What Does it Take to Observe Self in Your Own Family?


water-and-pier

Do you find yourself wondering what makes you avoid family relationships? Do you wonder, what is going on, why is so and so upset or picking fight or will not return phone calls,  etc.?  What are people trying to tell you?  What must you do to figure out relationship issues? How can I see who is influencing me and how am I influencing them? Where do “I” begin and end? How much can I do for others before “I” am over functioning for them, and being less responsible for self? What happens if I become overly helpful, too distant or too conflictual?  How do any of us become more self-defined?

Relationships under pressure have common automatic responses to heightened anxiety and over time people are less and less able to be with one another without feeling threatened. The questionnaire below is one way to consider how you participate in your family system.  By making a disciplined effort to be a better observer of relationships one can step back and observe the push and pull in relationships as part of how family systems just naturally operate.

Based in evolutionary theory and the behavior of other social species, Murray Bowen, MD, described the family as an emotional unit, distributing anxiety unfairly. Living in a family unit often results in greater pressure being put on the weakest members of the unit. This automatic response to stress can be decreased by one person being a more separate yet connected individual in the family organism. Leaders can direct and deal with anxiety far better than the weaker members who become symptomatic.

Not to be forgotten is just how the emotional system promotes both the survival of the unit and of the individual. There is a cost and a benefit to belonging to social groups. If over time you are better defended from predators or get the needed help raising children by being a member of a family group, then joining the groups enhances your survival.  Yes, we each pay the cost of belonging and of doing for others. It may be that we have to lend some energy to others or they to us. Do for me and I will do for you, but let’s hope it does not cost that much to belong.

“In evolutionary biology, reciprocal altruism is a behavior whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time.” Robert Trivers

 Social systems are organized to encourage or force individuals to assume functional roles.  If an organism fits into the “needed” roles the anxiety in the group is diminished. When anxiety is high the system applies more pressure to individuals to perform more for the system than for self-directed needs. Observing the system increases the ability to clarify values and positions and to relate with greater openness. If one person in a system begins to think for self and decides to challenge the status quo it is expected that others will react negatively to the change. If the person thinking for self does not react to the negative responses, and continues to relate differently, then the system slowly settles down to a new level with more knowledge.

Below are some of the assumptions of the challenges of understanding the family as an emotional unit that governs individuals’ behavior and development over evolutionary time.

  • While there is variation, we all have a resistance to self-scrutinize.
  • Less awareness promotes automatic responses to challenges.
  • Observing self requires a considerable amount of energy and time.
  • Our behavior is influenced by emotional and logical needs to be in any social group.

There are many methods that can enable people to become better observers and manage self in relationships. The questions below are one effort to keep track of your effort to understand your family system by observing the extent to which you are influenced by the emotional system.  It also provides a way to keep track of changes in the family when one believes they are taking steps to be more separate and more mature in relationship to others.

OVERVIEW OF THE EIGHT CONCEPTS OF  FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY

AS THEY INFLUENCE THE INDIVIDUAL

By becoming an observer of the family system one can become aware of the impersonal forces operating in one’s family thereby becoming more sure of self and better defined.The formula below enables people to understand the various influences on behavior.

Self – The ability to manage anxiety (A) and to stand on principles (P).

Self is then influenced by

  1. the amount of emotional intensity in triangles(T)
  2. how one manage his or her functional role as a sibling, (S)
  3. in the family emotional process (FSP),
  4. in the multigenerational family emotional process (MGFEP),
  5. in the nuclear family process (NFEP),
  6. which includes the four mechanisms in the family projection process (FPP 4)*,
  7. the level of emotional cut off (ECO)
  8. and finally, the current state of society or societal emotional process (SEP).

 

 

One has to manage (A) and  defined principles (P)

Self is also influenced by often unseen social pressures.

 

                              S (A) (P)

 T+ FSP + MGFEP + NFEP + FPP (4) + ECO + SEP

(FPP 4 = 1)  Automatic mechanisms that mange anxiety: distance, 2) conflict, 3) reciprocal relationships, 4) projection onto children

               

Tracking the nature of the contact with family members: 

First name each person in your three-generational family. Then describe the nature of the relationships: close, distant, conflictual

  1. How many people in your three-generational family have you had contact with during your life time?
  1. Have you made an effort to contact people who have drifted away from you?
  1. Are there people you are mad at and do not want to see?
  1. Who have you contacted in the last six months?
  1. Who contacted you?
  1. Please name them and note the kind of contact: positive, negative or neutral.
  1. Did the contact with this individual alter the way others in the family related to you? Yes or No. Please describe:
  1. Was the contact made just to stay connected, to be polite?

Yes or No If no please describe the reason.

  1. Was the contact made to allow you to be separate from the emotional system? Yes or No. Please describe:
  1. Was the contact an effort to de-triangle? If yes please describe.
  1. Were there other efforts to be more separate? Please describe:
  1. Did you anticipate a negative reaction in trying to be more self-defined? Please describe:
  1. Were you thrown off by any reactions? Please describe:
  1. If people are critical can you stay in low keyed contact? Please describe:
  1. Are there people you cut off from as they are just to difficult to relate to?

Please describe:

Understanding the family system and making an effort to be more defined.

 

Overview of Relationships and the Level of Reactivity

  1. Can you name those in your family that you are currently most aligned with and those you are distant from?
  1. Can you name those you react to the most?
  1. Can you name those who currently have symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms manifest from mild to severe?
  1. Can you identify the level of functioning, from high to low, for each individual you’ve identified above?
  1. Can you note the individuals’ level of ability to be open from high to low?
  1. Can you observe the basic relationships patterns in those you are close to?
  1. If so identify the dominant pattern: conflict, distance, reciprocity or projection onto others?
  1. What do you do with yourself to alter these relationships patterns?
  1. Which relationships are the most challenging for you and which are more open?
  1. Are you currently working on being more open with any one in your family?
  2. And if so, why did you select this person?
  1. How do you go about being more open?
  2. (For example, some people will think ahead of time and others will practice being spontaneous, just keeping the goal in mind. There is not one right way as people are different.)
  1. How many people do you have contact with in your three-generation family?
  1. How much do you know about your extended family?
  1. Can you go back a hundred years in any of your family lines?
  2. If yes can you describe in one paragraph how you learned about these ancestors?
  1. What kind of visits do you have with family members?
  2. Do you visit people or do they visit you?   What is the difference?
  1. Are you able to notice the formation of triangles, (the two against one formation) often found in innocent social gossip about others?
  1. Name the people you are on the inside with and those where you are on the outside.
  1. Have you ever set out to purposefully get on the outside of a triangle by putting two people together and pulling self out?
  2. If yes, please describe in one paragraph.
  1. Do you have a time line for changes in your family?
  1. Can you create a time line as to disruptions following a nodal event?
  1. Can you track efforts to change self in the system, and how the system responds? Please describe one effort:
  1. Have you ever taken a stand to alter your part in the relationship system? Please describe:
  1. If you changed yourself in how you relate to others in the relationship system,what kind of resistance have you encountered?    Please describe:
  1. What kinds of techniques do you use to manage self when anxiety rises?
  1. How do you manage your own upset in relationships?
  1. Do you prefer to write out issues to clarify where you stand?
  1. Do you tell people where you stand based on a principle?
  1. Do most people in the family know your principles?
  1. Do you know where your principles came from?
  1. What do you do when people challenge your viewpoint?
  1. Would you consider yourself open to others’ feedback?
  1. What does it mean to be emotionally independent?
  1. Can you write out how you think you have been more for self and less caught reacting to the system?

Don Lorenzo Servije An Interview


Don Lorinzo died today, February 3, 2017,  at 98 years of age.  Nine years ago I had the great honor of interviewing Don Lorenzo, who was a giant of a man, and founder of the world wide bakery Bimbo. (revenues of $14 billion in 2014) The interview was arranged by Maria G Bustos Porcayo. She had been in my supervision group at the Georgetown Family Center back in the early nineties. Her goal was to have a book in Spanish that introduced Bowen family systems theory to the Mexican people through the lives of people who recognized the important of family in their success.

Mario Bustos had talked to Francisco Gonzalez, the general director of USEM http://www.usem.org.mx/ and he brought in Heberto Ruz to publish the book.  Francisco ask Don Lorenzo to allow me to interview him for my book. He agreed mostly as he believed that family is where values begin and one most live their values.  The interview began and ended about the tremendous gratitude he had for his family and most especially for his wife, the mother of their eight children. His wife had died before him and he missed her. It took courage to talk to a stranger about this, but he had tons of courage.

