Is the family social system an ancient emotional system directing, influencing and or governing our behavior?

Welcome to the second online discussion of the book, Your Mindful CompassBreakthrough Strategies for Managing Yourself in any Social Jungle.   The following is a transcription of the participants’ viewpoints on managing self within our very human families. We considered how the family unit is an ancient emotional system directing, influencing and/or governing our behavior.

As we read in The Mindful Compass, much of our behavior is automatic and takes place out of our awareness. It is only with effort that gradually we become better observers of our automatic programming, our responsiveness and sensitivity to others. The better we are able to understand and manage our deeper emotions, the more mature our interactions with others. Truth be told it is a difficult project to see one’s self in a system.

“Know Thyself” turns out to be a very difficult thing to do.  A lot of pretending goes on about how we think we are and how “they” are.  But truth be told, often we are floating in a sea of interactions that are hard to comprehend.

My grandson Alex drew the picture below, which gives me the sensation of floating in the primal social sea. Here we float thinking, perhaps hoping that we are being mature.

Bowen used to challenge people to see if they were up to figuring out how to stay married to the devil or just wanted to complain about the spouse they got in the lottery.

Much of this shifting of blame is an everyday affair but when lives are at stake or a family business is poised on the edge of confusion and or destruction, then understanding how emotional process works in families’ matters.

alex drawing

Perhaps we can learn more about the influence of the system by listening to those around us tell of his or her experience. The assumption is that by a disciplined effort to observe, learn and then think about how to better define self in any social system, while predicting the possible obstacles, one is able to alter his or her automatic programming.

The Mindful Compass encourages us to become more knowledgable, neutral and open in relationships. This effort gradually promotes more mature ways of interacting. People are less controlling of others and more genuinely connected, so that eventually the entire social system becomes more resilient.

People often learn Bowen theory the best by listening to other people who are reporting on his or her experience. This is the reason that it may be worth your while to read or skim over these stories of learning theory. This meeting was held as a webinar in July.

Today Anne, Cheryl, Priscilla and Kathy are here. Deb will come in later. The others had conflicts but can see the video to catch up. I’ll just start out with one question. Is it useful to meet online like this to talk about the book? How about you Cheryl?

C – Yes, it encouraged me to read more thoughtfully.

AMS – OK, I know the last time Anne and I were the only two on. It was her job to keep me calm. I thought it was a pretty good session. What did you think of the summary, Anne?

AH – I thought the summary was pretty accurate. I have a couple of clients now reading the book. They are working in family businesses. Their feedback to me is that they can read about 10 pages at a time. The book is dense. You know a lot from your years learning family systems theory. You’ve packed a lot into the book.


One of my client says it’s hard for her to get past all the things she has done wrong. She starts thinking about that as she reads the book. We talked about reading the book in terms of seeing that there are systems everywhere and we are all part of many systems. For many this is all new information. It becomes more useful when people can think, “How am I managing myself now, at work, with my daughter and with the soccer team that I’m coaching?”


AMS- I wondered as I was writing this book whether it reads as though I’m trying to enhance the reader’s knowledge or I just sound pedantic and authoritarian?


AH – The people who are reading the book are on a journey of mindfulness. It’s something like self-discovery for them. They are interested in knowing “how can I do this differently?” People realize that without awareness we will go the way the automatic system wants us to go. People know that at some level.


AMS – Yes, that’s part of what I’m trying to get to in this book. We are all part of an ancient emotional system that guides us automatically, and of course, we are not supposed to see it. When we do see how we’ve been guided, none of us are going to come out smelling like a rose. There is a lot of instinct and reactivity in these ancient systems.


AH – I was asking people to become researchers of the system they are in, and to decrease their judgment. I talked with my clients about a system’s view not being about judging people. Instead it’s about being a better observer and being curious and working on being more neutral.


One of the people I asked to read the book is a man whose son has been focused on as the problem in the family business.  The son started to act in a strange way, and the family reacted by wanting to find someone to diagnose him. Now, with a few ideas from the book, they’re beginning to talk about this issue as part of the system. In my opinion people have to be open to seeing things differently.


