Managing Anxiety in the Nuclear Family by Changing Self


Once again the world around us is full of uncertainty and confusion. ( Riots in Greece as they search for who is responsible for what, and the stock market loosing a thousand points due to a glitch?) All of this reminds us of how confusion and uncertainty impacts the social system we live in.

In the midst of the whirl of confusion around us, focusing on being a steady person is even more important. One way to be steady is to practice being a mindful self in a social system, which is so very important.

It takes time and practice to see and contend with the forces around us. How do we learn to do this? Can it make a difference to know more about “what it means to differentiate a self in one’s family of origin”?

Differentiation of self (or DoS) is one of the most difficult concepts in the theory. The question is what happens in an interconnected system when one person, or one organism, separates from the group and then re-enters the system with different behavior or information?

Consider for a moment a metaphor about how change disturbs and informs. One can think about how information from a family systems coach disturbs and excites the family in a way that’s similar to how the information of an individual bee impacts a bee colony.

The coach, kind of like a flower, offers a bit of pollen and now the curious bee has information about the state of the external world.

When a bee returns to the nest with new information, the interactions with others are altered by the new information. For bees, their interactions simply provide new information about the location of the pollen and there is a shift in how the other bees behave. If you think about the information as distributing information then some bees react and will begin to change their behavior.

Both families and bee colonies change behavior based on the quality and kind of information available. However, unlike bees, humans have the ability to reflect and learn from mistakes.

Humans can act in willful ways. Most people prefer to believe they are not totally dominated by the relationship system. People in general, do not like change. But they are often are willing to alter their behavior when they experience pain.

When one person takes a different position in relationship to old behavioral patterns we see others in the family change. I see this as an alteration in the normal distribution of anxiety.

Humans can use new information to engage with willful intent, thereby altering participation in a habitual network of interactions. This new behavior creates a different focus for anxiety.

Taking action for self, not should-ing others or blaming them or begging others to change, will redistribute anxiety in a more meaning-filled way.

Differentiation is based on principles or deep recognition that the family interactions are leading to problems and need to be altered. Connecting differentiation to changes in the way families or social groups function offers clues as to how small groups function and asks us to consider what the long-term benefits of small changes may be.

Family relationships have been observed to mange anxiety by the use of four automatic mechanisms, which absorb anxiety: 1) marital conflict, 2) distance, 3) reciprocal relationships, physical or emotional problems in one spouse or both spouses and finally 4) projection of anxiety onto children.

People are not always aware of the consequences of interactions which involve worry or negative or even positive interactions. After all it is difficult or impossible to see the minute changes that occur in people’s physiology due to interactions.

Some people turn to stress research as one way to document the shifting of anxiety in a family. There is also description of behavior that helps us to understand the shifting of anxiety.

For example, a father gets a negative report at work, he comes home and tells his wife, she feels sick but he feels better. She tells her children please be kind to your Dad because he is under pressure. When one of the children acts out and refuses to do his homework, the child becomes the object of negative focus and now anxiety has been shifted from the breadwinner to the wife and then to the child. If the anxiety jumps from person to person this is a reasonable way to shift anxiety but the problem arises when it becomes a fixed pathway ending up focused on the most vulnerable one.

Most parents know that its best to use logical consequences for the child doing his work and not let self be the one who is doing all the work or feeling all the pain. This is easier to say than to do.

There is a kind of sense to shifting anxiety. It hard to not react to others and to act against one’s feeling state. The hard part for people to see is that fixed negative or overly positive relationship positions among their near and dear can activate underlying symptoms.

It is somewhat easier to understand that an “anxiety threshold” has been reached, inside an individual. We can see some people are stressed but the social system around the individual remains invisible. How to manage self in a social system is the big quandary.

One answer is to just try to see the social system flowing and directing anxiety. Once we have leered to be better observers of the flow around us, it becomes easier to accept the assumptions that increasing anxiety results in the appearance of symptoms.


It is also easier to see and understand that if one person in the system takes a different stance in the relationship systems the focus of the group will shift. If the social group continues to focus on one person as the problem, the system becomes more fixed, often over generations. Eventually one or more family members will no longer change.

