Understanding the social system and o yea, what can I do about me


Photo by Rob Felton

Last month, I began a web-based summer course for consultants and members of family business, using the book, Your Mindful CompassThe course is limited to 6 people and meets four times, May- August. The first time was so interesting that I decided to summarize the ideas for a blog.  Most of those who signed up for the course are involved in taking the navigating System course See http://navigatingsystemsdc.com/


I asked each person to read 50 pages of the book and then presents a question about the book or Bowen Theory or anything of interest that seems to pertain.  My question asks – is the book useful in enabling people to stay focused on managing self in the social system they live or work in?  What follows is an overview of the meeting on May 29. 2014


There are four points on the mindful compass:

1. Taking a responsible “I” position—this is what “I” will or will not do.

2.  Preparing self for the resistance, not taking negative clues from the environment.

3. Using knowledge of people in systems to be able to relate to individuals and not be snookered by the system’s sense of threat.

4. The ability to stand-alone and not seek love and approval for decisions— this is the hardest position for people to take.



The basic assumption is that our emotional position in our families and in other social system is out of our awareness.  Therefore, it takes work to see the emotional system.  It seems to be manipulating us for its own reasons.  Knowledge of social systems gives us an advantage. We can see more, we can be less reactive and we can be more curious about human nature.  With systems knowledge, anyone who is motivated to know can enter into some kind of adventure to see the way in which people are influenced and are influencing others.


Each of us automatically participates in ancient relationship processes. When anxiety and uncertainty increase, we are guided to be more for the system than for ourselves.   When a consultant is hired, that individual can easily become just another family member.  They can seamlessly become a part of the system and automatically do its bidding.


Initially, a consultant/family member hears that they have been hired by someone to fix a particular problem.  The problem is partially logged in the relationship with the “boss,” and his or her erroneous perception of the problem.


Subsequently, the consultant/family member discovers the challenge to relating openly to the people in the system—Everyone wants to tell you a secret and, of course, you are not to tell the others. The final bind is you are not allowed to talk to others.  A good consultant will find many ways to wiggle out of the relationships binds and to gain his or her own perspective.


This is not a problem that is only the province of family business. The cordoning off of information is ubiquitous in all social systems. Knowing that social blindness is a property of all social systems allows the consultant some amount of objectivity.  It is not personal what people are doing.


The real challenge is to ignore the social emotional signals and to keep one’s eye on a neutral way to understand and to represent one’s best self.  How do we keep our eyes open to see things differently?


So now the job is to figure out how to relate well to deliver knowledge and to gain knowledge about the parts of the system that your client cannot see and may not want to see.


In the first three pages of Your Mindful Compass there is a description of how Dr. Bowen managed to perturb and often mystify the author forcing her to think for self.  Of course, it is a different matter to perturb your “boss” to encourage them to think systems.  But here is one example of engaging in challenging others by saying and or doing things that push people to think outside the box.  Emotional issues are never solved with logic and rationality and this in itself should give you courage to experiment and to see what might work in challenging others.


Evaluating self and the social systems

Bringing new information to people, asking them to think for self, is really what people are paying a consultant to do.  As to the family member they have to choose to be a leader in the family.  For both family members and consults there has to be a deep and abiding interest in increasing one’s functioning, while figuring out how to offer information and freedom to others.


The first chapter, Bowen Theory 101, shows us the mechanisms of the system as to how roles are assigned, how anxiety is distributed and how to understand the multigenerational family and it’s organization.


It’s wonderful if you can develop a family diagram of your client to get a broad systems view, but in many cases the one, who hires the consultant, may think a family diagram a bit off target.  After all you are hired to “fix” some other smaller problem.


It is almost automatic for people to see others as the problem and leave self out.  When this reluctance to see the broader field is present, most consultants slow down and consider how to listen to the one, who hired them, and slowly gain knowledge of the family system.



After listening to the way the family wants the problem solved, the consultant can begin to develop his or her own perspective and look at the family through the lens of Bowen Theory. By gathering a sketchy history of the family and the business, the consultant has an overview of the emotional forces, which may prove useful.


During this time, the consultant can take a guess at the level of maturity, the potential for leadership in the various people, and how much information they can take in.  It is important to figure out what the current leader’s ability to move towards more differentiation of self is. For example, some people can hear ideas of family emotional process without it being a threat, while others consider bringing up problems as evidence of being disloyal and therefore threatening the status quo.


If the leader is not interested in changing self in relationship to problems then one is left with taking small steps to gather information from others, who are surrounding the leader.


The consultant looks at their own family and how “fits” with the family, who has hired them. Once they understand the fit between the two systems, they are less likely to be swayed by the emotional process.  With knowledge, the consultant can be more objective, neutral and able to ask good questions about another family.


By doing a family diagram the consultant will learn as much as the family members. Often people say they learn so much by seeing the family spread out over time.


They begin to see how people are influencing one another and what kind of roles people are playing out. One can start with simple questions, such as “How does the sibling position of people in a work group function?” This can be a reminder of just how the consultant’s sibling position is important when relating to various family members.


Often, showing the pattern of inheritance in a family can clarify if and how the past ways of inheritance are playing out again. What does the consultant do if such information makes people anxious?


How does the consultant enable people to calm once they have been upset?  There were a few ideas as to structuring time out, reflect.  Some use neurofeedback, meditation or just a time to walk in the woods.  The goal is to create an atmosphere where people feel safe being open.


