What Does it Take to be a Self in Any Social System


Murray Bowen  Photo by Andrea Maloney Schara 1979



What Does it Take to be a Self in any Social System?


Just as no one ant can build an ant colony, no one person can create for him or herself all that is needed for survival. We are dependent on the work of others for our food, water, clothes, education and protection, among other things.  By cooperating we benefit. Therefore the pressure to fit in and cooperate is enormous and can intrude on our equally deep urges to become our unique selves.


Murray Bowen, in collecting the facts of family functioning, observed how this tension between the two forces, to be for self (individuality) and to be for others (togetherness), resulted in what he called one’s level of differentiation of self. Evolutionary theory and Bowen theory both consider how these two forces have formed the bedrock for life itself.


The emotional system consists of instincts. It is an automatic guidance system. Many of its ancient mechanisms no longer function as well in the modern world.  The tigers in the social jungle have been replaced by traffic jams.


Without a Mindful Compass, individuals find it difficult to cooperate, instead responding automatically to the reactive emotional system’s dictates. These basic urges of the individual emotional system can be observed just like we observe the movements of the planets. The greatest challenge for any observer is to get outside the system in order to see it.   Instead of planets, we see our parents and siblings pressuring us to conform or reacting to our commitment to our own forward progress. Of course it is hard to be neutral about our mothers and others. And without neutrality it is hard to be an observer.


Understanding the two forces, togetherness and individuality, may help explain some of our sensitivities, our prejudices and even what seems to be the capricious or nasty side of human nature.


In order to see how relationship systems impact the individuals in them, Bowen described the patterns of the tugs, pushes and pulls (or the sensitivity and reactivity) within relationship systems, leading to some able to develop more independence than others.  In 1967 he published his description of his own efforts to redirect the anxiety in his family and to step outside the system itself.  This effort required him to be less reactive to others and more aware of the tendency of relationships to form in predictable coalitions.


Bowen observed how the family unit determines the actions of individuals.  He saw that when people did not behave as they should, social pressure was put on them to act the way that was expected or even needed by the group (family). Since we are often not aware of the nature of the system’s influences (togetherness) on us, we take things personally and are reactive.


Bowen understood the primitive nature of the emotional system and by preparing himself to deal with the family force field he was better able to stand aside from the pushes and pulls of the system. He called this ability to respond to the social system in a more thoughtful way, differentiation of self.


The ability to be relatively free from the “commands” of the emotional system arise naturally in us and also require a disciplined effort by us to understand both emotional process and our own early family experiences.


Bowen postulated that a relationship system operates with the emotional processes found in all social species.  Therefore he assumed, and gathered evidence to show, that natural selection operates on both the individuals and the social groups to which they belong.  Under social pressure individual organisms react by: 1) distance – emotional cut off,  2) conflict – posturing or aggressive fighting, 3) triangles – passing on the problems by involving others, 4) reciprocal relationships and forming hierarchies – giving up self to others, 5) differentiation of self – redirecting the flow of anxiety through the social group through the more mature functioning of one individual.



Below Bowen explains the primal nature of and the challenge we face in our ordinary efforts to fit in with the group and at the same time, to be more of our unique selves.


The emotional system operates with predictable, knowable stimuli that govern the instinctual life behavior in all forms of life. The more a life is governed by the emotional system the more it follows the course of all instinctual behavior, in spite of intellectualization to the contrary.  A well-differentiated person is one whose intellect can function separately from the emotional system.  P 363


A more differentiated person can participate freely in the emotional sphere without fear of becoming too fused with others.  P 364


It is the pseudo self that is involved in fusion and the many ways of giving, receiving, lending, borrowing trading and exchange of self…  The borrowing and trading of selves can end up with one employee one down, while the other gains self… The exchanges can be brief – for instance criticism that makes one feel bad for a couple of days or it can be a long term process in which a spouse becomes so de-selfed, he or she is no longer able to make decisions and collapses in selfless dysfunction, psychosis or chronic physical illness.  The process of people losing and gaining self in an emotional network is so complex and the degree of shifts so great that it is impossible to estimate functional levels of differentiation except from following a life pattern over long periods.  P366


Every emotional unit, whether it be the family or the total of society, exerts pressure on group members to conform to the ideals and principles of the group.  P365


The overall goal is to help individual family members rise up out of the emotional togetherness that binds us all. The instinctual force towards differentiation is built into the organism, just as are the emotional forces that oppose it.  The togetherness forces are so strong in maintaining the status quo that any small step towards differentiation is met with vigorous disapproval of the group. Without help, the differentiating one will fall back into the togetherness to get emotional harmony for the moment. P371 

Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Murray Bowen, MD



The Advantages to “Thinking Systems”


Many people with family or work problems continue to believe in the commonly accepted analysis, which has been part of medicine for decades: turn the problem over to professionals.  The professionals will reassure us that indeed one person is serious troubled, symptomatic or to blame and should be diagnosed, medicated, helped or fired.   Extruding troublesome individuals from organizations or medicating symptomatic family members are seen as the answers for most severe relationship issues in the workplace or in families.


