Follow the Leader and/or Think for Self….

This issue dogs all regimes that have neither the rule of law nor public accountability: The authorities routinely fail to respect the dignity of ordinary citizens and run roughshod over their rights. There is no culture in which this sort of behavior is not strongly resented.

Wall Street Journal, 3/12/11 Is China Next? Francis Fukuyama

Coach Byrnes told me I was worthwhile and good and that we could win. He talked to me as if I were someone worth telling a story about, subtly enjoining me to become active in that story. My father was mostly gone by then, and now here was a man who respected me by demanding that I respect myself, and a game. I never knew if he liked me. That wasn’t so important. He saw potential in me, and I began to respect myself. That is what a good coach does. He fills you with a belief that may or may not be justified. As you make the dangerous crossing from unproven belief to actual accomplishment, from potential to reality, a good coach holds your hand so expertly that you don’t even know your hand is being held.

Wall Street Journal, 3/12/11: What a Good Coach Does By David Duchovny

Even dogs like to have a good leader. Yes, the leader spends a lot of time behind the dog, giving the dog room to roam. Meanwhile the butterfly of uncertainty looks on.

Relationships are at the center of our existence. We take clues from one another and at the extremes we can either be held hostage or inspired by one other.

We influence each other in families and in society, giving birth to patterns in relationships systems whose influence reaches beyond one or two generations.

Much of the time we can afford to be blind to the ongoing influences in these social emotional systems. Our automatic programming seems to suffice, especially when life is good and comfort dominates. There is little need for awareness or the risk inherent in change. When life is difficult, confusion and uncertainty forces us to understand difficult or even profound problems in order to adapt well to these challenges.

This week the human family watched in sorrow and fear, the unsettling news that appeared out of the blue. An earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, destroying many lives. The usual methods of communication and even of distributing food and water were disrupted. Great danger still lurks, especially in the damage to nuclear power plants. Now people have to take care of one another while the government tries to solve serious problems.

Like many people this became personal. I have a dear friend who lives in Tokyo, Ryuko Ishikawa, who is part of my extended family. When I finally heard from her I was relieved. Like many who feel connected to and act to decrease the suffering of others, we respond without thought. Automatically we reach out to those whose suffering we sense. We respond instantly to clear issues in relationship systems, such as the danger and suffering in the case of the Japanese earthquake.

The reality in Japan is far different from being asked to leave an organization, or finding out your spouse wants a divorce. These kinds of events can be felt as interpersonal earthquakes. Interpersonal emotional problems activate feelings of confusion as to what has been going on. What you missed seeing becomes as important as what you did see. No one really seems to know that is going on in Japan. Sometimes we can get too serious about not knowing, especially if only time will tell us the answer. How to be light and find humor in situations is a key to coping in these kinds of situations.

Signals from people are confusing and sometimes signs are confusing. Its good not to panic and to find away to keep your sense of humor.

Relationships problems often bug us the most. Now, if you were a cat and the other cat left you, or two cats snarled at you, you might say ho ho. Most cats figure “I do not have to worry about my next meal or my standing in the group. I am a cat, I will just curl up in a comfy bowl and gather energy for the next hunt.”

Since we are not cats, we may still struggle to see and accept that for better or worse the group is always influencing, and at times, directing our behavior. Even when we leave home, move into other relationships and get jobs, we find ways to fit into other emotional systems. Here too, seen or unseen others influence our behavior.

Most of us know that joining with others has both advantages and costs. One struggles to decide how much for me and how much for you? The very real problem is that we are always juggling how we fit into relationships systems. When problems arise, which they are bound to do, it becomes a profound challenge to hold self or other people responsible and accountable. Evidence for this is that at least half of marriages still end in divorce. The turnover rate in jobs is increasing. These are just two examples of how relationships are under stress and how distancing and cut off are ways of managing stress. In addition we see one country after another in the Middle East throwing over leaders. All of this happens, in part, due to the ways that even nations are dependent on ta majority to follow along. When a large enough number of people become dissatisfied problems are not far down the road. Leaders and followers like husbands and wives are all dependent on one another. The autocratic ruler may rule as he sees fit but no one has to follow .

It is far easier to see this interdependency in other species. Even lions look peaceful, resting as a happy couple before the hunt begins.

Life in an emotional system does not go always go smoothly. After all lions do roar and we will react.

