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


Photo by Rob Felton

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


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


There are four points on the mindful compass:

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

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

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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Evaluating self and the social systems

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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




First Case: Inheritance by the Weak

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


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


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


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


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


Other common problems

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

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



Second case: Inheritance by the Talented

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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








I’s the Family Stupid…

Violence appears to be on the rise.

People are asking for explanations.


We are faced with a cluster of events – Sandy Hook, the Boston Bombings, the California killings, a California man arrested for a possible bombing attempt, followed by a rogue shooter in Norfolk Va., who did not even make the national news as he killed “only” two people.[1]


People turn on social media to hear mental health experts explain the problem.   The experts tell us the diagnostic code: they were depressed, anxious, autistic or had Asperger’s Syndrome.  They say nothing about the family or the social system.


It’s the media that follows up on leads to understand and tell us: “It’s the family, stupid.”

It’s the media that tells us all about the roots of the problem?  But most of us only see the individual.

As in the flower below the individual is where the action is.  The surrounding system is forgotten.


red flower

The social system, the family unit is more like a forest or an ant colony.

Not always easy to see what might be going on all around?

We can miss the beauty in the complexity surrounding us.

a stream though the leaves



But because our family lives are so compelling the media follows the stream…

In  case after case the media describe beautifully how the individual has become separated from both the family and the social system.

They describe the painful confusion in these social systems.

The voice of the media seems to have a deeper understanding than the voices of mental health, as to what went wrong and what is needed.

But hold on, understanding is one thing, and informing and disturbing a several trillion-dollar industry is another.

Current trends in research can only slowly impact the direction of mental heath, as it is hard to alter the direction of a battle ship.

What would it take for a widespread change in how we understand metal health – our cultural understanding of mental illness – to influence our national policy?

Perhaps because of the way mental health is funded, the public will have to be convinced that there is a better way for any significant changes to take place.

Currently, the mental health system is a giant arm of the government supported by taxes and private heath care operators and insurance.


It’s trillions of dollars and a several million-person problem


  •  1986   the mental heath complex served just 7 million Americans at a cost of more than 18 Billion. Medicaid and Medicare together paid $4.9 billion for mental health care in general hospitals and $1.9 billion for mental health care in other organized facilities. States paid 4.52% of the cost
  •  2006 $57.5 billion was spent for mental health care, including the loss of income due to unemployment, expenses for social supports, and a range of indirect costs due to a chronic disability.
  •  2010 – $2.5 Trillion with a projected increase of….. $6 trillion….
  •  2030 – $6 Trillion
  •  What does $2.5T or $6T mean? The entire global health spending in 2009 was $5.1Trillion.[5]
  •  2005-  $135 billion for mental health and substance abuse: 5.6 percent of the national health-care spending.[4]
    • an estimated 26.2 percent, OR  57.7 million people, suffer from a diagnosable mental condition.[3]
    • 2005-  we spent $135 billion for mental health and substance abuse: 5.6 percent of the national health-care spending.[4]



How did we get here – a very, very brief history:

In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates was a pioneer and developed the idea of altering the environment for the mentally ill. During the Middle Ages this deeper understating of the connection between environmental factors and mental stability disappeared. Instead with the lack of knowledge, mentally ill people were believed to be possession by evil spirits. This may partially explain the fear and panic that led to extremely “cruel treatment” This was hundreds of years where ignorance ruled.


The next big change came about in 1840 when Dorothea Dix spent 40 years investigating the condition for the poor and the insane, and lobbying legislators to establish state hospitals for the mentally ill. Her efforts directly affected the building of 32 institutions in the United States.[6]


In the 1950s, antipsychotic drugs allowed for the reform of the remaining “asylum-based” mental health care system.  Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 was the last piece of legislation President John F. Kennedy signed.  It changed the way mental heath care was delivered. Then the average stay in a state institution for someone with schizophrenia was 11 years. Unfortunately only half of the proposed community centers were ever built, and those built were never fully funded.


–“ the idea was to successfully and quickly treat patients in their own communities and then return them to “a useful place in society.” Recent deadly mass shootings, including at the Washington Navy Yard and a Colorado movie theater, have been perpetrated by men who were apparently not being adequately treated for serious mental illnesses. Those tragedies have focused public attention on the mental health system and made clear that Kennedy’s vision was never fully realized.[7]


Instead of Kennedy’s vision we have a mental heath system that is a vast bureaucracy with often-bizarre reward systems for reduction in hospitalizations but with only no community or family support, and only very short-term treatment or medication.  The result is releasing disturbed people into an ill prepared community. This continues blindness as to the influence of the surrounding social system.


Hope Lives

Hippocrates ancient but fundamentally sound idea of altering the environment surrounding the patient is slowly being seen to have real merit.  The Veterans Administration (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been leading the way by involving family members to learn about stress reduction and communications skills in order to fortify the relationship system of soldiers.[8]


Even though there is confusion as to both how to understand the person with mental illness and how to help family members, there are programs that make a difference and may lead the way to integrate more ideas using strands of research to develop new programs.  Law enforcement has become the safety net for those who do not fit into the current way we think of mental health.


Perhaps the only reason people are now clamoring for a change in our mental heath delivery system is due to the violence that has cropped up as of late.  But be ware of jumping to conclusions. A psychiatrist recently wrote in the NY Times:


One of the biggest misconceptions, pushed by our commentators and politicians, is that we can prevent these tragedies if we improve our mental health care system. It is a comforting notion, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Large epidemiologic studies show that psychiatric illness is a risk factor for violent behavior, but the risk is small and linked only to a few serious mental disorders. People with schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder were two to three times as likely as those without these disorders to be violent. The actual lifetime prevalence of violence among people with serious mental illness is about 16 percent compared with 7 percent among people who are not mentally ill.[9]

By taking a statically historical approach he reassures us this cluster of violence is abnormal and will not continue. Changing the way we currently deliver mental health is not worth the effort he suggests, since violence happens so rarely.


But once people feel threatened the fear can often drive change.  After a shooting people get mad, they advocate for change.  The most popular quick fix: change the gun laws.  Clearly if people can use knives the problem is not just the weapon.


This automatic reaction presents a challenge and an opportunity.   Can Bowen Theory advocates come up with a better system for prevention and treatment? If asked to redesign the mental health system, where would you start?


Family Projection Process

Now we are treating the weakest people by separating them from their families and communities.  How many can see that labeling the weak individual and treating him or her away from any treatment/education of the family, continues the primitive focus on the vulnerable ones as “the problem.”   In so doing, the ancient family projection process continues.


The crux of the matter is this:  When we focus on others as the problem with our worry and concern, we begin to shift the anxiety and negativity towards another person.  That focus on the other makes it harder for the symptomatic person to function. And so the other focus can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with symptoms intensifying. In many cases the negative focus can aggravate other mental process.


Many of these mass murders have the same “crazy” ring to the story.  The social system surrounding the person seems blind and/or inept.  It seems “crazy” that no one could see the violence coming.   Parents or other concerned people who could see were ignored, and the police do not have the right tools to make a difference.


We are blind to emotional process as long as we continue to focus on one person as the problem and separate them from their family emotional system.   The automatic nature of the family system is to dispose of anxiety by focusing on the weakest individuals. Mental heath is promoting this same thing:  focus on the weak ones in the name of helping them.


At Sandy Hook and the California campus, the killer had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.   But how much does that label or diagnosis help us when we hear that most people with this diagnosis are never violent?  Another question, does labeling make it easer for us to understand how to relate to people?


We do know that the family structure of both of these men had been torn apart long before the actual events occurred.  It turns out that no label can explain as well as the investigative journalists are doing, the “perfect storm” that develops for these families and communities.


People are not going to give up labeling.   It’s just too natural, but we can reformat the labeling and build on it to turn the focus towards learning about the social system.  For example, if more were known about the family dynamics of a symptomatic person, and his or her support system, our interventions could produce different outcomes.


If law enforcement were trained to ask for the names of three friends and family members who would be contacted about the history of a symptomatic individual, a significant difference could be made.  Right now we hear about the social system after the arrest. And often both the families of the symptomatic person and the society-at-large believe the person who is symptomatic “should” be able to function to “fix” their social system problems.


“I believe there’s been a failure in his support system. I’m sad for that,” Clemens said. “I hope he will reach out to those who will help him.” A San Francisco social media maven and former political consultant (Ryan Kelly Chamberlain II, 42) who was wanted on suspicion of possessing explosives has been taken into custody after a three-day manhunt[10]


What would happen if law enforcement could activate the social system to help find, manage or even subdue a suspect?  Law enforcement could easily be trained to use a tool like the family diagram to decide to search a home or to call in family members to stay with a person who appears to be a threat to him or others.


When a symptomatic person has to sit down and give a family history, a great deal of information comes out.  The law enforcement person, for example, who asks for the family history can see how much support and how much distrust, threat and/or cut off there is in the family system.  It is not hard to teach people how to do a family diagram. Nor is it hard to phone and bring family members over to talk.


The people with the most political savvy are united behind gun control legislation.   It makes sense to them. They believe the enemy is the accessibility of guns.  But hit the pause button. Think about it.  We need to know more about a person in order to decide – who is a serious threat.   We know we are not going to get rid of guns or knives, but we might get better at noticing who has the potential for rage.


It is not good enough to believe there is an enemy and we can know him by the fact that he asks for a gun.   The problem is deeper than who has guns or knives. The problem lies in the deep disturbance in a relationship system that has lost the ability to keep people connected and calm.


So now fear of “others” spreads.  As someone at my yoga studio said.“ The problem is the mentally ill.  We do not know what to with them.” This comment points towards the focus on the  “other” and not our attitudes or ways of thinking about them.


It is too easy to dehumanize “the other”. They are not useful to society or us. We either are afraid of them or worry about them or feel sorry for them. If we fear others we do not communicate well with them.   How challenging is it to check your everyday thoughts to see how you regard others?  Do we respect these “others” even when they scare us?


Here are a few examples of other-focused reactions that are prevalent at the moment:

  •  Rodgers (the California killer of 6) is a mad man.
  •  It’s the families’ fault.
  •  No wait, it’s California’s fault because there is no money for mental heath.
  •  It’s the President’s fault.
  •  It’s the senate’s, the house’s fault, because they will not give money to… (you name it).
  •  It’s the police.


