herd is a powerful protection, both physically and emotionally. Maybe this is the evolutionary reason we have a strong tendency to automatically fit in with our social groups.

Until one achieves some ability to doubt one’s initial instinct to go along with the group, we are destined to follow the instinct to be for the group.  So, what does it take to find your own small difference, or a principle that you can base your decisions on, rather than relying on the love and approval from going along with others?

Laurie Lassiter and others have suggested that there is an evolutionary “gain” from being a bit more separate from the social group. Usually the more separate individual is a more factual observer of the situation and can lead others in a better direction. Evolution favors increasing awareness to contend with changes in the environment, shifting alliances and the transfer of information to enhance survival. [2]

Part of a leader’s responsibility is to see the world accurately and decide what needs to be done now to prepare for the future. So how do leaders emerge? In some social groups, leadership is decided on criteria about who can be the fiercest chimp in the pack. But violent individuals cannot make much progress. Such leaders do not prepare us to organize well to face a complex future. Differentiation prepares people to be more separate and more autonomous so they can be useful to the social group without compromising self.

Cell differentiation creates an organism with many parts that function “differently”, e.g. kidney, liver, heart, limbs, etc. What does it take to have a well-run family, business or society? It requires that each of us live up to our potential as individuals who are well defined for self and can also be connected to the group in a useful way.

How do you really know what is important to you if you are willing to alter it to please others? What does it take to know the beliefs, ideas and opinions that you have acquired in order to get along with others? And how can you lead yourself, let alone others, in a complex world without your own principles to guide you?

The Social Science of Influence

Many years of social science research have demonstrated that our perception is a personal and biased view of the world, reflecting the family we grew up in and the pressure we experience even subliminally to conform. Social science researchers like Solomon Asch show us that our social groups can cause us to radically alter what we believe we see about something as fundamental as our perception of the length of a line.

asch_conformity

Asch’s most famous experiments set a contest between physical and social reality. His subjects judged unambiguous stimuli – lines of different lengths – after hearing other opinions offering incorrect estimates.  Subjects were very upset by the discrepancy between their perceptions and those of others and most caved under the pressure to conform: only 29% of his subjects refused to join the bogus majority.  This technique was a powerful lens for examining the social construction of reality, and gave rise to decades of research on conformity.  Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority were inspired directly by Asch’s studies.

 

Behavior is not a response to the world as it is, but to the world as perceived.”[3]]

Asch told his colleagues that his idea to study conformity was brought about by his childhood experiences in Poland. He recalls being seven years old and staying up for his first Passover night. He recalls seeing his grandmother pour an extra glass of wine. When he asked who the glass of wine was for, she said that it was for the prophet Elijah. He then asked her whether he would really take a sip from the glass and his uncle assured him that he would. His uncle told him to watch very closely when the time came. “Filled with a sense of suggestion and expectation” Asch “thought he saw the level of wine in the cup drop just a bit. Thus, early in life, Asch succumbed to conformity, which fostered his idea to investigate conformity later in life.[4]

 

 Asch believed that social interaction reflects the ability of individual people to synthesize information about group norms, the viewpoints of others and their own perceptions of themselves as group members. He emphasized that independent thought and disagreement among group members is a cornerstone of group functioning. He believed that only by settling our differences with other group members, can we actually understand the shortcomings of our own beliefs. [5]

I don’t know if Murray Bowen knew of Asch’s 1951 research. However, by the 1950’s Bowen had his own view of how people see self and what part of self they would like others to see. Bowen would eventually call the ability to negotiate self in the social system differentiation and the process whereby one becomes de-selfed, fusion.

From Psychoanalysis to Biology

Bowen was in psychoanalysis during his early years at the Menninger Clinic. He often talked about how he saw transference as a growth process in the two-person relationship between therapist and patient. In relationship to an objective and knowledgeable analyst, the other is able to learn to see self and others more accurately. This two-person relationship was predictable and he thought it could be part of science.

Transference and counter transference[6] involves a step by step process of getting to know one’s self in relationship to an analyst who is non-threatening, objective and interested in clarifying each one’s perceptions of relationships. The assumption is that each person has his or her version of people and events and acts in accordance with that view.

Bowen called the misperception of others and the behavior it produced as evidence of “fusion”. His effort was to ground human behavior in a biological process. In the beginning cellular lives are clumps without a nucleus. The cells fuse and slowly begin to separate from one another and take on a specialized role.[7] Differentiation then is the process of a cell or an individual developing its special functions and no longer functioning as part of the undifferentiated mass.

In effective psychotherapy or coaching you can see the progress that a person makes in becoming more of a self and less reactive and dependent on others.

During Bowen’s early years at the Menninger Clinic, he described the way he observed shifting relationship pressures in psychotherapy.