The adherence to any social order demands a certain mangling or even at the extremes the destruction of the human spirit. And each individual has to calculate the cost and benefits to being a part of any such system.

Perhaps that’s all there is to know. But in order to be more thoughtful about the human condition, we need to understand at the most fundamental levels, the nature of social systems, the nature of the beast.

How do we see the nature of emotional systems?

First, we need to learn how to watch all that we have taken for granted. We have to be observers of our impact on, and our reactions to, others. How do override our automatic responses enough to see just what “is”? Without the ability to see, observe and think, we follow, fight, run or collapse into symptoms like a well-trained animal.

Think of a woman with children whose husband strays into an emotional affair, promising to do better if she will give him another chance. The woman thinks that other woman is like crack cocaine and I am like a flat coke. What about the woman at work who is critical of you behind closed doors and makes you wonder if you should report her?

It is easy to see this as someone’s fault, blame them and get out. It is far harder to see how useful it might be as the aggrieved wife, to tell the husband that you dreamed of having an affair and he beat you to it. No threat just joking and making a point and letting the possibility exist that the other sees and does not feel attacked. Or to the woman who is critical of her boss, to pause and ask the boss who she has been talking to that has made her be a so nice?

The idea of these kinds of comments is to loosen self up and offer a reversals that tend to reveal the part the secret part that you or I play in these interactions. Of course no one is going to be perfect at it. Sometimes you may fail to clarify the process and come across more like a lion than a house cat. But at least you understood to focus on self.

Often we can feel the energy, directing you to go along, to pretend, when they walk into the room. But if you can just think a tiny bit differently in the presence of someone who has a leash around your neck, good for you.

Perhaps there are all kinds of ways that we might change but each of us is constrained as we live and love in our old comfortable habits. What makes us to take a look at how we are connected to each other and see possibility ahead if we are to challenge and change the status quo?

Chose what has been or risk. No matter life in an emotional system does not go always go smoothly. The adherence to any social order demands a certain mangling or even at the extremes the destruction of the human spirit. And each individual has to calculate the cost and benefits to being a part of any such system.

Perhaps that’s all there is to know. But in order to be more thoughtful about the human condition, we need to understand at the most fundamental levels, the nature of social systems, the nature of the beast. You see the animals all taking sides heading for the position so they can be close to their friends and far away from others.

How do we observe the nature of emotional systems when we are in one?

First, we it helps to learn how to watch all that we have taken for granted. We can be observers of our impact on, and our reactions to, others. How do we try to override our automatic responses enough to see just what “is”, if we are able to insert a difference?

Without the ability to see, observe, think and act differently, we end up with the status quo. It becomes easy to follow along, or fight, or run, or collapse into symptoms.

It takes a great deal of experience in learning how to be more neutral and to make comments which are a kind of reversals of the emotional process. Done well these comments reveal the part “I” play in the interactions, and allows us to do something about it.

Of course no one is going to be perfect at being so different. Sometimes any of us can fail to clarify the process and come across more like a lion than a house cat.

Once you learn the importance of seeing patterns and how individuals are just part of a system that shapes everyone in it, then its far easier to focus on self.

If you can feel the energy from others in the system, directing you to go along, to pretend, or go silent when they walk into the room, and you can think just a tiny bit differently in the presence of someone who has an emotional leash around your neck, then good for you.

Think of the cat sitting up in the bowl watching and considering if he should read the books on the table to just learn a bit more about communications skills and paradox.

But for the simple price of becoming more aware, we are able in most cases, to put the brake on our automatic responses, begin to think for self and not follow the “fight, run or symptoms” path. There is little that is harder and that requires more discipline since our brain is full of self-deceiving traps. But by becoming a good observer we take the first step before we consider how, when and if to be a bit edgy and define a self to others.

When things go wrong what are you going to do? One answer, defining a self, emerges from who we are at our deepest and most aware self. It is also a profound way to deal with the pressure people automatically and sometimes innocently put on us. Usually people have little idea they are dominating or controlling others. They simply follow some urge not thinking deeply about the impact they will have. Some see the other as not doing “it” the right way and move in on them, and in some ways end up putting their head on the other ones shoulders.

Not a pretty picture if someone’s head gets cut off in the process of advising and or telling others what to do. One-way out of this is to temper your advice with some version of: “ If I were you, this is what I would do, but of course I am not you.” Or – “These are my best suggestions but they may be worthless as you are different from me, so just throw a few of them into the trash and keep any you like. The goal is to allow the other to see what you think while you allow them to take responsibility for choosing to use ideas.