Can our attitudes about people and their problems be changed? An attitude change may be the only way that our current mental heath services can be rethought and reorganized.


The first question is how can we clarify the problems and still address our part in them?   Here is what Bowen had to say when answering a question about what could people to do in times of trouble, when asked by someone at a conference:


I am a part of this great republic and I can do something to shed light on the corner that I live in. And if a majority of people can shed a little light on their corner it is a different society. And when they bitch about Washington and Congress and the executive branch and the Supreme Court they go in the other direction.  It is that simple and that difficult. But it would make it livable if we can say we play a part in everything and I want to do the best I know how to do in making my corner of the world better -then it is a better world. It is a challenge for all of us to do it. We don’t know whether our neighbors will do it or not. If you just keep doing it there will be more people following you then you realize. That’s the best answer I have about what do we do with all of society.[11]  Murray Bowen, MD



We have to see the potential in the person and in the family group, to believe it is worth investing in the possibility of reorganizing the system (both of the family and of the mental health world).  To do so we would have to move from seeing the individual as the pathological problem and focusing negatively on them,  (otherwise known as “other focus”), to comprehending the building pressure in a system, which impacts some people “unfairly” and sometimes catastrophically.


Unfair distribution of anxiety is an automatic process in which as anxiety rises in a system, the more vulnerable develop symptoms and pull the system to focus on them. (Vulnerability has to do with multiple reasons ranging from genetics to the time of one’s birth.)  The result is often a mandate by both the family and society at large to  “fix” the other.


Long ago Carl Jung wrote: Only a change in the attitude of the individual can initiate a change in the psychology of the nation.  If there ever was a time when self-reflection was the absolute necessity and the only right thing it is now, in our present catastrophic epoch.[12]



Theory, Hypothesis and Interventions

Knowledge can enable people to change. Bowen Family Systems theory is a body of knowledge containing theoretical descriptions from which hypotheses can be made as to the future direction of a system. It allows us to see the ways in which a motivated individual can seek to disrupt the path of a social system if that individual is willing to pay a price.  The price of being an interrupter or a disrupter can range from mild to extreme but there will always be a price for change.


If we are clear about the dysfunction in today’s world view as represented in these mass murderers, then perhaps people will be willing to pay the price of change, and “learn” how to deal with the estranged individuals.


You may remember that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, was also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. His father noted in a recent interview:  “Autism makes people weird, but it doesn’t make people like this. There was something else horribly wrong with Adam that wasn’t the autism. But once we had an autism diagnosis, we assumed that that explained everything that was strange about Adam and we stopped looking beyond it.”[13]


If diagnostic codes do not do it for you, then you can understand a great deal more about the pressure cooker in the family when you read the NBC news report noted at the end of this piece.   Clearly the journalist M. Alex Johnson figured out what was going on in the life of the California campus killer.  Johnson outlined a perfect storm scenario that apparently the police have not been trained to deal with (nor, as it turns out, were the parents or the mental health professionals that the killer is reported to have seen).   In the notes at the end of this blog you will find two paragraphs from the California killer’s 141 page “manifesto”.[14]


After the media had spelled out all the details of the Manifesto and the You Tube videos, interviewed the sheriff, the friends, the family lawyer and listened to various psychiatrists, on May 25, 2014 Candy Crawford asked:   “What is the missing piece?”  I think she was suggesting that neither the journalists, the lawyers, police nor the psychiatrists have the missing piece.  I would agree.  It is possible that seeing and dealing with these kinds of problems in a family context is an answer, but of course there never will be a final answer.



The Missing Pieces

We can probably agree that there are at least two “missing pieces” in altering the way we see and understand emotional problems.  First, the current diagnostic focus of psychiatry and psychology has to be altered to fit with an understanding of the social system. Otherwise the diagnosis reinforces the family projection process. Next it would be useful and practical to reorganize treatment to include the family and support system of the symptomatic individual.  If you include the family it will make it easier on the police.  (Right now the legal system is in such tatters that no one can enter the bedroom or search the house of someone who is thought to be harmful to self or others.)


If families were seen as important, then the authorities could easily bring the family members in to deal with the one they are worried about.  In this more ideal situation, the police would be able to watch as family members interacted with one another.  More data that will inform the police and family would emerge.   That’s guaranteed.


I am suggesting some things that need to be addressed and changed. It will take political will, since money would have to be allocated for the training required for police and families.


Here are some of the elements of what I would propose to do with the training funds.


  •  Train police to ask the symptomatic individual they’ve been called to “deal with” about the three-generation history of their family.  This way you can get the phone numbers of family members in case you need them to be a collaborator of the reasons the police were sent to the home in the first place.  The police are not to be therapists.  Their job is to simply identify whether and where there are supportive people for the symptomatic person and whom the symptomatic person may want to harm.  This interview would take an hour of the police’s time.


  •  During an interview a person who might not react to the officer who is scaring them straight, but if they have to talk about the memories evoked by the name of the stepmother or the mother and/or father, grandparents, siblings, then the reactivity of the symptomatic person often emerges.  And the intensity of the reactivity can help the police decide if “something” needs to be done.


  •  Whenever possible, family members should be called and placed on the phone while the suspect talks to the police. And at the end of statements made by the suspect, the family can give feedback.


  •  Police should always be able to search the home of the suspect when they are called in because someone fears that an individual can and may take the life of him or herself or others.


  •  There could be new ways of providing mental health assistance for those who are seen as unstable and threatening.  Ideally there would be the opportunity for family members to understand the emotional process that has led to cut off and isolation.  And if an individual required hospitalization, the family and social system would become an integrated part of the treatment.


  •  A focus on health would bring the family members into an effort to decrease fear in the relationship system of family and friends.  There is plenty of evidence that individuals’ relationships in the community are governed and/or influenced by the relationships in the family.


Such large social changes would require an ability to examine the dysfunction in an individual as an indicator of the way the system around the person is functioning.   With this kind of supportive assistance, there would be less focus on what is wrong with the individual.


These kinds of decision require large groups of people to see a better way and then moving in that direction.  People have to be able to see how an effort towards social integration can enable both better treatment and cost effectiveness.


What will happen if there is no “treatment” available for the individual and his or her family members to learn how to relate in healthier ways?


The change of course can begin right now as each of us looks at our own attitudes and our ability to alter the way we act towards the emotionally vulnerable among us.


Research will continue to bring us more information about different ways to deal with emotional illness and the symptoms that involve the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain.


Research and testing will have to continue to inform people about new treatment modalities.  Then both long and short-term outcomes changes could take place more rapidly.



New knowledge that’s been around since the seventies.


A recent Scientific American article points to one way of enabling greater empathy and compassion towards others- Neurofeedback.  The researchers suggest that perhaps this kind of approach could eventually give rise to cognitive training, leading to more thoughtful and less fear-based relationships with both friends and family member.


There is long history as to the field of neurofeedback.  http://biofeedbackinternational.com/schara.htm Elmer Green and Joe Kamiya wee tow of the early researchers on the benefits of stress reduction using alpha training.

In addition you can find a broad description of a five-year effort using neurofeedback with my youngest bother at http://ideastoaction.wordpress.com/family-emotional-process-and-the-big-picture/


A research group, led by IDOR cognitive neuroscientist Jorge Moll, focused on brain activity associated with affiliative emotions, or the warm and fuzzy—but not romantic—sensation one experiences when seeing a beloved friend or family member. To contrast this feeling with other emotional states, the researchers first asked their 24 volunteers to prepare three personal anecdotes: a proud moment, an episode full of affectionate feelings and a neutral but social scenario such as supermarket shopping. Pride and tenderness are complex social emotions, and so the researchers reasoned that comparing results from these two, along with a neutral control, could help clarify what brain activity was associated with affiliative emotion specifically.


Next, subjects had to recall these occasions while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) chamber and viewing a screen that showed a circle that would ripple and change shape. For half the subjects, the circle reflected ongoing changes in brain activity. The other half saw a randomly morphing ring described as a focal point for their visual attention. During a series of trials the researchers repeatedly cued participants with the words “proud,” “neutral” or “tender” and instructed them to relive the related memory in as much detail and emotional intensity as possible.


The researchers contrasted the data from tender, neutral and proud responses across trials to identify brain activity most related to affiliative feelings for each subject. They then assessed how much the brain response in each trial resembled this typical affiliative activity. The group given random visual feedback showed no significant difference in affiliative activity over trials. By contrast, subjects who received neurofeedback showed significantly stronger affiliative brain activity in their last trials compared with their first ones. In other words, something about seeing their brain’s changes intensified that response over subsequent trials. [15]


I have been using neurofeedback in my coaching practice with great success and know of many studies demonstrating the positive effects of neurofeedback.  But new ideas that do not promote the focus on others are often put on the back burner.  They do not fit with emotional process.


It’s a funny world.   Labeling, which does not work, persists.   And a family approach with neurofeedback that does not have deleterious side effects and may open new doors is suspect.


Treatment and Research


Even if those of us affiliated with family theory could communicate well the way we see the human condition, we still have to devise ways to offer treatment that works.    A change of this magnitude in the thinking of large segments of society would be a tremendous.  Such change would require a research effort to allow various types of treatments to compete with each other.


Psychiatry is a far-flung enterprise that has no real head, apparently no real way of altering its fundamental beliefs nor any way to consider how to redeem itself except, through small steps.  Families are unfortunately in the same boat.


There is no easy way to alter treatment for those suspected of being violent. But as long as we focus on one individual, then the support system surrounding that person has no way of knowing and/or learning how to deal with the problem person.


In summary, we have a long way to go to alter the primitive emotional response to vulnerable individuals who are socially challenged and to develop programs that reach towards social integration.


The more we can understand the problems that society itself participates in, the more any individual is able to extricate self from the confusion without resorting to  violence.


People can become aware of the way systems function to automatically put the anxiety onto a few.  And that anxiety on a few results in increasing social isolation and a lack of ability to relate well to others.   Change will occur slowly when a saturation point is reached.  At that point, it will be common sense knowledge to see how cut off and isolation function to increase symptoms.


