The Erosion of the Self and the Beginners Mind

forest path lightThe Erosion of the Self and the Beginners Mind

This blog begins with the theoretical and moves to the particular with an example of one person’s effort to understand options and alter her participation in a stuck marriage.

Bowen family systems theory, a theory of human behavior, views the family as a reasonably knowable, somewhat predictable emotional unit. The family is an emotionally connected system that is not easily changeable. Individuals who understand the broad system are more able to alter the direction of his or her participation in the system, with thoughtful effort.

Many people long for change, mostly in others (not themselves), and chafe at the effort one needs to understand complexity and mange self.

The multigenerational forces, that affect all families seems to have left most families with ancient problems resistant to easy solutions.  Yet people seem more and more eager to try easy sounding solutions for complex problems, or to write off the difficult people in their lives.

Although difficult to change, given the power of these ancient emotional processes, there is evidence to suggest that by understanding the forces around us a bit more, people can decrease their natural desire to fix others and change themselves (self).  In so doing, people can decrease the suffering they experience in important relationships.

Interpersonal problems are as old as humans’ lives on earth.  Bowen believed that the emotional systems that govern human relationships evolved over millions of years.  Animals may not tell stories and complain about others, but they have most all of the symptoms that we humans do, even suicide.[1]

If we can see that we humans are linked to all living species and that our very human emotional symptoms evolved alongside emotional symptoms in other species, we might be able to learn to be more objective about ourselves.  We may be able to pause or just slow down our rush to judgment about the WHY they did this or that and discover WHAT exactly it is that concerns us about other people and their behavior. A beginner’s mind is concerned with understanding deeply first.


Many days I am confronted by people who are sad, hurt, mad and angry that others cannot or will not change and become more grown up, functional or mature or what ever it is the other wishes that person to be in order to make one’s life better.  Often they have good arguments. You know them all: the focused on person indulges in all kinds of problematic behavior, drinks, etc.

It always sounds rational, but the give away is the focus on making others change.  Is this evidence of the erosion of one’s own self?  After all what is the nature of this push for change?  Is it based in habit?  Is it due to the fact that our eyes face to the outside world therefore it is almost impossible to be mindful of what we are doing and saying?

Perhaps this focus on others is a necessary force that will in the end only keep the emotional nature of our relationships in equilibrium.  There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the effort to change others simply keeps the status quo intact and that it erodes our own selves to focus on making others change.

Take a family history and you will see that in almost any three-generational history, the levels of maturity among family members become progressively lower in certain lines or branches of the family.  In the branches of the family where one person is able to pull up, despite objections from others in the system, there is often some kind of anger that lingers in the larger family system.  You can hear that the person who focused on self and made an effort to alter the part he or she played in the interactions is called a jerk, weird, selfish, etc.

This same type of criticism is also aimed at the ones who are stuck and who are unable to alter their functioning.   Criticism is everywhere.  It is not a leading indicator that one is doing well or that one is stuck.

How does this focus on others come to be?   It arises out of our need to get along with others in marriages, with parents, and as participants in any group.

First let’s imagine that two people have left their families of origin and are mature enough to mate.  In the swirl of chemical happiness created by physical attraction, the woman agrees with most things the man suggests. He sees her as extraordinary and wishes to marry her.  She thinks she knows how to make him happy and accepts. In the bliss of romance both have become delusional about who the other is or how to manage self when there are disagreements. They can not see that the way they promised the other to be, will become more difficult over time.  Often both partners have agreed to  make the other happy.

At the extreme people get addicted to people who they believe can make them happy and they are willing to do a great many harmful things things to themselves and or others to maintain their happiness. Without this force soap operas would have no material to entertain us.

cactus close

This delusion, that the other makes me happy and always will, may be harmless at times. times. However often life intervenes.  There are the pressures of children or financial or other woes.  Life in its various forms makes it clear that any two people will have to cooperate and do far more difficult things than they originally imagined.  The perfectly balanced see saw that the relationship originaly created often begins to tilt.  Sometimes things can stay in balance until the children arrive.  The basic issue is that over time one has to invest more in other relationships than in the marriage itself.  In this continuing adjustment process one of the two people can easily become more “functional” or  more dominant, if you will.