Instead of focusing on a symptomatic individual, Bowen outlined a process to develop the capacity to neutrally observe and understand family, and by extension work and even larger social systems.  (It is clear that it takes an intellectual and disciplined effort to be able to remain outside the commands of the emotional system although it is not clear whether this capacity lies in the intellect and/or emotional system.) This effort to stand outside the system, but stay connected to it, gives people a way to look more objectively or even neutrally at how anxiety is absorbed, often in one or a few individuals in the group. A broader view, where one is not participating in the families’ ongoing conflicts can reduces the focus on “fixing” the symptomatic one.


Work and social groups, while often less intense than family groups, contain the same reactivity and relationship patterns as do families. The people Bowen coached could tell him how problems in one generation were transmitted to another and begin the process of being more objective.  The more he learned from them the more they learned from him. This was his research design: to check the facts of each family’s functioning against his theoretical concepts about relationship systems.


It was Dr. Bowen’s powerful observational skills that allowed him to see similar patterns of behavior in all families, from those with schizophrenia to the neurotic. In developing the “differentiation of self scale”, Bowen noted that for those individuals with the most severe symptoms, their intellectual and emotional centers were fused, making it more and more challenging to make logical or principle-based decisions. The more anxious people are, the more con-fusion they experience in relationship to others close to them.  Those without the ability to know the difference between their thinking and their feelings are the ones who initially became symptomatic. However, as he noted people can also develop symptoms in an effort to pull up their functioning.


However once people see the system and the automatic pressure throughout the family, the cost of giving into this kind of social pressure is usually too high a price to pay.  Being able to be more separate gives people a small glimpse being loose and free. They also see the people they care about being able to grow more independently once they refuse to take the emotional bait. Once someone experiences being more separate yet connected in a social system, they are hooked. Then it is hard to get people to stop the effort.  Here is an emotional process that has been going on for generations and finally “you” get a view of actions that you can take to alter “the predictable “ future for you and your near and dear. Your choice!


One of the hallmarks of Bowen theory is that if the differentiating person is less reactive, and in better contact with a broad variety of people, then fewer individuals will absorb anxiety “for the group”.  It may be that anxiety can also be absorbed in the effort to manage self, not just in symptoms.  For example, if one is stressed he/she might collapse, go to bed, get mad at someone else, or get “reorganized”.  By “reorganizing”, an individual can find a more mature way to deal with the increasing anxiety.   This takes integrating their intellect and emotions.


One might take a really deep breath and then call up people in the family with whom he or she has had little contact.  Of course you had been meaning to talk to your mother’s sister but that would upset your mother and dealing with your mother and your aunt requires energy. How do you speak to your family members in a neutral way about this kind of “emotional programming”? If you can say things like, “Mom, I asked your sister what has led to so much distance in the family?” You’re not taking sides with anyone. Your stance is simply to take an action to describe the emotional glue that holds families together.



Over time in coaching family members, Bowen saw that individuals could increase their emotional and cognitive functioning.  While gathering information on their own family history, people began to tell more coherent stories about their life experiences. They became more aware, observant and less reactive towards spouses and other family members. Their efforts to understand self in their relationship system often increased the opportunity to form new relationships with extended family members.   These individuals diagramed their family relationship system and could see how anxiety flowed and infected the whole group.  Eventually these motivated individuals achieved a new level of functioning, and others in their families became less reactive and better defined.  Individuals were able to interrupt the automatic clues pressuring them to react in the old ways and could then engage in new relationship patterns.


By studying families over many years, Bowen saw that a percentage of people do have the ability to see the family as a system and to do something about the part they play in maintaining the anxiety-driven status quo. Some individuals can describe beautifully the pull of the intense reactivity to others and are capable of almost immediately inhibiting their own reactive responses.  Other take a long time to see that reactivity is an emotional yank from the system, which dumps them into con-fusion, and makes them more sensitive and vulnerable


It takes time to see how a system functions.   During the early years of Bowen’s work with families, he noted that only about 25% of psychiatric residents were willing to work on their extended family relationships.  Getting to know people in one’s extended three or four-generation family can seem like a waste of time or even nonsense to those in the middle of an intense marital crisis or in the intensity of an expansion of one’s business.


Most people, in the face of rising external anxiety or intense opposition at work, will retreat, hoping to find comfort in their nuclear family.  But this automatic reaction only increases the pressure on each family member to manage the increasing anxiety, with fewer and fewer places for the anxiety to go.