When anxiety goes up, blame often follows.  People feel justified in their anger and hurt one another automatically.  They are on automatic reactivity.  They react towards real and perceived injustice.  When you enter a family where mistrust and anger are buried under a smooth, well manner surface appearance, get ready to manage yourself.




First Case: Inheritance by the Weak

For most of us, the family system is not easily seen.  Emotional issues or problems are pushed down and smoothed over.  This keeps the happy ship running.  It is only when someone in the 3rd generation, who has been “chosen” begins to drink and succession is threatened, that problems begin to be seen.  The problem can create great anxiety in the family and an automatic rush to fix the problem.


Once you have seen a few families, you are less inclined to jump in and try to fix and save people.  In any social system secrets are kept. People often talk about the one who is the problem and the one who is not there.  So how does all this “focusing on others” help the system?


The system needs someone to absorb anxiety and that will be the one who gets the symptom. They are somehow vulnerable.  They have been impinged on by the way people operate on and around them.


So in this example, the boss is looking for the next leader.  On the surface, it appears that this individual is motivated and wants to learn and take over the business.  But underneath there are doubts.  They never surfaced.  For the leader it is a done deal. He wants to move on. But rumor has it there is some early morning drinking going on.


The leader has all kinds of emotional reasons not to know that the person whom he or she has picked has weakness.   Perhaps this guy is his wife’s favorite?  The list of reasons for picking someone can go from the simple – the oldest male always inherits, to the more complex—the oldest son left me and this is his son and now I get a chance to have someone from that family back again.


Other common problems

  • The system may not “approve” of the chosen new leader.
  • The person who has “inherited” the position may not really want it, but feels he or she must or should at least try to do it, and then gets stressed out.
  • Often people in family business can feel overwhelmed and not able to talk about the uncertainty they experience.
  • People in the family or the business do not know how to bring up problems with the about-to-be-new leader.
  • The new leader sees problems requiring others in leadership positions to rethink strategy.

How do you, as a coach or a consultant, encourage people to understand the system sensitivity and not focus on she or he did this or that?   One way is to gather information about the family history.  Now one can see how over the generations decisions have been made.  One may not want to repeat patterns but without knowledge we can automatically do what has been done in the past. Tradition is a kind of sneaky comfort.



Second case: Inheritance by the Talented

In this second case, the CEO decides that the next CEO will be his son/daughter who is very smart.  But in this case the CEO is out of touch with the board and is shocked at the Board’s opposition.


Even a CEO can take things for granted and not be all prepared to deal with resistance.  Adding to this may be the problem that the son/daughter does not know how to deal respectfully with the board and just wants to get things done, now.

But the board is not on the same page. They see problems ahead and feel responsible to exert its oversight.  They are not sure that this new leader will be reasonable.  What to do?


From the outsiders position we can see that no one is thinking systems and no one has a mindful compass and that a few triangles have formed.


Once the main triangle is seen, the consultant must figure out how to relate to the other sides of the triangle.  The main triangle consists of the consultant, the board, and the CEO father-son team.  The consultant must figure out how to relate to both sides without taking sides.


There seems no individuality, just alliances. Let’s consider the alliances in looking for individuals to relate to.  What does the head of the board think as to taking on or even talking to the CEO?  What does the CEO think about talking to the board members as individuals?   What are the worries and hopes of each individual?


When push comes to shove the consultant can see that there are many interlocking triangles within the board. There are many view points and not all are negative as to the new  “possible” boss.  But, we find that the board is a group and has no idea of how to communicate with the boss or this young, energetic future leader. In all likelihood this will continue until they can stop being a board and start being individuals, who are willing to take things up as an individual. How many boards do that?


The CEO may want a “happy ship” and can find the ship sinking.  For this person to see the system may be hard.  They are used to making decisions and having people go along.  For the CEO to learn about systems, he would have to have a deeper motivation for finding the best leader, and understanding the resistance and not just reactively passing this job onto someone in his family, who not be motivated to figure out how to relate to the board members.  In one ways this is test for one and all to go beyond comfort and to figure out how to relate to the “other” as thought they were important to the future of the company.


If he were talking about his observations, of just how he sees the system functioning, that would be a step forward.  What would it take to see the opposition as part of natural resistance to new ideas?



Acting on principle and seeing resistance as part of nature’s way

If people accept that there is a system, which automatically influences people to act without reflection, then one may find it easier to relate to people as individuals and not as resisters.  Often, we are blind because we are afraid to see but once we can see there is a great deal less fear.


There are many suggestions in chapter three as to how to take action for self and see that resistance is a natural and system phenomena and to not let it rattle your cage.  Once people are able to see that the system itself generates a resistance they do not take it so personally when people do not go along with our amazing ideas and suggestions.


If anyone has the courage to, on principle, communicate observations as to the state of the system, often there will be a reaction. People can then use that information to adapt. (A principle would be: open communication is better for an organism than when people in the system are shut down or are misinformation.)


Communication and information cannot always prepare us for everything. All systems are subject to unpredictable shocks.  However, most of the time we are operating in systems with knowable changes and perhaps resistance to change is the biggest problem for the system.


Knowing the history of a system helps the leader or the consultant to see how people have adapted to changes in the past, to recognize what might be new and challenging and to figure out a position for self.  A systems viewpoint really does help us to be more neutral to those, who MUST automatically oppose us.


