Happy Easter: What can you see?

This blog is about being able to see how the family functions.

When you read about families in the literature or in the newspaper how can you “see” what is really there?

For example can you see the rabbit hiding out in this photo? Keep looking for the rabbit as he moves about his world. Is he trying to convince you not to see?

Perhaps if you see him you too will have a Happy Easter! I hope so.

Clearly animals are able to “see” other animals, some of perceptions has to do with an animals ability to observe and to know what to look for.
We humans have this same task to accomplish as this cool calm bird.

Once in awhile I read a story in the news shouting out for a Bowen Theory interpretation. Juanita Giggin’s story highlights how an understanding of theory might help guide some people from reflexive to more thoughtful behavior.

As the first African American elected to the legislature in South Carolina, Giggins was special. Yet, she died alone, her body not discovered for a week. Her story shocks and touches a deep nerve. How this can happen? After all, Giggins had a deep devotion to her community and nation.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — “When Juanita Goggins became the first black woman elected to the South Carolina Legislature in 1974, she was hailed as a trailblazer and twice visited the president at the White House. Three decades later, she froze to death at age 75, a solitary figure living in a rented house four miles from the gleaming Statehouse dome. She spent her final years turning down help from neighbors who knew little of her history-making past. Her body was not discovered for more than a week. Those neighbors, as well as former colleagues and relatives, are now left wondering whether they could have done more to help.”


We as a community suffer when the lives of people who have given so much apparently fall apart. Giggin’s life story challenges thoughtful people to understand the automatic nature of emotional mechanisms and the implications for our society.

Many people die alone, not just Juanita Giggins. But people seem to be blind to the possible outcomes of drifting away from family and community.

Friends and families either don’t see the threat to well-being that a lack of sustaining relationships confers, or they simply don’t know how to intervene when someone pushes them away.

Perhaps by highlighting how Bowen Theory makes sense of stories such as these, people will be slightly more aware of the emotional process that goes hand in hand with long-term health problems.

Bowen noted that, “There are emotional mechanisms as automatic as a reflex and that occur as predictably as the force that causes the sunflower to keep its face toward the sun. I believe that the laws that govern man’s emotional functioning are as orderly as those that govern other natural systems and that the difficulty in understanding the system is governed more by man’s reasoning that denies its existence than by the complexity of the system.”

Emotional Mechanisms: Emotional cut off and the family projection process are two of the markers setting people up for symptoms such as the ones that apparently afflicted Ms. Giggins.

The family projection process occurs as people blindly project their immaturity onto others. People often have unrealistic expectations of their spouses, their children or their parents. They easily fall into the “other focus”, over or under estimating the other and then blaming those they’re focusing on for not being the way they wish, expect and even demand. It is so easy to do.

In the story of Giggins we can see how perhaps her sister over estimated her ability to do it all, and then found it difficult to deal with her. This is what happens when we put someone on a pedestal
“She was not bashful or anything. She liked to talk. I used to say she could sell an Eskimo ice,” recalled Ilese Dixon, 88, of Pendleton, Goggins’ last surviving sibling. “She was just lively and smart. She thought she could fix the world.”


We can also see a version of this when the public puts pressure on people to be the way we think they should be, as well as when famous or not so famous people hide who they really are. Pressure is applied to make others the way we need them to be in order for us to feel safe.

Do you know a family where the one who has unusual talent is often put on a shaky pedestal? Can you see people do this with politicians, business leaders, athletes or other leaders?

People react and are really mad when a “hero” steps off of the pedestal. Both families and social groups tend to blame them. Think about Tiger Woods. How many look at his position and vulnerability in his family to understand the strewn wreckage of his life and career?

Those who hide who they are or become the object of negative focus often become symptomatic. This interpersonal mechanism then begins to cost both the individual, the family and society.

It is hard to see the reactivity to others’ behavior as a function of an automatic mechanism. It is hard to see it as natural a mechanism as the one guiding the sunflower to follow the sun.

Some humans are just as sensitive as the sunflower, but unlike the sunflower which follows the sun, humans can turn away from the intense focus of their family or from society’s needs.

Bowen understood how difficult it is to see these mechanisms and in his book, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice”, he goes so far as to say: “One never becomes completely objective and no one ever gets to the point of not reacting emotionally to family situations.”

Juanita Giggins was a public personality, able to pick her life up and move ahead, before falling back down the social ladder into isolation. As the youngest of 13 children and the only one to go to college, she had a special status in her family. I wonder if her “special status” in her family, perhaps just the fact that she was the only one to go to college, helped or hurt her. The newspapers that covered her story reported a few quotes from family members but didn’t deeply penetrate the story they helped spin.

Her son’s words stand out, reminding us of the urge to bury the difficult misunderstandings after someone important to us has died. In this case, the son tells us he has lived with this unsolved mystery of how to understand his mom.