The overall goal for motivated individuals is to discipline self, and not react to ongoing issues by taking sides or being pulled into the togetherness. The effort requires focus on observing patterns, resisting the lure of status quo thinking and defining one’s differences with others in as playful and loose (not uptight) way as possible.  People in relationship with a good Bowen coach can slowly change their thinking from content thinking, (”It is his fault!”) to seeing the anxiety and figuring out how to respond thoughtfully.


People have more of a choice about how to function once they know something about the system they are living in. A systems view avoids blame and an automatic focus on the “other” and gives people choices in the management of anxiety.  Once one is able to think more objectively about the ongoing nature of the relationships system and one’s part in it, new options appear.  People can see some way to stay in an “I” position and allow others to have choices too.   If the symptoms are intense and the anxiety is high it can take years for people to begin to get surer of being a more contained and separate self.


It is difficult to stay on this higher ground when it can be washed away during family storms.  But if people have experience developing their emotional backbone and sticking to their self defined principles, they are more likely to avoid becoming caught up in the con-fusion with others.   It is a relief to know there is a way to manage self rather than thrashing about in the confusion of blaming and focusing on others.


Increasing your knowledge of your relationship system by getting to know members of your extended family requires that you see the advantage of having more information about family emotional process and more opportunity to define and separate a self.  Sometimes I coach people to get to know individuals in their extended family by using this analogy.  Observe a tree with shallow or cut off roots.  Such a tree is not able to withstand storms, while the ones with deep roots have greater strength and resiliency in the face of stormy problems.


 Other Living System: What Can We Learn from Them?


As mentioned earlier, if there are general laws organizing emotional systems, we should see evidence for this in other forms of life.  No one can be an expert in all the areas of the natural sciences, so with gratitude we turn to experts to learn more about how living things manage to live and work together.


Deborah Gordon, among others, has demonstrated that if you remove ants from one job like searching for food, the colony automatically compensates for this by decreasing the rate at which ants are assigned to the tasks of removing garbage or defending the nest.  The functioning of one ant is communicated and impacts others but the individual ants need no “awareness” of this.  The mechanisms for guiding the behaviors of ants in the colony are present and nothing has to be learned.  Body scents and touching antennas are all the signals needed to provide functional role assignments.


Without much of a brain, ants know what the others in the colony are up to.[1]  But of course ants cannot say to one another, “I am making this decision to alter my functioning based on the numbers needed for the various jobs.”  Neither we humans nor ants need much of a brain to pick up signals about the needs of the group or colony and what we need to do now.


Ants also build complex cities, go to war with other colonies, take slaves (which they care for rather than eat), and raise and keep other insects for food, just like humans raise cattle. They are the only other species besides humans that cultivate food.  They may be the most well known for cooperating and team work resulting in each individual becoming part of an organism called an ant colony.[2]


Humans, like ants, don’t act as one colony but are able to cooperate because they have an automatic sensing capability attuned to changes in the relationship system. Our highly emotional interactions are coded into memory, and perhaps like the ants we read and react to one another’s functioning states in ways that are out of our awareness.   We humans are more capable than ants of independent thinking and are aware of the cost of social control.  Humans understand that the group does not always know the right way to go.


Sensitive and reactive individuals are more prone to respond to pressure from others by rebelling or adapting and conforming until the social pressure creates symptoms in vulnerable individuals.  The most common family problem is parent’s pressure on children to do well in school.   The children rebel by staying out late, having parties and using drugs. Sometimes harder to see is a husband who comes home and “demands” that his wife listen to his problems and she begins to drink.   In the best of times social pressure results in-group members “cooperating” well enough to enhance survival. The children do well in school and the wife actually helps the husband deal with his problems.


We can also see how the impulse to help others can happen on a societal level.   When there is a tremendous crisis, as in the hurricane in Haiti or the nuclear plant meltdown in Japan, people do all kinds of amazing things for one another without question or the hope of being paid back for the effort.  But as social pressures increase to solve impossible problems, the cost of “helping/cooperating” becomes higher then people can bear. They may seek distance, blame the government or become symptomatic themselves at which point the initial impulse to “cooperate” breaks down.  The cost for some individuals becomes too great. Individuals who increase their awareness of the pushes and pulls of the relationship system have a better chance to define, in some reasoned way, the limits of what they can and cannot do.   A deeply emotional impulse to help others often has no limits.


Ants, unlike humans, may not have the flexibility to turn down the urge to cooperate and go along with the group. But then ants and bees that form social colonies are not operating under the guidance of fear states generating cortisol because they have no adrenal glands.  Instead ants and bees operate under a kind of democracy. “Bees operate with a quorum set high enough to guarantee that swarms make highly accurate decisions rather that just super speedy ones.”[3]  They wait for the crowd to decide which direction to go and that turns out to be the best strategy when organisms need to choose accurately not rapidly. Ants and bees have little reason to develop individuality beyond role specific functions. What is amazing is that these little organisms have the same basic genetic heritage, and yet so many physical and physiological differences emerge in the colony.