The automatic way systems work is that there has to be opposition to forward progress, especially if the action needed is to be a leap forward instead of small step.

Side taking, polarizations and triangles are part of the way people interact once anxiety about a change hits the system.


Usually, you see an increase in triangles when anxiety arises around a change—even if it’s a good change.  Automatically, in response to anxiety, two people gang up to oppose, to put down, to scapegoat, or just pass anxiety onto a third mindlessly.


Why don’t they stop that and just be direct with another, you might ask?


People resist the opportunity to change.  It is expensive and by yourself standing up and saying “I” feels dangerous and it often is.  Our social brain likes being social, and being a self is lonely.


When the leader wants to change, often just like children we resist. It was not our idea.  People are often anxious as leaders can want us to move into unfamiliar territory.  Just think about what the leader is asking.  People are often unsure if the leader is going in the right direction. (Think of Abraham Lincoln as an example of a leader who knew he had to take people slowly into change.) And so people resist. They complain about the leader.  They tell others about the problems and feel better, but no action is taken to deal with problems or to deal more directly with the leader.  The opposition to the leader gains energy by complaining about their common enemy. Complaining is cheap energy.


How does a leader take a neutral position emotionally and not get caught in the polarizations of the opposition?  One answer is if the leader can relate to both parties reasonable well, things will change.


First, the leader recognizes how the resistance is forming. Just to remember it is hard for the comfortable ones to give up alliances and to manage self without the approval that is  gained by “blaming” others.  They will have to get something out of having more open and direct relationships with the leader.


Seeing the system, figuring out how to interrupt emotional and / or disorganized relationships is not for the faint of heart.  Those consultants or family members who want to be a more responsible self, find thinking systems an advantage and find courage in seeing patterns as not personal.


It is a lifetime commitment to self and to one’s family to always be working on developing greater awareness of how complex social systems function both at work and at home.


June 22nd from 4:00–6:00 pm EST, we will start with chapter four: “Systems Knowledge and Standing Alone.”  Please note that on page 65 there are 33 questions to answer as to how to understand and alter your functioning in relationships.


If you have any questions or comments please let me know.








I’s the Family Stupid…

Violence appears to be on the rise.

People are asking for explanations.


We are faced with a cluster of events – Sandy Hook, the Boston Bombings, the California killings, a California man arrested for a possible bombing attempt, followed by a rogue shooter in Norfolk Va., who did not even make the national news as he killed “only” two people.[1]


People turn on social media to hear mental health experts explain the problem.   The experts tell us the diagnostic code: they were depressed, anxious, autistic or had Asperger’s Syndrome.  They say nothing about the family or the social system.


It’s the media that follows up on leads to understand and tell us: “It’s the family, stupid.”

It’s the media that tells us all about the roots of the problem?  But most of us only see the individual.

As in the flower below the individual is where the action is.  The surrounding system is forgotten.


red flower

The social system, the family unit is more like a forest or an ant colony.

Not always easy to see what might be going on all around?

We can miss the beauty in the complexity surrounding us.

a stream though the leaves



But because our family lives are so compelling the media follows the stream…

In  case after case the media describe beautifully how the individual has become separated from both the family and the social system.

They describe the painful confusion in these social systems.

The voice of the media seems to have a deeper understanding than the voices of mental health, as to what went wrong and what is needed.

But hold on, understanding is one thing, and informing and disturbing a several trillion-dollar industry is another.

Current trends in research can only slowly impact the direction of mental heath, as it is hard to alter the direction of a battle ship.

What would it take for a widespread change in how we understand metal health – our cultural understanding of mental illness – to influence our national policy?

Perhaps because of the way mental health is funded, the public will have to be convinced that there is a better way for any significant changes to take place.

Currently, the mental health system is a giant arm of the government supported by taxes and private heath care operators and insurance.


It’s trillions of dollars and a several million-person problem


  •  1986   the mental heath complex served just 7 million Americans at a cost of more than 18 Billion. Medicaid and Medicare together paid $4.9 billion for mental health care in general hospitals and $1.9 billion for mental health care in other organized facilities. States paid 4.52% of the cost
  •  2006 $57.5 billion was spent for mental health care, including the loss of income due to unemployment, expenses for social supports, and a range of indirect costs due to a chronic disability.
  •  2010 – $2.5 Trillion with a projected increase of….. $6 trillion….
  •  2030 – $6 Trillion
  •  What does $2.5T or $6T mean? The entire global health spending in 2009 was $5.1Trillion.[5]
  •  2005-  $135 billion for mental health and substance abuse: 5.6 percent of the national health-care spending.[4]
    • an estimated 26.2 percent, OR  57.7 million people, suffer from a diagnosable mental condition.[3]
    • 2005-  we spent $135 billion for mental health and substance abuse: 5.6 percent of the national health-care spending.[4]



How did we get here – a very, very brief history:

In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates was a pioneer and developed the idea of altering the environment for the mentally ill. During the Middle Ages this deeper understating of the connection between environmental factors and mental stability disappeared. Instead with the lack of knowledge, mentally ill people were believed to be possession by evil spirits. This may partially explain the fear and panic that led to extremely “cruel treatment” This was hundreds of years where ignorance ruled.