You can think about differentiation of self as a positive mechanism available to people who want to redistribute the anxiety in the family. The person who is willing to separate out a self find his or her self at odds with the many automatic mechanisms to inhibit change, which have been inherited from the past.

The person who takes on the family anxiety may also take on more anxiety than they are prepared to deal with and can develop symptoms in the effort. Bowen himself noted that his effort could have taken a couple of years off of his life. Yet he saw the effort as worth the cost.

Every family is sensitive to what behavior is important and what should be avoided. For example, in my family education and excellence in sports are positive values, while alcohol abuse, emotional and physical symptoms and distance, leading to cut off, are common “worries.”

How these values or “worries” are played out in the intensity of focus on others will redistribute anxiety. Those who see the pathways, that anxiety automatically takes, have more choices available to them than those who cannot see the social jungle coming alive.

Clearly, a greater ability to observe in a non-judgmental way the automatic focus of anxious intensity gives people more flexibility in deciding how to react rather than just reacting.

Greater neutrality can result in one person being free enough to joke about up-tight issues or make contact with distant relatives in the family as pressure in the nuclear family increases . Either of these kinds of strategies can redistribute anxiety.

I am always learning from people about ways they have found to manage anxiety and I tell others about successes and obstacles people have. The most common way that families can get stuck is told by mothers whose children who are acting out.

Often mothers are worried about their children and angry at their spouse, the children’s’ fathers. We can see the stressful pathways and the fixed nature of the reaction to pressure from others in the flowing description.

The anxiety has created pathways that have become frustratingly habitual. Often the mothers are unable to think for themselves, or are expressing fear of their spouse, or they are just unable to feel comfortable taking their spouses on with a different view of the situation or the child.

Since the mothers are uncomfortable, most of the effort goes into getting someone else to change.

Trying to get the fathers to agree and do the “right thing” often increases anxiety.

Usually fathers do not see the mothers’ pressure as positive, nor do they see the mothers’ ideas as the right way to do things and resist, just as the child does, changing in the direction that has been prescribed.

The mothers are reacting to the stuck relationship system. They get exasperated with the perceived “meanness” or “distance” of their spouses. It is difficult to see for them to see their own part in giving in or ordering the other to act “right.”

In some cases theses mothers have given up trying to convince the fathers to see it their way and they just feel depressed. The mothers’ (and fathers’) strategy has been to try to convince the other or the child to “do it right”, but of course trying to “make people do it your way” usually has a sad ending.

In coaching, my job is to try to help people see, without blaming anyone, how anxiety is unevenly distributed and the pathways it is taking in the form of symptoms and behaviors. I ask people to take back more anxiety onto him or herself and use it to develop an emotional backbone.

It’s like thinking about and using their own anxiety to motivate them to risk changing. Changing self is harder than taking a calcium pill to strengthen bones or Vitamin D for the immune system. In fact changing self is so difficult that people can feel all alone in the effort to more towards more thoughtful behaviors. If people feel like crying, that’s OK. It is a big job to change and it costs people to give up ancient, possibly instinctual habits of telling others what to do.

The difficulty for the coach is to be able to be in the presence of the client’s anxiety and not take it on or tell them what to do but to listen and to explain the dynamics and offer ideas. I try to loosen clients up with crazy or paradoxical ideas and relate in a way to give the person some energy to take on the system they are a part of, with out blaming.

It takes time to see and believe that one person can alter the way people are relating only by changing self. With practice a few individuals are able to see that being less reactive to the pathways anxiety takes can enable the family as unit to change in significant ways.

I compare the effort of being a family system coach to coaching a baseball pitcher. The coach gets in the bullpen and throws out some fast balls (startling ideas). Hopefully these fast balls/ideas will challenge people to see the opportunities in the system. Motivated people can alter their response to others and thereby redistribute anxiety.

There are many other ways to lower anxiety in one person and to promote thinking for self. I usually offer people neurofeedback training in addition to thinking systems. Other people use methodologies like biofeedback, exercise or meditation to decrease the anxiety in self before engaging in different kinds of interactions.

If all of this makes sense to you, you might be interested in the next blog which will address how shifting anxiety in a family unit may be a mechanism that is important in evolution.

Many thanks to Judy Ball for her help in editing.
Andrea