  1. what patient thinks his parent thinks he is;
  2. what patient feels he is;
  3. what patient feels his wife and therapist think he is ;
  4. what patient tries to act like;
  5. what patient hopes outside people think he is (often he thinks they suspect #1); 6. what patient hoped therapist saw on first appointment;
  6. what patient hopes to be;
  7. what patient wants therapist to think of him.[8]

The urge to agree with and to thereby fuse with another, to figure out what “they” want you to be, happens so fast and in the most innocent ways. “Do you like my dress?” “No!” “Of course you are right, I do not like it either.” This is the fused or automatic response, confirming our vulnerability to want to fit in well with the other. This can range from dressing “properly” to hating a broad swath of people, e.g. “If it weren’t for the (nations, peoples, religion, etc.), the world would be a better place.” Social pressure can be extreme and the reasons complex, especially when manifest in individuals or groups who hold their truths to be sacrosanct and who terrorize others to control them.

Knowing all of this, one senses the need to be more of a strong self in order not to fall under the automatic influence of social groups. How do any of us go about changing our selves to be more like whom we want to be, and less like the complaint ones (go along to get along), or the ghost from the past (living as though the realities of the past are the realities of today), or the rebel (being “different” for the sake of being different, not based on any thoughtful principles), or the puppet that is strung along on the social expectations of another (living without awareness of any of the above).

A Time for Change

There are two ways that change seems to happen. One is the automatic response to changes in the system: time for you to leave home for college or a job, to fall in love, to start a family, to watch your parents die and to cope with all that comes at you. For most people these are knowable changes that the family adapts to. People can do a good job at this but they have to change. There may be emotional shock waves that create havoc during these transitions. People have to adapt.

The second path is “mindful” change. Can I be better defined, can I use this time of change in the system to understand the system and my part in it and better manage the anxiety related to transitions? Bowen took this second path in his work in his own family. He wrote up his experience doing this in “The Anonymous paper.”

For curious and motivated people the answer is yes, I want to know how systems work and I want to alter myself in relationship with others. For these folks, the first goal is to cool down anxious situations, and redirect anxiety away from the vulnerable ones.

The basic challenge in system learning is to be vulnerable and to observe the reality of people’s lives. How does one get out of blind fusion with others and develop a person-to-person relationship? Can you talk about the way you see things and listen to the how the other person sees things without defending or attacking? Sounds easy, but it’s a big risk.

Understanding self and others will help us do well with all kinds of sticky situations where people are sensitive to one another. Understating fusion and what it takes to be a more separate self can enable one to run or dispose of a family business, or help us deal more thoughtfully with a family member who has been hospitalized for a serious physical or emotional illness. It can be very challenging to see self as part of the problem and part of the solution. Instead of telling others what to do or running from them, you get to know them and you reveal more about you. You stick with the “I” position and not with the “YOU should” position

One of Bowen’s Efforts to be Better Defined

The new plan was to define myself as a person as much as possible and to communicate individually to a wide spectrum of extended family members; I tried to establish as many individual relationships within the family as possible. Every possible opportunity was used to write personal letters to every niece and nephew. The less differentiated family segments still tended to reply with letters to my entire family, but more and more some began to write personal letters addressed to my office, and since they were addressed to me personally, my family never saw them. The return on this endeavor is like a long-term dividend; it has modified my image within the entire family. Another project was the development of a “person-to-person” relationship with each of my parents and also with as many people as possible in the extended family. A person-to-person relationship is conceived as an ideal in which two people can communicate freely about the full range of personal issues between them. Most people cannot tolerate more than a few minutes on a personal level. When either party becomes anxious, he begins talking about a third person (triangles in another person), or the communication becomes impersonal and they talk about things. In such an effort, one encounters every rejection, alliance, and resistance that are present in emotional systems everywhere. In disciplining the self to do this, one develops versatility and emotional courage in all relationships; one learns more about people than in most endeavors, and the family profits too. In some family situations the positive results are sweeping, both for the family and the one who initiated the effort. These experiences were used in clinical practice, which in turn made contributions to the effort with my own family. [9]

A Method to See and Deal with Emotional Pressure

Sometimes words pressure us to go along with others. For example, “we” can be a word of confusion. Who is this “we”? Can you see the folding in on one another? No one asks if you want to be part of the “we”.

Fusion happens so fast because we want others to agree with us or we want to go along with others as in the Solomon Asch experiment. “We” can be a short cut to cooperating to get things done. Or it can be a short cut to control others, to feel in control or simply feel “in” with a social group. Anxiety can create confusion and limit our ability to know where our responsibilities to and for others begin and end.