Up the Evolutionary Ladder to Awareness and Fear States


Humans are sensitized by states of fear that they are not aware of.  They bump into one another and exchange information about the state of the social group.   These encounters between individual humans can change their chemistry but not necessarily their awareness. People say, “My parents died when I way young but that did not bother me.”   Yet when you look at the brains of these people you find the “chemistry of depression”.[4]  The biochemical pathways tell us what the mind cannot.  These people are unaware of the impact of the social group on them and cannot perceive the environment accurately.  Drugs used to alter their brain chemistry, give these individuals a greater chance to integrate the reality of their situation and to promote a better adaptation to the changed environment. Depression is a symptom that can inform people that their view of reality is skewed.  Drugs may alleviate some of the suffering but don’t necessarily increase cognitive functioning or increase awareness.


Our automatic compass is built on automatic signaling processes enabling us to fit in with the social group. This can result in making decisions, like ants and bees, that spring from the importance of the group to decide where to build the hive and where to find food.   Individual ants do not have to decide what to do.   They are dependent on the group’s perception of the environment.  Even with our complex brain we are often unaware that stress can result in our being overly sensitive and dependent on social relationships.  Perhaps we become more like ants under stress.


It is safe to say, however, that sometimes we all live in psychic darkness, with many emotional states unavailable to us for reflection or introspection.  But that is not the end of the story. We know we can form hypotheses and look for facts to support our viewpoint.  To check out our hypotheses, we can talk with others about our ideas. This is often part of a therapeutic experience: to talk about our ideas and to be challenged by a good coach to see things differently and call into question our most cherished beliefs.


The Brain Lights up The Relationship Pathways


For many years we had only clinical descriptions to explain how relationships influence people’s functioning.  But now we can see the impact of relationships reflected in brain chemistry. We can ask people to think about different scenarios, from winning at tennis or looking at a love object, to frightening scenes, while we examine their brain chemistry through machines like MRI’s.  This research verifies that different areas of the brain “light up” with different types of subjects.  Investigators have even tried to understand the “chemistry” of love. 


A handful of researchers, armed with MRIs, have begun to sift out the chemical mix that makes up love. “Until recently, we regarded love as supernatural,” says Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers who is one of the world’s leading researchers on brain chemistry and sexual relationships and half of the team of scientists poking through my cranium. “We were willing to study the brain chemistry of fear and depression and anger but not love.  I love thee with serotonin produced by my raphe Nuclei. I love thee with testosterone receptors deep in my hypothalamus. I love thee with dopamine that floods my primitive lizard brain.[5]



The brain is multilayered, evolutionarily designed and connects us with other mammalian and reptilian species.  Because of the “design” of the brain, it is very difficult to become aware of deep emotional states in one’s own brain or self.  We have in common with reptiles, the most primitive instincts like mating, defense of territory and giving in to the dominant ones.   These behaviors reside at the top of the spine and in the center of the brain. These areas lack the ability to be in direct communication with the more cognitive part of the brain. Instead the newer part of the brain, the neo cortex or “slower” part of the brain, has to inhibit the older faster parts of the brain (the limbic and reptilian complex) when necessary. The three parts of the brain reflecting our evolutionary heritage (reptile, mammalian and the cortex) are inter-connected but one is never sure which part is in charge of actions and reactions.


Take the fear response, for example.  It can only be inhibited once it has begun and by then the chemical cascade has been released into the body.  Fear in the reptilian complex does not say to the higher cognitive center, the neo cortex: “So do you think it is reasonable that I react to that stick?”  Instead we do react and then the memory of all things pertaining to sticks kicks in. The limbic system contains the memory of the past and is able to remind us that usually sticks are inert and not dreaded snakes. It can take a long time for the different parts of the brain to send signals to inhibit the initial reactivity to the “stick/snake” and there are physiological consequences for the one who experiences the fear.


The basic biological values of all mammalian brains were built upon the same basic plan, laid out in consciousness-creating affective circuits that are concentrated in subcortial regions, far below the neocortical “thinking cap” that is so highly developed in humans.[7]  Jaak Panksepp


Perhaps as neuroscience advances we will discover general laws regulating the primary emotional states of humans, mammals and reptiles.  For example, we know that species are linked to others species because of the biochemistry and structure of our brains. This is the reason we can be relatively sure that if drugs work on mice they just might work on men. We also know that there are instinctual structures in very ancient parts of our brain. Their job is to provide us with some very old directions about the value of specific sets of behaviors like reproduction, defending territory, and the urge to be altruistic and to survival.  As a complex evolutionary tool for living, our brain also has a cognitive capacity to interpret or explain the social world we inhabit.