In this example, the current president of the company and his wife could see the similarity in the behavior of the son to the grandfather’s behavior. It was not however easily apparent how the grandfather’s behavior had been transmitted to the son partly through the escalating worries in the parents about the son’s behavior.


Some people are able to be open and to observe the system and the flow of anxiety from one generation to another. But they cannot always see how they fit in the system. I think about the challenge of taking responsibility as to one’s part in the transmission.


Hearing similar stories from others in the Navigating Systems course has been extremely useful.


The three of you have such different ways of communicating your experiences. It is very interesting and useful to learn how you apply your ideas to various situations. Your viewpoints, Andrea, are far more playful, and that helps me to cut down on the serious feeling that “I have to do this or that to fix my clients’ problems.”   It just takes time. I do see how motivated people can understand the broader system.


AMS – Bowen used to say he would go to a meeting and present systems ideas to people who had been trained to find and fix problems in the individual. About 10% of the audience could hear and do something about the situation. Then things would change in the family. People would get better and after a few years they would drop off systems thinking. He noted that only about 1% of the thousands of people he talked to would stick with it for a lifetime.


Of course that was back in the 70’s. Now there’s more knowledge about systems thinking everywhere and so people find it somewhat more compatible with other things they’ve learned.


It’s very easy and even automatic for people to go back to blaming the individual as pathological. We all have eyes and can see what’s wrong, and naturally blame people without thinking that they are following ancient programming, just as are we in focusing on them.


AH – I have another family in which the husband and wife run a business. They are part of a many year planning program for the larger multigenerational family. When they met, they were shocked and concerned about the amount of anxiety and emotionality in the larger family group. The emotionality about all kinds of things comes into the meeting, seemingly from out of nowhere.


The husband and wife have worked on self for 20+ years and now they have 20 people, husbands and wives and cousins from other generations, and these people have not put in the work on self and tend to be more emotional.


AMS – So you see this primitive struggle between people for power and influence, and often it can be directed to over throw the elders. People can get very worked up when things are not going their way. As you watch it can seem almost Freudian. It is easier to see people are problems as you listen to the degree of upset that people have towards their parents and/or grandparents, even though they recognize their elders were founders of a company and at some level deserve respect.


It is hard for the elders to think, “we are on the developmental train and we’ve had a chance to learn a lot that the younger ones have not had a chance to learn. Now somehow I have to bring them along.”


AH – Questions in these meetings are often focused on “what does it take to be present without reacting to the differences? What is my vulnerability to taking sides?” It is important to know, “I’m reacting to others.” I have to know this vulnerability and to see it in how I react in my own family.


AMS- Much of the book is about blindness and reactivity. One may not see how their experience in their nuclear family leaves memories, and so even fragments of memories may make people more sensitive to specific situations. Of course people can get over the reactivity or fear response. It helps to know that the memories are influencing us.


In my family my parents fell apart after WWII. You could say that as a function of that I am often concerned about authority figures and the correctness of their decisions. We are all vulnerable to falling apart with enough stress.   Performance degrades depending on the severity and the duration of the stressors.   Our vulnerability is also connected to our genetics, as not everyone who fought in WWII had PTSD, etc. It may also be that a general kind of emotional process can be activated, as to the way people deal with authority in the family. This tendency to go along or to object becomes automatic in the family and in the social group.  The more emotional the group becomes, the harder it is for people to not get swept up in the emotions of others.


Another problem is the way people align self with others. When the meeting includes the spouse, people can feel and act very protective of their spouses. An in-law spouse doesn’t have much of a choice but to go along with their spouse, unless they are ready for a fight or criticism. The usual thing is to vote with the people you sleep with and this is a real quagmire as to differentiation of self.


How about the rest of you?  Do you all have ideas?


C. I definitely tested myself in my marriage. I handled the anxiety with cut off and distance. I still overuse distance, but I am learning. I decided to move back to my family’s hometown. I would like my brother to help me renovate the house I bought, but I think my sister-in-law might get mad.   So I find myself reacting to her and to him.