People act as though others should, must or will follow them. But when and if following makes no sense, then it’s up to the individual to break out of the habitual way of relating to the push and pull of the emotional system. One way out of the pressure to conform to the other is to take a guess at the emotional process and your part in it, and go ahead and define a self and deal with the system.

The pressure to fit with the group is called togetherness. Most of the time relationship pressure is tolerable, and often useful. It can lead to cooperation. We can let go of selfish needs and cooperate, creating a far more effective system. But there are, of course, drawbacks and one of them is that the pressure to be and do for others leads to a problem, which begs to be resolved. “How much do I orient my life for you, for my job, for my country? When do ‘they’ pressure me so much that I have to say ‘no more’?

Over time every family and every group produces a range of functioning. It comes to be that there are clear distinctions between those who fit into the group and the overall direction and those who do not fit as well. When stress and anxiety go up, pressure is put on the outliers and at times differences are not well tolerated. The group seeks cohesion which may require getting rid of those who do not fit, who are identified as outliers. This is the nature of the togetherness force. It is a movement towards sameness and conformity, which paradoxically, gives rise to the opposite force, the force for a few to be more self-determined individuals.

The forces in systems are impersonal and automatic. When anxiety rises, the emotional system is rigged to focus on or pick on some members of the group. Now it becomes personal. The picking on others can become extreme in some families, organizations and nations. Yet the process itself is available for observation. The pressure can activate individuals to understand the rigged nature of the emotional system and to take a stand for self.

A togetherness process can trigger both people becoming symptomatic and some even dying or one can motivate one to respond to the pressure by taking a serious or even funny stand for self. Only by defining self as more separate from the system while continuing to relate to others can transformation occur on many unexpected levels.

Relationships in and among nations also bear witness to a similar emotional processes. We have witnessed such a transformational event, apparently sparked by one person martyring himself, provoking a transformation in the Middle East.

No social scientist or intelligence analyst predicted the specific timing or spread of the Arab uprising—the fact that it would start in Tunisia, of all places, that it would be triggered by an event like the self-immolation of a vegetable seller, or that protests would force the mighty Egyptian army to abandon Hosni Mubarak. Over the past generation, Arab societies have appeared stolidly stable. Why they suddenly exploded in 2011 is something that can be understood only in retrospect, if at all.

Wall Street Journal, 3/12/11 Is China Next? Francis Fukuyama

Most of us will never be required to make such sacrifice when squeezed by the group. But everyone can use ideas about where to stand or what to do when things go wrong in our important relationships.

Communicating Self to Others

There are two broad ways that we can define a self. One is when we see something worth doing and are willing to step up to accomplish something that is significant. The other is to deal with problems that are thrust on us.

This process of defining a self in social groups has been misunderstood and misused by those who simply are out to control others and to manipulate situations. If people say in words or deeds, “I am defining myself to you, so you can know how to do things the “right way”, we can guess it is confusion which dominates.

The key in being able to define a self is to communicate in a way to promote some kind of emotional knowledge about the system itself while creating separate space where you can stand alone. In so doing, perhaps others may also be able to define a self.

Communicating ideas about emotional process can create defensive responses. People can feel threatened if you get too close to describing the emotional process, which is, after all, just your view. Others see life differently.

By being more transparent about the system itself one person can promote the opportunity for others to see and choose an action rather than just react to the difference in the way people are relating to you. I used to challenge medical students to go home and try a slightly different way of greeting their spouse. The spouses did not like this change that occurred for no apparent reason. The students reported their spouse would say please do not do that, please be like you use to be. They began to see how little change was required to provoke a “change back to the way you were” message.

A common example happens when a “boss” (think spouse, or other important official, etc.) has made a decision forcing you to change. Although it may not feel like it, you have a choice to follow the leader or step back from the leader and take a stand based on principle and refuse to go along with a decision. Taking a stand for self activates many forces of opposition and increases the pressure on the individual willing to risk the change.

If one person can sustain the change over a long period of time, others may be activated, simply by seeing the problem in a different light. When people take stands based on principle and not just following a new leader, this leads to more maturity in the group. In this case the system itself will change. We have seen this happen in the civil rights movement and we are waiting to see if it happens in the Middle East.