In my ideal world, more effort will be made to enable people to learn how to respond to others with greater self-discipline. Knowledge of systems will continue to be key in enabling the front line family members and professionals in society to be better able to respond to others.




After only a week passed since I uploaded those videos on Youtube [describing Rodger's plans for his "Day of Retribution"], I heard a knock on my apartment door. I opened it to see about seven police officers asking for me. As soon as I saw those cops, the biggest fear I had ever felt in my life overcame me. I had the striking and devastating fear that someone had somehow discovered what I was planning to do, and reported me for it.  If that was the case, the police would have searched my room, found all my guns and weapons, along with my writings about what I plan to do with them. I would have been thrown in jail, denied of the chance to exact revenge on my enemies. I can’t imagine a hell darker than that. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, but it was so close.


Apparently, someone saw my videos and became instantly suspicious of me. [...] I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the full truth of who called the police on me. The police interrogated me outside for a few minutes, asking me if I had suicidal thoughts. I tactfully told them that it was all a misunderstanding, and they finally left. If they had demanded to search my room… That would have ended everything. For a few horrible seconds I thought it was all over. When they left, the biggest wave of relief swept over me. It was so scary.”]




California shooter’s life of rage and resentment by M. ALEX JOHNSON

Jae C. Hong | AP[16] http://www.cnbc.com/id/101703654



People gather at a park for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of Friday night’s mass shooting on Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif. Sheriff’s officials say Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara, stabbing three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood.


In YouTube videos he posted late last week, Elliot Oliver Robertson Rodger looks and sounds like a sweet, gentle soul, but the words he speaks reveal a tormented, twisted view of the world.


Especially of women, whom he is accused of having targeted in a shooting rampage that left six people dead near Santa Barbara, Calif., on Friday night.


Rodger was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head Friday night in his black BMW after a long shooting spree throughout the tony community of Isla Vista, adjacent to Santa Barbara in Southern California.


Seven people, including Rodger, were killed. Eight others were shot and wounded. Four more were injured when the BMW hit them. And yet another person sustained an injury that remained unspecified Saturday night.


Rodger, 22, a student at Santa Barbara City College, grew up amid affluence and privilege as the son of Peter Rodger, an assistant director of “The Hunger Games” and a highly regarded film photographer in Europe, and the stepson of Soumaya Akaaboune, an actress who appeared in “Green Zone” in 2010 with Matt Damon and stars in the French version of the “Real Housewives” television series.


But in the nine videos and in a 106,000-word autobiography/cri-de-coeur written under his name and mailed through the post office to a Santa Barbara TV station, Rodger emerges as a desperately unhappy young man who pined for his birth mother — from whom he was separated by divorce — despised his stepmother and hated the frequent lavish trips to Europe and Morocco (his stepmother’s homeland) that his family’s wealth afforded.


And most of all, he hated women. They saw him as weak and uninteresting, he believed. They preferred strong, macho types, not a “supreme gentleman” like himself, he says in one of the videos he posted shortly before the rampage Friday. He died a virgin.



This image from video posted on YouTube shows Elliot Rodger. Sheriff’s officials say Rodger was the gunman who went on a shooting rampage near the University of California at Santa Barbara on Friday, May 23, 2014. In the video, posted on the same day as the shootings, Rodger looks at the camera and says he is going to take his revenge against humanity. He describes loneliness and frustration because “girls have never been attracted to me.”


Rodger was born in 1991 in London, where his father was then based. His mother was a Malaysian woman of Chinese descent who worked as a nurse on film sets, according to the 141-page manifesto.


NBC News has not independently verified the authenticity of the document, but Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown referred to it several times Saturday as helping to establish that Rodger was “disturbed” and “a madman.”


Rodger lived a happy life with his parents and a younger sister in England until he was 5 years old, when the family moved to western Los Angeles so his father could pursue career opportunities in Hollywood, according to the manuscript.


Within two years, his parents divorced, it says. Almost immediately, his father introduced him to Akaaboune, the woman who would become his stepmother. He did not like her.


Then came school age, the start of what the writer describes as horribly unpleasant interactions with girls and — as he apparently saw them — their bully boyfriends.


Flowers are placed through a bullet hole on a window of IV Deli Mart, where part of Friday night’s mass shooting took place by a drive-by shooter, on Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif. Sheriff’s officials say Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara, stabbing three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood.


According to the document written under his name, Rodger had uncomfortable but not dire dealings with girls until he reached sixth grade.


Then, “with puberty, my whole world would change, and my entire life would collapse into utter despair.”


By 13, he said, he was known as the “weird kid” at his school. He saw all girls as “mean, cruel, and heartless creatures that took pleasure in my suffering.”


At the same time, he was powerfully sexually attracted to them — especially to effervescent blonde girls — which made it all the more “horrible” that other boys teased him for being scared of girls.


He was intensely jealous of any boy who had a girlfriend, especially those who boasted that they were having sex. As high school went on, he retreated deeper and deeper into the world of multiplayer online role-playing games, his favorite being World of Warcraft, which he would play for hours upon hours, and which he would dream of when he was forced to leave it behind on family trips overseas, according to the manifesto.


At some point, Rodger was diagnosed as having an ultra-high-achieving form of Asperger syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum, an attorney for his family said Saturday.


It’s important to stress that there has never been any scientific link between Asperger and acts of violence, and there is no claim that Rodger’s disorder itself had anything to do with Friday’s actions.


Students gather for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of Friday night’s mass shooting on Saturday, May 24, 2014, on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara.


But the diagnosis does partly explain why he was in Santa Barbara in the first place.

At the urging of his family, who wanted him to become more independent, Rodger left Los Angeles for Santa Barbara in June 2011 at age 19. He enrolled in Santa Barbara City College and was treated by “multiple” medical and psychiatric specialists, the family’s lawyer said Saturday.


It didn’t work, according to Rodger’s videos and the manifesto written under his name. He dropped out and re-enrolled several times and doesn’t appear to have declared a major. His isolation grew ever worse as he was rejected by the women at his college and at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


“I’m 22 years old, and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl,” Rodger says in one of the videos, which he shot while sitting at the wheel of what appears to be the same BMW he is believed to have used to stalk the streets of Isla Vista on Friday night.

“I’ve been through college for 2½ years — more than that actually — and I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous,” he says. “College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. Within those years, I’ve had to rot in loneliness.”


Declaring that life has not been “fair,” he complains: “You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me.”

And then he promises: “I will punish you all for it.”


The manifesto picks up the story from there.


In December 2012, it says, he bought a gun — the first step toward what he grandiosely called “the Day of Retribution,” which he planned for November 2013 in Isla Vista. It says he knew he would “die in the process.” 


“I didn’t want to die. I fear death, but death is better than living such a miserable, insignificant life,” it says.


The second gun — Rodger was found with three in all on Friday night, along with more than 40 magazines of ammunition — was bought in the spring of last year. About the same time, he came across a website devoted to men who hate women and are unable to persuade them to have sex, where he posted screeds against women.


Under treatment from several counselors in Santa Barbara, the document says, Rodger decided to postpone his murderous plans. He would try to win the Mega Millions lottery — hoping to become a multimillionaire in his own right and win the affections of a woman, any woman, who would sleep with him by the time he turned 22.

It didn’t happen. As his 22nd birthday approached last July, he kept losing in the lottery and in attracting women. And everywhere he turned, he felt he was being mocked by every man who walked the streets holding hands with a woman, kissing a woman, even talking about a woman, according to the document written under his name.


The weekend before he turned 22, he was at a party where he “saw lots of guys walking around with hot blonde girls on their arm,” it says.  “It fueled me with rage, as it always had,” the author writes. He pretended to shoot the women with his finger, sparking a fight with other men during which Rodger fell and broke his ankle.


The sheriff’s office confirmed Saturday that authorities were called to a local hospital last July and investigated an altercation during which Rodger was injured — an altercation it said he instigated.


It was the last straw.

“I gave them all one last chance to accept me, to give me a reason not to hate them,” the author writes. “I gave the world too many chances. It was time for Retribution” — which he timed for this spring.


“I moved to Isla Vista with the goal of losing my virginity and attaining the life I desire,” the document says.


“If I am unable to have it, I will destroy it.” [17]





[1] http://hamptonroads.com/2014/06/wife-recalls-dedication-norfolk-officer-who-died

[2] http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/9/1/117.full.pdf



[5] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2011/the-global-cost-of-mental-illness.shtml

[6] http://www.biography.com/people/dorothea-dix-9275710#awesm=~oGhPD8r7IBVYNs

[7] http://www.wjla.com/articles/2013/10/community-mental-health-act-kennedy-s-vision-never-realized-95665.html

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK117205/,


[9] Why Can’t Doctors Identify Killers? New York Times; Richard A. Friedman, May 27, 2014


[10] http://www.aol.com/article/2014/06/02/fbi-explosives-suspect-found-after-3-day-manhunt/20905254/?icid=maing-grid7%7Cmaing6%7Cdl1%7Csec1_lnk3%26pLid%3D483464

[11] Personal correspondence from notes taken by Jan Kuhn

[12] Jung, Carl, The Psychology of the Unconscious, Preface to first edition.  P 4, Collected Works, Volume 7, Pantheon Books , New York 1953




[13] http://www.npr.org/2014/03/13/289815818/6-interviews-1-reckoning-sandy-hook-killers-dad-breaks-silence

[14] http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/05/25/police-missed-locking-up-elliot-rodger-santa-barbara-mass-murderer/

[15] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neurofeedback-increases-affection-builds-empathy/

[16] http://www.cnbc.com/id/101703654

[17] http://www.cnbc.com/id/101703654






What can the Fort Hood shootings and the Boston bombings incidents tell us?


Every emotional unit, whether it be the family or the total of society, exerts pressure on group members to conform to the ideals and principles of the group.[1]  M. Bowen

When children are shot, Boston is bombed, and seemingly “crazy” soldiers shoot at fellow soldiers; we look to psychiatry to explain what happened. The answers are empty labels and more empty promises to get the bottom of these incidents.  Society pressures us to accept these labels?  But are they simply indicators that the ancient family emotional process is behind our inability and or reluctance to understand problems.