The urge in me is to go along with the others and it is so powerful. I thought I would be in a Zen place and I see I have a long way to go. When I am with my brother the urge to go along and not make waves is strong. The book is useful in trying to manage myself. I usually read books easily but this is a very dense book and I might just read a few pages.


What sticks out is how challenging it is to see and how long it takes to understand this ancient emotional system. The book helps me to just shake off all the expectations.


Mother and I get along okay and then out of nowhere we get into a big fight. Why I’m not sure.   What goes on, is it the expectations? What are the triggers that ignite reactivity? I thought about it and decided what to say. I said to her, “I’m going to move into your town, but I am not going to be the daughter that you want.”


AMS- Yes, the ancient emotional system is doing its thing and trying to get out of the expectations makes sense. A strategy that bumps into the automatic might bring some laughter or get them to rethink.


The ancient emotional system creates an automatic tendency to respond to cues and to agree or disagree.   It produces a kind of a Ping-Pong game interaction. Every once in a while you see it pressuring you to be with them, to be fused, and you try not to respond the way they want you to do it. Sometimes you might just catch the Ping-Pong ball and look at it for a Zen moment.


AH – At a family meeting all the pieces of the ancient emotional systems are all working on each other. I hadn’t really thought about the fusion in the couple. I see now that it is evoked when people come to the family meetings. I need to be more aware of this and manage it better.


KW – I had a few thoughts while I was listening to you all. After attending three very intense multigenerational family meetings and working with these families I come back into my own family and I’m tired, and I’m not as alive, so I can just listen. It is better. I don’t have as much to say because I’m tired. I’m thankful to have a way to think about all that has gone on. Talking like this is wonderful, as I need the regular contact with systems thinking. It’s like a shot in the arm.   Being back with my own family is like watching a movie, but I’m in the movie. I’m watching the family projection process and I’m just saying, “Oh well, there it is.”


The first family meeting was with a new family. There were 25 people and the two family leaders who needed to manage their own anxiety. They managed their anxiety by talking a lot. I tried to put in a broader view of what the meeting could be. It takes hours to prepare for a meeting of this nature. I am looking for the questions that fit the situation. If I have done anything it’s to manage the togetherness pressure between the people who come to these meetings. If I’m reasonably good at it people can be themselves.


I hadn’t thought about it till you (AH) mentioned that some of your families were reading the book. If you go for individuality you get to hear all the talk and watch the triangles. I watch how I get caught in the long and often old disagreements that people have. I was thinking there should be a vacation package where people can call in and get a systems shot in the arm, so that they don’t get so caught up with all of these problems. People are sensitive and they can make such a big deal about it when things are not going well.


AMS – Kathy how did you manage the side taking in the meeting? I hear a different approach? What is it that you’re doing?


KW – First of all I don’t see people who are sitting in a circle group, as they make too much eye contact with each other to think for self. I asked them to look directly at me so that each may have the opportunity to talk directly to me and others can listen carefully and maintain their ideas.


Secondly I ask each person to speak for self and highlight the differences between his or her thoughts and those of others. I support the notion that it’s difficult to speak for self but that the differences around the edges are what make these meetings so useful.


By setting things up this way it allows for a different energy and people don’t seek consensus. Instead the focus is on, “here’s how I see it differently and this is what causes me to think differently”. The emotional tone is to reach out for similarities – a forced consensus.   That’s what I try to impede. People being able to speak up does not happen rapid fire. If it does happen fast, then it is often due to pressure. Under such pressure, people can speak but lose their ability to talk and think more as an individual, and rather react as a group member. It is almost as if people are afraid to speak out about differences because they might get rejected.


So I had two meetings very close together and then I came here to my family. This is such a gift. Of course none of this comes without a price and right now I’m taking a lot more naps. It takes a lot of energy to think.   I had an “aha moment” listening, trying to get family members to think differently. I was thinking what are the problems we face when we have to listen intensely?