When I met Don Lorenzo his mind was alive with ideas. With an almost poetic ability he told me the story of his early years, which you can read below. Two things stood out in the interview: one, his deep appreciation for relationships. In the interview, he talked about the early years after his father died and his decision to work with his mother and other family members in the bakery. A religious man who understood the importance of passing on values to children and grandchildren he went to mass every day.  Don Lorenzo Servitje was also very concerned with leadership in his community and the transmission of family values.  Secondly, I was very impressed with his fundamental understanding of the importance of past relationships on the future. I do not think he had ever heard of family systems theory but he knew the importance of family roots to ongoing stability of the family.

Going back to Spain had helped him stay connected with his family roots and decreased the forces that say – look at me I am successful. Instead its more about – I came from these plain roots.  I was lucky. I worked hard. I understood the debt to my family and went back to Spain to see were the family roots were.  He somehow knew it was important to take his family there. As a reminder, they took pictures on the front porch, as they had when they were young.

Because I was writing a book about the influence of the family on one’s ability to be a leader, he kindly took time out of his schedule to let me interview him and the interview was videotaped.

I think family contact can change your brain.  My assumption is that those willing to learn from the past will have more complex thought process and be better at seeing the world without as much illusion.  By seeing the world in a more realistic way people can often make better decisions as to the future.

Possibly brain connections are influenced by family connections. That is the greater the connections between people, the greater the behavioral flexibility.  Flexible people are also less likely to be blinded by emotional reactions. Some have suggested that understanding your family’s past, without judgment, is likely to reduce one’s level of anxiety. If your anxious and or cut off from the past your brain has less information and perhaps more fantasy.

Family relationships are just more  complex, people make generations of assumptions about who you are.  Then you have to figure it out, and be who you are.

Talk about complexity, Don Lorenzo Servitje’s company was established in Mexico City in 1945. Born in Mexico City in 1918, Mr. Servitje was the child of immigrants who had come from Spain in search of “broader horizons.” Juan Servitje, his father, began working at a bakery and pastry shop and eventually established the El Molino bakery, which remained popular for generations.

While his son, known as Don Lorenzo, began working at the bakery at the age of 16, he decided to study to become a public accountant. When Juan Servitje died suddenly, leaving a wife and four young children, Don Lorenzo quit school and took charge of the family bakery.

Adopting a business philosophy of “Believe — Create,” the Servitjes began baking loaf bread at a small plant with 35 employees, 10 delivery trucks and formulas to bake four different types of pan bread. Also partners in the business were his uncle, Jaime Sendra, and his brother, Roberto, who would spend the next half century in a leadership position at Bimbo.

According to the company, the objectives were straightforward — “To bake really good, nutritious, tasty and fresh bread under clean conditions and perfection.”

 

Over time, Grupo Bimbo, has become one of the three largest bakeries in the world in terms of production and sales volume.  They supply over one million points of sales in eighteen different countries, requiring them to deliver products daily to an outlet or a factory. The distant equivalent to traveling around the globe about 46 times a day. The company is committed to high productivity and responsible community projects such as reforestation. They reported sales of $5.9 billion dollars in 2006.  They have 76 plants and operate three trading agencies. (As an exercise think of what it would require of you to see and lead successfully in a system of this complexity.)

As I understand it, Don Lorenzo Servitje also helped found the society for entrepreneurs, USEM.  USEM organizes web seminars, distant learning and various kinds of meetings bringing new ideas to business people. http://www.usem.org.mx/ It was through this organization and its director, Francisco Gonzalez, that I was invited to interview Don Lorenzo Servitje.

My first question was: How did your family encourage him to be a leader?

Don Lorenzo Servitje said that he was not sure if his family thought he would be a good leader but that his mother had a very high opinion of him. Her ideas were based on some facts, as he was usually second or third in his class in school.  He noted, that “I was not afraid to talk with people and I was able to perform well. My mother was my main interest as my father died when I was 18.”

I asked Don Lorenzo Servitje, “Are you the oldest son in your family?”  He noted that, “I had an older brother but he died when I was four years old and then I became the oldest son. I also had a sister who was three years younger and two younger brothers. One was ten years younger and the other eleven years younger.  They were like sons to me, in a way.  Years later, one of them said I was like his father. The death of my father in 1936 forced me to go ahead.  My mother and I had worked in the pastry shop with my father.  Now, it was up to us to support the family. We were in the pastry business for nine years.  I saved money.  Then together with a friend, and a cousin, we formed the industrial business of Bimbo.”

I was interested in how much he had learned by running a small business, the pastry shop with his father. I told him that my son-in-law, Michael Mauboussin, (More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places) had explained business dynamics to me back in 1991. Michael helped me understand my family business by talking about how to capitalize and run a small lemonade stand. For example, I had never considered that a business had to continue to earn over the cost of capital for things the business owned clear and free, like the land the lemonade stand was on.  Nor had I put enough energy into the ways one had to save to keep the stand looking good and to expand dynamically.

I asked Don Lorenzo Servitje if he had a vision of the future when he made the decision to invest in Bimbo. He said that he and his colleagues had developed experience between 1940 and 1945 supplying companies throughout South America.  That experience, coupled with people who trusted him and planned with him, was the launching pad for the industrial baking business, Bimbo.  He explained: “We took our savings and borrowed an equal amount of money to make this happen.  It has grown over the years.  During this period my mother remained as an owner of the company.  Then she remarried at the age of 63.”

Don Lorenzo Servitje continued: “I was 26 when I married. We had eight children. There were six girls in a row and then two sons. The youngest son is an original thinker.  He has a special gift for business. He went to Stanford and was the first in his class. He is far better than I am.”

I told him that we all hope that our children will do better than we do. If our children do better perhaps we have done something right.  Part of collecting family stories is to encourage other people to do well by understanding how real people have become successful leaders and overcome hardships. It is encouraging for others to know that successful individuals have overcome difficulties like the early loss of a father.

We talked a bit about how the early loss of a father is a common theme in American politics today. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama grew up without their fathers’ influence. It would seem that both men want to be better fathers, both in their families and for their country.

(In my book I highlight that some of us are leaders by default we had to rise up, and lead when difficult things happen. Others are natural leaders who rise up without trauma or serious losses.  One way is not necessarily superior to another. I developed The Mindful Compass to point out that leaders are those who have a vision and are willing to act with knowledge, even if they must act alone. Leaders have the courage to overcome challenges. If they are mindful of their impact on others and can also enable others to become leaders, then they are mature leaders.)

I noted that Don Lorenzo Servitje also seems to have become the father for his siblings, family and company and perhaps for the people of Mexico.

Don Lorenzo Servitje then said, “I am too old.  I am 89. I lost my wife six years ago. Carmen was 80. She left me without advice.”

I said “Perhaps that is a gift.  It could be.  Suppose she told you to marry again?” I said. And he replied:  “I am faithful. She was a very wise woman and a very sweet woman.  I have suffered many times because of the business. But I was a workaholic. She held everything together.  She was a very typical housewife. She loved to be at home with the children. She was the queen of the house. I had no problems with the children or the home. She was a very responsible woman and I suffer in her absence.”

I was not sure that his wife Carmen would like it if he were suffering.  I was sure I did not want him to suffer any more than necessary so I said, “I would like it if her memory made you happy.”  He thought for a moment and said “Her loss is a very sweet pain.”

I asked him what he would say to the young people in Mexico that they might carry in their hearts as important principles.   He said:  “One, keep your faith, be good Christians.

Two, work hard and be wary of distractions and a frivolous life.   Three, learning is important.  I love to read lots of books.  My life has been study and work.  I am a very plain man.”

I noted that perhaps a simple man can see the simple truth.

Don Lorenzo Servitje said, “I see what I think is right and I keep on going.”

“Were your parent’s family religious?” I asked.

“My mother’s family was more religious than my father’s family.  I know my extended family. I have pictures and stories as I researched my family back to 1770. They were mostly working in the fields.  They were peasants.”

“What made you do family research?” I asked.

“I was traveling to Spain often. My family was from Spain and as a hobby I looked for the origins of my family in the records of the Churches. I learned many curious things about the family.”

I noted that in my years as a family therapist I had found that healthier and stronger people just automatically were more interested in family history and knew more about their family roots. These people are often more accepting of different kinds of people as they see all the variations possible in four or five generations in a family.

Don Lorenzo Servitje said “I talked with my children about their ancestors. Also, I took my children to Spain to see where the ancestors lived. I also showed them where I lived when I was a young boy.”

It is not easy to go visit the homes of your very distant relatives. I told him about my visit to Ireland and how I had felt uneasy in a town where several generations ago the family I am related to had a fight between the older and younger brother. When I was in the town of the younger brother’s family I became ill. When I was in the older brother’s home town I was fine.  Was I sensitive to a fight that occurred over a hundred and fifty years ago?  Perhaps by going back to these two places I was more able to accept my own sensitivities.  It takes time to understand and respect the difficulties people have lived with over the generations.