The next big change came about in 1840 when Dorothea Dix spent 40 years investigating the condition for the poor and the insane, and lobbying legislators to establish state hospitals for the mentally ill. Her efforts directly affected the building of 32 institutions in the United States.[6]


In the 1950s, antipsychotic drugs allowed for the reform of the remaining “asylum-based” mental health care system.  Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 was the last piece of legislation President John F. Kennedy signed.  It changed the way mental heath care was delivered. Then the average stay in a state institution for someone with schizophrenia was 11 years. Unfortunately only half of the proposed community centers were ever built, and those built were never fully funded.


–“ the idea was to successfully and quickly treat patients in their own communities and then return them to “a useful place in society.” Recent deadly mass shootings, including at the Washington Navy Yard and a Colorado movie theater, have been perpetrated by men who were apparently not being adequately treated for serious mental illnesses. Those tragedies have focused public attention on the mental health system and made clear that Kennedy’s vision was never fully realized.[7]


Instead of Kennedy’s vision we have a mental heath system that is a vast bureaucracy with often-bizarre reward systems for reduction in hospitalizations but with only no community or family support, and only very short-term treatment or medication.  The result is releasing disturbed people into an ill prepared community. This continues blindness as to the influence of the surrounding social system.


Hope Lives

Hippocrates ancient but fundamentally sound idea of altering the environment surrounding the patient is slowly being seen to have real merit.  The Veterans Administration (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been leading the way by involving family members to learn about stress reduction and communications skills in order to fortify the relationship system of soldiers.[8]


Even though there is confusion as to both how to understand the person with mental illness and how to help family members, there are programs that make a difference and may lead the way to integrate more ideas using strands of research to develop new programs.  Law enforcement has become the safety net for those who do not fit into the current way we think of mental health.


Perhaps the only reason people are now clamoring for a change in our mental heath delivery system is due to the violence that has cropped up as of late.  But be ware of jumping to conclusions. A psychiatrist recently wrote in the NY Times:


One of the biggest misconceptions, pushed by our commentators and politicians, is that we can prevent these tragedies if we improve our mental health care system. It is a comforting notion, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Large epidemiologic studies show that psychiatric illness is a risk factor for violent behavior, but the risk is small and linked only to a few serious mental disorders. People with schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder were two to three times as likely as those without these disorders to be violent. The actual lifetime prevalence of violence among people with serious mental illness is about 16 percent compared with 7 percent among people who are not mentally ill.[9]

By taking a statically historical approach he reassures us this cluster of violence is abnormal and will not continue. Changing the way we currently deliver mental health is not worth the effort he suggests, since violence happens so rarely.


But once people feel threatened the fear can often drive change.  After a shooting people get mad, they advocate for change.  The most popular quick fix: change the gun laws.  Clearly if people can use knives the problem is not just the weapon.


This automatic reaction presents a challenge and an opportunity.   Can Bowen Theory advocates come up with a better system for prevention and treatment? If asked to redesign the mental health system, where would you start?


Family Projection Process

Now we are treating the weakest people by separating them from their families and communities.  How many can see that labeling the weak individual and treating him or her away from any treatment/education of the family, continues the primitive focus on the vulnerable ones as “the problem.”   In so doing, the ancient family projection process continues.


The crux of the matter is this:  When we focus on others as the problem with our worry and concern, we begin to shift the anxiety and negativity towards another person.  That focus on the other makes it harder for the symptomatic person to function. And so the other focus can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with symptoms intensifying. In many cases the negative focus can aggravate other mental process.


Many of these mass murders have the same “crazy” ring to the story.  The social system surrounding the person seems blind and/or inept.  It seems “crazy” that no one could see the violence coming.   Parents or other concerned people who could see were ignored, and the police do not have the right tools to make a difference.


We are blind to emotional process as long as we continue to focus on one person as the problem and separate them from their family emotional system.   The automatic nature of the family system is to dispose of anxiety by focusing on the weakest individuals. Mental heath is promoting this same thing:  focus on the weak ones in the name of helping them.


At Sandy Hook and the California campus, the killer had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.   But how much does that label or diagnosis help us when we hear that most people with this diagnosis are never violent?  Another question, does labeling make it easer for us to understand how to relate to people?


We do know that the family structure of both of these men had been torn apart long before the actual events occurred.  It turns out that no label can explain as well as the investigative journalists are doing, the “perfect storm” that develops for these families and communities.


People are not going to give up labeling.   It’s just too natural, but we can reformat the labeling and build on it to turn the focus towards learning about the social system.  For example, if more were known about the family dynamics of a symptomatic person, and his or her support system, our interventions could produce different outcomes.


If law enforcement were trained to ask for the names of three friends and family members who would be contacted about the history of a symptomatic individual, a significant difference could be made.  Right now we hear about the social system after the arrest. And often both the families of the symptomatic person and the society-at-large believe the person who is symptomatic “should” be able to function to “fix” their social system problems.


“I believe there’s been a failure in his support system. I’m sad for that,” Clemens said. “I hope he will reach out to those who will help him.” A San Francisco social media maven and former political consultant (Ryan Kelly Chamberlain II, 42) who was wanted on suspicion of possessing explosives has been taken into custody after a three-day manhunt[10]


What would happen if law enforcement could activate the social system to help find, manage or even subdue a suspect?  Law enforcement could easily be trained to use a tool like the family diagram to decide to search a home or to call in family members to stay with a person who appears to be a threat to him or others.