We have been able to explore the biochemistry of both the “fear” and “care pathways in the brain.  Since our brain chemistry is similar to that of mice and chickens researchers can experiment on these animals to show that the biochemistry of care, and feelings of safety, produce opiates in the brain.[8]  The chemicals that can inhibit fear or promote caring are disrupted when people are fearful. Those with disrupted relationships early in life show markers of disturbance and over connection in the brain. When this happens we see humans with these kinds of markers have been repeating negative stories about their life experiences.  These stories reinforce the over connected pathways in the brain.[9] These are the people who are vulnerable to drug use later in life. In various forms of cognitive therapy people are trying to correct the deficits from increasing stress, a loss of caring relationships, etc. by having healthier relationships and having better stores to tell.


Most mammals and invertebrates like ants have no need for a sophisticated apparatus like the human brain to become aware of how their actions impact others.  They are simply influenced by the interactions and the needs of the colony and their body chemistry reflects the cumulative and current state of relationships in the colony.


Darwin’s Life as an Example of the Force to be an Individual


Charles Darwin’s life is a fantastic example of one individual who had to figure out his way around the togetherness forces in his family and society.  Early on, Darwin had to triangle in his uncle to get his father’s permission to take the voyage on the Beagle. [10]  This is a good example of people naturally knowing about triangles and what it takes to become a more differentiated self.  No one had written down the methods, but somehow Darwin knew and overcame the emotional forces to give up and go along with the group (his family to name just one).


Charles Darwin was concerned about how his theory, which he finally articulated in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species,would be received by his peers and his family, most especially his wife, Emma.[11]  Darwin’s wife was a particularly religious individual and he was concerned about taking a very public position that was different from his wife’s cherished and deeply held beliefs.  Hesitating for more than twenty years to publish his work, Darwin gradually formed a loose association of supporters who were crucial in enabling him to maintain himself despite the threat of disapproval from others.  Darwin himself and his books continue to be controversial today.[12]


Not only was Darwin’s life and example of an effort to differentiate a self and be less reactive to social control in his family and in society, his ideas about evolution enabled millions of people to understand that humans like other animals are forced to adapt or perish as their environment changes.


Darwin’s Ideas and the Importance of Facts for Thinking Systems

Perhaps Darwin’s most challenging idea was that given enough time, natural selection alone could produce the diversity of the world around us. The idea was heresy to some during Darwin’s lifetime, who believed that God created nature and the world only 10,000 years ago.[13]  This is an example of how scientific evidence is not very compelling when it challenges long held beliefs.


Darwin suggested that natural selection occurs through random mutations and the selection of what some referred to as the “fittest.”  He observed that differences in traits between animals living on different islands could enable some individuals to have a survival advantage over others. Herbert Spencer’s phrase, “ the survival of the fittest,” described how well animals could contend with and adapt to changes in the local environment.  Darwin noted that some differences (size of beak in a bird) greatly enhance survival, but some differences such as eye color do not add to the survival benefits of an animal.


Darwin was an amazingly accurate observer of the natural world.  His curiosity and detailed accounting of what he saw led to the accumulation of incredible piles of evidence to support his thesis that traits that have enhanced survival in one era are selected for and maintained even in environments where they may no longer function as well.  He coined the term natural selection to distinguish it from artificial selection.   All his life Darwin was fascinated with plants and breeding animals that were artificially “selected” to produce desired and specific outcomes.  But during his trip on the Beagle he saw that natural selection operated on the observable characteristics of an organism. Those animals or plants, which could sustain life, become more prevalent in the population.


Forty some years ago, Peter and Rosemary Grant returned to the very islands where Darwin studied the finches and began to research individual differences in survival among the finches. Unlike Darwin, the Grants were able to return every year for twenty years to follow these birds over twenty generations.  They recognized individual birds and noted the impact of selection on the types of birds that survived.  This allowed them to offer reasons about how the fittest were able to gain predominance.  They proved that, at least for finches, natural selection happens quickly, and not necessarily as slowly as Darwin believed.


Selection follows alterations in the environment. In the case of the finches, the rainy season produced more birds with small beaks because the seeds were plentiful and easy to open.  During dry spells, these small beaked birds diminished in number as the size of their beaks made it difficult to impossible to open the few remaining hard seeds.  The difference between death and survival during the several years of drought was only one-half of a millimeter in the size of a finch’s beak.  The birds with larger, stronger beaks prospered because they could crack open the seeds and survive the harsh conditions.[14]


Since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, we have learned more about the ability of selection to act on the actual physical characteristics of a population as it adapts to changes in the environment. This may have implications for how selection may be at work today in humans.



Differentiation of Self: A (Selective) Advantage?