The social group’s tendency to blame one person for problems is so deep that we never question its validity.  It is easy to “see” that one person did the shooting and to find a diagnostic code that fits.  There is no “social system” code.  There are indicators that big data could yet save the day but first lets look at where we are today.

After a major event we hear that “the killers” were anxious, depressed, may have been autistic, or could have had PTSD.   As psychiatry goes further and further into labeling mental illness with a multitude of diagnostic codes, what do we know? 

Do people in the military know that a death in the family can degrade performance? Do they know that violence and rejection often precede acting out episodes?   How common is it to know that families which are cut off from one another over the generations, are ripe for symptoms? 

Sadly, even those with serious symptoms in the work, social or family system are not motivated to “see” that the current status quo thinking is not useful, does not offer preventive ideas nor is it capable of predicting those at risk.

We are currently in love with drugs as the answer to behavioral problems in individuals.  Labels help to find the right drug at least 50% of the time.  So society exerts pressure to accept the labeling and drugging paradigms. 

Perhaps it is just automatic to accept the current understanding of mental illness and forgo a more complex understanding of larger social systems and patterns of interactions.  If so, then labeling and its other half blaming, might just be replicating the ancient rules of the family emotional process.  

Nature’s way is to promote leadership in a few and symptoms flow to the many.  This can work to absorb anxiety for the unit, until it does not work and the few are dragged down by the many.  

It is unusual and even difficult to consider that we are not free and independent people. What blinds us to the workings of our brain’s vulnerability to reacting more than thinking in our social systems?

If we could see our vulnerability then we might observe how the system begins to move from a state of relative calm to one of murderous tension.  We might be able to organize the potential resources within a vulnerable social system by finding one steady person in the system to organize the resources.

One of the other problems with the status quo mental heath system is that it finds the weakest individuals in the system and tries to fix the symptomatic person without touching the others, who are often more functional and could be a resource to the symptomatic person and to the vulnerable system.   Perhaps we could do better by using our brain’s ability to reflect and to see anew, rather than the way Mother Nature has organized social systems – to act first and think later.

Consider what it takes to change our automatic way of responding. We would need to be experienced at the following abilities: to reflect, to inhibit, to decide for Self and to observe almost in a neutral way so as to not be driven by the frenzy in the system. 

One way to think about the difference our big brains can make is to see the difference between ants and humans.  Ants must respond to social clues.  They figure out what job they are doing today by the jobs the other ants have been doing.  They fit in where the colony needs them.  There is a great Ted Talk by Deborah Gordon on ants functioning like brains.[2]

We have a brain that under the best of circumstances and/or training, has the potential to allow us time to reflect and consider; is this action in our best interest or in the larger unit’s interest?  We have gathered information, so now what do we want to do with it?  The ant colonies that are better at understanding the changing conditions in the outside environment are those that reproduces and survives.

If the social system is chaotic, nasty or threatening, we can respond to these kinds of social clues in an instinctual way.  That is, humans who are reactive have little to no freedom to decide – they simply and automatically react.  Stress degrades performance. Under extreme circumstances we become ant-like creatures, our lives overly determined by the surrounding environment.

Consider an example from the last shooting at Ft. Hood.

CNN gives us the common understating of the situation: (It’s the individual!)

Fort Hood shooter was Iraq vet being treated for mental health issues

By Ray Sanchez and Ben Brumfield, CNN

updated 7:05 PM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014

– Spc. Ivan Lopez’s friendly smile apparently gave no hint of a history of depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders. The Iraq war veteran was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder before he opened fire at the Fort Hood Army post in Texas on Wednesday.

Lopez took his own .45-caliber handgun onto the sprawling facility and killed three people and wounded 16 more before taking his own life. His death left authorities to piece together what in his background and medical treatment could have triggered a new round of bloodshed at the same Killeen post where an officer killed 13 people in 2009.

Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the post’s commanding general, told reporters Friday that investigators “do not believe” that Lopez’s “underlying medical conditions … are the direct precipitating factor” in the attack.

“The immediate precipitating factor was more likely an escalating argument in his unit area,” Milley said. Authorities have “credible information” that Lopez “was involved in a verbal altercation with soldiers from his unit just prior to him allegedly opening fire,” Chris Grey, spokesman for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, said Friday.[3]

The post commander, Milley, seems to believe that the direct precipitating factor for the shooting was an argument. But even if we know what the argument was about, would that help us understand a soldier’s vulnerability? 

Alternatively, if we understand the issues in his family, could that help us avoid such useless tragedies in the future?  Are there things that can alert the army to be aware of who is vulnerable when asking for leave, among other things?

Before Wednesday’s shooting, Lopez stopped at the post’s personnel office to pick up a leave form, according to the sister of one of the soldiers injured in the attack.

Armetra Otis, sister of Sgt. Jonathan Westbrook, said on CNN’s “The Lead” that her brother “was at work and a guy came in and asked for a leave form.”

The soldier was told he would have to come back later, Otis said.

“And apparently I guess he didn’t want to hear that, so he came back and just opened fire, ” Otis said. Westbrook was shot four times, but released from a hospital Friday, his sister said.

Law enforcement sources told CNN that investigators were searching for possible motives, including whether Lopez was angry over canceled leave.

If Lopez was seeking a leave this week, it wouldn’t be his first.

Glidden Lopez Torres, a family spokesman, said Lopez’ mother, Carmen, an emergency room nurse in their hometown, died of a heart attack in November. A month earlier, Lopez’ grandfather had died in Guayanilla.

The spokesman, who is not related to the soldier, said Lopez attended the funeral but was disappointed that it took about five days for his 24-hour leave to be approved by the military.

“The reality is that the death of his mother was unexpected and soldiers are usually given permission to travel home to the family,” Lopez Torres said. “But the process in Ivan’s case took some time. He arrived five days after his mother died… He was a little disappointed that it took so long for him to be granted a leave.”

Lucy Caraballo, a Lopez family friend in Guayanilla, said the family put off the wake for days.

“They waited various days because it took Ivan a long time to get here,” she said. “We didn’t know when he was going to arrive.”[4]

Should Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the post’s commanding general, be expected to understand that two deaths in the family occurring close to each other, can put undue pressure on a soldier?

President Obama says he wants to get to the bottom of this, and after all he is the commander in chief, but should he understand the pressure on individual soldiers?  Whose job is it to understand this?

I would assume that neither Milley nor Obama has a grasp of the relationship of social systems to individual functioning.  They appear to be too reliant on medicine, education and mental health to lead in a new way. The focus on the individual as the problem and the solution seems immutable.  It the way “the system” is set up.  Please let me know if you see any of the heads of gigantic and self-sustaining organizations step out to consider a new way.

But of course a system that does not reflect reality will eventually collapse and will be replaced by something more effective and realistic.  Think of how much we have learned from the industrial revolution about how to treat people to increase productivity.  So at the local level people are going to learn and change.

If those responsible for granting leaves at Ft Hood have an understanding of the larger picture, they will be more thoughtful in passing out leave forms to soldiers if and when they see that the soldier has had a couple of deaths of close family members.

Of course if that information is not available then the same old system will repeat.  If the system itself were to change it would be because someone high enough up in the system can now see that understanding past history could have a tremendous bearing on the current way of doing things. 

One fascinating example of this change of a bureaucratic system by leaders at the top has taken place at the University of Texas. Please see note at end of this blog on the New York Times magazine article, “Who Graduates?” at the end of this blog for details. 

Systems are difficult to change and a depersonalization of individuals in large organizations is par for the course. , It may be that after the two shooting incidents at Ft Hood, people there may be more aware of “making people mad or frustrated” and may be willing to see these incidents as system issues rather than ‘labeling/blaming“ the individual and not looking at the part the system is playing in pressuring individuals.

The fact that his family issues were unknown to his commanding officers and that those family issues are central to the functioning of every soldier on that base, is not yet on our leader’s radar screens.

Let us say that in an imaginary world the president and the general did listen to CNN and read the above report and came to the conclusion – we need to know more about the family life of our men – what could they do to make this information more useful? 

As an antidote to our fascination with the individual as hero or villain, factual based alternatives rely on observing many variables including, among other things, the following: the three generational overview of the family emotional system, the way dependent relationships absorb anxiety for the group, and the use of triangles to separate out a more functional self from the controlling nature of the system.

Systems thinking would be a big jump forward in comprehending problems in areas as important to our future as education, mental heath and medicine. One can ask if we are stuck with this individual analysis of problems or whether the current symptoms in society such as failing schools, increasing medical costs without positive results, and headline violence (Sandy Hook, Boston Bombings, and Fort Hood shootings) nudge us towards developing a more factual-based alternative — systems knowledge.

Challenges to Thinking Systems

As of yet no one knows how to “prove” that systems knowledge is useful for human behavior.  People like Nat Silver (see note below) may have the possibility of creating research on human behavior reflecting the state of the emotional system.  He has developed “Dashboard” — an algorithm, in spreadsheet form, that can consider 14 variables.  

We understand that for a hurricane at least six or seven variables are needed to predict the course of an approaching storm. But it seems difficult to use this kind of knowledge for individuals who are in high-pressure social systems.

The Individual Model versus the Factual Family Information and Family Interactions

By focusing on what is wrong with others (the killers), we participate in an ancient emotional program, blaming others.   Our eyes and ears tell us “they” are the problem. This is the way the current individual model orients people and activates the other focused emotional system.

As humans we have a very other focused, primitive, conservative and instinctual guidance system.  We interpret the world both by seeing problems as residing in others and going along with those who have or are in power.  Both interpretations reinforce a hierarchy, which does in some to the benefit of others.

In the prevailing individual-focused medical and psychotherapeutic model we  “instinctually or automatically” label one person as the sick one. 

We label kids at school without considering the system they are coming from. 

When people are diagnosed with cancers or diabetes, how often do we take into account the support of their family or others to their health?  

The focus on the individual as the problem is part and parcel of our instinctual way of seeing the world.

 The forces that keep us from perceiving the social pressures that maintain the individual model of seeing the world are us are as appealing as apple pie.  We get love and approval for going along and fear social rejection if we don’t.