“That’s something I’ve been trying to get my head around for the last 15 years,” said Horace Goggins Jr., 42, of Powder Springs, Ga. The newspaper article went on to say that he had last seen his mother about six months ago and she wouldn’t accept any help from him then. And at her funeral, he focused on his mother’s accomplishments and the good times with her.

“I would like for her to be remembered as a woman who cared about her community,” he said. “I want her to be remembered as a positive role model, not only for African-American girls, but also any young girl who has a want and a desire to make a change and do something positive.”

Horace Goggins attributes his mother’s isolation to her “illness” which was never fully diagnosed. The neighbors, as well as former colleagues and relatives, are now left wondering whether they could have done more to help this woman who was capable at one time of helping many others.

“Goggins, whose achievements included key legislation on school funding, kindergarten and class size, had become increasingly reclusive. She spent her final years turning down help from neighbors who knew little of her history-making past. Her body was not discovered for more than a week.


Whatever Juanita Giggin’s symptoms were, she was able to run off people who now have to look at, explain and come to peace with or ignore their part in her lonely demise.

There are plenty of people all around us who live in his same kind of isolated world. Emotional cut off has been going on a long, long time and exists all around us.

Cut off is an emotional mechanism as automatic as a reflex. Its harmless when the sunflower turns without thinking but humans pay a price in their psyche (and physiology) when they, acting “automatically”, turn away from family and neighbors. And it is not easy to turn these kinds of family situations around.

People have choices. They can continue with the emotional process as it is or try to back up and understand the family system over the generations. It is not easy to stop and think and learn about generations of one’s family process. And it’s certainly not easy to stay in contact with a symptomatic or cutoff person in one’s family.

It is a challenge to act beyond our own, or the other person’s reactivity and develop a way to make contact with these folks when they raise all kinds of uncomfortable feelings in us. When it seems too hard to make contact, it becomes easy to return to what comes naturally, letting the automatic family process rule.

Many people are blind and either forget about or can’t get their heads around the big challenge of altering the family’s sensitivity. It is always going to be easier to spin a story about how the “problem person” is at fault than to try to find a way to forge a better relationship with that person. And it is difficult to know how to make emotional contact with someone who rejects you or has rejected people you care about. It requires discipline on your part to have contact with cut off people to work out reasonably well.

Often people have an inclination to be responsible but do not know what to do with the cut off person when they become symptomatic. Many people become overwhelmed and give up, and turn these kinds of people over to mental health professionals and/or mental hospitals.

Families do not have much of a chance to do something about the vicious nature of emotional cutoff because they have no knowledge to build on. They kind of know it’s wrong to abandon family members, but the people get to be such a pain that family members feel the symptomatic one deserves his/her fate.

Nothing is harder than to see how we are over influenced by the automatic nature of our relationships with other people, or how we are innocently pressuring people to do it our way.

These kinds of behaviors, getting too involved and or too distant, are like automatic reflexes. They are just a natural process, a way we react without thought. There is no one to blame but all of us can take some kind of responsibility to see the automatic in ourselves and to go beyond the reflex to get into better relationships with one another.

To move towards a better, more thoughtful relationship, we will have to be able to calm the reactivity we experience when our near and dear are not “doing it” our way. It can be said that
too few want to take on this kind of family process problem.

I would say too few see the process.

All of these kinds of problems come our way throughout life. When one or two people are able to deeply see how the family emotional process is directing his of her life, there is the possibility of freedom for each.

Many Thanks to Judy Ball for her editing expertise.


  1. I found your blog via the Western Pennsylvania Family Center. I’m taking their BFST on line self-study course.

    In Toronto, it is next to impossible to find a BFST oriented therapist. Additionally, our local psychology/psychiatry book store does not carry any of Dr. Bowen or Kerr’s books. Sad.

    As an evangelist for Dr. David Schnarch’s work, I recommend his books to clients and colleagues. Sex sells – so perhaps Bowen’s ideas will live on in bedrooms.

    In closing, I’ve bookmarked your site as a “daily favorite”. When appropriate, I will recommend your work to colleagues. Finally, I produce a podcast entitled: Teens & Tweens for the Center for Addiction and Mental Health – http://knowledgex.camh.net/podcasts/tnt/Pages/default.aspx

    Episode 5 will feature my consultant/supervisor Dr. David Freeman (who trained with Bowen).

    Keep up the great work!

  2. Andrea-
    This was clear as a bell, once I got the idea of the rabbit. The game helped me understand. I guess I just have to keep moving.
    Thanks again for sharing this. I hope that you had a Happy Easter!
    Donna caron

    • Donna ,

      So good to hear from you and you are so welcome!

      I am fascinated by how hard it us for all of us to see triangles, projection and other emotional systems dances.

      Lately I have been refering to the way the emotional system regulates or slightly infuences us, as living in the MATRIX!!

      Like the rabbit you see it and then it’s fuzzy… We get polorized or fall in love and the emotional system goes about it’s thing, shifting anxiety around the system!

      Thanks for taking the time to post your thought!!


      Sent from my iPhone

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