Those who automatically rebel are not thinking about principles. One can always say what he or she will and or will not do x,y, or z, but the system does not learn much from actions which can be interpreted as defiant. The emotional pressure is for the group to continue to disregard even interesting or provocative differences and then writes off. These people, who take a different stance, can be seen as an oddball or a disruptor or a just pain in the neck. The problem is in the splitting into good or right minded and bad or wrong minded people. When this happens people take no responsibility for any part of the problem.

Think of the woman whose husband has strayed. All her friends might tell her to get a divorce and are most upset that she would say anything so strange as “I had been thinking about an affair and you beat me to it.” It takes a while for the understanding of the emotional nature of the situation to penetrate beyond blaming someone. Blaming decreases awareness and maintains the orientation to retain focus negatively on others.

For those interested in the history of defining a self, one can read Bowen’s chapter, “Towards the Differentiation of Self in One’s Family of Origin”, in his book. It seems like a long time ago (1978) when Bowen described the reasonably predictable nature of the emotional system. The audience, mostly mental health people, did not find his ideas easy to fit into conventional mental health service models.

In fact Bowen became famous more for his ability to describe and take action based on knowledge of emotional systems than for his ability to sell quick fixes as a psychotherapist. Bowen even changed the name of his work with others calling himself a coach rather than a therapist.

Being a systems coach

A coach is on the sidelines and sees the system at play. A knowledgeable coach then listens and gives the players tactical advice about the way the system is organized and how he or she might mange self based on his or her experience. As a family coach, one’s experience is based on work in his or her own family. There is no cure offered through transference as in psychoanalysis. Coaches are still aware of the possibility of transference and its partner, counter transference. The goal in coaching is to understand how the system plays itself out and making a decision to use self to promote better performance for self and the team, the family, the organization or even the nation.

Bowen believed he could enable people to learn to coach others in working on self in emotional systems. Just as sports coaches help people improve their abilities to do well in all kinds of challenging games, relationship coaches are able to help people do the same in their lives by seeing the system more clearly. Of course effective coaching has to do with a relationship that allows or even promotes information to be exchanged and understood. A coach can be useful to people to the degree that the coach has been able to see the emotional process and operate in an emotional field in his or her own life and relate well to the client.

A Mindful Compass for Organizations

In 1972 Bowen gave a talk to his faculty, which later became a chapter called, “Towards the Differentiation of Self in Administrative Systems”.[1] In this chapter, Bowen made an effort to demonstrate how he used the principles of defining a self not just in his family but also in his work relationships.

Bowen’s thesis was that in order to function as adults, people deny the emotional intensity of the attachments to their parents and as if to prove the point, move towards emotional distance from their parents. At the same time, some people find that work relationships are more fulfilling than family relationships, and they put more effort and energy into these work relationships. This leads to more intense relationships in the workplace where it is not only difficult to see the intensity but far more difficult to resolve it. One of the reasons this is so difficult is that people lack the motivation to deal with their family and most especially their extended family to resolve emotional problems. Instead, the nature of the work relationship, which is a version of the “original” parental relationship, is virtually hidden in plain sight.

People do not talk about problems at work in a productive way unless they are willing to be objective and begin a one-person operation to alter the part one plays in problems. Working on self requires a clear distinction between accepting responsibility to be clear about the part one plays in problems and blaming self or others for the problems. Stopgap measures that tend to focus more on blaming “the other/s” as the problem are a typical response to the relationship challenges in organizations. Such stopgap measures include extruding the “outlier” and/or trying to change others and how the organization functions by using human resources to legally articulate complaints and seek changes in more formal ways.

Since we spend so much time at work, a great deal of effort has gone into developing ways to allow people to develop emotional space at work. We are still a long way from acknowledging that people bring to work their ability to attract and solve problems, which they’ve learned in their families. If this were clear to employees then job interviewers would be saying, “Please check right here to let us know that you have resolved all you sensitivities and complaints about your parents because if you have not you are likely to blame your employees or your boss.” Being able to be mentally healthy has more to do with our ability to manage emotions and find, dare I say it, happiness.