AMS – I’m curious as to how you create a platform that is not judgmental?


KW – What I see is that people can agree on an idea but see things differently on various agenda items. Then over time they clarify, not judge, the various viewpoints as to what is important.   It’s a kind of “consensus” that emerges from respectful listening and thinking about each individual’s personal ideas.


You know where people are coming from because of the pre-meeting work with family members.   Meeting with two or more people gets intense. They want the others to agree. That is emotional but what’s most valuable is to hear the differences between people.


AMS – I focused on the con-fusion between how much for me and how much for you, in chapter 7. Con-fusion happens when two or more people fuse into an emotional oneness and individuality is run over in favor of “we-ness.” I wrote about it as redirecting the con-fusion at home. I should have left it open and not just said in your extended family, because it’s everywhere.


What makes it so hard? People have every reason to be for each other. But if they put out their differences from each other, they might not sleep well that night.


KW – I’m going to San Francisco with my four sisters in August and my brother-in-law Jeff wrote us to say he will arrive three days early. In the note he explained his decision. He and his wife will have time to be with each other, and then spend time with the sisters. That sounds innocent enough but my youngest sister was so upset. She said Jeff doesn’t want to come to our house with all of us.


For the first time I saw it differently, as to the position the husband and wife were in. I could joke with her as to what it took for Jeff to deal with all the female estrogen carriers. The house will be full of estrogen and he’ll be the only male. So what if he wants four days with the sisters, and only three days with his wife? Good for him. Without understanding it might be easy to run with the younger sister, and get all anxious and upset. But I told my sister I was pleased that he could say what he wanted. It takes your head to kick in to see things beyond side taking and systems theory helps you to think for yourself and to stay connected with the others.


We are all in the middle of the side taking things. Napping helps restore self. The amount of energy needed to allow for differences might be something to bring up in these family meetings. Anxiety goes up and then the tendency to exclude others and to be close to your spouse could become very evident.


C – I’m moving into a town with my two sisters, brother, sister-in-law plus my mother. There are multiple triangles. I have not lived near them for 30 years. I’ve used distance as a tool and have been chipping away at it. I asked myself, “Are you aware, can you see the triangles?”


Last winter we were all in the same room, then all of a sudden my Mom said something to my son. I reacted and I got mad at my mom. Almost immediately my two sisters got up and sat on either side of mom. I’m confident I will be better at seeing alignments and triangles and finding someway to make more room for me September 1st when I move to Edmondson.


On another topic I’m trying to finish up my coursework for living systems. I attempted a research project for my company. Reading this book and talking to other people who are involved with complexity theory and social justice I was thinking about how you said cause-and-effect doesn’t take into consideration the many factors creating the situation.


For example, I decided to move, and then the key staff person decided to move right after I made my announcement. It was a surprise and seems like there was a kind of an unconscious energy I didn’t know how to predict.


AMS – Instead of looking for a cause or even a correlation you can just gather the facts around shifts in functioning. There are no motives that you need to understand. Perhaps it is just the pressure people feel in relationships shifts.   And then motives are used to explain. Initially you’re just looking at how the system is functioning. You are just noticing what happens when you do something. The system reacts. You just write down what happens to the various people without trying to ascribe motives, or pretending that you should or can predict the movements of these complex living systems. Just keep track of what happens and then decide how you’re going to talk to the person.


In other words, being open tends to lower anxiety if you can talk to people reasonably. Not too much and not too little. You are the only one who can decide. Should I put in two or three ideas?


Then you listen to them as to what they think and how they react.   If someone doesn’t say anything to you about their moving, right after you say you’re moving, then you can mention that. You can even say stuff like, “Hopefully if I’m free to move you’re free to move too.”


I’m not sure what difference it will make but you can also go back and talk about old events in order to close the loop or let people know what you’ve observed. For instance you might go back at some point and say to your sisters, “That was so funny when I got upset with mother and the two of you got up and sat on each side of her.”