Love affairs, raising teenagers or trying to train a new manager to take over the business often present this kind of challenge. One way to see how anxiety and fusion work is to notice when people get “other focused”. They blame, worry about others, or become adamant about a stance they are taking.   Listen for the words of fusion and see the loss of self-focus:

  • “You better do what I say or you will get sick, flunk out of school, lose your job or prove you’re a jerk!”
  • “If you want to be married to me, you better do, x, y and z!”
  • “You are the problem. If it were not for you I would be happy!”
  • “Take the garbage out, drive the car, stop drinking and smoking, etc.”

The ability to be less reactive is enhanced with the effort to be aware of the automatic nature of emotional pressure and the urge to go along with others. If one can tone down one’s automatic responsiveness one can build a better more meaning filled life.

What will it take to think before you act and to define what principles guide your actions?   To the extent one can do this, one has the opportunity to become a more defined self and a person who can offer self and others more freedom.

Profile of moderate to good differentiation of self.

This is the group in the 50 to 75 range. These are the people with enough basic differentiation between the emotional and intellectual systems for the two systems to function alongside each other as a cooperative team. The intellectual system is sufficiently developed so that it can hold its own and function autonomously without being dominated by the emotional system when anxiety increases. In people below 50, the emotional system tells the intellectual system what to think and say, and which decisions to make in critical situations. The intellect is a pretend intellect. The emotional system permits the intellect to go off into a corner and think about distant things as long as it does not interfere in joint decisions that affect the total life course. Above 50, the intellectual system is sufficiently developed to begin making a few decisions of its own. It has learned that the emotional system runs an effective life course in most areas of functioning, but in critical situations the automatic emotional decisions create long-term complications for the total organism. The intellect learns that it requires a bit of discipline to overrule the emotional system, but the long-term gain is worth the effort.

Murray Bowen, M.D.,

Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 369).

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[1] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 494). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Lassiter, Laurie, Chapter 7, Others, Edited by Lynn MargulisCeleste A. Asikainen and Wolfgang E. Krumbein, Chimeras and Consciousness :Evolution of the Sensory Self

 

[3] http://www.brynmawr.edu/aschcenter/about/solomon.htm

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Asch#cite_note-NYtimesArticle-11

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Asch

[6] Transference is a phenomenon characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another. One definition of transference is “the inappropriate repetition in the present of a relationship that was important in a person’s childhood.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transference

[7] Cell fusion is an important cellular process in which several uninuclear cells (cells with a single nucleus) combine to form a multinuclearcell, known as a syncytium. Cell fusion occurs during differentiation of muscle, bone and trophoblast cells, during embryogenesis, and during morphogenesis. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_fusion

[8] Williamsburg Collection: The Murray Bowen Archives of Leaders for Tomorrow

[9] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 499). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.

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The Murray Bowen Archives of Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT)


 

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There are archives for many famous people available to those interested in investigating the life, times and works of people like Darwin, (http://darwin-online.org.uk/) and Einstein, (www.alberteinstein.info/ ).

 

For those of you who come to my blog to read about the various ideas generated by Bowen Theory, I want you to know about the Murray Bowen Archives, and the non-profit organization (Leaders for Tomorrow or LFT) that was created for the purpose of archiving the collected works of Murray Bowen, MD.  Below is an explanation about the archives and its new leadership.

And many thanks to all of you who have shown interest in and/or supported the mission of (LFT), to make Murray Bowen’s work available to the public. LFT is a one-of-a-kind collection of documents and audiovisual materials chronicling the development of Bowen Family Systems Theory (http://murraybowenarchives.org/).

The good news is that LFT is expanding in a meaningful way.  Carol Jeunnette is the first Executive Director of Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT).  As an LFT board member I am very pleased. Carol has already made a difference by enabling Joann Bowen, who remains the president of LFT, to finish a long list of tasks.  Carol is personal, intuitive and organized; she listens to people, and finds a practical set of actions to move forward.

Joann Bowen sent the following note to the board of directors: I’d like you to have a short summary of Carol’s background and interest in Bowen Theory and Murray Bowen’s archives.  In 1996, Rabbi Edwin Friedman introduced her to Bowen theory.  It was in the context of congregational leadership as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Since then she has been an avid student of the theory, including multiple years of study at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.  Carol is a licensed professional counselor and holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Psychological Studies with a focus in Bowen theory.  For a decade, she has chaired the Voyagers, a clergy group that meets regularly to consider congregational leadership using Bowen theory.

The Work on collecting “Bowen Stories”

As head of the oral history project for the Bowen Archives, I took part in obtaining over 40 interviews from professionals who knew and worked with Bowen.  Stories from those whose lives were impacted by meeting and dealing with Murray Bowen can explicate the depth of Bowen Theory as a guide for action.