Factual Family Information: 1) Family deaths in the last year; 2) Number of times the soldier has moved or made requests to move in the last year; 3) Combat duty type and kind in last year; 4) Martial stability; 5) Health of nuclear family members; 6) Contact with people in a soldier’s extended family. Would it make a difference if soldiers like students could be identified as high risk and have an intervention designed for such soldier as we now have for students?

Family Interactions: Understanding mother/father/child interactions as social pressure in the family of the Boston Bombers.

The families of the Boston Bombers and Sandy Hook school shooter were torn apart by emotional cut off.   Yet, public discussion focuses to this day, on getting rid of guns, forcing people into hospitals, and forcing “them” to take better drugs.

The question is will the public have greater self-interest in understanding how losses in the family plus intense interdependency can pressure some people towards greater violence?  Currently the news media does a better job that psychiatry at collecting the fats and explaining the problems.

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva told Bloomberg News late Monday that she recently spoke with her 19-year-old son over the telephone -“Mentally he (Dzhokhar or Juhar) is normal but the child is shocked,” Tsarnaeva added to Bloomberg. “It was really hard to hear him and for him to hear me. The conversation was very quiet. It was my child, I know he is locked up like a dog, like an animal.”

Tsarnaev’s lawyers will probably blame his involvement on the “overpowering influence” of his 26-year-old brother, said Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties and defense attorney. Tamerlan Tsarnaev “appears to have been an embittered and dangerous character, and it is well known that older siblings have tremendous power over younger siblings,” he said in an interview last month.

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva and her husband Anzor emigrated to the U.S. in 2002 with their two boys and two girls, and divorced in 2011. She left the U.S. for Russia while facing shoplifting charges filed last year. In an interview last month with Russian state television channel RT, she said her sons were innocent and had been set up, questioning how they could have carried out the bombing with Tamerlan under FBI surveillance for at least three years.[5]

Family Survey 

If you take the following survey you may get some idea of your Family Interactions. These are your social inheritance of which we are mostly unaware. They are directed by come combination of automatic and instinctual mechanisms, like distance conflict, winning and loosing and projection on others and some degree of reflection leading to our ability to have something we call free will or responsibility to guide self.

One way is to just be as neutral and objective as possible in considering as to how you relate topeople in your three generational families.

What is your “emotional stance” (attitudes and feelings) towards each of the people listed below?  (Perhaps you can also jot down your attitudes towards these people or how your feelings towards others might be part of a long and arduous multigenerational familyhistory.)
















What is your current level of contact towards the above in your three generational families?

Describe your position in the important triangles in your family?

Where are you comfortable?

Where are you experiencing anxieties?


We know that most people are not aware of the lives of three generations of people in their family in a factual or objective way.  Most people also say they do not have neutral or loving kinds of feelings towards everyone in their multigenerational family. There is always some kind of battle brewing or one that has now blown over and the losers have been buried with proper epitaphs.  

We see the problems in the world around us.   Now, what can we do to alter our part in on going contentious issues?  By taking a quick look at our family relationships we can see the basic structure of the emotional guidance system that we were born into.  If one is interested in altering their functional role in the system, then knowledge of family can enable us to rise above the influences of very primitive forces.  This is the promise of the knowledge of differentiation of self.

Understanding our guidance system

The more a life is governed by the emotional system the more it follows the course of all instinctual behavior, in spite of intellectualization to the contrary.  A well-differentiated person is one whose intellect can function separately from the emotional system.[6] M. Bowen


The New York Times magazine ran a feature called “Who Graduates?”   The article features David Laude, now at the University of Texas, his research and the program he developed called Mind Set Interventions.

Laude wanted something that would help him predict for any given incoming freshman, how likely he or she would be to graduate in four years. He found Nate Silver, a statisticians and programmer, who used predictive analytics to understand student data to help school administrations’ decision-making.


Together they produced a tool they call the “Dashboard” — an algorithm, in spreadsheet form, that considers 14 variables including -student’s family income, his SAT score, his class rank and even includes his parents’ educational background.  The program can then spit out a probability, to the second decimal place, of how likely that student was to graduate in four years. When they ran the students’ data, the Dashboard indicated that 1,200 of an incoming class had less than a 40 percent chance of graduation in four years. Laude’s most intensive and innovative intervention is the University Leadership Network, a new scholarship program that aims to develop not just academic skills but leadership skills. They select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all their communications with them, convey the idea that they have selected for this special program not because they fear they will fail, but because they are confident they can succeed.


A “mind-set” treatment group read an article about the malleability of the brain and how practice makes it grow new connections.  This treatment group then read messages from current students in which they said that when they arrived at U.T. they worried about not being smart enough, but then learned that when they studied they grew smarter. The whole intervention took between 25 and 45 minutes for students to complete, and more than 90 percent of the incoming class completed it.


If the effect of the intervention persists over the next three years (as it did in the elite-college study), it could mean hundreds of first-generation students graduating from U.T. in 2016 who otherwise wouldn’t have graduated on time, if ever.  Beginning this month, the “U.T. Mindset” intervention will be part of the pre-orientation for all 7,200 members of the incoming class of 2018. 






[1] Family Therapy In Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, MD, 1977, P365


[2] https://www.ted.com/speakers/deborah_gordon

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/us/fort-hood-shooter-profile/


[4] http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/us/fort-hood-shooter-profile/



[5] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-28/boston-bombing-suspect-mentally-normal-mother-says-after-call.html


[6] Family Therapy In Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, MD, 1977, P 363 



Family StuckTogetherness: What Makes it so Hard to See the Emotional System?


What would it be like if one morning we woke up and there was no more diagnosing people with mental illness?  Instead there would be a focus on the family as a unit, and what might be done to improve the functioning of individuals within the system.

Considering the family unit as a social system influencing the behavior of its members requires a totally new way of thinking and new method of treatment. Bowen called it coaching for differentiation of self.

Currently when symptoms arise, one person is identified as the problem and the interactive nature of the social system is not seen.  People are often blindsided by the way relationships function under stress. No doubt that this is what happened to the family of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

The family members were blindsided as to the motivation of the two brothers who killed 3 and injured 264 people.  Can we see this kind of situation as an example of how understanding the family as a unit can allow people to see what they are up against and to repair relationship ruptures that only add stress to a family unit?

This new method of family theory has been around since the nineteen sixties but the complexity of dealing with families has made no headway with insurance companies who pay for much of the therapy in this country. Mental health kept its individual focus and turned to the ease of using drugs to treat symptoms.  Progress has been stalled in understanding relationships and how they function to escalate or deescalate problems.

The effort to improve mental health has been in a crisis since the days of witch doctors. Tribal shamans have about the same rate of success as our advanced psychotherapy and drug treatments of today.  But why should you overhaul the whole system just because things are not working well?  Perhaps because we clearly see that mental heath needs are not being met.  Often incredible problems are the only stimulus for society to give up the old and search for the new.

Consider this: “Nationally, more than 6.4 million visits to emergency rooms in 2010, or about 5 percent of total visits, involved patients whose primary diagnosis was a mental health condition or substance abuse. That is up 28 percent from just four years earlier, according to the latest figures available from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in Rockville, Md. By one federal estimate, spending by general hospitals to care for these patients is expected to nearly double to $38.5 billion in 2014, from $20.3 billion in 2003.The problem has been building for decades as mental health systems have been largely decentralized, pushing oversight and responsibility for psychiatric care into overwhelmed communities.”[1]

Often families are relieved when one person in the family finally shows their weakness and gets a tell tale symptom. But often, as in the case of the families of the Boston bombers, the tell tale pressure on individuals escapes detection and bursts forth revealing the long-term nature of the alienation.

Families try to pressure individuals in the family to do “the right thing” and those exerting the pressure have no idea that they may be creating terrorists by such fusion pressure followed by a cut off.

In less intense families people often report feeling relieved when the person who is “crazed” is sent for treatment.  But how many understand that the family as a unit is governing the behavior of its members?   Some families can get so focused on people doing things the right way they are willing to cut off challenging members or in extreme cases kill one another.

A new worldview opens up when one turns away from an individual focus and begins to see the family as unit.  Bowen spelled it out and demonstrated in his own family that if one person can learn to define self and stay in contact with others something magical can happen: the system itself can change.

With this method a family systems coach can enable a motivated family member to see the system as it is, and to slowly take small steps to interfere with his or her automatic functioning in the system.

Over time this “interrupting” of the automatic, controlling aspect of the system reduces the reactivity in the system and there is more freedom and life energy for members of the family.  However, this effort to change self comes with the warning that initially the system or the family will and must try to suppress any attempts at change by one person. This is the way systems are. They love the status quo. They are as conservative as they are biological.  They have a memory and save energy running on automatic. Only a prepared leader can alter the perceptions and reactivity to change in a system based on his or her better ability to perceive the environment more realistically.  A threat is not always a serious threat.

Bowen coached people to first be an observer of the system.  Learn by observing who people are and what they are doing.   Then work on being less sensitive to the controlling aspects of the system.  Yes, they call you names and lie about you, but so what?  If you see the system as automatic you do not get into it as much.

It is best to keep an eye on what your goal is and know that change is difficult.  Simply take small steps to be more separate, commenting here and there on the relationship system as you see it, and don’t try to change or control others.  The system will alter itself as people become less reactive and more defined.

A coach is useful since he or she is not as sensitive to your system.  A coach can be more objective about your three-generational family diagram and look for the facts of functioning.  A coach can help a motivated person learn not to be as upset about the loss of love and approval as he or she takes a stand.

People often do not consider the kinds of family relationships they have. But when one is undertaking an effort to relate in more mindful way with others then it is important to see the system and how relationships are aligned.

The goal is to work on self to be less sensitive to the signals from others and to have more of a well defined self as a way to become more mature and less reactive to the pressure from others (especially those near and dear) to conform.

There will always be an attempt to control others for the good of the group.  Even a lifetime spent at making an effort to resist the pressure in triangles will not stop this mechanism.  Triangles are too deeply ingrained. They stabilize systems and at times, force cooperation.  However once someone has an idea that there is a way to alter their sensitivity and need for love and approval, they change how they function and in so doing the system can alter its functioning and be less controlling of it’s members.  One at a time, as people make an effort to perceive the reality of the situation and speak for self, the functioning of the whole system can improve.