When a symptomatic person has to sit down and give a family history, a great deal of information comes out.  The law enforcement person, for example, who asks for the family history can see how much support and how much distrust, threat and/or cut off there is in the family system.  It is not hard to teach people how to do a family diagram. Nor is it hard to phone and bring family members over to talk.


The people with the most political savvy are united behind gun control legislation.   It makes sense to them. They believe the enemy is the accessibility of guns.  But hit the pause button. Think about it.  We need to know more about a person in order to decide – who is a serious threat.   We know we are not going to get rid of guns or knives, but we might get better at noticing who has the potential for rage.


It is not good enough to believe there is an enemy and we can know him by the fact that he asks for a gun.   The problem is deeper than who has guns or knives. The problem lies in the deep disturbance in a relationship system that has lost the ability to keep people connected and calm.


So now fear of “others” spreads.  As someone at my yoga studio said.“ The problem is the mentally ill.  We do not know what to with them.” This comment points towards the focus on the  “other” and not our attitudes or ways of thinking about them.


It is too easy to dehumanize “the other”. They are not useful to society or us. We either are afraid of them or worry about them or feel sorry for them. If we fear others we do not communicate well with them.   How challenging is it to check your everyday thoughts to see how you regard others?  Do we respect these “others” even when they scare us?


Here are a few examples of other-focused reactions that are prevalent at the moment:

  •  Rodgers (the California killer of 6) is a mad man.
  •  It’s the families’ fault.
  •  No wait, it’s California’s fault because there is no money for mental heath.
  •  It’s the President’s fault.
  •  It’s the senate’s, the house’s fault, because they will not give money to… (you name it).
  •  It’s the police.


Can our attitudes about people and their problems be changed? An attitude change may be the only way that our current mental heath services can be rethought and reorganized.


The first question is how can we clarify the problems and still address our part in them?   Here is what Bowen had to say when answering a question about what could people to do in times of trouble, when asked by someone at a conference:


I am a part of this great republic and I can do something to shed light on the corner that I live in. And if a majority of people can shed a little light on their corner it is a different society. And when they bitch about Washington and Congress and the executive branch and the Supreme Court they go in the other direction.  It is that simple and that difficult. But it would make it livable if we can say we play a part in everything and I want to do the best I know how to do in making my corner of the world better -then it is a better world. It is a challenge for all of us to do it. We don’t know whether our neighbors will do it or not. If you just keep doing it there will be more people following you then you realize. That’s the best answer I have about what do we do with all of society.[11]  Murray Bowen, MD



We have to see the potential in the person and in the family group, to believe it is worth investing in the possibility of reorganizing the system (both of the family and of the mental health world).  To do so we would have to move from seeing the individual as the pathological problem and focusing negatively on them,  (otherwise known as “other focus”), to comprehending the building pressure in a system, which impacts some people “unfairly” and sometimes catastrophically.


Unfair distribution of anxiety is an automatic process in which as anxiety rises in a system, the more vulnerable develop symptoms and pull the system to focus on them. (Vulnerability has to do with multiple reasons ranging from genetics to the time of one’s birth.)  The result is often a mandate by both the family and society at large to  “fix” the other.


Long ago Carl Jung wrote: Only a change in the attitude of the individual can initiate a change in the psychology of the nation.  If there ever was a time when self-reflection was the absolute necessity and the only right thing it is now, in our present catastrophic epoch.[12]



Theory, Hypothesis and Interventions

Knowledge can enable people to change. Bowen Family Systems theory is a body of knowledge containing theoretical descriptions from which hypotheses can be made as to the future direction of a system. It allows us to see the ways in which a motivated individual can seek to disrupt the path of a social system if that individual is willing to pay a price.  The price of being an interrupter or a disrupter can range from mild to extreme but there will always be a price for change.


If we are clear about the dysfunction in today’s world view as represented in these mass murderers, then perhaps people will be willing to pay the price of change, and “learn” how to deal with the estranged individuals.


You may remember that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, was also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. His father noted in a recent interview:  “Autism makes people weird, but it doesn’t make people like this. There was something else horribly wrong with Adam that wasn’t the autism. But once we had an autism diagnosis, we assumed that that explained everything that was strange about Adam and we stopped looking beyond it.”[13]


If diagnostic codes do not do it for you, then you can understand a great deal more about the pressure cooker in the family when you read the NBC news report noted at the end of this piece.   Clearly the journalist M. Alex Johnson figured out what was going on in the life of the California campus killer.  Johnson outlined a perfect storm scenario that apparently the police have not been trained to deal with (nor, as it turns out, were the parents or the mental health professionals that the killer is reported to have seen).   In the notes at the end of this blog you will find two paragraphs from the California killer’s 141 page “manifesto”.[14]


After the media had spelled out all the details of the Manifesto and the You Tube videos, interviewed the sheriff, the friends, the family lawyer and listened to various psychiatrists, on May 25, 2014 Candy Crawford asked:   “What is the missing piece?”  I think she was suggesting that neither the journalists, the lawyers, police nor the psychiatrists have the missing piece.  I would agree.  It is possible that seeing and dealing with these kinds of problems in a family context is an answer, but of course there never will be a final answer.



The Missing Pieces

We can probably agree that there are at least two “missing pieces” in altering the way we see and understand emotional problems.  First, the current diagnostic focus of psychiatry and psychology has to be altered to fit with an understanding of the social system. Otherwise the diagnosis reinforces the family projection process. Next it would be useful and practical to reorganize treatment to include the family and support system of the symptomatic individual.  If you include the family it will make it easier on the police.  (Right now the legal system is in such tatters that no one can enter the bedroom or search the house of someone who is thought to be harmful to self or others.)