Starting next month, the (British) government will pose the following questions and ask people to respond on a scale of zero to 10: How happy did you feel yesterday? How anxious did you feel yesterday? How satisfied are you with your life nowadays? To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile? The important thing, he argues, it to shift “from the concept of financial prosperity to the idea of emotional prosperity.” Perhaps that’s the 21st-century indicator we need: gross emotional prosperity, or G.E.P. The Office for National Statistics, which will do the survey, has been conducting an online debate. Answers suggest Brits link happiness to bird song, knowing themselves, the environment, responsible pet ownership, contributing to society, going out into the wild and reading Socrates. [2]

This focus on the individual still misses the way that stress and anxiety can be shifted from one person to another in all hierarchical organizations. But it does focus on what an individual can do to work on some aspect of being a responsible and knowledgeable self. It appears to be far more difficult to see how relationships play out in alliance formation, how anxiety is shifted from one person to another and how both are a key to the overall health of individuals and organizations.

Developing a Mindful Compass: Short Term “Fixes” versus Long Term Change

Four principles Bowen used:[3]
1) focus on self,
2) see the part self plays in all problems,
3) provide latitude for others to develop his or her self and finally
4) have clear administrative principles such as a well drawn out contracts between parties to clarify expectations.

The process that Bowen saw in his work system was that as tension mounts, the urge to be critical of others rises. People blame one another and don’t stop and think, “Perhaps I should work on self”. The automatic ways that highly anxious emotional systems respond to increasing stress is to look for and blame someone or something as the problem. The problem does not reside in one person. But identifying one person as the problem is the way relationship systems function.

Below are three areas Bowen struggled with in his work organization:
1) Staying in contact with faculty, because he tended to get over involved with his own work and lose contact with others;
2) “I have failed to state my position, or to detriangle myself from some emotional issue between other faculty members”,[4] and
3) Being aware of personal issues in the lives of important people in the organization, such as a death, a threatening symptom or a divorce, because any of these could increase anxiety in one person that would be transmitted to the group.

Bowen noted that: In work situations, the person who works towards differentiation of self does not have to be the boss or the head of the total organization. His effort can be effective in the area in which he has administrative responsibility.[5]

Bowen made an effort to focus on individual responsibility within the group. He did not like to use the term “scapegoat” to describe the process between people in a group as it tended to avoid each person’s part in the process. If a person is “focused on” a in a negative and critical way by the boss and those who are aligned with that boss, the “focused on” person does not have to play into being in that functional slot.

Bowen’s initial insight was gained in seeing families first at Menninger and then at the National Institute of Health (NIH). We are still learning a great deal from understanding these early research projects. The main shift in thinking that Bowen brought to these observations was to change the focus from the weak symptomatic child to the relationship system that encouraged a loss of focus on the part that each person plays. Bowen was then able to see how this process in the family worked in his own administrative system both at Georgetown University and at NIH.

In this early work, Bowen identified evidence about how the emotional system functions. He observed that emotional systems use automatic mechanisms to transfer anxiety between and among individuals and that one person anywhere in the system can begin to stop these processes by refusing to go along with the focus on one person as the problem. It takes a great deal of backbone to refocus on the system, based on clarifying how the relationship system is functioning, and to take action without blaming self or others.

A new book considering the importance of the emotional system in the formation of nations and religious organizations is
The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama of Stamford University. Two of Fukuyama’s themes are the significance of the development of the people holding their leaders accountable and the effort to separate workers from families to increase the loyalty to the state. One reviewer notes that the book is “ . . .a sweeping new overview of human social structures throughout history, taking over from where Dr. E. O. Wilson’s ambitious synthesis left off. The effort to create an impersonal state free from family and tribal allegiances, and the struggle—often violent—against wealthy elites who capture the state and block critical reforms]. Fukuyama’s multifaceted comparative approach grounds politics and government in the demands of biology, geography, war, and economics, and pays appropriately lavish attention to China.[6]

By grounding historical work in biology, historians like Francis Fukuyama move towards the behavioral sciences. This brings Bowen’s early findings into alignment with the data from social historians like Fukuyama.

The Change and The Focus: Mental Health

Meanwhile the world of mental health is doubling down on its belief that one person is the problem and must be fixed. The trend in psychiatry since the seventies is replacing talk therapy with drugs, as noted in the New York Times article entitled “Talk Therapy Doesn’t Pay So Psychiatrist Turn Instead to Drugs Therapy”. Then, like many psychiatrists, (48,0000 in the US.) he treated 50 to 60 patients in once- or twice-weekly talk-therapy sessions of 45 minutes each. Now, like many of his peers, he treats 1,200 people in mostly 15-minute visits for prescription adjustments that are sometimes months apart.[7]

As a method of short-term family therapy, Bowen Theory has not demonstrated strong research evidence for superior results, at least none that I know about. In an overview of family research, Douglas Sprenkle provided evidence that there was about a 15% differences in effectiveness no matter the type of family therapy that couples employed. [8]

Bowen Theory has not been thoroughly researched for its effectiveness as a short-term therapy but clearly Bowen intended it as a long-term, life-long approach to observing and dealing with issues in emotional systems. The fact is that it takes a long time for people to learn how to move the focus from diagnosing others to altering the part “I” play in problems so that a systems approach becomes a way of facing life.