When anxiety increases, however, we see the opposite in operation. Fear and anxiety cause people to huddle together and to begin to put more and more pressure on others to do it the “right” way.  We will see below that this is the story of the Boston bombers and their family relationships.

There are automatic, unthinking mechanisms, which are activated whenever there is a sense of a threat, to distribute the anxiety to those most vulnerable. This keeps the system afloat.  Some few will be able to function while the vulnerable absorb the anxiety and take the focus onto themselves.  Some people call these mechanism the four evils but these are just ways that we function under stress.  The mechanism are 1) distance, 2) conflict, 3) winning or losing or reciprocal relationships and/or 4) projecting worries and problems onto children.

When it becomes too difficult to communicate, people try to get away from one another or fall into fixed positions, a kind of a stalemate.   Getting away from each other provides relief but gives little ability to solve problems in a cooperative way. This view of human functioning is a long way away from conventional mental health, which identifies symptoms and focuses “fixes” on the symptom bearer

We are often blindsided as to how easily people become alienated from one another and have no idea how cut off between the generations has come to be.  People cut off because they know no better alternative. They have no idea about the importance of being a self in your family of origin.  It is not common sense to take on difficult relationships in order to improve your functioning.  But once we get into a more neutral observer stance we can see how people either over idealize or deprecate one another.  We can also observe that the inability to see how stress and anxiety is passed on to vulnerable individuals who then lose their way is widespread among therapists and other mere mortals.   And this is what we see in the family of the Boston Bombers.

The Boston Bomber family shares with all of us the mechanisms used to distribute anxiety, preventing real person-to-person contact.  In a healthy system people are in better contact with each other and know each other in realistic ways. There is just less pretending and posturing and agreeing in order to make things “comfortable”.

Families Involved in the Boston Bombings

Think for a moment about the shock of the family members when they found out it was their sons, brothers, nephews who were involved in this intense violence against innocent people.  Think of the families who became innocent victims. Do we not owe these people some attempt to deeply understand what led to these events?

In reading the story of the nuclear family published in The Rolling Stone magazine you get the idea of the early turmoil in the lives of these two brothers, Tamerlan and Jahar – the nickname given to Dzhokhar.

Some of the turmoil came about from the societal unrest in their parent’s country and from a religious ideology that taught hatred of others or at the very least saw their religious group victimized by others.  Both of these strains, among others, deeply affected the lives of all the members of this family.  And some of this turmoil came from the family being blindsided by the lack of knowledge as to the emotional process in the family.

We can begin to see how their lives were molded in the family unit.  Overall this was a very intense family situation, with a focus on the two boys and demands for performance. There was intense emotional pressure to survive and then physical distance and cut off from their extended families. There was little opportunity for the boys to make up their own minds or to even develop their minds.

The magazine portrays a patchwork quilt of snapshots of the family and  events that influenced them.  There is an attempt to understand the social pressure but there is more mystery than understanding.  Guesses are made but there is no family diagram.  There is the aunt in Canada, a medical doctor who seems to idealize the boys and yet has not seen them for years. There is the famous uncle who railed against them as “losers” on national TV and yet that uncle had had no contact with the two boys for years.

As with most families there is no idea of the ramifications of cut off on people’s long-term emotional well-being.  Therefore family members can blame the boys and not focus on how they (other family members) may have been fooled by the system to discharge anxiety in a non-thinking way. Overall the impression of the story is that due to multigenerational stress and anxiety, a great deal of pressure to conform was put on the two boys, leaving them vulnerable to do the bidding of others once their parents left the US and returned to Kyrgyzstan.

People come into your life to help you, hurt you, love you and leave you and that shapes your character and the person you were meant to be,” Jahar tweeted on March 18th. Two days later: “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717#ixzz2urp5t7ZF 


Why a person with an extreme or “radical” ideology may decide to commit violence is an inexact science, but experts agree that there must be a cognitive opening of some sort. “A person is angry, and he needs an explanation for that angst,” explains the Soufan Group’s Tom Neer. “Projecting blame is a defense mechanism. Rather than say, ‘I’m lost, I’ve got a problem,’ it’s much easier to find a conven­ient enemy or scapegoat. The justification comes later – say, U.S. imperialism, or whatever. It’s the explanation that is key. There is no single precipitating event or stressor,” says Neer. “Instead, what you see with most of these people is a gradual process of feeling alienated or listless or not connected. But what they all have in common is a whole constellation of things that aren’t working right. http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717#ixzz2urraJz5V 


A Snapshot of the Parents:

The father, Anzor, was living in exile in Kyrgyzstan. Born in Chechnya, he lived in a country that was in a constant state of war with the Soviet Union.   The mother, Zubeidat, belongs to an ethnic Muslim group in Dagestan, a neighboring country to Chechnya. Anzor had a job with the Krygyz government until 1999. He was fired from his job as Russia purged Chechens from the ranks of the Kyrgyz government. They fled to Dagestan, Zubeidat’s native country. In the spring of 2002, Anzor, Zubeidat and Jahar then eight, arrived in America and applied for political asylum. Ailina, Bella and Tamerlan, stayed in Dagestan with family and came to the U.S. a year later in 2003.  Anzor’s brother, Ruslan, was a lawyer doing well in New Jersey. They moved to Brooklyn and stayed with a friend of the father’s sister.  As time went on Ruslan had many complaints about the way the boys were being raised.  Anzor was said to have a temper and was not able to stabilize the family.

The following gives you an idea of the two boys’ relationship with their parents.

Zubeidat adored her children, particularly Tamerlan, a tall, muscular boy she compared to Hercules. Jahar, on the other hand, was the baby, his mother’s “dwog,” or “heart.” “He looked like an angel,” says Anna, and was called “Jo-Jo” or “Ho.”

“He was always like, ‘Mommy, Mommy, yes, Mommy’ – even if his mom was yelling at him,” says Anna’s son Baudy Mazaev, who is a year and a half younger than Jahar. “He was just, like, this nice, calm, compliant, pillow-soft kid. My mom would always say, ‘Why can’t you talk to me the way Dzhokhar talks to his mother?’ Jahar idolized his older brother, Tamerlan – all the children appeared to – and as a child, he followed his brother’s example and learned to box. But it was wrestling that became his primary sport.”

As the parent’s relationships disintegrated the two boys gave up sports for religion. Eventually the father left the family and returned to Russia.  


Did the father get blindsided, pushing the boys into sports at whatever cost?

Was the mother blindsided in forcing the boys into religion as an answer?

Did the parent loose contact with each other and with the larger family unit?

Were Tamerlan and Jahar’s sisters pushed into arranged marriages?

Few people are aware of the boundaries between self and an other that can come tumbling down when people force or try to fuse with an other to make them do either what they believe is needed to be done or just must be done to please the powerful other.  The father is reported to have given in to the mother and then he got physically sick.

This process occurs not just in the Boston bomber family but in all families to some degree.  And when families are under stress, fusion tends to intensify automatically.  Fusion compels us to seek agreement and “encourages” us to throw caution to the wind to follow along with these ancient programs and powerful forces commanding us to do the bidding of others. In stressful time we seek comfort in our small groups and have less tolerance for differences and diversity.

By 2009, Anzor’s health was deteriorating, and that August, the Tsarnaevs, who hadn’t been on public assistance for the past five years, began receiving benefits again, in the form of food stamps and cash payouts. This inability to fully support his family may have contributed to what some who knew them refer to as Anzor’s essential “weakness” as a father, deferring to Zubeidat, who could be highly controlling.

A doting mother, “she’d never take any advice about her kids,” says Anna. “She thought they were the smartest, the most beautiful children in the world” – Tamerlan most of all. “He was the biggest deal in the family. In a way, he was like the father. Whatever he said, they had to do.
Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717#ixzz2urU4Z0Wd

Tamerlan, known to his American friends as “Tim,” was a talented boxer who’d once aspired to represent the United States in the Olympics.

A talented pianist and composer, he harbored a desire to become a musician, but his ultimate dream was to become an Olympic boxer, after which he’d turn pro. This was also his father’s dream – a champion boxer himself back in Russia, Anzor reportedly pushed Tamerlan extremely hard, riding behind him on his bicycle while his son jogged to the local boxing gym. And Tamerlan did very well under his father’s tutelage, rising in the ranks of New England fighters. One of the best in his weight class, Tamerlan once told a fighter to “practice punching a tree at home” if he wanted to be truly great. But his arrogance undermined his ambitions. In 2010, a rival trainer, claiming Tamerlan had broken boxing etiquette by taunting his fighter before a match, lodged a complaint with the national boxing authority that Tamerlan should be disqualified from nationwide competition as he was not an American citizen. The authorities, coincidentally, were just in the process of changing their policy to ban all non-U.S. citizens from competing for a national title.

This dashed any Olympic hopes, as Tamerlan was not yet eligible to become a U.S. citizen. His uncle Ruslan had urged him to join the Army. It would give him structure, he said, and help him perfect his English. “I told him the best way to start your way in a new country – give something,” Ruslan says. But Tamerlan laughed, his uncle recalls, for suggesting he kill “our brother Muslims.”

Tamerlan had discovered religion, a passion that had begun in 2009. In interviews, Zubeidat has suggested it was her idea, a way to encourage Tamerlan, who spent his off-hours partying with his friends at local clubs, to become more serious. “I told Tamerlan that we are Muslim, and we are not practicing our religion, and how can we call ourselves Muslims?” she said. But Anna suspects there was something else factoring into the situation. Once, Anna recalls, Zubeidat hinted that something might be wrong. “Tamerlan told me he feels like there’s two people living in him,” she confided in her friend. “It’s weird, right?”

Anna, who wondered if Tamerlan might be developing a mental illness, suggested Zubeidat take him to a “doctor” (“If I said ‘psychiatrist,’ she’d just flip,” she says), but Zubeidat seems to have believed that Islam would help calm Tamerlan’s demons. Mother and son began reading the Koran – encouraged, Zubeidat said, by a friend of Tamerlan’s named Mikhail Allakhverdov, or “Misha,” a thirtysomething Armenian convert to Islam whom family members believe Tamerlan met at a Boston-area mosque

Anzor, who’d been at first baffled, and later “depressed,” by his wife’s and son’s religiosity, moved back to Russia in 2011, and that summer was granted a divorce.