If families were seen as important, then the authorities could easily bring the family members in to deal with the one they are worried about.  In this more ideal situation, the police would be able to watch as family members interacted with one another.  More data that will inform the police and family would emerge.   That’s guaranteed.


I am suggesting some things that need to be addressed and changed. It will take political will, since money would have to be allocated for the training required for police and families.


Here are some of the elements of what I would propose to do with the training funds.


  •  Train police to ask the symptomatic individual they’ve been called to “deal with” about the three-generation history of their family.  This way you can get the phone numbers of family members in case you need them to be a collaborator of the reasons the police were sent to the home in the first place.  The police are not to be therapists.  Their job is to simply identify whether and where there are supportive people for the symptomatic person and whom the symptomatic person may want to harm.  This interview would take an hour of the police’s time.


  •  During an interview a person who might not react to the officer who is scaring them straight, but if they have to talk about the memories evoked by the name of the stepmother or the mother and/or father, grandparents, siblings, then the reactivity of the symptomatic person often emerges.  And the intensity of the reactivity can help the police decide if “something” needs to be done.


  •  Whenever possible, family members should be called and placed on the phone while the suspect talks to the police. And at the end of statements made by the suspect, the family can give feedback.


  •  Police should always be able to search the home of the suspect when they are called in because someone fears that an individual can and may take the life of him or herself or others.


  •  There could be new ways of providing mental health assistance for those who are seen as unstable and threatening.  Ideally there would be the opportunity for family members to understand the emotional process that has led to cut off and isolation.  And if an individual required hospitalization, the family and social system would become an integrated part of the treatment.


  •  A focus on health would bring the family members into an effort to decrease fear in the relationship system of family and friends.  There is plenty of evidence that individuals’ relationships in the community are governed and/or influenced by the relationships in the family.


Such large social changes would require an ability to examine the dysfunction in an individual as an indicator of the way the system around the person is functioning.   With this kind of supportive assistance, there would be less focus on what is wrong with the individual.


These kinds of decision require large groups of people to see a better way and then moving in that direction.  People have to be able to see how an effort towards social integration can enable both better treatment and cost effectiveness.


What will happen if there is no “treatment” available for the individual and his or her family members to learn how to relate in healthier ways?


The change of course can begin right now as each of us looks at our own attitudes and our ability to alter the way we act towards the emotionally vulnerable among us.


Research will continue to bring us more information about different ways to deal with emotional illness and the symptoms that involve the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain.


Research and testing will have to continue to inform people about new treatment modalities.  Then both long and short-term outcomes changes could take place more rapidly.



New knowledge that’s been around since the seventies.


A recent Scientific American article points to one way of enabling greater empathy and compassion towards others- Neurofeedback.  The researchers suggest that perhaps this kind of approach could eventually give rise to cognitive training, leading to more thoughtful and less fear-based relationships with both friends and family member.


There is long history as to the field of neurofeedback.  http://biofeedbackinternational.com/schara.htm Elmer Green and Joe Kamiya wee tow of the early researchers on the benefits of stress reduction using alpha training.

In addition you can find a broad description of a five-year effort using neurofeedback with my youngest bother at https://ideastoaction.wordpress.com/family-emotional-process-and-the-big-picture/


A research group, led by IDOR cognitive neuroscientist Jorge Moll, focused on brain activity associated with affiliative emotions, or the warm and fuzzy—but not romantic—sensation one experiences when seeing a beloved friend or family member. To contrast this feeling with other emotional states, the researchers first asked their 24 volunteers to prepare three personal anecdotes: a proud moment, an episode full of affectionate feelings and a neutral but social scenario such as supermarket shopping. Pride and tenderness are complex social emotions, and so the researchers reasoned that comparing results from these two, along with a neutral control, could help clarify what brain activity was associated with affiliative emotion specifically.


Next, subjects had to recall these occasions while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) chamber and viewing a screen that showed a circle that would ripple and change shape. For half the subjects, the circle reflected ongoing changes in brain activity. The other half saw a randomly morphing ring described as a focal point for their visual attention. During a series of trials the researchers repeatedly cued participants with the words “proud,” “neutral” or “tender” and instructed them to relive the related memory in as much detail and emotional intensity as possible.


The researchers contrasted the data from tender, neutral and proud responses across trials to identify brain activity most related to affiliative feelings for each subject. They then assessed how much the brain response in each trial resembled this typical affiliative activity. The group given random visual feedback showed no significant difference in affiliative activity over trials. By contrast, subjects who received neurofeedback showed significantly stronger affiliative brain activity in their last trials compared with their first ones. In other words, something about seeing their brain’s changes intensified that response over subsequent trials. [15]


I have been using neurofeedback in my coaching practice with great success and know of many studies demonstrating the positive effects of neurofeedback.  But new ideas that do not promote the focus on others are often put on the back burner.  They do not fit with emotional process.


It’s a funny world.   Labeling, which does not work, persists.   And a family approach with neurofeedback that does not have deleterious side effects and may open new doors is suspect.


Treatment and Research


Even if those of us affiliated with family theory could communicate well the way we see the human condition, we still have to devise ways to offer treatment that works.    A change of this magnitude in the thinking of large segments of society would be a tremendous.  Such change would require a research effort to allow various types of treatments to compete with each other.