Other volunteers who conducted the interview process were: Priscilla Freisen, Kathy Wiseman, Frank Gregorsky, Monica Bague, Randy Krabel, and Pam Allen. LFT hired Ellen Chapman to transcribe the audiotapes using ELAN software. Laurie Lassiter was asked to identify topics to use to search a database so that future researchers can look for common themes with regard to how Bowen interacted with people and how they responded to him.

Overall these interviews will shed more light on the many ways one can go about building meaningful relationships and strengthening social systems.

The Significance of Bowen Theory

There is much to learn from the stories of those who knew and were influenced by Murray Bowen, M.D.  I saw him as a master observer with an amazing ability to communicate to others what he was seeing. This made a difference in how people were able to function around some challenge in their family. What was his secret? What was he doing in his interactions with folks?

People tell us in these interviews what they were able to do in their families after contact with Bowen. Apparently he could penetrate the emotional fog to see the system in action. Bowen was using his theory to see various ways out of life’s predicaments and help others see some ways out too.

Of course his ability to communicate systems ideas was also dependent on people having the courage to risk and change self. This interactional process is brought to life in these recorded stories.

To change self in a social system requires one to learn a new way to understand problems, to see beyond the current focus on symptoms, and to deeply understand the automatic nature of evolutionarily designed social systems. If you can see beyond what you have been taught to see, then problems and symptoms can be fascinating. Understanding the family as a unit and your part in it allows you to become something like a maze runner, someone who is freer to relate to others beyond the emotional constraints (the maze), which are present in every family system.

Bowen understood and conveyed in stories, or with questions or even a long lecture, just how a self-focus could decrease the “other focused” anxiety in the system. Simply put, symptoms can decrease as more resilient relationships are developed. Such a different theoretical approach to problems in one’s family is far removed from today’s accepted beliefs about mental illness.

Bowen believed the family unit functions as an evolutionary guided social system. The “conventional wisdom” and automatic tendency is still to focus on fixing the sick one, while other family members and society in general often are left blaming, rescuing and becoming polarized. Can this be due in part to society being uninformed about the nature of a family system under pressure?

After all, when the idea of family psychotherapy first emerged, many in society heard it as blaming the family, not that knowledge of family can be a resource for seeing life more broadly.

When first reading the Bowen Anonymous paper in 1976, it struck me that Bowen had redirected the anxiety in the system away from individuals that people in his family were worried about and onto himself. He communicated with people in a way so as to draw attention and present the family with a different view of what might be going on.

For those who have not read it, perhaps you may read it as an epic of how Bowen struggles to define the way the emotional world is functioning out of our awareness.

The radical idea, that the family governs the development and behavior of its members, was brought into focus by Murray Bowen’s efforts in his own family. This paper shocked the professional community, which had not yet integrated the new ideas of Bowen Theory.

There are many letters in the Bowen archives showing how Bowen made an effort to open communications with others, how he discovered who his ancestors were and how to make more sense of his own past. His comments on how society functions, the role of polarization and the response to the pressure of increasing populations and diminishing resources are but a few of the topics he discusses in his letters.

Now, with the addition of the recorded stories of those who spent time with Dr. Bowen, we have a fuller idea of who Bowen was. This collection of life stories shows how others were impacted by Bowen and went on to live in a bit more aware and self-defined way.

There are many wonderful and funny stories of how Dr. Bowen both shocked and challenged people to rise up to be a bit more free of the emotional morass everyone is born into. You can see how Bowen both tricked and inspired people to be able to both think systems and become a resource to others. These stories are valuable examples of how Bowen lived theory and knew more than he could tell us.

You may have your own story of understanding the system and altering your part in it. So you too know that Bowen discovered a completely different way to improve the ability of individuals and families to function at higher levels.

Thank you again for your interest in and or for supporting the Bowen Archives Project of Leaders for Tomorrow. I have enjoyed and am honored to be learning from these recorded stories and seeing how people are making a difference in their own lives.

original photo of mb

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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 (http://www.navigatingsystemsdc.com) 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.

[1] www.washingtonpost.com/local/at-a-georgetown-synagogue-a-terrible-theft-of-trust/2014/10/16/36b27288-554f-11e4-809b-8cc0a295c773_story.html

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/25/world/americas/ottawa-canada-gunmans-radicalism-deepened-as-life-crumbled.html?_r=0

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


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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.

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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.

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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 (www.centrosantacatalina.org).  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.  http://csnsf.org/programs/descriptions-of-border-programs.

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 http://csnsf.org/author-index-family-systems-forum. Please contact Victoria Harrison at vaharrison@sbcglobal.net 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.

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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.

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Thanks for reading

Andrea

 

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