Who knows if a similar selection process may be operating on humans now?  We are living in the midst of vast changes in the environment: growing population, diminishing and sometimes unreliable energy and food resources and global warming to name a few.  And these changes may be creating selective pressure on humans.  Perhaps those who are better able to adapt to the changes will be “selected” to survive.


Consider this: We know that under stress people tend to lose their ability to perceive the environment well, to cooperate with others and to adapt.  Could it be then, that an ancient orienting response towards togetherness, to fit in or go along with the group, will dominate as humans face current and future challenges?   Or will the balance tip in the other direction because it is more adaptive to be a more defined individual, capable of cooperating as appropriate, and not just unthinkingly react to the herd? Remember that herds of animals sometimes go off in the wrong direction and fall off cliffs.  (Lemmings are famous for this and lack of food triggers this response.)


If better-defined people who cooperate “appropriately” are to be “selected” for, could the balance be altered in the general population between the forces for togetherness and for self?  Though this is highly speculative, it is possible that just as a family crisis can produce a family leader, so too may societal challenges produce more differentiated and more mature leaders. Without this urge to be come more differentiated, humans may well fall back to making decisions in a more primitive togetherness orientation.


The Down Side of Togetherness


Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life

as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the person dwelling in isolation, who is not forced to respond,

with defiance or submission, to the commands of others. For many people,

obedience is a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed a potent impulse

overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct.

Stanley Milgram



Stanley Milgram, a social scientist, conducted groundbreaking research showing how people’s obedience to authority is automatic, even when it leads to the potential death of innocent people.[15] His goal was to study what conditions are necessary in a social group to lead to an event like the holocaust.  How can good and normal people be so blind to the consequences of their behavior?  His work doesn’t reflect family systems theory but gives us factual evidence about the nature of the togetherness force among groups of unrelated humans.  His research demonstrates that a majority of people will do harm to others based on a command from an authority figure even if that command goes against a value not to harm others.  We are tremendously vulnerable to certain types of social pressure and the more we can know about this the better off we are.


How can we understand this kind of automatic behavior to go along with authority to the detriment of an individual or the social group as a whole?  If behavior in social groups makes no adaptive sense on a “local” level, then we have to move to the larger evolutionary stage to see how selection itself may have led to our species’ sensitivity to the togetherness forces in the group.


The “togetherness” force is a deep part of the life force, an instinct so deep in the brains of animals that no awareness is needed for the behaviors to manifest. Togetherness has advantages and disadvantages. A flock of birds or herd of elk may be able to avoid predators as they keep an eye on one another’s location, while for a group of lemmings the togetherness force has deadly consequences.


For the human, the instinct to cooperate and the tendency to go along with coercive social pressure is also built on these same deep instincts about which we are totally unaware.

It is difficult for us to know how we are being socially controlled and influenced to be “in the service of others”.  It is difficult to know if we are doing or even thinking things about our own individual viewpoints or if our thinking is simply a reflection of our deep connection to instinctive programming as part of a group.  It requires both an awareness of these instinctive forces and the ability to carefully consider one’s reactions and beliefs in order to pull a real self out of the mire of the togetherness forces.


We also know that for both humans and other forms of life under stress, the natural urge to go along with the social group decreases the ability of individuals to accurately gauge the reality of the situation.  Solomon Ashe, a social scientist, has run experiments that show that people will doubt their own perception of reality (a line on a piece of paper in one of his experiments) in order to fit in with the social group.  Reality becomes a “social reality” under pressure.


Here is how Asch’s test went: A student signs up for a psychology experiment, and others arrive whom he assumes are also students, but who in reality are actors. The actors’ behavior has been carefully programmed. Two cards are placed in front of the subjects; the one on the left has one vertical line, while the one on the right has three lines of varying length.



The experimenter then asks each participant, one at a time, to choose which of the three lines on the right-hand card match the length of the line on the left-hand card. This process is repeated several times with different cards.[16]


On some occasions, the other “subjects” unanimously chose the wrong line. When this happened, it was clear to the real student that the others were wrong, even though they had all given the same answer. What would you do? Would you go along with the majority opinion, or would you stick to your guns and trust your own eyes?


To Asch’s surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects went along with the majority at least once, and 14 of them did so on more than six of the 12 trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the average subject conformed on four of the 12 trials.


Asch was disturbed by these results and said:

Life in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consensus, to be productive, requires that each individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight. When consensus comes under the dominance of conformity, the social process is polluted and the individual at the same time surrenders the powers on which his functioning as a feeling and thinking being depends. That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.”[17]



Social pressure and a “togetherness” orientation to go along with the group is deeply instinctual and is incorporated into the psychological belief and value system of the human. Togetherness may usurp and hide under a pleasant sounding request like: “Can you please just cooperate with us?”   We are urged to cooperate with others rather than to think carefully about how we can cooperate with others to manifest our individuality. There is no self in going along with others without our individual thought.