Way back in the seventies, Bowen gave an interview to “People Magazine” (August 01, 1977, Vol. 8, No. 5) in which he laid bare the reason theory could offer people an opportunity to obtain superiors result for one’s life. Here are a few snippets.

Interviewer: How does this differ from conventional therapy?

Bowen: There, the focus of attention would be on the individual. Say you have an anxious family, and the child is shoplifting or running away from home. I’d see the problem in the parents. They can’t help it, you understand. So at first you can’t say to the parents, “Don’t do it, don’t displace your anxieties on your child.” You have to ease into it, soft-pedal your way through to them. Where the triangling process is not too severe, where the parents can focus on their own problems immediately—and not project their problems on the child—they almost forget about the child, and suddenly the child is symptom-free!

Interviewer: What is the rate of cure?

Bowen: It depends. The easy ones come from intact families, good-sized families, not spread over a wide area. It’s faster than psychoanalysis, but it’s not easy. Hell, some people have tough families, some of them are gunning for each other. There’s repulsion, name-calling, but if you can cross those barriers there’s a good payoff.

Interviewer: What if you have no family?

Bowen: I think you should pick out the person you hate most and make a good relationship with him. There’s more than one way to skin a cat—and you’ve got to find a way to get over your hate.

Interviewer: How long does treatment take?

Bowen: This is not treatment in the usual sense (I never use the word “patient”). The family members do all the work. I merely “coach” them. Some I see as often as once a month, some only once a year. My sessions run one hour and follow-up consultations ideally occur every four weeks.

Interviewer: How do you “coach” someone to work on his family?

Bowen: I first suggest they get a person-to-person relationship with each important member in the family. Try to talk personally to each other about each other without talking about third persons or inanimate objects. Most people can’t do this for more than a few minutes before anxiety develops. But in the effort long-neglected relationships are reactivated, and family members are doing the very same thing they did in the distant past. [9]

If people follow the leader (whether in their families, their organizations or their nation) in focusing on what is wrong with a person or a group, are they going along with short-term fixes? Will this approach increase long term problems related to peoples’ ability to think for self, repair relationships issues, and more importantly to analyze the nature of profound problems? This tension between short-term answers and the long term or deep problems that produce symptoms continues. A very few people may consider it important to see the linkage and address both problems.

One never knows where the next great discovery will come from but we do know both long term and short-term areas can benefit from research. Currently it appears that more research and money goes into the short-term efforts to enable people to manage symptoms. There may be answers to symptom relief other than drugs but an enormous and profitable industry has risen up to take command of symptom relief. New areas have been found which enable people to change the way the brain is functioning. Some of these are called stress reduction methods. They can enable people to alter their level of functioning and its worthwhile to keep an eye open for these techniques.

One such technique for symptom relief in which you do not even need a therapist relies on a computer to promote less fear in relationships. The Economist had an article on Therapist-free therapy in its March 5th issue. Later this month the Psychological Sciences will publish a study on cognitive-bias modification (CBM). In this method everything is done with a computer in order to reduce anxiety and the fear response when one ‘sees’ an unfriendly face. Will we continue to improve our functioning using techniques such as these without seeing relationship connections?

If a techniques enable more awareness about self, and promotes functioning while enabling people to reflect and maintain thoughtful relationships, how wonderful for us all. But if we enable one person in a family to pull up momentarily and that gives “power” to the idea that indeed one person was the problem and needed fixing, then we may have produced even more problems.


It’s a challenge for people to grasp the idea that individual behavior is directly related to the operation of the “relationship system” that one is part of. A focus on individual behavior alone does not require people to understand the biological bases for behavior as Darwin did.

People who find Bowen Theory fascinating, like those reading this blog, seem to aim their actions more towards the long-term and seem, for the most part, to be fascinated by nature and by making an effort to understand self rather than trying to change others.