Then Don Lorenzo Servitje showed me some photos from his family research.

“Here you can see a picture in 1976, and then seventeen years later the same group of children has grown up. This is the place I was born in 1924. This is the house of my father.  This is the wedding invitation of my mother. My brother was very handsome. Here is a picture of my brother and me and here is one of myself and my sister in the house where we grew up. Here is a picture 50 years later.

My sister died before my wife. My other brother died after my father. Yes, I lost two brothers and my sister, the youngest one died two years ago. Such is life.

Here is a picture of my wife when we were young. One of my granddaughters is a painter. Here you see a picture of a grandchild and then you can see into the past and there is my wife.”  I said, “Your granddaughter is an artist who paints dramatically the connections between people.  Some might say its all in the genes.”  I did not have time to elaborate on this thought but I did think she must understand the family emotional process at a deep level where the past is folded into the future. The past does not determine the future but it influences and reminds us of our connections to others.

My interview with Servitje concluded when he had to leave for a meeting.

I said, “Yes, people still need you. I appreciate so much the time for this interview and meeting you in your home. I think this interview will demonstrate the importance of family for a life well lived.”

Don Lorenzo Servitje’s Mindful Compass Points

(1)  The ability to define a vision: Don Lorenzo Servitje allows us to see how his vision for a larger company arose out of his experiences with his family’s smaller pastry business.  It was not that he started with this vision.  It happened as part of his personal growth with others.  When he had an opportunity to expand into the industrial arena he had also built a trustworthy team which he kept with him over the years.

The early death of his brother and then his father were pivotal events. They are high stress events for everyone.  Most difficult for families is dealing with and adapting to the loss of the primary wage earner. It is a threat for most families. Many people have found their lives torn asunder following the loss of a father.  The fact that his family could keep going and did so well testifies to the resiliency in the larger family system.  In his case the loss may have forced him to make responsible decisions at an early age. His decisions to work in the family pastry shop were made as much to support his family as they were to build his career.

Obvious Don Lorenzo Servitje became the leader of his family, and business yet he gives a great deal of credit for success to his mother, his other business partners and to his son in the next generation. His wife was in the middle of it all and was a very wise woman who was his responsible partner in life.  Although he misses her mightily he keeps contributing to society in many unknown ways. It seems in his nature to play down the work he does and to build up others.

Caring about others is a very deep value that also resonates with his religious values.  Therefore, we hear consistent values which are being converted into actions. There is little interest in finding love and approval but more in getting any job done well.

Don Lorenzo Servitje is a leader with instinct. He seems to know just what the best action to take is, and then he just does it. His common-sense attitudes lead him to spend time and energy investigating the past generations of family members.  This is an unusual action for a person to take in our society.  It is the sign of a leader who can look way beyond the short term. Here is a leader who knows that if something is important then he must find the way to do and have fun in the process.  He discovers his family roots and shares this knowledge with his children, taking them to Spain to see where past generations of the family lived and walking in their footsteps.

It is easy to see how he can inspire others in his work settings and also in his family. He seems to deeply enjoy his work.  He also gives his Christian religion a great deal of credit for all he does and hopes that future generations will also keep true to these time-tested values.

Mature leaders look beyond charisma to find sustaining principles and values promoting courage and steadfastness in their lives. Don Lorenzo Servitje leads by example.

(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: Overcoming obstacles is not something that Don Lorenzo Servitje focused on. We know that he overcame the early loss of his father without bitterness or longing. His attitude of just doing what needs to be done, despite the difficulty, gives us a glimpse of man who chooses to do his work without focusing on the difficulties. He seems to be a contented man who is at ease with himself and with all kinds of other people.  Any obstacles are overcome without making them into a big deal. I could see this in his ability to change his attitude about the loss of his wife. He could focus on her positive qualities and to let go of the sadness saying, “Her loss is a very sweet pain.”

(3) The ability to connect and use systems knowledge: Few people have shown the ability to build a successful family and business network as complex as that of Don Lorenzo Servitje.  *(I wondered how much his business ability was influenced by his ability to deeply understand his multigenerational family.)

Apparently from an early age Don Lorenzo Servitje was able to perform and be at ease with people. He recognized the importance of his family relationships on his ability to function well.  He was clear that his mother’s ability to see him in a positive light was significant for him. There is no way of knowing exactly what enabled him to understand the importance of the family history.

We can call it intuition or common sense to understand that the past has an impact on the future.  Many people indulge in short term thinking about the family believing that only this generation is important.  People move away from those they consider difficult people or hard to reach family members.  In the business world, this tendency to cut off from the problem people in the family could convert to a tendency to walk away from difficult decisions, or to refuse to deal with difficult people, or with difficult jobs.

(4) The ability to be separate: Although Don Lorenzo Servitje did not talk about the usefulness of being alone to think, plan and take time to reflect on deeper values, obviously, he has done so.  Nothing tests people’s ability to stand alone more than loss. Even if one overcomes the sadness due to loss once, it does not mean that people will be able to do so in the future.

Conclusion:

There are many reasons people find to carry on after the loss of a spouse.  With eight children, many grandchildren and great grandchildren, the love and fun of his family life is displayed thought his home.  Clearly the quality of the relationships surrounding him is a major factor in his well functioning life. Another factor is that he loves his work and other projects.

Don Lorenzo Servitje has lived to see many of his closes family members die and has found the needed reasons be a resource to the remaining family members. Some people might have become more sensitive to loss with age.  But here is a man who has the ability, the resiliency to deal gracefully with loss.

Those who have been able to deal with the loss of loved ones have had to learn to stand alone.  Although some may call this an assumption, I suggest that the ability to stand alone is increased when one has dealt well with the death of a loved one.

Don Lorenzo Servitje has had to deal with the death of family members from the time he was a young man, obviously, he has done so in many ways which have transformed the losses into reasons for carrying on and honoring those who have gone before.

 

Happy Birthday Dr. Bowen would have been 104 1/31/1913-0/1990


bowen chalk on finger tips

I first met Dr. Bowen at a conference in 1976.  He accepted me into the Post graduate Training Program and I became a kind of an apprentice.  In 1980 he hired me to be the audiovisual coordinator at the Georgetown Family Center. l learned so much from watching and relating to him. It has been twenty seven years since he died.

If you, like me, are interested in seeing some of Dr. Bowen’s original teaching tapes, you can get a flavor of how he taught and what made being with him such a lively and challenging experience just by going to the website of the Bowen Archives on The Murray Bowen Archives Project (TMBAP) website.    http://murraybowenarchives.org/videos-GreenBay.html

I taped many of these videos back in the eighties. Of course, some of the tapes have awful sound problems or the video breaks up. But back in the eighties that was par for the course with the equipment that was available.

Traveling with Bowen was a wonderful opportunity for which I will always be grateful. Bowen gave people a new paradigm to think about human behavior. Here is a quote from one of the video tapes produced in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 19-20, 1990. This tape was made six months before he died.

“Individuality comes from inside self.  You don’t take it to the group to find out. If you do not know where you stand, then ask your neighbor….. How are you going to stand up if you do not know yourself?  Most people do not want to bother.”

Andrea

The following is what Bowen wrote up as part of his Curriculum Vita

Practical Issues. New concepts introduced by the “Bowen Theory” include evolution to replace most of Freud; the part of Freud that is relatively scientific; and natural systems theory to combine the two. Numerous variables prevent clear writing when the reader is “hearing” Freud.

The differentiation of self and emotional systems are essential for the theory. Therapists use the correct words, but use their own heads to interpret meaning.

Beyond that, the theory includes the family diagram; a summary of a differentiation scale; triangles; fusion; cut-offs; projection of immaturity to succeeding generations, to minorities, or to the weakest link in the chain; extended family patterns; emotional objectivity; the multigenerational transmission process; sibling position; the extension of family process to work and social systems; societal regression; and a precise integration of the amalgam which is the family. Most patients and clients can change themselves if given a chance. Most therapists are trying so hard to be therapeutic, they cannot “think” theory. Good therapy is determined by the way a theorist thinks about human problems. When the therapist cannot think theory, the theoretical gap is closed by some fixed version of Freud, the therapy is less efficient than it could be, and the therapist is vulnerable to becoming the author of yet another personal procedure.

Theoretical Future. The theory will probably replace Freudian Theory within the coming decades. There are indications it may influence the whole of medicine, more than psychiatry and mental health. When theorists have become aware of its potential, the theory may move on to a “science like” baseline in which theory governs everything that occurs in the field. Good theory is never final. It can always be changed with new knowledge, but change is not frivolous or personally determined. It is interesting to guess what may have occurred by the middle of the 21st century.