No one really cares who is dominant as long as the relationship is calm and cooperative and no one pays too high a price for going along with the wishes of the other. Bowen used to say about 50% of marriages were female dominated, and 50% male dominated.  But under enough stress all bets are off and a dominance dance takes place. One person becomes the under functioning one and the other the over functioning one. The see saw has tilted and one person often becomes impinged and may become symptomatic.

This kind of one-up and one-down relationship process can also be easily seen in animals. The one-up and one-down interaction occurs when animals meet for the first time. One comes away doing better that the other.  This influences the animal’s next relationship and results in the formation of hierarchies.

All social groups establish hierarchies. This enables groups to function with less anxiety and/or continual fighting over positions in the group.  In research on rats, stress reduction has been identified as the major reason that the memory of the previous interactions establishes and maintains the dominance structure in the interactions.[2]

People can argue about the nature of hierarchies, but let’s assume that if you put two horses together to pull a cart, one of the horses will step out first.  No arguing needed. Unlike birds in a flock who often change positions, the rotation of leadership in a marriage is hard to maintain.

The reasons for this are theoretical. People speculate on the basic nature of the attachment process. Bowen referred to the fusion force in a marriage as the process in which the two people begin to operate as one.  The pressure to go along with the other can be tremendous and the anger or sickness that occurs if one does not capitulate can be enormous. It is as if when the other becomes more separate this challenges the status quo in a way that FEELS as if the world itself might disintegrate.

There seems to be an emotional see saw in which one person becomes dominant and strives to retain that dominance despite the casualities which occur: marital problems, conflict, distance, emotional or health symptoms in either partner, or various symptoms in the children.  Of course you can hear many other reasons for dominance behavior in a marriage. I hear people cite various cultural themes for dominance in a marriage such as “the man wears the pants” which reinforce the correctness of a dominance structure in a martial twosome.  The important part to see is that the basic need for dominance rises out of our animal nature; it is not a cultural edifice.

The dominance structure also unfolds as the mother-child relationship unfolds.  The mother early on is responsible for the care and nurturance of the infant. She may turn this job over to others for brief times but she is the responsible one.  How will this responsibility play out over the life of the child?  A few of the markers to understand functioning are: the over and under involvement with the child, the level of intensity in interactions, the emotional maturity that both parents have in managing self, and the quality of each of their relationships with the extended family.

Parents also invest differently in each child. We can see how families inadvertently create skewed outcomes in dominance patterns by looking at how well siblings do from research available in the book The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why by Dalton Conley.[3]

If the marriage is one where there is a working partnership between parents, the child’s chances of growing up with emotional maturity are greatly increased.  If the parents cannot work together with deep respect for differences then the anxiety in the marriage will drift down and settle on children in various ways.  A working partnership between parents has been well researched by John Gottman. So far Gottman does not connect the nuclear family intensity with the impact of cut off from the extended family.

The best outcome for families is the work on self that involves having to define a self to one’s spouse, children and even friends as they try to retain or enforce the status quo. “Growth is an erratic forward movement: two steps forward, one step back. Remember that and be very gentle with yourself.” Julia Cameron

path and sky in the forest

The following is taken from a note I wrote to a woman who is seeking to manage herself following the news that her husband will seek a divorce.  The woman comes from a family where the multigenerational emotional forces pressured her to become the mother’s helper. Some might say she was “programmed” to remain single to help the family.  She altered her part in this very old family projection process, married and created a larger more complex family relationship system.

Just as for most of us, she still works on being a thoughtful, non-anxious person to manage the reactivity in the system at times when the pressures mount.  There is no easy path for any of us in the long term effort to separate out from emotional process by understanding relationships pressures as impersonal and to take thoughtful actions representing our best self.  She gave her permission to have this note included on the web site.

As you noted, you saw a future for you carved out clearly by your family.  Your acceptable pathway was to forego marriage. By looking at the forces in your family history you were able to say NO, I would rather take a chance on marriage than remain single. That was a big turn, and now many years later this possible divorce is another point, another moment, where you will decide how to deal with the events and the forces in your family.

Overall if I hear you clearly describe your situation, it seems your marriage led to your husband becoming more of an under-functioner who “used”  you as an antidepressant.  He was calmer as long as you were able to take his temper tantrums. He treated you disrespectfully, which you allowed, and this then promoted a habit of immature dominance oriented interactions with him.