Clearly they don’t have to agree with you. You’re just telling them what you think you saw.


C – I am mindful of the cost of taking a stand or communicating more openly. It often results in people leaving when I don’t want them to go. What are my options when it’s going to cost me to be more open and is it worth it? How can I be more open without upsetting people?


AMS – There are a lot of unknowns.   When you make a big move you are taking risks as to the future. You’re hoping there will be more strength and maturity in the relationship system but there is no way to know. It’s risky business.   You may hope your house will be your castle but others might not want to change. They can resist. They can put effort into keeping things the way they are. You could think about one person deciding to change and then the others going along eventually as a phase shift in the system.


One person decides to make a big move and it has ramifications on many other people.


C. – Yes, I can see this. I told my son I’m tired, I can’t help you, and then he changed and he started being more responsible, and doing more things. So in this case I became less active, and he became more active. The system went through a re-balancing act. I don’t want to be the strong one all the time. My son has an ancient emotional system and I see that.


AMS – He might think things like “I have to be the man for my mom.” Or “I refuse to be the man for my Mom.”   How do you bring up the triangle that your son might be in?


C – Well this is not a family business but the main concerns are still the main concerns. How to be the best leader you can be? There’s always room to go at being a more open person.


AMS – There are some similarities between family and business, as people in small businesses become more important to one another. Then when anxiety goes up, the people in a business or in a family are less sure of self. Then the confusion and the gossip increase.


Dr. Bowen would come into my office with a provocative question? He would ask me things. He would talk about things I didn’t have the courage to talk about.


The boss can lead and decrease anxiety to be more self or less self.


People can back away from each other or engage be it in a family or in a business. How do people handle it when real challenges appear?


C- I read and think I understand but sometimes I don’t get it. Just the other day I realized I was using triangles to manipulate other people to get along.


AMS – It is different if you are building cooperation by saying and or doing more positive things in order to influence the group to think well. The problem with triangles is when negative and disparaging things are said about or to people and all this gets to be the way the relationships system dumps anxiety on a few. The information or gossip is never used to help you deal with the problem.   It’s used to avoid the problems and the people.


C –It is in the practice of relating well. The point is that I am in business to enable greater autonomy in others. How do I do it a thoughtful way?


AMS – Let’s go back to Kathy for a moment. What do you see as the biggest challenge and is there an easy method to promote seeing the influence of relationships on people’s autonomy? People do not just ask, “Are you susceptible to love and approval?” You might ask, “How objective do you think you are?” There are lots of questions you can ask to find out how neutral or objective people are? You can ask questions to find out how much of a backbone people have and what people are up against?


KW – if there’s one thing you want to teach high potential leaders it’s too be less anxious and less dogmatic and to know that you have taken time to deeply think and be thoughtful about life and its challenges. How do you teach someone to be there for others and at the same time to be his or her best self? How do you pass on stretching and growing and supporting each other? I think you give people what you know so they can go beyond you.


AMS – What kind of a name would you give this process?


KW – Opportunity. People show up because they want to grow.   How can one be and give their best and at the same time make mistakes and use those mistakes as learning opportunities?


Openness is the word, open and competent but not overconfident. .

Is there a way to take those principles and set up management opportunities?

Cheryl you seem a lot clearer about management and organizational principles.


D – [Joins the meeting.] Sorry I’m late but one job ended and I feel a weight has been lifted. I had been working three jobs.


AMS – Good for you. We have just been exchanging ideas about what it takes to be a self when you are part of a couple, or when you’re in a family meeting or in your own family. Kathy was putting out her method as to asking people directly to allow for differences as they talk.


AH – C was also asking how do you allow people to make mistakes? There is fusion in a family line and you can see it operate and it can create division between people. These families might not allow for people to share their differences. Somehow they think they know more, and don’t want others to express a different viewpoint.


So how do you encourage people to step out of the comfort zone? A leader has to be willing to do that.


KW – You can ask people who are attending a meeting to write down their ideas and then bring them into the discussion. A thoughtful leader or a facilitator can keep a few people from taking over others. Sometimes there are impostors. They are the know-it-alls.