Psychiatry is a far-flung enterprise that has no real head, apparently no real way of altering its fundamental beliefs nor any way to consider how to redeem itself except, through small steps.  Families are unfortunately in the same boat.


There is no easy way to alter treatment for those suspected of being violent. But as long as we focus on one individual, then the support system surrounding that person has no way of knowing and/or learning how to deal with the problem person.


In summary, we have a long way to go to alter the primitive emotional response to vulnerable individuals who are socially challenged and to develop programs that reach towards social integration.


The more we can understand the problems that society itself participates in, the more any individual is able to extricate self from the confusion without resorting to  violence.


People can become aware of the way systems function to automatically put the anxiety onto a few.  And that anxiety on a few results in increasing social isolation and a lack of ability to relate well to others.   Change will occur slowly when a saturation point is reached.  At that point, it will be common sense knowledge to see how cut off and isolation function to increase symptoms.


In my ideal world, more effort will be made to enable people to learn how to respond to others with greater self-discipline. Knowledge of systems will continue to be key in enabling the front line family members and professionals in society to be better able to respond to others.




After only a week passed since I uploaded those videos on Youtube [describing Rodger’s plans for his “Day of Retribution”], I heard a knock on my apartment door. I opened it to see about seven police officers asking for me. As soon as I saw those cops, the biggest fear I had ever felt in my life overcame me. I had the striking and devastating fear that someone had somehow discovered what I was planning to do, and reported me for it.  If that was the case, the police would have searched my room, found all my guns and weapons, along with my writings about what I plan to do with them. I would have been thrown in jail, denied of the chance to exact revenge on my enemies. I can’t imagine a hell darker than that. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, but it was so close.


Apparently, someone saw my videos and became instantly suspicious of me. […] I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the full truth of who called the police on me. The police interrogated me outside for a few minutes, asking me if I had suicidal thoughts. I tactfully told them that it was all a misunderstanding, and they finally left. If they had demanded to search my room… That would have ended everything. For a few horrible seconds I thought it was all over. When they left, the biggest wave of relief swept over me. It was so scary.”]




California shooter’s life of rage and resentment by M. ALEX JOHNSON

Jae C. Hong | AP[16] http://www.cnbc.com/id/101703654



People gather at a park for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of Friday night’s mass shooting on Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif. Sheriff’s officials say Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara, stabbing three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood.


In YouTube videos he posted late last week, Elliot Oliver Robertson Rodger looks and sounds like a sweet, gentle soul, but the words he speaks reveal a tormented, twisted view of the world.


Especially of women, whom he is accused of having targeted in a shooting rampage that left six people dead near Santa Barbara, Calif., on Friday night.


Rodger was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head Friday night in his black BMW after a long shooting spree throughout the tony community of Isla Vista, adjacent to Santa Barbara in Southern California.


Seven people, including Rodger, were killed. Eight others were shot and wounded. Four more were injured when the BMW hit them. And yet another person sustained an injury that remained unspecified Saturday night.


Rodger, 22, a student at Santa Barbara City College, grew up amid affluence and privilege as the son of Peter Rodger, an assistant director of “The Hunger Games” and a highly regarded film photographer in Europe, and the stepson of Soumaya Akaaboune, an actress who appeared in “Green Zone” in 2010 with Matt Damon and stars in the French version of the “Real Housewives” television series.


But in the nine videos and in a 106,000-word autobiography/cri-de-coeur written under his name and mailed through the post office to a Santa Barbara TV station, Rodger emerges as a desperately unhappy young man who pined for his birth mother — from whom he was separated by divorce — despised his stepmother and hated the frequent lavish trips to Europe and Morocco (his stepmother’s homeland) that his family’s wealth afforded.


And most of all, he hated women. They saw him as weak and uninteresting, he believed. They preferred strong, macho types, not a “supreme gentleman” like himself, he says in one of the videos he posted shortly before the rampage Friday. He died a virgin.



This image from video posted on YouTube shows Elliot Rodger. Sheriff’s officials say Rodger was the gunman who went on a shooting rampage near the University of California at Santa Barbara on Friday, May 23, 2014. In the video, posted on the same day as the shootings, Rodger looks at the camera and says he is going to take his revenge against humanity. He describes loneliness and frustration because “girls have never been attracted to me.”


Rodger was born in 1991 in London, where his father was then based. His mother was a Malaysian woman of Chinese descent who worked as a nurse on film sets, according to the 141-page manifesto.


NBC News has not independently verified the authenticity of the document, but Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown referred to it several times Saturday as helping to establish that Rodger was “disturbed” and “a madman.”


Rodger lived a happy life with his parents and a younger sister in England until he was 5 years old, when the family moved to western Los Angeles so his father could pursue career opportunities in Hollywood, according to the manuscript.


Within two years, his parents divorced, it says. Almost immediately, his father introduced him to Akaaboune, the woman who would become his stepmother. He did not like her.


Then came school age, the start of what the writer describes as horribly unpleasant interactions with girls and — as he apparently saw them — their bully boyfriends.


Flowers are placed through a bullet hole on a window of IV Deli Mart, where part of Friday night’s mass shooting took place by a drive-by shooter, on Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif. Sheriff’s officials say Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara, stabbing three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood.


According to the document written under his name, Rodger had uncomfortable but not dire dealings with girls until he reached sixth grade.