Zubeidat was later arrested for attempting to shoplift $1,600 worth of clothes from a Lord & Taylor. Rather than face prosecution, she skipped bail and also returned to Russia, where she ultimately reconciled with her ex-husband.

Jahar’s sisters, both of whom seemed to have escaped their early marriages, were living in New Jersey and hadn’t seen their family in some time.

Jahar, had earned a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and was thinking about becoming an engineer, or a nurse, or maybe a dentist – his focus changed all the time. Tamerlan, whom we now know was on multiple U.S. and Russian watch lists prior to 2013, though neither the FBI nor the CIA could find a reason to investigate him further. Jahar, however, was on no one’s watch list. To the contrary, after several months of interviews with friends, teachers and coaches still reeling from the shock, what emerges is a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs.

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717#ixzz2urTcOCqL

There seems little space in this story for people to grow and develop on their own.  The intensity of the fusion, or the need to control others is clearly present as are the cut off that they have endured.  We see the ruptured relationships and no real ability to stay connected to the extended family. The increased anxiety is seen in the deteriorating relationships and how people began to flee from one another.

Family Systems theory offers new ways of thinking both about the system

Family systems therapists or coaches work with individuals to help them understand 1) how to observe the system, 2) how to understand the implications of history, and of course 3) how one person can begin to alter their part in a social system.

By increasing our ability to see the big picture we can understand more of the basic dynamics in the system as to the origins of emotional illness arising out of the very nature of our ways of relating to one another.  Our current cause and effect thinking puts blinders on us and limits our ability to see the broader picture leading society to finance so many ineffective roads to “treatment”.

There is some hope that eventually we will find a way to effectively influence mental health professionals to see the family as a unit and to encourage the efforts of a family leader to differentiate a self.

If mental heath professionals were asked to take a three generational family history they could see how the pressure has mounted on the vulnerable.  They could explain this to families and give them a more nuanced view of the predicament they are living in today and the options that might make a real difference in relating to people with more thoughtfulness.

Imagine if instead of diagnosing one person we would find a family leader and chart the intensity and flow of anxiety through the family’s history.  Then we would enable as many in the family as were interested to work on reducing the anxiety. Currently one way I do this is to ask all the members of the family to do neurofeedback training. (see Zengar.com)

This allows all the people in the system to calm down since increasing stress and anxiety decreases people’s ability to see, recalibrate or to be observant and in good contact with one another.

Relating to strength in the family and not seeking to identify and focus on the weakness in people will cause a revolution in mental health care. Right now people in mental heath do the same things that families do – focus on the weakness and try to make it better. This is very different from finding a family leader who can take responsibility and encourage others, while staying outside the guiding control of the emotional system.

When differentiation of self becomes a well known way of one person impacting a total system, it will not be seen as something cold and unfeeling but rather as a way to promote greater awareness of the automatic nature of human behavior, providing more real choices and flexibility for individuals living in social systems.

sun set

Where is the Mindful Compass going and what are people saying?

George Washington University School of Business
Thursday February 6, 2014 Location
LOCATION: Funger Bulding is 2201 G Street. Duques is on 22nd street between G and H Streets. The Duques/ Funger complex is between 22nd and 23rd streets and G and H Streets, NW. The location is two blocks south of the Foggy Bottom Metro Station.

ABSTRACT: As we move from our current seven to eight billion (by the year 2024) people, it is worthy of our time and effort to develop models, based in a system approach to promoting ways to enhance functioning among our family members, organizations, and even nations. The need for individuals to give and receive feedback is eroded by social pressure. The family is a micro world where we respond in a moment as a “reflex” to our perception of others. We learn what we need to be in order to be accepted or we rebel against it, losing the ability to be more of a self under pressure. Family system thinking and the use of neurofeedback to alter the brain have proven useful in moving toward greater ability to be better defined in cooperative relationships, leading to the warmer acceptance of all. In this era of diminishing resources we clearly need more mindfulness in relationships to modify our automatic, reflexive ways, which program us to continue old communication patterns.

In my new book, Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies for Navigating Life/Work Relationships in Any Social Jungle, I describe the process of change for any leader. The Mindful Compass allows us to see more of what is involved in altering one’s behavior. Being able to see how a system works more neutrally allows leaders to change themselves to impact a system. Changing self and the predictable response are knowable processes: The four points on the Mindful Compass are 1) taking actions for self, 2) preparing for resistance to forward progress, 3) using knowledge, and 4) standing alone until the system can reorganize.

System theory can enable people to see a path through the social jungle, refocusing on what one person can do as he or she moves towards a more mindful change. Relationship awareness is not part of the automatic way the brain manages information from the environment. Being more aware of patterns in systems and then less automatic and reactive to them is a skill, which will become increasingly necessary in a world of rapid change, increasing demands and scarcity.

One  Day Meeting in Houston, Texas

Sponsored by

CSNSF http://csnsf.org/

Victoria Harrison, Director

March 28, 2014

Developing Your Mindful Compass

The Importance of Bowen Theory and Differentiation of Self For Navigating Relationships in Family and Work

8:00 AM – 4:30 PM Upper Kirby District Center, 3015 Richmond Avenue

First Floor Conference Room

Houston, Texas 


Laurie L. Lassiter – See all my reviews
This review is from: Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies For Navigating Life/Work Relationships In Any Social Jungle (Paperback)
Murray Bowen hoped that his family theory would provide people with tools for dealing with a fundamental challenge we face as humans: how to be ourselves as individuals while at the same time being able to live and work closely and cooperatively with others. Ms. Schara’s engaging new work, Your Mindful Compass, offers an informed understanding of Bowen’s family theory based on in-depth knowledge of the twists and turns that accompany the effort toward differentiation of self. Just how vulnerable we all are to being regulated by social and family environments is carefully laid out, with intriguing analogies drawn from nonhuman social systems. Schara offers illuminating examples of people who have managed themselves successfully in family and work systems, and analyzes what we can learn from them and from their families. She outlines important aspects of Bowen theory and practice that are not well known or written about, including the use of the triangle in the effort to become more of a self.
—Laurie Lassiter

By Laura Havstad
I’ve known Andrea Schara in her journey with Bowen theory since we were trainee’s together in the special postgraduate program at the Georgetown Family Center under Murray Bowen’s leadership, in 1976. Andrea and I became part of a special cohort of students of family systems theory, talking with one another, and watching one another over these decades, in what continues to be a pioneering effort to study the process of differentiation– as clinicians, researchers and members of our own families. The individuality of the way each person approaches talking about and applying theory and how our relationship systems are changed as a result, has produced an incredibly enriching long-term exchange within this pioneering group of clinicians and consultants. A Mindful Compass captures the unique voice of one of the important contributors to the advancement of Bowen theory in this cohort trained under Bowen’s watch before his death in 1990. Choosing leadership as the vehicle, this book presents case studies as natural histories of family emotional process and how the quite admirable individuals interviewed came to define themselves as leaders. The book clarifies and makes accessible functional principles of differentiation, in the person, and between the individual and the group, that characterize those who rise to solid leadership. The application to the family and all the other relationship systems is the same – - the foundation of change towards getting and being better lies with the one who will rise up to take the responsibility based on realistic contact with self and others, who has the vision and conviction to sustain such a course in the face of the entrenched interests and their resistance to change. In addition to being a challenge, the process of differentiation can be kind of fun too and those who know Andrea won’t be surprised that she gets that in to her book. I think this is a book for those looking for knowledge and clarity that will support them in their efforts to be hale, hearty, and a source of strength for themselves and others in the important systems of their lives.
Laura Havstad
Stephenie Ferrera -I also know Andrea Schara personally and know that she is one who has “walked the walk.” She is an oldest in her family and has been a leader there, making a life-changing difference for family members. She learned “differentiation of self” directly from the master, Murray Bowen. Understanding differentiation intellectually is one thing; operationalizing it in one’s own life is an entirely different thing. Schara has the gift of words that translate the theory into everyday life. This book will be my Christmas gift to members of my family.
Stephenie Ferrera

suzanne brue “http://www.the8colorsofFitness.com” – See all my reviews
This review is from: Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies For Navigating Life/Work Relationships In Any Social Jungle (Paperback)
If you want to understand family process and the automatic nature of human interactions, Your Mindful Compass is the book for you. Schara takes the groundbreaking family systems theory of Murray Bowen, MD, and breaks it down into workable, manageable steps. The author’s humor shines through, and the book is is filled with interesting examples and interviews to help motivated individuals grasp and apply the essential insights of Bowen theory. A must read for those interested in improving their important relationships.
Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph (East Tennessee and Virginia) – See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Your Mindful Compass (Kindle Edition)
This is not a perfect book structurally. It needs some professional editing but, that said, it is a very gentle and empowering introduction to the Bowen Theory of family emotional functioning. It provides the reader with a self-help template for looking at their own family. But it also makes the reader aware that Psychiatry today is not the sole purveyor of [truth] and that there are actually other viewpoints to be considered when a family member ends up in the throes of the psychiatric system.

Ms, Schara’s conversational style of writing is provocative and engaging, and encouraging. Those reading it for self-help purposes are surely going to find much more between the lines: (1) they will learn a little about the important family systems concepts enunciated by Dr. Murray Bowen; (2) they will be exposed to some of the history of family systems thinking; (3) and they will become privy to some interesting academic studies in support of the Bowenian view of how families function.

The world of psychiatry today is a jungle of prescription-based treatments and maddening assumptions. It was like that when I was in the mental health system years ago and about all that has changed since is that the prescriptions have become increasingly lethal. Psychiatry focuses blindly on individual patients at the expense of the families they were born into and have grown up with…and in the process important relationship processes are completely overlooked, processes that have remedies if one only knows where to look.

[Immaturity] and [anxiety] dictate the idiotic directions being taken today in medicine, psychiatry, politics, and even in science. This shows up in the form of fusion and togetherness forces that glare back at us at every turn. These destructive emotional forces arise in families and are carried forth into the world of business and politics in the form of behavioral symptoms of all kinds…in the form of sickness, unethical behavior or controlling behavior, and more.