Date and Place of Birth: January 31, 1913, Waverly, Tennessee

College: University of Tennessee, Knoxville, B.S. 1934

Medical School: University of Tennessee Medical School, Memphis, MD 1937

Family Background: Family in Middle Tennessee since the Revolution. Oldest of five. Father died in 1974 at 87. Mother died in 1982 at 95. All siblings are living. Married to second of three daughters. Four children, ages 42 to 37.

Internships: Bellevue Hospital, New York City, 1938; Grasslands Hospital, Valhalla, New York, 1939-41.

Military Training: Five years active duty with Army, 1941-46, in the United States and Europe. Rank: 1st Lt. to Major. Had been accepted for fellowship in surgery at Mayo Clinic to begin after military service. Interest changed from surgery to psychiatry during WW 11.

Psychiatric Training and Experience:

Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas. 1946-1954. Fellowship in psychiatry, personal psychoanalysis, and on staff. Background interest in science led to a new theory, which uses evolution and systems ideas to replace Freud. Enough promise for the theory to seek full-time research in a neutral center.

National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, Maryland, 1954-1959. Previous years on theory made research go rapidly. Live-in parents, with one adult schizophrenic child, provided a dimension for all children. Family therapy was a by-product of theory. It began the first year, about two years before it was known nationally. Concepts integrated with the new theory, emerged one after the other. None had previously been described in the literature, and none could have been “seen” with Freudian theory. They are now known as the “Bowen Theory.” Long-term research terminated by Institute for short-term research studies.

Georgetown University Medical Center. Washington, DC 1959 – present. Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Director of Family Programs, and founder of a Family Center. Half-time research and teaching. Each concept was extended, and woven into physical, emotional, and social illness. It has already gone far beyond another family systems theory. Through association with medicine, knowledge has been extended to every medical specialty, and even the prodromal states that precede medical diagnoses. The future is promising. As long as psychiatry exists to diagnose and treat emotional illness, its potential is limited. The theory is directed to human life rather than symptomatic cubicles. National popularity indicates the theory will eventually replace Freudian thinking. It may well contribute more to all of medicine than to psychiatry alone. At Georgetown since 1959.

Other Faculty Appointments and Consultantships. Visiting Professor in a variety of medical schools. More permanent included the University of Maryland, 1956-1963; and part-time Professor and Chairman, Division of Family and Social Psychiatry, Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, 1964-1978. Closed-circuit television in Richmond was used to integrate family therapy with the larger theory.

Current Appointments and Activities. Half-time, Clinical Professor in Psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Center, and Director, Georgetown University Family Center, 1959 to present. Private practice, part time, family psychotherapy, Chevy Chase, Maryland, 1954 to present,

Organizations. List limited to those with a potential interest in a single theory. American Psychiatric Association, Life Fellow; American Orthopsychiatric Association, Life Fellow; Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, Life Member; Diplomate in Psychiatry, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 1961; American Family Therapy Association, Terminated membership 1989 after two consecutive terms as first President.

Biographies. Listed in Membership Directories. American Psychiatric Association, since 1950; Directory of Medical Specialists, since 1952; American Men of Medicine, 1961; World Who’s Who in Science, 1700 B.C. to 1966 A.D. (3700 years in one volume), 1966; International Biography, since 1968; Personalities of the South, since 1976; Who’s Who in America, 1978.

Recent Awards and Recognition.

Originator and First President, American Family Therapy Association, 1978-1982.

Alumnus of the Year, Menninger Foundation, June 1985.

Faculty, Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, Erickson Foundation, Phoenix, December 1985.

Graduation Speaker, Menninger School of Psychiatry, June 1986.

Governor’s Certificate, Tennessee Homecoming ’86, Knoxville, 1986 Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, October 1986.

Publications. About fifty papers, book chapters, and monographs based on new theory of human behavior. The most important ones are in my book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc., publisher, Northvale, NJ, 1978, which contains twenty years of theory. Other papers are referenced in the book. The past ten years, most of the concepts have been described in detail in about twenty videotapes. A list of tapes, both theoretical and clinical, are available at the Georgetown University Hospital.

Addresses: Department of Psychiatry, Georgetown University Hospital, 4380 MacArthur Blvd., NW, Washington, DC 20007, or 4903 DeRussey Parkway, Chevy Chase, Maryland 20815.

Washington, D.C.

January 1990

Happy New Year – 2017


To start out this New Year I wanted to give special thanks and appreciation to all those who visit my site and to the Murray Bowen Archives Project new website. http://murraybowenarchives.org.

This web site will give you access to much of Dr. Bowen’s original thinking as to the family as an emotional unit that guides our behavior.

Thankfully I stumble upon one of Bowen’ s papers while working at a psychiatric hospital in 1976. This began a life-long learning effort. Without this accident of fate my life course would have been far bumpier or shorter. Naturally I want to make Bowen’s original ideas available to everyone.

This year, through the financial help of many of you, more of Dr. Bowen’s unique contributions for transforming one’s family life are available to all. You know that developing the web site takes time and money.  We need funds to both prepare and post archival letters, audiovisual and other written materials. This is an enormous responsibility accomplished now with limited funds and many volunteer hours.

This many layered web site is a home a run for all of us who value the work of Murray Bowen.  Yes, it has taken us many years to accomplish all that you see on this web site. This year, for first time ever, videos of Dr. Bowen on the web can be found for all to see for free.  This is a huge accomplishment and I’m thrilled about it!

Whenever you have time to look you will find the following features:

1)     For an overview of the site: http://murraybowenarchives.org/explore-the-archives.html

2)     For a detailed look at Murray Bowen’s early family life and career: http://murraybowenarchives.org/themes.html

3)    The web site features weekly releases of Bowen’s letters selected by Clarence Boyd, in his book Commitment to Principles. http://murraybowenarchives.org/commitment-to-principles.html

4)     Monthly audio history interviews with people who worked and/or were coached by Dr. Bowen: These interviews give us more clarity about how Dr. Bowen lived theory in his interactions with others. So far there are over 50 interviews and more than half of them have been transcribed and are ready to be posted.   Three of the interviews are currently available:   http://murraybowenarchives.org/oral-history.html

5)     Videotapes of Dr. Bowen, many of which I video taped back in the eighties, as he  traveled around the country giving people a paradigm shifting way to think about human behavior.  http://murraybowenarchives.org/videos-GreenBay.html

6)     The link below is to a video that points to the importance of getting to know people in your extended family.  http://murraybowenarchives.org/videos-NuclearFamily.html

As you see the web site is a gateway to the vast details of Dr. Bowen’s life work given to all because of people like you!  Now anyone can have access to Bowen’s life, or some of the history of family therapy by just searching the web. Scholars are currently busy mining the archives for articles and we hope someone will write a biography of Bowen.  Overall the archives give testimony to how Bowen observed the social system, how the family influenced people and how people can influence any social system.  The web site is one more step in promoting people’s ability to learn how to manage self in a social system.

I hope you will take a good look at the archives and join me in donating to this effort.

All I did was click over to pay pal thought this link. What could be easier?

http://murraybowenarchives.org/support-us.html

Please give as generously as you can to TMBAP whose work is so important to me, and I believe, the world. There is so much to be grateful for as the Murray Bowen Archives web site has finally been brought to life by motivated volunteers and a professional staff, and is free to the public.

Thank you for your very kind and generous support.

Best Regards and Appreciation,

Andrea

Social Copying from Wasps to Humans


Sometimes I am just so lucky to be in the right place at the right time.  I had the opportunity to join my granddaughter, Isabelle, for a week. She was doing an internship at the Santa Fe Institute.  She and her friend were studying the behavior of large groups, among other things.One question, how do people (mostly young people) use Snapchat?  Apparently Snapchat enables people to do “small talk”.  Apparently they like to hang out with each other and show photos and be loosely connected. Of course I am older and like to be deeply connected.  So while they were drawing diagrams and figuring out millions of signals, I reconnected with an old friend, Norman Johnson, PhD.[1] We too have a deep interest in understanding human behavior.

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The conversation started with Norman’s interest in threats and social copying (doing what others do, forgetting your own interests) and how under stress we tend to do more and more social copying and this tends to influences behavior in a group.

Norman approaches problems from a macro perspective: biological warfare, financial markets and traffic jams. Often he will design computer simulations to test his ideas. Since he is interested in how to influence behavior he has also trained people in conflict resolution. Meanwhile, I am observing how families function as emotional units, managing threats in automatic ways, while at the same time producing leaders who often have the ability to be more differentiated and responsible for defining principles.

In the U. S today we have a political situation fanned by fear and spread by social media that encourages and increases polarization and social copying.  Your family and/or friends think that the “other” person is awful and so do you.  A direct result of polarization is that there is little to no agreement on the nature of the problems we face and therefore little ability to cooperate. We are just for being comfortable in our social group so we are against someone else. Perhaps an unintended byproduct of democracy is that under threat, we resort to joining with the “group think” of our in-group.