These more instinctive urges to go along with or to “cooperate” with others have been acquired over evolutionary time and spring from the more primitive parts of the non-verbal brain. Once verbalized, via our brain stem to our cortex, “cooperation” becomes a positive “value,” forcing others to behave in the “right” way. The difference between one being mature enough to cooperate based on a principled position that values the action, is very different from being forced to cooperate by people using and/or giving into various mechanisms of social control.


There are many numerous beliefs that reflect our more primitive urges to be for others and to give up self or to be for self and to abandon or even harm others.  When instincts are converted into values and beliefs we tend not to question them.  Our beliefs reside in the emotional part of the brain,  “far away” from the brain’s cognitive center.  Bowen believed that thinking (via our cortex or slower part of the brain) could gradually influence feelings but that this would be a slow process because of the way the brain is structured.


Trying to be logical with highly emotional subjects may only intensify emotions, like throwing dry leaves to throw on a forest fire. There is a distinct advantage for humans to become more aware of one another’s different positions and at the same time, to take greater responsibility for self’s decisions.  The challenge is to “allow” others to be free to accept responsibility for their own actions and beliefs.


Bowen’s Road Map


No one before Bowen described a road map allowing us to understand how to be a more separate and defined individual, and at the same time be able to be close to those who are different from us and even oppose our points of view.


Although the steps for defining a self have been mentioned earlier in this book, here they are again:

  • ·      Individuals state what they will or will not do.
  • ·      The others in the system object to the apparent change represented in the individual saying what he will or will not do and they begin to make demands that the individual change his or her stance.   The demands may turn to threats that the differentiating one must change back “or else”.
  • ·      The differentiating one does not react.  He/she may interrupt, be silly, say nothing or keep in contact in a mild mannered way, while the system reorganizes.


The ability of one person to influence a system towards greater maturity by managing and focusing on self is powerful. But so too is the emotional fusion that binds people to one another (togetherness).  When the balance between the two is off kilter we see this as an ineffective and often habitual way of binding anxiety.  When the differentiating one takes a stand, usually the others cannot see the problem.   They say, “Why would this person make such a stink about such a thing?”   There is no pat on the back or love and approval (no “atta” boys or “atta” girls) for the person making the effort.   The differentiating one has to endure loneliness. The hope is that eventually there will be greater awareness and more respect between people, although this is not guaranteed.  Differentiation offers the potential for human growth that nothing else does. By publishing his observations of the family as a unit and his thinking as to how one person can be less reactive and more principle oriented, Bowen highlighted the understanding of this potential in the human.


Bowen did his research effort in his family during a time of relatively low anxiety.    He found that often, unless the family crisis was big enough, few were willing to take on separating a self for the fun of it.   The togetherness force is too strong.  The differentiating one is perceived as cold or even heartless.   Their response to cries for help from the group is with interruptive and challenging comments that confuse the group.   But these kinds of challenges can, over time, result in more independent thought, less blame and often a more profound and mature way of acting in response to a crisis.


Managing Social Relationships is a Skill Based in Our Instinctive Nature


We have inherited the cognitive ability to become better observers of our interactions with others.  We have the ability to question others’ and our own functioning and to question the way we relate to others and how they relate to us. This ability to increase our awareness and self-control is part of our evolutionary heritage.   It conveys specific advantages to the social groups whose members have this ability.[18]  The increasing awareness and self-control of humans is the evolutionary advantage that allows social systems to reorganize and survive.


I believe that evolution itself has applied selective pressure to family groups to promote the ability of individuals to define a better way to be for self and for the group.  Moreover, selective pressure then favors those groups with more independent but appropriately cooperative individuals, who are able to adapt to the reality of situations, not just to social pressures.


There are reasons that social pressure to conform to the group has persisted. One may be that energy is conserved by conforming to the past ways of functioning encoded in the “rules” of the social group.  And this may be useful when there is little change in the environment.  It takes energy to define a more separate self from the group and such efforts disturb the group and increase the cost to the group because each individual has to use energy to adapt to the changing individual.  However, once the environment begins to undergo rapid changes, the group itself needs more individuals who are less sensitive to social pressure and more realistic about the environmental changes.  Such people can, through their own non-anxious presence, enable others to be less reactive and more aware, both of which contribute to the survival of the group.


By increasing awareness through developing one’s Mindful Compass, individuals are more capable of functioning effectively in relationships with others, even when they are under pressure.  The conflict that occurs with the expression of differences in a healthy system allows for the opportunity to decrease sensitivity and emotional reactivity and increase individuals’ capacity to manage increasing anxiety. As a result individuals learn to interrupt the status quo, often by simply describing the ongoing interactions and defining what they will or will not do.  These individuals have capacity to wait, stand their ground without pressuring or impinging on others and allow time for others to think for themselves.