The beautiful paradox is that by altering the part one plays in a dynamic system, others are forced to alter the way they relate in that emotional system. Paradoxically, changing self alters the way systems are organized. Those who seek to understand Bowen theory by defining a different self to the group find many options available to keep the family or administrative system open.

When anxiety increases, people react in predictable ways. They run over one another, scold, fix, and tell the other what to do. The question becomes whether one individual can step up to create a different way of being with the others that may stop people from running over one another?

One hallmark of a mature system is more individuals in the system are able to be both open about problems and willing to take responsible action directed at the part they play. Awareness of system dynamics is necessary so that there is less hidden under the table. When there is slippage or even regression, one person may arise who is able to take a stand creating more openness without blaming others about the problems.

Openness is a key enabling people others to take thoughtful action based on facts. Increasing knowledge can enable others to see the impersonal nature of the predictable way the emotional system functions. Both knowledge and strength to go it alone are crucial in understanding how to define a self to others. For better or worse our future is intimately entwined with the functioning of the emotional system of which we are, as individuals, but a small part.

• Emotional issues/problems can create reactivity in those who sense them.
• Some individuals absorb more anxiety than others.
• Symptoms in an interconnected system appear to set some free while creating symptoms in others.
• Anyone in the group can decide to separate out a more defined self as long as they are prepared for the predictable reactions.
• If individuals can maintain a position without telling others what to do, the system will reorganize at a higher level of maturity.

Many thanks to Judy Ball for all her effort in reading, thinking and editing.

Andrea Maloney Schara

[1] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, 1977: pages 461- 465

[3] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, 1977, Page 463
[4] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, 1977: page 464
[5] Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, 1977: page 464
[8] Common Factors in Couple and Family Therapy, 2009, Douglas H. Sprenkle, Sean D. Davis, Jay L. Lebow
[9] “Farewell to Headshrinking—Psychiatrist Murray Bowen Digs Up Family Roots to Untangle Neuroses,” Peoples Magazine, August 01, 1977, Vol. 8, No. 5 By Eileen Brennan (,,20068437,00.html)



  1. I visited my daughter and her family this last weekend and in talking with a friend of theirs, he described how his Border Collie would herd his several goats very willingly and effectively when ever needed. I shared with him that I had a friend who had a Border Collie who did not have any live stock to herd so would circle pieces of furniture to express himself. The discussion began to sound familiar, a bit like my family theme. Earlier in the day, I had raised questions with my daughter as to maybe the children needed a nap before we went out, or maybe a sweater – that old sense of needing to care for or to herd was very apparent. Is it the ability of us humans to sometimes recognize the automatic functioning of ourselves in the system which in part separates us from the animal world and provides the possibility of a future that is not deterministic.?

  2. Thank you Lida, as you point out how being part of an emotional system is so beautifully automatic. We care , we herd, and once in a while we see the thin boundaries between us with great respect for one another and for mother nature. Thanks for the great stories!!!

    PS You might enjoy this new piece on free will.MIND MATTERS: How Free Is Your Will?
    A clock face, advanced neurosurgery–and startling philosophical questions about the decision to act
    You might Aldo be interested in

  3. I enjoyed the piece – Mind Matter:How Free Is Your Will? I can appreciate the efficiency of automatic functioning – in both the emotional and neurological systems . If one had to determine each end every act there wouldn’t be time for anything else – think what it would be to be a centipede. I do like to believe there is a little bit of room for being what it is that each of us aspires to be.

    Thank you for the reference.

  4. This is a great reflection on the the tension between the nurturance and comfort of membership and affirmation in balance with the human and mature contributions of individual uniqueness and contributions. Those leaders who are not supercomformers and come with a new vision can expect to be killed off or driven out because they upset the balance. Until resettled they are strong enough to take that risk and stnd alone.

  5. Carolyn,

    Thank you for your wonderfully short and accurate summery for the central problem of leadership. I love your uses of the word “resettling.” It covers all techniques to lower anxiety, plus the challenge of working on detriangeling, or taking a different posture in the social system where you push people together and invite them to see you as the “bumbling one.” For those who are up to “standing alone” this mechanisms of redistributing the “blame anxiety” allows very strong people to stay connected with the new knowledge and often one or two will be able to can hear your new vision. The problem is that without knowledge of emotionally primitive process with in the group, any originators are killed off and or the group splits.

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