It is challenging to see the situation we are in. Like the frogs who are still content as the warm water begins to boil, it may be too late when we notice the problem.  No message arrives in the morning news announcing today is the day when you will be bombarded with seven degrees of fearful and disturbing information that may cause you to be social copying or – fill in the blank.

If we can recognize when we are becoming reactive rather than thinking for self, perhaps we can return to more rational or logical thinking.  But if, as in a family, the group may benefit from someone else being the problem, then it takes another order of awareness to see the system and our part in polarization and the seductive comfort of social copying.

 

Main points from my conversation with Norman Johnson

1) Under conditions of increasing threat various social species are unable to focus on task and begin to copy one another. This kind of social copying behavior can be useful under specific circumstances but the tendency to copy one another is automatic.  It is more important to our instinctive way of reacting to fear than the tendency to think and understand and to be more logical or even rational.

2) Social copying is not cooperation but it can look like it as animals and humans begin to circle the wagons to protect the group.

3) It is difficult to encourage animals to cooperate when they are threatened.

4) One way of encouraging cooperation is to alter the environment: Force animals to cooperate by a) looking at one another and b) both pressing a bar to obtain water. This series of “forced” encounters rewards the animals,  reduces threats, and increases cooperation.  By altering the environment to force animals to cooperate, the animals could tolerate eight times the social density.  The rules of the system (two animals must press the bar to get water) became beliefs that an animal was willing to die for.[2]

5) The rules of the system are not perceived as something that can be altered.    In the movie “The Lobster”, there is a good example of how humans blindly follow the rules the system imposed on them because they are not able to see or challenge them.

6) One has to be seen as a member of the “group” to be listened to.  The messenger is more important than the message.  Therefore, people and animals do not listen to or are not easily led by someone who is not or demonstrates that they are not in your group.  If they do not vote your party, if they are not in the same branch of the military etc., they are not in “your group”.

7) Family observations show that if there is one individual who can manage to be different within the group and not react to threats, that person can slowly alter the behavior of the group.

8) Those who strive to be more autonomous are altering the belief that we all must be alike, believe and act in the same way in order for us all to be safe.

 

Conversation between Norman and Andrea (only for those who like to go deep)

Norman Johnson (NJ):  Social organisms have a universal characteristic.  We tend to think social organisms are all about cooperation and while that’s true, it’s also about social copying which is a “circling the wagons” mentality. One of the smallest examples is five hornets that live socially in the nest. All you have to do is disturb them, you don’t have to threaten them.  If you poke a stick in the nest they start to socially copy one another.  They stop doing their individual tasks. They look around and seem to be saying “what are others doing?” And that’s what they do.

The funny thing is they and we stop solving problems when we are disturbed or fearful.  This is what happened to us after 9/11.  We became uncertain and then hyper-patriotic and did some dumb things.

Andrea Schara (AMS):  Are you talking about how we invaded Iraq looking for chemical weapons after we invaded Afghanistan to punish/kill Al Queda for the 9/11 attacks?

NJ:  Well, yes that was a horrible thing, but on the local level we repressed the Muslim population. These were the very people that rationally we needed to work with in order to understand why this just happened. Instead we outlawed and isolated them.

Hence we did the exact opposite of the rational thing. We circled the wagons and therefore were unable to solve real problems. Leaders take advantage of that and currently Trump is a good example of this.  He talks about fearful events and how bad things are and in essence he is amplifying the social uncertainty that people have.

AMS:  You recall the work of Jack Calhoun, PhD[3] who studied the inability of animals to solve problems and the social regression in which animals either piled together in groups, a form of social copying, or withdrew from interactions.  These mice had all the food and water they needed but due to the increasing population they had less social space. As the numbers of interactions increased with the increasing population, there was no time to recover from frustrating or fearful interactions.   So Calhoun designed an environment to “force cooperation.” In the cooperative universe two animals had to walk down a path to press a bar in order to obtain water. In the “dis-cooperative” universe only one animal could press the bar to produce water. No other animal was allowed to enter the pathway.  This design required animals to look at one another and depend on one another to cooperate in order to obtain water. Calhoun saw that by structuring the environment in a way that forced animals to notice each other and therefore cooperate the animals could tolerate eight times the increase in density before the “universe” collapsed.

NJ:  Yes, I recall that there was the one deviant animal in the cooperative pen. He had been trained to obey the rules in the “dis-cooperative” universe.  This mouse had accidently entered the universe where two animals had to walk down together in order to get water.   Since the rules were different in his own universe (only one animal at a time went to get water) he was almost killed trying to get these “cooperative” animals to go along with the rules he lived by in his dis-cooperative system. (You could consider this to be obedience to one’s internalized ethical commands learned in his system.) I still use this example when I give talks.

AMS:   One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the way the system is set up and the way our brain interacts with the surrounding clues. If I hear you Norman, the fact that we are disturbed reduces our ability to be rational and to solve problems.  To remain rational one has to decrease fear. How aware are people of the social clues that are impacting their brain and manipulating them?   Both political parties may use words and slogans that manipulate the behavior of the group. How do people know what is happening to their brain as they listen?

NJ:  Hitler used a fear based approach to get his followers to believe he saw the truth.  Trump seems to be the Pied Piper for those who are the most vulnerable to social copying. Hillary Clinton and her gang seem to use raw power behind the scenes manipulation. Trump is a modern era leader using social media with very little substance, feeding on the anger which makes people more fearful and more inclined to social copying.

 

AMS:  Social copying is a great expression and perhaps it would lead people to greater awareness if that concept became better known. I don’t think I’ve read about it anywhere.

NJ:  There were two main things that Dr. Merle Lefkoff and I observed while doing a study of the science behind the field of conflict resolution.

  • When you have people in conflict they are each defending their own social identity group. So that reduces the rationality in the individual. The result is that rational arguments by the conflict negotiator fail as a mechanism to bring people together.
  • What does work is to get people relaxed or make them feel comfortable with the uncertainty they have. Then they can become open to rational arguments for cooperation. I have done this in many social groups.

AMS:  We use Zengar neurofeedback as part of the program for Navigating Systems DC. [4] In the first part of the day, before people start exchanging ideas, everyone has a neurofeedback session. This kind of equipment and method, reorganizes the brain. People report being more open and relaxed.  They seem to have the ability to perceive the environment as non-threatening.  But neurofeedback is an expensive technology that you can’t really use for vast numbers of people.

 

NJ:  Meditation is useful for sure. But I think what Trump is exploiting is the broad economic uncertainty largely due to economic disparity (the 1% getting most of the increased wealth in the last 60 years). People feel that the 1% or China or Mexico or someone is taking their subsistence, and in their uncertainty villainize the “other”.  In addition, the family unit has been degraded and so in that kind of uncertain situation, people’s fears can be amplified and they can then be manipulated.

When there is more collective fear, people become more easily manipulated.

The military is a really good example of the system that promotes a strong social group identity as a way of coping with threat. Soldiers have been taught to count on one another. They know how to circle the wagon and survive because of it.

Dr. Merle Lefkoff concluded: you cannot give leaders the solution.  You can make them comfortable and give them tools to discover answers for themselves. But you cannot tell them what to do.

AMS:  You don’t want them to become robots?

NJ:  You cannot tell them because you are the “other” and will not be listened to.  This is an example of where the “messenger is more important than the message.” I will accept what you say if you are of my tribe, but if you are not, I will not even hear you.

AMS:  Can you give me an example of this?

NJ:  For example if I were to walk up to an unknown military person and I was of his tribe, I would immediately accept him/her. Together we’d say “Oh, you are part of my tribe” and accept anything each of us said – assuming we are in a certain state of mind. In addition, if the person were in military uniform I would know a great deal more about him or her. But if I were not in the military system, his/her tribe, the details of the uniform would just be noise to me and all I would see is a military person. And depending on whether or not I am in an uncertain state, they might be “other”, a stranger, or I might be neutral about them.

So if someone who is a member of your tribe says something to you that is slightly off or you don’t agree with them, you would still like them because they’re part of your tribe.  You would allow them in. But if they were part of an opposing social group then this is where the identity would come into play and the conflict would arise. If they’re from another tribe you would not listen to them, no matter how good their argument is.  The messenger is more important than the message.

A lot of the challenge for the police today is that they see the other, who is black, as not in my tribe. And the people in black neighborhoods see the police as not in my tribe.

AMS:  Yes, the chief of police in Dallas seems to understand this and was trying to recruit people from the neighborhood to police their own neighborhood.   This was more the right answer but despite this people objected to his ideas. Perhaps they were not in his tribe so they could not listen to anything rational that he was saying.