Then, “with puberty, my whole world would change, and my entire life would collapse into utter despair.”


By 13, he said, he was known as the “weird kid” at his school. He saw all girls as “mean, cruel, and heartless creatures that took pleasure in my suffering.”


At the same time, he was powerfully sexually attracted to them — especially to effervescent blonde girls — which made it all the more “horrible” that other boys teased him for being scared of girls.


He was intensely jealous of any boy who had a girlfriend, especially those who boasted that they were having sex. As high school went on, he retreated deeper and deeper into the world of multiplayer online role-playing games, his favorite being World of Warcraft, which he would play for hours upon hours, and which he would dream of when he was forced to leave it behind on family trips overseas, according to the manifesto.


At some point, Rodger was diagnosed as having an ultra-high-achieving form of Asperger syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum, an attorney for his family said Saturday.


It’s important to stress that there has never been any scientific link between Asperger and acts of violence, and there is no claim that Rodger’s disorder itself had anything to do with Friday’s actions.


Students gather for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of Friday night’s mass shooting on Saturday, May 24, 2014, on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara.


But the diagnosis does partly explain why he was in Santa Barbara in the first place.

At the urging of his family, who wanted him to become more independent, Rodger left Los Angeles for Santa Barbara in June 2011 at age 19. He enrolled in Santa Barbara City College and was treated by “multiple” medical and psychiatric specialists, the family’s lawyer said Saturday.


It didn’t work, according to Rodger’s videos and the manifesto written under his name. He dropped out and re-enrolled several times and doesn’t appear to have declared a major. His isolation grew ever worse as he was rejected by the women at his college and at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


“I’m 22 years old, and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl,” Rodger says in one of the videos, which he shot while sitting at the wheel of what appears to be the same BMW he is believed to have used to stalk the streets of Isla Vista on Friday night.

“I’ve been through college for 2½ years — more than that actually — and I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous,” he says. “College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. Within those years, I’ve had to rot in loneliness.”


Declaring that life has not been “fair,” he complains: “You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me.”

And then he promises: “I will punish you all for it.”


The manifesto picks up the story from there.


In December 2012, it says, he bought a gun — the first step toward what he grandiosely called “the Day of Retribution,” which he planned for November 2013 in Isla Vista. It says he knew he would “die in the process.” 


“I didn’t want to die. I fear death, but death is better than living such a miserable, insignificant life,” it says.


The second gun — Rodger was found with three in all on Friday night, along with more than 40 magazines of ammunition — was bought in the spring of last year. About the same time, he came across a website devoted to men who hate women and are unable to persuade them to have sex, where he posted screeds against women.


Under treatment from several counselors in Santa Barbara, the document says, Rodger decided to postpone his murderous plans. He would try to win the Mega Millions lottery — hoping to become a multimillionaire in his own right and win the affections of a woman, any woman, who would sleep with him by the time he turned 22.

It didn’t happen. As his 22nd birthday approached last July, he kept losing in the lottery and in attracting women. And everywhere he turned, he felt he was being mocked by every man who walked the streets holding hands with a woman, kissing a woman, even talking about a woman, according to the document written under his name.


The weekend before he turned 22, he was at a party where he “saw lots of guys walking around with hot blonde girls on their arm,” it says.  “It fueled me with rage, as it always had,” the author writes. He pretended to shoot the women with his finger, sparking a fight with other men during which Rodger fell and broke his ankle.


The sheriff’s office confirmed Saturday that authorities were called to a local hospital last July and investigated an altercation during which Rodger was injured — an altercation it said he instigated.


It was the last straw.

“I gave them all one last chance to accept me, to give me a reason not to hate them,” the author writes. “I gave the world too many chances. It was time for Retribution” — which he timed for this spring.


“I moved to Isla Vista with the goal of losing my virginity and attaining the life I desire,” the document says.


“If I am unable to have it, I will destroy it.” [17]





[1] http://hamptonroads.com/2014/06/wife-recalls-dedication-norfolk-officer-who-died

[2] http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/9/1/117.full.pdf



[5] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2011/the-global-cost-of-mental-illness.shtml

[6] http://www.biography.com/people/dorothea-dix-9275710#awesm=~oGhPD8r7IBVYNs

[7] http://www.wjla.com/articles/2013/10/community-mental-health-act-kennedy-s-vision-never-realized-95665.html

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK117205/,


[9] Why Can’t Doctors Identify Killers? New York Times; Richard A. Friedman, May 27, 2014


[10] http://www.aol.com/article/2014/06/02/fbi-explosives-suspect-found-after-3-day-manhunt/20905254/?icid=maing-grid7%7Cmaing6%7Cdl1%7Csec1_lnk3%26pLid%3D483464

[11] Personal correspondence from notes taken by Jan Kuhn

[12] Jung, Carl, The Psychology of the Unconscious, Preface to first edition.  P 4, Collected Works, Volume 7, Pantheon Books , New York 1953




[13] http://www.npr.org/2014/03/13/289815818/6-interviews-1-reckoning-sandy-hook-killers-dad-breaks-silence

[14] http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/05/25/police-missed-locking-up-elliot-rodger-santa-barbara-mass-murderer/

[15] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neurofeedback-increases-affection-builds-empathy/

[16] http://www.cnbc.com/id/101703654

[17] http://www.cnbc.com/id/101703654