Another way of saying it is that you coddled him and got your self pinned in a one up position as the witch. The marital see saw was tilting as both of you were compensating to manage the relationship, while you were raising your children.

Now the question becomes how to deal with him in a different way than you were able to deal with him during the time you were married.  This is a difficult task, but might be an opportunity for real growth, if you can separate out a self from him and not react to his taunts.

If I were you, which I am not, I would only write to him about paradoxical fun stuff.   Your relationship has become too serious.  He can defeat you at every turn with a loud voice and seriousness about what you did wrong. Therefore it’s time for some Zen-like approaches to the interactions you have with him.

Zen approaches use non-linear paradoxical statements to force the other to think.  There is nothing to argue about, nothing to win.

Since he has focused on your not noticing his taking off his wedding band, I would use that focus of his to provoke him to think differently.

He has already judged you disloyal and acted as thought he hates you when in fact he is probably overly attached and extremely sensitive to you not reacting to him, as you might have done in the past.

1) I would tell him you are looking for a wedding ring for him that intertwines at least 6 bands into one.  This 6-band wedding ring would represent a possible 6 marriages that he could have with various woman but still all the marriages would all be only one marriage.  After all, one woman is as good as another.

As long as he marries a woman this wedding band will always work in a way that guarantees he never has to take the ring off.  He will be constantly reminded that plenty of woman love him. It will give him total freedom to get married as many times as he wants to.

2) Then I would say I am not going to give you a divorce.  It is the least I can do to prove I love you.

3) Further I would tell him, I might like to divorce you for being disrespectful to me but not because you do not love me.  I know you love me.  I see how you treat me like a too-powerful woman that should be less powerful.

4) Maybe I should divorce you for being disrespectful to your children.   But because I love you and have great confidence that they too will see this time period as a needed adjustment for all of us.  I know that as our oldest leaves for college, the possibility of divorce may be that the only way a child can leave home. After all if Dad leaves home it cannot be that hard to do.

I would only do one of these Zen moves at a time and see what happens.  If he gets mad, that’s OK.  It means he heard something.  His mind is twisted by the past and untwisting takes time and courage. Let’s see what he and you make of this junk.


Now I confess, I do reversals and stupid stuff untill people stop complaining and being confused. If they say one straight thing I am straight. If they are talking out of both sides of their mouthes, I take note and question then, and then if there is no chance for rational thought I too engage in the emotional junk.

I am better at thinking of these crazy things than most people.

It is a far superior way to engage in interaction compared to antidepressant treatment for chemical imbalances.  It is all about having a backbone and not trying to change others, but focusing on not participating in the stream of dysfunctions but creating loose associations to deeper themes.

I am always amazed that people, whose job it is to relate well to psychotic people, are not at all interested in the communication patterns of psychotic people when there is so much we can learn from them.

The whole area of indirect and symbolic communication is up for grabs.  I know that understanding and relating well to those who have some form of emotional illness is a big jump for people.  It easy to say they have a chemical imbalance and let the physicians treat them with drugs and wash our hands of the mess. It is hard to look at our part in relationships when we easily see the other is the problem.

It is natural to want to blame the sick one, the one who is not doing it right, and to talk high and mighty about the importance of being genuine and not manipulative.  This is how people talk to me if they know I am coaching people on reversals and Zen like interactions.  I have seen that being genuine in a twisted system ends up with people just going along with the craziness.

Think of the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. People went along with the dominant belief rather than seeing for themselves.  They were afraid to speak up.[1] How individuals in a social group are pressured to go along with false perceptions are documented by Solomon Asch’s experiment where people give into the influence of the group.[2] People go along to get along no matter if the system is “crazy.”  People in groups are asked to play roles and it becomes hard to deviate from others in the social situation to see or say the facts.

We are connected to one another at a deep emotional level. The level of blindness about the influence of the social situation on human functioning is enormous. It is even difficult for people to understand simple feelings, for example how anger connects us as strongly as love.  E.O. Wilson notes that love and hate may be on the same gene.  Overall being driven to act on feelings leaves people with little understanding of the forces that are influencing behavior.