NJ:  One of the biggest barriers to problem solving is social identity.  We need to address that one and secondly we need to develop tools they don’t trigger social identity when we’re problem solving.  A couple of months ago I was in Washington DC and I gave a talk to 400 federal employees representing 60 federal agencies. As an audience they understood more of the message than any of the crowds I have talked to.

AMS: Is that because they have to deal with this on a daily basis for their survival?

NJ:  Yes, and a lot of them were minorities and they’re very aware of marginalization because of being different.

Have you heard of the example about where different ethnic groups put their ketchup in the kitchen? African Americans store their ketchup not in the refrigerator like whites do, but out on the counter. There’s nothing on the bottle that says you should refrigerate ketchup.   Restaurants leave ketchup on the counter, but white people have been socialized by their group identity to put the ketchup in the fridge.

Scott Page was the first person to give this as an example of how strongly we may be patterned. The storage of ketchup wasn’t a hot issue.   People hearing it can become aware of how strongly they may be patterned, but without judging it to be right or wrong.

AMS:  Well, social pressure to display similar habits that tells us which tribe we belong to wins again.  Social copying makes for a social identity and leads to an “us against them” situation when the group is disturbed or fearful.

NJ:  And they reinforce each other.   Uncertainty leads to copying, which leads to stronger collective uncertainty, which leads to more copying….

AMS:  As you know Bowen tried to describe differentiation of self as the ability to be sure of one’s own principles and beliefs as one defines a self and at the same time remains connected to important people.  So differentiation would be the recognition that my social identity is continuously being established with my family, since family members may not always be on the right track, especially if there’s a crazy person in the family.

The family unit, perhaps at an instinctive level, can be observed to pick on those who are different and often marginalize them even though they are in the same family.  Families, organizations and nations seem to all generate an “us against them” scapegoating process.

One way of dealing with the tendency to scapegoat and project onto others is to encourage family leaders to get to know extended family members. (These are often people who are strangers to you, “others”.)   You know they are part of your family but since they are more “distant” from your immediate family, you may be able to tolerate their differences more than you can tolerate the differences of those family members closest to you.

 

In other words, more extended family members, the “others”, are in a distant but related tribe, not the tribe you are the most loyal to.  They could have reasons to be suspicious of you and you would have to extend yourself to get to know them and all of this requires decreasing fear and increasing the ability to get to know “the other.”

 

Bowen noted: One speculation is that it is easier to observe family patterns and to take ‘action’ on issues in the more distant, but equally important family of origin, than in relation to one’s spouse in whom immediate needs are more imbedded, and with whom it is more difficult to take emotional stances. This effort requires the trainee to take responsibility for his own life and to accept the working proposition he, through his own efforts, can modify his own family system.[5]

NJ:  Bowen is great because he’s always looking at these outer effects of socialization.

AMS:  Yes, this is not the kind of thing one person does on their own, at least not so far.  Right now it takes having heard of Bowen and his theory. Most people are more interested in finding out about their dead relatives as in ancestory.com, than meeting and dealing with the ones who are alive.

Defining a self  as a method to strengthen self in the era of automatic copying has not yet become a meme.

Therefore the thesis is that once people recognize how they are being influenced automatically to do things, to follow people, they MAY want to take back their autonomy.

People can get very caught up in following and copying during a presidential election and then wonder how did I fall for that person?

There are many ways to steady yourself once you can accept that you are automatically influenced, by a threat, an image or a word beyond your ability to notice.  

The main question:

Am I social copying or am I socially coping?

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.linkedin.com/in/drnormanleejohnson. The Applied Science of Collective Intelligence: Solving the grand challenges facing humanity(Link)

Invited paper to the Spanda Journal, special issue on Collective Intelligence

January 2015

 

[2] https://yourmindfulcompass.com/2015/07/11/when-does-an-emotional-system-guide-your-behavior/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Calhoun

[4] http://navigatingsystemsdc.com/

[5] From Coach to Coach, Murray Bowen, MD, abstract of paper presented at Annual Georgetown Family Symposium, Washington, DC, 1970

Training Animals is Simple but My Marriage/Family is a Mess


 

A New York Times article, “No Sound, No Fury, No Marriage” by Laura Pritchett appears just as I am reading Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor.

 

What does the founder of “clicker” training, an observation based approach to shaping animal behavior using positive reinforcement, have to say about human relationships? How is it that families fall apart but dogs can be well trained?

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Are human relationships immune to the power of reinforcement?

Or is it just hard to notice what is going on in relationships and therefore very difficult to interrupt the negative and reward the small positives when change begins?

Training animals requires that one carefully observe the details of behavior, rewarding only positive behavior with food or praise and then reinforcing these behaviors over time till they become established. Sounds simple.  But it’s difficult to do when it comes to humans.

 

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We are social animals that are not as oriented to food but to being a part of the pack.  The human animal has been trained by a multigenerational social system.

Our genetic inheritance is complex.  Our brain controls our social/emotional functioning and both make it difficult to change ourselves over the long term.

Can any of us see how our current life has many of the same patterns that have guided family members in the past? If so how is it that we end up doing the same kinds of things or the opposite that our grandparents did?

The challenge is to stay focused on our own part, to avoid over-reacting and falling into the psychological traps involved in changing others.

 

 

grandparetns mom dad and ams

 

Who thinks that their behavior is being guided by these four ancient mechanisms? Distance, conflict, reciprocal relationships and projection onto others may be analogous to behavioral reflexes, like responding to the offer of food. The four relationship patterns respond to our intolerance for stress.

Anxiety goes up and we are more vulnerable to distance, etc. The other option – differentiation of self – is based on our ability to stand on principles and find ways to manage self with others.

Karen Pryor can train all kinds of animals.   Even as primitive a life form as a hermit crab can be taught to ring a bell.  She is a great storyteller, clarifying how behaviors can be developed, learned, and altered based on the work of Pavlov and later Skinner.[i]

Laura Pritchett describes beautifully the stress-absorbing mechanism of distance that has crept into her relationship with her husband under the pressure from increasing stress, and cast a pall over her efforts to speak her truth to her husband.

Shakespeare had it right: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart, concealing it, will break.” I never spoke of the anger in my heart, the mounting resentments and hurts, and neither did he. I never demanded attention or care, and neither did he. And that’s why we broke.[ii]

Of course it is more complex. Pritchett speaks of both parental families using conflict as their major mechanism and the allergy to conflict that this created in each of them.

Then there is the list of stressors that may have corrupted each person’s ability to take on more stress and anxiety, impairing their ability to be more independent and mature selves.

Yet who does not know the urge to keep things normal for the sake of the children as in recent years they have already been traumatized by things beyond their control: evacuated for wildfires, cut off by historic flooding and exposed to loss and devastation.[iii]

It all seems very rational, the many challenging reasons to be quiet, to get along, to pretend.   Yet how many people think of this urge to protect as letting a primitive mechanism, distance, guide one’s behavior?

There is a cost to take on the challenge of being more of a self in relationships and to learn to tolerate the disruption in the system. After all, who wants upset?  Not your children, your spouse or even your extended family not to mention your friends or even the neighbors. Yes, the difficulty of defining yourself to important others without receiving love and approval from them cannot be overstated.

That is the beauty of the piece by Laura Pritchett.   You can see the logic and how much easier it is to (try to) change partners than to tolerate the upset in the “stuck” relationship.

The alternative of striving to be open and being willing to take the rejection that often follows any attempt to disrupt the pattern of relating by being more self-defined, is not understood as an option.

Pritchett speaks of her inability to demand attention and care without really understanding that this is a long way from being self-defined. This automatic “other focus” is a “reflex-like” behavior. It leads one to see the other as the one that needs to change.   This “other focus” leads to polarization, blame etc. with all its negative ramifications.

If you could solve marital problems as Karen Pryor does in training a dog, you would still have to focus on self not just the other. The trainer decides when and how to reward and reinforce the desired behavior with a pat on the back or something like “good dog.”

Karen Pryor also admits to her problems with animals, describing her part in relationship failure and the heart breaking depressions that even fish or monkeys fall into when the trainer is inconsistent.

Capuchin monkey eating_3

In my book, Your Mindful Compass, the process of self-definition asks any of us interested in becoming more mature, to define what we will or will not do to change self in the system.

Focusing on what it is “I” can do and take responsibility for, takes the “other focus” off the table gives others greater freedom. The idea that one can change self and thereby alter the system moves beyond behaviorism.

The long-term nature of defining yourself in multiple relationships requires that the family leader not react to any negative reaction from others.

Yes, people object to change but usually family members do not get depressed when someone defines self. Often they simply criticize the leader for upsetting others. Therefore, the one who is willing to change self in a system understands the complex nature of the emotional process.