It takes courage and the development of an emotional backbone to define a self in the face of emotional pressure from the group.  As long as more individuals are capable of learning, reflecting, reasoning and correcting errors, the family (and work) system as a whole will have a better chance to adapt to the demands of the environment, not the emotional demands for “comfort” that maintains the status quo.


The Redistribution of Anxiety


Organizing self to deal with increasing threats or anxiety has allowed groups, from bacteria to humans, to survive. Here are strategies that people have found useful in managing anxiety.

1.     Observing how systems function and how one’s family has functioned over generations.

2.     Understanding the mechanisms for absorbing anxiety, which can take the sting out of, or depersonalize our feelings about the way people behave.  Eventually one can be more neutral about how families survive through one or two family members absorbing more anxiety and having more symptoms than the other members of the family.

3.     Developing the ability of one or two people in the family to be less reactive and more thoughtful to interrupt emotional contagions.

4.     Defining one’s self to the family around important events.

5.     Using various methodologies to lower anxiety: neurofeedback, cardio exercise, meditation, etc.


If these efforts cannot be made, then the individual and the family will simply return to the automatic ways of managing anxiety: distance, conflict, physical or emotional problems, reciprocal relationships (the borrowing and lending of self between two) and projection of fear and anxiety onto others. How is it that families do not see problems coming?  It may be the status quo is so seductive that change must wait until 1) a family crisis is large enough and/or 2) one person is willing to alter their part in the relationships system.  It is difficult and confusing to figure out how much energy I devote for self and how much for others, and especially during times of crisis the instinctual urge for individual survival is to cooperate.


Summary: We have considered the general “laws” which impact the way that the forces of individuality and togetherness achieve a balance in emotional systems.   During the development of various species, specific adaptive balances evolved between being for the social group and being for the individual.


The work of a few experts in the natural and social science fields shows how at one end of the spectrum, ants and bees have the ability to be for the colony in ways that are totally instinctual.  Becoming one with the colonies has enabled these amazing creatures to adapt and spread over millions of years.


In contrast, social scientists such as Stanley Milgram and Solomon Ashe show us how problems occur when blind obedience leads humans to (sometimes tragic) errors in judgment.  Some humans have the ability to separate from the togetherness in the social group and this capability over time, can impact the social group. The social group itself may need to become more oriented to developing independence in its members during times of rapid change.  Individuals who become more aware of the past, and less reactive to others can be more responsible for self.  I speculate that if differentiation does confer an adaptive response during times of great change, we should see more of this ability become manifest in social groups.


[1] Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior, by Deborah M. Gordon


[2] http://quotations.hubpages.com/hub/Intelligent_Ants


[3] Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley, page 213


[4] The GABA neurotransmitter and its receptors are critical to how humans think and act, Dr. Levinson adds. “We apply so many conscious and unconscious perceptions and judgments to our actions at every second, without even realizing that we are doing so,” she says. “GABA is part of the brain system that allows us to fine-tune our moods, thoughts, and actions with an incredible level of detail.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100301102803.htm


[5] http://www.esquire.com/features/mri-of-love-0609



[7] The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven (Sep 17, 2012) Page 1


[8] The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven (Sep 17, 2012) pg 330


[9] Like an overwhelmed traffic cop, the depressed brain may transmit signals among regions in a dysfunctional way. Recent brain-imaging studies suggest that areas of the brain involved in mood, concentration and conscious thought are hyperconnected, which scientists believe could lead to the problems with focus, anxiety and memory frequently seen in depression. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-depression-connection


[10] Returning from their geological excursion together in North Wales (August 1831), he found a letter from Henslow urging him to apply for the position of naturalist on the “Beagle,” about to start on a surveying expedition. His father at first disliked the idea, but his uncle, the second Josiah Wedgwood, pleaded with success, and Darwin started on the 27th of December 1831, the voyage lasting until the 2nd of October 1836.http://www.darwin-literature.com/l_biography.html


[11] Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond, James Moore


[12] From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals) by Charles Darwin and Edward O. Wilson (Nov 7, 2005)


[13] Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God’s involvement.  http://www.gallup.com/poll/145286/four-americans-believe-strict-creationism.aspx


[14] The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner (May 30, 1995)


[15] http://www.experiment-resources.com/stanley-milgram-experiment.html


[16] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asch_conformity_experiments


[17] http://www.panarchy.org/asch/social.pressure.1955.htmlScientific American, 193, 31-35.


[18] Others by Laurin Lassiter in Ghimeras and Consciousness: Evolution of the Sensory Self, Edited by Lynn Margulis,  Celeste Asikainen, and Wolfgang E. Krumbein




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