Bowen also called the force where two people function as one, fusion. The anti-fusion force gives us the ability to separate out a self (differentiation). This force to be a self in your own right requires each of us to stand alone.  It works if people have strong principles, important enough to take on the negative reactions from those who love us, but who at a moment of anger want us to behave in the “right” (or their) way.

Imagine a family where people are tied to one another by rubber bands.  If you go too far in thought, words or actions: snap, something happens. The relationship force pulls you back so that you will be in the correct emotional orbit for the system.

Diversity sounds good but it turns out to be very difficult to achieve in social systems.  It takes a beginners mind to expand thinking and make room for differences by inserting self into a tight system.

The beginner’s mind makes it is possible for the individual to look to the self for happiness, while taking responsibility for the roles that are inherited in any family.

The beginner is willing to think of the many ways of participate more thoughtfully in any multigenerational emotional system.

The beginner lives in the moment, managing self, aware of possibilities.


Many thanks to Judy Ball for her editing patience and great questions.


[1] In this review, evidence on suicidal behavior among animals is analyzed to discover analogies with human suicidal behavior. Literature was retrieved by exploring Medline/PubMed and PsychINFO databases (1967-2007) and through manual literature searches. Keyword terms were “suicide or suicidal behavior” and “animal or animal behavior.” Few empirical investigations have been carried out on this topic. Nevertheless, sparse evidence supports some resemblance between the self-endangering behavior observed in the animal kingdom, particularly in animals held in captivity or put under pressure by environmental challenges, and suicidal behavior among humans. Animal models have contributed to the study of both normal and pathological human behaviors: discovering some correlates of suicide among animals could be a valid contribution to the field.

PMID: 18232440 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]


Stress Amplifies Memory for Social Hierarchy,María Isabel Cordero1 and Carmen Sandi1*

1Laboratory of Behavioural Genetics, Brain Mind Institute, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland

Review Editors: Benno Roozendaal, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, University of California, USA; Alessandro Bartolomucci, Dipartimento di Biologia Evolutiva e Funzionale, University of Parma, Italy

*Correspondence: Carmen Sandi, Laboratory of Behavioural Genetics, Brain Mind Institute, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), CH-1015, Switzerland.

Received August 15, 2007; Accepted September 1, 2007.

Individuals differ in their social status and societies in the extent of social status differences among their members. There is great interest in understanding the key factors that contribute to the establishment of social dominance structures. Given that stress can affect behavior and cognition, we hypothesized that, given equal opportunities to become either dominant or submissive, stress experienced by one of the individuals during their first encounter would determine the long-term establishment of a social hierarchy by acting as a two-stage rocket: (1) by influencing the rank achieved after a social encounter and (2) by facilitating and/or promoting a long-term memory for the specific hierarchy. Using a novel model for the assessment of long-term dominance hierarchies in rats, we present here the first evidence supporting such hypothesis. In control conditions, the social rank established through a first interaction and food competition test between two male rats is not maintained when animals are confronted 1 week later. However, if one of the rats is stressed just before their first encounter, the dominance hierarchy developed on day 1 is still clearly observed 1 week later, with the stressed animal becoming submissive (i.e., looser in competition tests) in both social interactions. Our findings also allow us to propose that stress potentiates a hierarchy-linked recognition memory between “specific” individuals through mechanisms that involve de novo protein synthesis. These results implicate stress among the key mechanisms contributing to create social imbalance and highlight memory mechanisms as key mediators of stress-induced long-term establishment of social rank.

[3] Conley made an effort not to simplify the very complex familial data collected by both the United States Census, a long-term study conducted by the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey. What he found was that the differences between siblings outweigh almost every other kind of difference between any two individuals in the United States. Every family has a pecking order independent of birth order, and the differences between siblings are magnified by poverty and disenfranchisement. In these situations, families invest in the sibling most likely to succeed, leading to stark divides, even class differences between family members. Oddly, the choice of successful sibling is made independent of birth order, parental attention, or innate talents, and becomes a tacit agreement among family members.

[1] “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (Kejserens nye Klæder) is a fairy tale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen about an emperor who unwittingly hires two swindlers to create a new suit of clothes for him. The tale was first published in 1837 as part of Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales, Told for Children).


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