  • They are aware of the inevitable resistance to any change in the system.
  • They have impersonal knowledge as to how systems function: understanding how families are automatically organized, how to extinguish or reinforce behaviors, and focus on relating to others while being a more separate self in the system.
  • They have a willingness to use system knowledge to steady self and to manage without love and approval while the system itself changes.

Systems knowledge gives one the ability to act in more self-aware ways. People speak of standing on principles when defining what they will or will not do. Others speak of describing the nature of the emotional system as a way of putting more information into the system.   Overall systems thinking allows people to choose a more mature way of interacting in the hope that changing self can influence the larger system over time.

Footnotes:

[i] Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals June 8, 2010 by Karen Pryor

[ii] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/22/fashion/marriage-breakups-separation.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&module=Trending&version=Full&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

[iii] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/22/fashion/marriage-breakups-separation.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&module=Trending&version=Full&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

 

Triangles in Social Groups and Wu-Wei



eat-a-banana_1

 

Would it be useful to see how dominance behavior emerges in a triangle?  It is easy to see the two person social system, as above, and far more challenging to see the family as a unit where the two against one triangle emerges.

Can it be that triangles are an automatic “whatchamacallit” scapegoating thing?

Answering yes, confirms that you do see the automatic nature of triangles, the two against one mechanism, putting pressure on a few to conform.

The dance begins innocently enough. Two are comfortable dancing in the dark. Then as tensions rise, a third is chosen who will either help the two dance the right way, or if the third person objects to helping, then more pressure is applied until they conform or become symptomatic.

Is it our fate to be blind to this kind of a mechanism? After all the mechanism has purpose: it distributes anxiety enabling cooperation but at some price. If the price is too high then perhaps there are things we can do to be more aware and perhaps fine-tune this regulatory mechanism?

For those interested in studying human behavior, one can learn to see how the two against one dance works by observations of subtle alliances. It’s hard to see since we are participating in subtle alliances all the time. At some level, to mess with these alliances is fraught with danger. Most of us live in dread of being rejected and of losing the love and approval we naturally seek. And messing with alliances or just bringing them into attention threatens everyone, including us.

Seeing the primitive nature of triangles is a window into our “red in tooth and claw”[1] of our evolutionary past. The brain and the autonomic nervous system conspire to convey that what worked in the past is good enough for the future, so leave well enough alone or else!

Consider that there are good reasons for each of us to be emotionally blind to the use of coercion. Our ancestors were faced with a dire need to cooperate or die. But to apply the pressure, and for that pressure to work, one must believe it is in the best interest of the other, it has to be sincere and appear to be well intentioned. So what do you do when someone you are dependent on uses guilt and blame just to make you conform, of course “for your own good”.

We see blame and scapegoating just about everywhere today, from our nuclear families and workgroups to the nation. Most of the presidential candidates find something to complain about and mock their competitors, or other nations, a sure-fire way to get their poll numbers up. At the office or at home, people are blaming, shaming and otherwise focusing on others and the same old problems continue. So what if anything can we do about these triangling, polarizing processes?

Understanding how automatically two-against-one triangles begin in the family, (where one person is often over worried about, scapegoated to bring the group together), can give us some insight into how larger political systems function.

As we become aware of these polarizing mechanisms, there is more that can be done to resist the instinctive urge to go along with ostracizing some for the benefit of others. Both in the family and in the larger society, people are increasingly aware of the downside of blame and the use of the triangle even if they don’t talk about triangles, per se. A family leader or a political figure that can be loose and momentarily outside the control of triangle can free the system. The ancient Chinese had a name for being freer of the system, Wu-Wei, or “the Way”. (I’ll say a little more about that later.)

Mechanisms to manage anxiety in a family unit or in society are so smooth and automatic that we barely notice, until, under the conditions of heightened anxiety someone becomes the outcast, the “loser.” Here is how it works. The one who is a little out of step with the group begins to draw more and more anxiety on to him or her self. They do not want this to happen any more than the others want it to happen, it just happens. Under enough anxiety someone gets pushed out. They do not fit in, are not cool enough or they are sick. Now the group is functioning better on the back of this one. They worry about them, complain and can’t get them to fit in, and so what happens next? One says to the preferred other, “I did all I could.” The twosome is restored and the third one is out.

You can observe this and explain it by saying people are so anxious that some have to get away from the others, and miss the triangle in the background working to force these two in and one out. For example it seems so logical when someone says: “I “choose” to have nothing to do with my great aunts” and then eventually say the same thing about their spouse and/or children.  No one thinks, “Oh my God, it’s a multi-generational triangle. The anxiety of my or his/her parents has landed in my marriage.” We do not see the flow of anxiety. We just often see that the cause of trouble is outside of self and in “the other”. Now if we can just find someone to tell about this and they agree, the triangle is formed. The scapegoat is chosen and two against one wins the day.

What does it take to see how triangles distribute anxiety?

What does it take to see interactions as part of an ancient emotional process and not as something particular to one person? Seeing how the system works for a minute or two can be confusing, disappointing and might even make you angry. However, if you’re aware of emotional process, there are things you can do to cope more adequately with side taking and scapegoating, etc. .

If you are unaware and are focused on blaming others, then you can miss the system that surrounds or reinforces the problems and you become part of the automatic forces of that system.

It can take years to train ourselves to notice the way relationships shift silently in the night and to be willing to take action to do something about the part we play in these situations.  All of these mechanisms, conflict, reciprocal relationships, over and under functioning, physical and/or emotional symptoms and projection of worries into the next generation may be activated as anxiety rises due to any kind of stressful event that disturbs the status quo.

Bowen developed a scale of differentiation to describe the range in functioning in people’s ability to perceive adequately the outside environment and solve problems in a realistic way, without encouraging greater dependencies. Consider that people may feel “we all should cooperate.” In an innocent way this urge runs over a few people who may see the problem differently and want to respond differently.

Bowen focused on fusion and the togetherness force (controlling others or giving way to others) and how both can lead to a regression in self, because there is greater reliance on others to make decisions and less ability to adapt and grow.

Putting self OUT to build one’s emotional backbone

The essence of de-triangling is separating a self emotionally, while staying connected to others. In other words one chooses the outside position, instead of being put there by others. One is carefully defined based on growing awarenss fo the fusion dn the togetheness force, stands alone, or is neutral and is not side taking or one is just different or just “strange.” Being “strange” and or provocative in a social group has a long history.

Putting others together (or into togetherness) and getting self outside, is the goal as one defines one’s self. It is a very difficult and challenging disciplined path to take. However, over time this kind of process does result in higher levels of emotional maturity for those who are willing to step outside the controlling and sometimes even comforting control of the triangle. For some it is worth the price of potential rejection to have more interpersonal freedom and a bit of joy.

Differentiation of self is the only effort that has been described by Dr. Bowen as a way through these multigenerational triangles. Dr. Bowen’s quotes about this process appear at the end of this paper. One of his off-the-cuff explanations of de-triangling was, “ Put your parents back together and get yourself out.“

Since the time of Adam, Eve and the snake we have seen over and over just how automatically the triangle works. Two are momentarily together and one is out.  When the outsider gives in, having been in essence manipulated and seduced into going along with the others, all hell breaks loose.  A regression of biblical proportions takes place.  Adam ate the apple. He was unable to keep his promise not to. Principles sound good and even noble till one is bullied in a triangle.  Some of us might think that “It’s not me with the snake” or “That’s not me being the snake” or “Poor old Adam is just a little blind, but I’m not”. We are all doing it, joining, rejecting, influencing, punishing and being punished.  We may feel how others try and do influence us, but not know what to do about it. We may not notice how we are picking on others or joining and going with others to put down or build up others thereby impacting our own status.  The way in which people are able to control another is so subtle, so amazingly innocent and so very easy to talk about, but so very hard to notice in real time.

Once we can accept the subtlety and innocence of triangles then it is possible we can see them.  This method of observing self in relationships dispenses with the blame or guilt that often can blind us to seeing the impersonal and automatic machinations of the system. Of course, this is the way Mother Nature designed the system. Why not just marvel at how nature works to distribute anxiety in a system? Amazing, isn’t it?

If you get the idea of standing alone with no one on your side then you see the down side of de-triangling successfully. Be careful of the kiss of togetherness that beckons.  Be careful about saying to yourself (or worse, to others), “Look how clever I am.”  Yes, I am suggesting that the only way to be a more mature self is not totally believe or get addicted to love and approval. A little bit goes a long way.

My grandfather used to say, “Approval is a bit like perfume, have a drop but do not drink it.” The avoidance of love and approval can safeguard you from false pride and intense need for others. Get used to struggling along and welcoming being on the outside. One may be their best stumbling along. There’s no need to be perfect.