The importance of this book to uninitiated readers when thinking about their families is this: the best approach when things go awry in a family is to learn how to be an individual while staying connected to family members regardless of any anxiety that exists. When even one family member can learn to stand apart from it all as an individual, then the rest of the family will eventually calm and clearer thinking will prevail.

I was a Bowen family therapist for more than twenty years and I can attest to this simple but profound truth.

Eric Mikelait, LMSW – Most Bowen books preach to the choir, so, if you’re not well-groomed in systems thinking, they are of little value. Andrea’s book is for the choir as well as the uninitiated. If people want to be initiated, they can enter the dark forest with the wonderful compass that Andrea has provided.

I immediately dove into the bio information at the end of the book, in Acknowledgements. On page 292, in the middle of the second paragraph, I found this sentence: “How fortunate for me to have a great with this family.” I think Andrea meant to say, “How fortunate for me to have a great run of luck at the casinos with this family” (or, more likely – how fortunate she was to have a great relationship with this family).

How fortunate we are to have this great book to add to our knowledge base. It’s all about the stories – and Andrea tells them like no other. You go Life Coach! Eric Mikelait, LMSW

lina- See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies For Navigating Life/Work Relationships In Any Social Jungle (Paperback)
This book has compelling insights. A book to help us understand our social system: how it works and how we work within it.

By Vicki Canada February 1, 2014

An excellent exposure to Bowen Family Systems for those familiar with this school and a profound personal story to invite those not familiar to get on this path of discovery.  I have known the author since we were young and just want to say I marvel at how she has used all the many conflicts from childhood as opportunity for growth and healing and for carrying the message within and beyond her family system.  Congratulations on publishing a very helpful and well laid-out book for those trying to absorb Bowen’s remarkable work. Thank you also for the bits of humor and wit peeking out from between the pages. It is so helpful to have some humor available when dealing with such serious matters.
Vicki Canada, Vancouver, BC

Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies for Navigating Life Relationships in the Social Jungle

At long last after four years, YOUR MINDFUL COMPASS is available on AMAZON just for you.

Your Mindful Compass:

Breakthrough Strategies For Navigating

Life/Work Relationships

In Any Social Jungle Paperback

by Andrea Maloney Schara (Author) , Alexa Schara (Cover Design)


This is one of the old photographs from  my travels with Murray Bowen, MD in the late eighties.  At the time his health had become precarious and he “allowed” me to travel with him to videotape the various conferences where he was presenting.  Most who knew Bowen can easily imagine what a challenge it would be to stay separate both from him and from the people who admired or disliked him and his dang theory.  The picture reminds me that it can be a fun challenge to be separate and useful to others.

There are many, many people, from all over, who had a chance encounter with him that changed the direction of their personal and professional life. You can see a few other interviews by going to http://ideastoaction.wordpress.com/audio-files-and-video-files/request-a-cd/)

 I am grateful for Bowen’s ability to observe and write about human  behavior.  My life path was radically altered.  Among the radical notions  that Bowen wrote about two stand out: One, the family unit itself governs the behavior and development of its members. And the second that people could, through the use of triangles, differentiate a more separate and mature Self from the automatic programing of the unit.   Bowen saw the pressure on human behavior as similar to that pressure that governs the behavior of all social animals. By creating an impersonal theory of human behavior, Bowen was making it possible to understand the social jungle that we live and create a vastly different type of relationship with others.

The main idea I am trying to convoy is that trough leaning about social systems, as a courage and mindful observer of social systems, there are more choices for meaningful action.  By learning about our family history and gathering knowledge of the brain and other social systems we are better able to “see” system operate.

The mindful compass enables anyone to make basis strategic choices for his or her own life course and not to react as much to any resistance when it appears.   One develops a more mature Self, simply by guessing how to take a meaningful but low keyed action stance.  Without mindful awareness and knowledge of social systems, one is often automatically guided by the reactivity and the need to please or to upset others.

As my book is now published I wanted to take time to again acknowledge Bowen and the other many other smart and kind people who have helped me.  I am grateful for all who have supported this effort.

Now that the book is available on Amazon, both as a kindle book or a paperback, it seems a bit like having your child grow up to have a life of his or her own. Who knows what the book will do or where it will go?  Of course I am fascinated to hear the comments people have made after reading the book.  Please check out the interesting reviews of this book on Amazon.  Anyone can do write a review.

A summery of the book is below:

–Have fun and I hope you enjoy using….

Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies For Navigating Life/Work Relationships In Any Social Jungle by Andrea Maloney Schara

-“Your Mindful Compass” takes us behind the emotional curtain to see the mechanisms which regulate individuals in social systems.

There is great comfort and wisdom in knowing we can increase our awareness to manage the swift and ancient mechanisms of social control. We can gain greater objectivity and flexibility by seeing how social controls function in all kinds of systems from ants to humans.

To become more adaptable and less controlled by others, we can learn how emotional systems influence our relationship-oriented brain.

People want to know what goes on in families that give rise to amazing leaders and/or terrorists.

For the first time in history we have the ability to understand the systems in which we live. The social sciences have been accumulating knowledge since the early fifties about how we are regulated by others.  S. Milgram, S. Ashe, P. Zimbardo and J. Calhoun, detail the vulnerability to being duped and deceived and the difficulty of cooperating when values differ.

Murray Bowen, M.D., was the first researcher to observe several live-in families for up to three years at the National Institute of Mental Health. Describing how family members overly influence one another and distribute stress unevenly, Bowen described both how symptoms and family leaders emerge in highly stressed families.

Our brain is not organized to automatically perceive that each family has an emotional system, fine-tuned by evolution and “valuing” its survival as a whole, as much as the survival of any individual. It is easier to see this emotional system function in ants or mice but not in humans.

The emotional system is organized to snooker us humans: encouraging us to take sides, run away from others, to pressure others, to get sick, to blame others, and to have great difficulty in seeing our part in problems. It is hard to see that we become anxious, stressed out and even that we are difficult to deal with. But “thinking systems” can open the doors of perception, allowing us to experience the world in a different way.

This book offers both coaching ideas and stories from leaders as to strategies to break out from social control by de-triangling, using paradoxes, reversals and other types of interruptions of highly linked emotional processes. Time is needed to think clearly about the automatic nature of the two against one triangle. Time and experience is required as we learn strategies to put two people together and get self outside the control of the system.  In addition, it takes time to clarify and define one’s principles, to know what “I” will or will not do and to be able to take a stand with others with whom we are very involved.

The good news is that systems’ thinking is possible for anyone.  It is always possible for an individual to understand feelings and to integrate them with their more rational brains.  In so doing, an individual increases his or her ability to communicate despite misunderstandings or even rejection from important others.

The effort involved in creating your Mindful Compass enables us to perceive the relationship system without experiencing it’s threats. The four points on the Mindful Compass are: 1) Action for Self, 2) Resistance to Forward Progress, 3) Knowledge of Social Systems and the 4) The Ability to Stand Alone. Each gives us a view of the process one enters when making an effort to define a self and build an emotional backbone.

It is not easy to find our way through the social jungle.  The ability to know emotional systems well enough to take a position for self and to become more differentiated is part of the natural way humans cope with pressure.

Now people can use available knowledge to build an emotional backbone, by thoughtfully altering their part in the relationship system. No one knows how far one can go by making an effort to be more of a self-defined individual in relationships to others.   Through increasing emotional maturity, we can find greater individual freedom at the same time that we increase our ability to cooperate and to be close to others.

Thankful: A sneak preview of my book cover and ….


Thankful and Waiting -

I am so grateful for all of life, and most especially for the love and support from all my family and friends.

For those who follow the blog – this week promises to be the time for the long awaited birth of my book.

Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies for Navigating Life/Work Relationships in Any Social Jungle 

Special thanks to all those I interviewed, to my colleagues and clients.

For those who continue to teach me about emotional process, triangles, and of course differentiation of self.

Most of all thanks to Murray Bowen, M.D for his original observations, on how the human family functions.

Bowen demonstrated with many people, including me, the various ways that the ancient mechanism of social control could be bent and sometimes even thwarted.

Thanks to the readers of the blog who have continued to give me feedback on my thinking and writing.

I give special thanks to my editor, Judith Ball, who has been working with me for the last eight years.

This book has been a three-year project, which has taken a tribe to publish.

Many individuals have joined in the effort to review, suggest, edit, index, and prepare the document.

Reviewers: Laurie Lassiter, Ann Bunting, Laura Havstad, Priscilla Friesen, Kathy Wiseman, Victoria Harrison, John Engels, John Cammack, and Eric Thompson.

Editing Help:  Annie Chagnot, Donna Troisi, Zane O. Odum. and Amy Campbell.


All have been both diligent and kind in getting this book ready for Amazon.

I appreciate everyone’s contribution in making this book come to life.

When the book is finally available I will send out a new notice.

Following is my favorite review.

It can also be found on the back of the book.



This is an unusually good book: intelligent, informed, and engaging. Andrea’s understanding of Bowen’s theory, and, even more importantly, of the phenomena Bowen described, is unerring.

The challenge of understanding just how vulnerable we all are, though to different degrees, as to being regulated by the environment,

is stunning, and Andrea backs this up by looking at many different areas of social research from Stanley Milgram on.

She has also broadened the focus on the family as a system, to the consideration of the work of other systems observers like E.O. Wilson and Deborah Gordon.

There is an interesting mix of her personal story and the stories from the leaders who were interviewed.

They are not Bowen trained people but can see and understand much about how relationship systems work just from living life.

This is a first-rate book.

It includes so much of what is important to say about Bowen theory and practice, that hasn’t been said,

including the use of the triangle toward increasing differentiation of self.  It is a relief to me to have it stated so well in written form now.

Laurie Lassiter, Ph.D.

Sneak preview of the cover created by my granddaughters: Alexa Schara,

and the photo by Madeline Mauboussin -


Your Mindful Compass:

Breakthrough Strategies for Navigating Life/Work Relationships in Any Social Jungle

And now a small bonus for those of you who like poetry and photography.


by Andrea













leaves and water