AMS – Often you can see the primitive emotional system expressing itself. The group has a certain number of people who will conform, and others who will rebel. Do they have a choice or are the just doing what is demanded of them for the group to function?


Dr. Bowen used to say, “I will listen. I might not agree, but if you have the courage to talk it will help me to think better.”


D – I see a family where the youngest son takes charge. He doesn’t see how he takes charge and then the others back down. What if he asked, “Am I paying you to back down?” I’m interested in how Kathy promotes time for people to think differently.


KW – I’ve had some success with families I have worked with for a long time, allowing them or promoting the ability to express different viewpoints. It’s something for people to stay in room and say, “I think differently about this or that.” We give each person time to 1) think about a subject, 2) to come to a position and 3) speak for self.


At one of these meetings a son-in-law had been struggling about whether he had the “right” to express his view since it was not his money.   But eventually he was able to say, “I don’t want the trust to be written this way for these reasons.” I try to allow some time for people to think differently.


D – So you frame it, “I want you to think of ways your thinking is different from others.”


KW – There is a way to do it that promotes a level of listening to others. I try to do a story to demonstrate how this might work before I bring in the request to focus on how people think differently. The togetherness pressure is so overwhelming you can’t think.


I did this in my own family asking people to think differently. It wasn’t the words but rather the process that allowed for more people to express self.


D – OK, I think I understand what you were doing. It’s amazing that people can say what’s on their mind and can appreciate the differences.


KW – An example from one of these meetings.   I said we need a larger room so people can walk around. The person who was setting up the meeting said that the last consultant had just pushed people into the boardroom. It was a very small room and he thought that would be for the best. Can you imagine the intensity that promotes? People are crowded together in a small room. They probably can’t think. If you push them together some people think it’ll be better if they can’t think. Perhaps they will come to a quick conclusion and the consultant will be pleased.


AMS – Perhaps it is easier for people to get run over and get any decision made. You can put them in the small room, and just go along with the fusion and the instant agreement.   Its very different if you are trying to create space for learning by stretching the room out.


Another small point is that yes, the leader gets energy from the group, but sometimes the group eats up the leader. It’s good to know the difference between what it is “I” want to do and what it is “I am doing for the group.”


Perhaps people only can see “this is what leaders can do for us” and not “what is the group doing to the leader?”   The leader can be sacrificed. The leader can become a scapegoat. It doesn’t have to be anyone’s fault. Anxiety is expressing itself. It’s just the way the system is now, but anyone can begin to tone down anxiety and people will be different.


KW – I’m doing better in the middle of my family. I’m not sure if it’s helping others but I’m doing better. Often I am amazed how Bowen could see this order of things.


AH – I had a meeting where one of the women was a corporate person.   She would stand and put her arms out like Abraham on the Mount. I am going to get a larger meeting space.

AMS – I wonder, does she feel the group pressuring her to be the leader? It is not always just the leader taking over. She might pick up the anxiety in the group and do all of this holding out of her arms and pontificating for them.


I could see the influence of the group on the leader when Obama had to participate in a presidential debate on his wedding anniversary. Yes, he was running for president, but he didn’t want to be there. He told the audience both in his words and his body language. He told all that he had said to his wife that never again on their anniversary would this happen. He seemed to be trying to be there for his group but he didn’t want to be there for himself, he wanted to be with his wife.


C – I understand leaders can do things for the group. Someone can always be scapegoated, but is it possible to have a group in balance?


AMS – For how many generations can any group or family maintain balance? We have to adapt to changing conditions and therefore balance cannot be maintained for long periods of time.


D – Two things to say, one to celebrate being an individual, and to remember as a leader that the group may not want you to think. You can’t lead without followers and so you can easily end up in one of these over and under functioning situations.

I was a woman with three jobs and not doing anything about it. Now I have quit one of the jobs and think I am being a more responsible person.


So thanks for this time, and how interesting it is to be talking with you all again. See you next month.

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