Systems will encounter too much anxiety and so, as nature shows us, the parts begin to break down. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just sometimes too much for the system (and some of the individuals in it) to handle.  Stuff happens. People die, people suffer and people lose the ability to cooperate and solve problems. Trust is lost and misunderstandings, blame, guilt and isolation begin to dominate the relationship landscape. Stumbling along as we learn to define a self requires us to think carefully about how we might begin to restore trust and cooperation in a system by changing the way we participate in it.

The Way and Wu-wei

In ancient China, irrationality was encouraged as a way for individuals to regain the ability to cooperate and reestablish trust. It sounds counterintuitive, but being irrational does force you to draw the negative focus, so be prepared. You draw the energy towards yourself in an effort not to give in to the demands of the system to keep the status quo going. It is not easy to separate yourself from all the others and to be cool in the face of rejection and criticism.

If one is the focus of negativity for too long, one doesn’t have the strength to break family patterns. Often it is the strongest person in the family who can perceive reality with a bit more clarity, and who is not so fearful of disturbing others. Such individuals are not as afraid of rejection, are willing to risk breaking the patterns that seem mal-adaptive under the current circumstances.

Many people change after a death. Perhaps a little inner voice will remind you and say, “ Come on, it’s worth it. We’re outside the system and we have freedom.” Of course people know there is a price to pay for doing this but they also get the positive freedom of stepping outside the controlling ways of the system.

Bowen wrote that a person over 65 on the scale of differentiation can say and do things without getting people upset.  I consider this an ideal to move towards. Most of us will still pay to be more open, more self defined, because the system wants you as you were and is always prepared to put up a fight to keep you there.

Since each of us passes on anxiety in some way or another the anxiety is often absorbed more by one or some, than others. It may not be “fair”, but it’s how systems work. Pipes leak because pressure builds up in the system. Where the leak occurs is not always predictable but with enough pressure, there will be a leak. Some may be willing to sacrifice for others. But many sacrifice themselves because the emotional process began early on to program them so that they see themselves as “the problem”.

There have been many attempts to explain how to live a better life and how to become a more mature person. Bowen added to this by clarifying what the emotional system is and what the nature of the individual is who’s willing to be more separate from others.

In the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei, “The Way” one begins to move self, not following clues from others but finding a moral compass, an inner guidance system that is mature to deal with an unaware and uncooperative and unethical social person or group.  The Wui-we energy may be perceived as crazy as its not part of the system, it seem irrational in the short term but if emotions are sincere they demonstrate “The Way” to restore virtue and values.  Spontaneous irrationality can be threatening to self and others, or it can be clever like posing paradoxes or speaking to others in reversals. The point is to force the system to reorganize.

One example of an unregulated system and a way of responding that breaks the pattern is described in the following ancient Chinese story. The farmer promises his son 5 chickens for a day’s work. The son chops wood all day but the father insists that the son’s work is worth only 3 chickens. Should the son accept his father’s assessment of the value of his work and in so doing, encourage his father’s unreasonable behavior? The son believes it is not virtuous to encourage this dominant seeking behavior in his father.   If the son displays irrational indignation in objecting to his father,, the father may think twice and give him the 5 chickens. Virtue and cooperation are restored.  Of course in this story we do not hear about any triangles or the mother’s part in this situation.  She is silent, but we know she must be feeling sorry for the son, angry with the father or some other variation on these ancient patterns of human interaction.

“Very basic social interactions cannot work unless there are powerful emotions lurking in the background keeping everyone honest.”[2]   Robert Frank at Cornell showed that old-cognition or rational self-interest was incapable of establishing trust, whereas human emotion is the only way to keep people honest. In the Confusion and Daoist schools, wu-wei describes the state of mind of an effortless and spontaneous state.

“Wu-wei” is sometimes compared to being like a pivot or hinge. The behavior points at the center from which one can respond to every change, to every eventuality.” [3] Here the mind is capable of producing great art, or a brilliant insight from a highly integrated state of great harmony.

The ideas of wu-wei were produced in the 3rd to 5th centuries BC, a time of great wars and transformations. Bowen theory was developed following WW II, a time of change and social upheaval. Both wu-wei and the ideas of de-triangling and differentiation of self offer paths to a release from the controlling ways of the emotional system and allow the possibility of greater cooperation with others.]

Bowen theory points to the effort to be emotionally separate from the interlocking triangles. The effort is full of many small steps. One can begin anywhere by simply defining with humor one’s self and one’s boundaries. This lack of blame and greater ease demonstrates that one is available to interact freely without threat. Taking steps to be less caught in triangles, less caught in the primitive state in which two are comfortable while the third is suffering, is where freedom is earned.

Defining self leads to maturity. More energy is directed towards changing self than towards changing others. A more mature person is less dependent on others and therefore knows what to do spontaneously in order to deal with the challenges in both the family and in the larger social systems.  Spontaneous behavior is hard to fake. Differentiation of self is hard to maintain unless one can perceive the environment accurately enough to define self to the system.  Then hold onto your hat, and breath slowly while you stand your ground, alone for a long enough time for the social system to reorganize.

 

A  Book on Triangles:

Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives edited by Peter Titleman

Chapter two The Regulatory Function of Triangles by Laurie Lassiter

 

Dr Bowen at Board

A Few Bowen Quotes on Triangles and Differentiation of Self

Theoretically, the experience with families adds increasing conviction to the belief that schizophrenia will eventually be explained as an emotional phenomenon if we conceive of an emotional process involving multiple generations. Schizophrenia is as fixed and rigid in the father-mother-patient triad as in the patient, but there is evidence to indicate that the process can be reversed in the family ego mass in which the parents grew up if members of the family of origin are available for therapy. Notes: I prefer to use the word “triad in one” because it designates one component of the family ego mass. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 145). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

 

This will be discussed under “detriangling the triangle.” From experience with this therapeutic system, there are two main avenues toward a higher level of “differentiation of self.” (1) The optimum is differentiation of a self from one’s spouse, as a cooperative effort, in the presence of a potential “triangle” (therapist) who can remain emotionally detached. To me, this is the “magic” of family psychotherapy. They must be sufficiently involved with each other to stand the stress of “differentiation” and sufficiently uncomfortable to motivate the effort. One, and then the other, moves forward in small steps until motivation stops. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 175). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

 

After several years of symptom-relieving methods, including working with various combinations of family members, I began what I have called “detriangling the triangle.” This is too complex for brief discussion but it involves helping one parent to establish an “I” position and to “differentiate a self” in the relationship with the child. If there is another “magic” in family psychotherapy, it is the family response when one parent can begin to “differentiate a self” from the amorphous “we-ness” of the intense undifferentiated family ego mass.

One bit of clearly defined “self” in this area of amorphousness can bring a period of amazing calm. The calm may quickly shift to other issues, but the family is different. The other parent and child fuse together into a more intense oneness that alternately attacks and pleads with the “differentiating parent” to rejoin the oneness. If the differentiating one can maintain a reasonable “I” for even a few days, there is an automatic decrease in the intensity of the attachment between the other two and a permanent decrease in the intensity of the triangle. The second step Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 180). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In broad terms, the concept is one of withdrawing psychic energy from the other and investing it in the poorly defined ego boundaries. It involves the idea of “getting off the back” of the other by reducing the “other directed” thinking, verbal, action energy which is designed to attack and change the other, and directing that energy to the changing of self. The changing of “self” involves finding a way to listen to the attacks of the other without responding, of finding a way to live with “what is” without trying to change it, of defining one’s own beliefs and convictions without attacking those of the other, and in observing the part that self plays in the situation. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 178). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition..

Two important variables in triangles. One deals with the level of “differentiation of self.” The other variable deals with the level of anxiety or emotional tension in the system. The higher the anxiety, the more intense the automatic triangling in the system. The lower the level of differentiation in the involved people, the more intense the triangling. The higher the level of differentiation, the more the people have control over the emotional process. In periods of low anxiety, the triangling may be so toned down it is not clinically present. In calm periods, the triangle consists of a two-person togetherness and an outsider. The togetherness is the preferred position. The triangle is rarely in a state of optimum emotional comfort for all three. The most uncomfortable one makes a move to improve his optimum level of emotional closeness-distance. This upsets the equilibrium of another who attempts to adjust his optimum level. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 307). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition

The over-all goal was to help family members become “system experts” who could know the family system so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of an outside expert, if and when the family system was again stressed. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 157). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850, Richard Dawkins used ‘red in tooth and claw’ in The Selfish Gene, to summarize the behavior of all living things which arises out of the survival of the fittest doctrine.

[2]  Trying not to Try: the Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland, p 77

[3]  Trying not to Try: the Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland, p 159