Learning to be a more neutral observer gives us tools to decode the family emotional system as it marches through time, encroaching on one and all.
At its most pressured the family system “uses” one or two people to automatically absorb anxiety. At its best the family system allows for courageous leaders to transform the system. People CAN learn about the automatic nature of the system.
In this blog you will see how people begin to pull self out from the maturations of the system and to see the automatic pressuring.
There is a continuum of learning as one “acts” to interrupt the automatic nature of the system. Once one decides that the system can function at higher levels- but I have to be more aware and more thoughtful – then amazing, even biochemical, changes can occur.
The path to understanding human behavior is not always easy or fun. It is a social jungle after all. Uncertainty is at the heart of the enterprise, but one is willing to risk and to guess.
There are times when clusters of events in the family can retard progress or even sink the effort.
There is no guarantee, but there is an emotional process you can see, perhaps bringing understanding action.
There is a spectrum along which people begin to discover the emotional system and to take a stand to be more separate.
This blog is long, but gives you several examples of people making the effort to discover the family as a system. Following are questions and thoughts from four people about the effort to discover the emotional process, which guides families over time. The effort ranges from a couple that just started, a five-year effort and then two people who have been at it for thirty plus years.
Does a systems perspective enable people to function better? You decide….
Transcript: The 3rd Session on Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies for Navigating Life/Work Relationships in Any Social Jungle
C – I find it difficult to think systems without ongoing contact with a course or a coach. Usually I think from a fix-it mentality and from a systems view things are never really fixed. I find that I am thinking now but not perfectly. It’s been five years that I’ve been involved with Bowen Theory in different groups.
When I came to Bowen theory I had been raising two children on my own, and my son had challenges. At 16 he had dropped out of school. I was taking him to psychologists to get him fixed. Finally, I met a person who talked with me about my family and not just about my son. I was intrigued and begin to think about the larger system and my part in things. This led to taking a course on Family Systems Theory. As I learned about the larger system, I begin to see the emotional process. Then I started to learn about my mom’s history and things started to shift and change in the way that I thought and acted. Now my son is 23 and is doing remarkably well.
Using the theory has enabled me to resist the blame game. I’m more aware each day that the automatic for the family unit is to absorb the anxiety and act out the family problem. So I do not go with that automatic feeling that so and so is to blame. I refocus on managing my reactivity and find this is a far healthier focus for me. Once I started to see the system I was less inclined to blame others or myself and to see how the histories in the system lead to certain sensitivities and tendencies in the way people related. Once I could see this as a process then things began to shift and change.
I also try to use systems thinking in my business and focus on my reactivity. But it’s hard as I still find I have the anxious focus and may not connect with my staff. It’s difficult because I can see I’m not making the bridge from my family to my work.
AMS – Often I hear people say that the main issue in both family and work is that you are often in it by yourself, as no one seems to get it. Your not connecting with your staff or family the way you once were. Is it anxiety or resistance?
The way you see things is not the way others see it, and so it’s challenging to maintain your observations and knowledge in the face of the reactivity from others. One motivated person sustains the effort to change. Only over years do they become surer of the observations of the system and get better at altering their part in the system. But because you are doing it on your own it is always a challenge to know if you are doing it right.
J –There is an advantage to learning systems when you have your own real time example. A year ago our youngest daughter decided to cut off contact around seeing her child. Its taken 6 months to plan for a mediated meeting. So I am thinking about this problem as I am reading the book, and that motivates me to read with more acuity.
AMS – How hard is to make a personal problem impersonal? How hard to really see and feel that the family unit during periods of high anxiety will focus on one or two as a problem? Can you get curious and not defensive or want to fix things? Can you wonder look at the family system over time and question- how did this come to be now?
J- In the study of consciousness there is talk of a global connector that allows billions of people to have different experiences of our one consciousness. It’s personal and different but in the big picture we are similar. It’s interesting to see for example science as operating like a family. Science reacts with anxiety to new ideas that are different from what has been. At times when new inventions or new ideas are introduced, the people and the work they produce are resisted and they are left to deal with the anxiety. There can be enormous resistance to change. on any scale from the individual to the family to science itself. General system theory seems to also address this.
AMS – Hopefully I will not get too caught in the distinction between general systems and family systems Theory but they are different way of understanding systems. General systems is looking for a way to use observations from many different disciplines to have a common language and understanding of principles, whereas family systems is the observation of one system – the family. General systems theory does not observe emotional cut off but rather identifies general principles across systems.
I think they are not studying what an ant colony does but they might break down the parts to understand the feedback principle in ant colonies and other “systems” and how those principles may operate in many different systems. Bowen was interested in looking at the human family and as in the title of the book Family Evaluation Bowen wrote the family is the unit that governs the individual’s behavior and development.
You can see something like emotional cut off as it operates in families and society whether in Israel, Palestine or Mexico. These mechanisms operate because we are all human. There may be confusion around an issue like the drug problems in Mexico but you also see this tremendous loyalty to Mexico, even from those who have emigrated from other countries. Do we understand issues from a family systems perspective or from a general systems perspective, because they are two very different perspectives?
M – I am just beginning to think about the family as a system. Growing up in my nuclear family there were four of us siblings and mother held us tight as to our behavior. My typical way is to withdraw if there’s a conflict. So it’s been a real learning tool for me to consider a strategy like staying connected and being involved despite conflict.
AMS – That is interesting how the past can influence the future. So in this generation your daughter wants control. Could that be a similar pressure as the one you experience with your mother but this time it comes from your daughter? Could it be an insidious pressure to be together in the “right way” and then that pressure backfires. Your daughter wanted you to move closer to her and then she objected to your behavior and began to control you more or less like your mother did.
M- the other strange thing is that my daughter also cut off contact with her mother-in-law and then we were shocked that she wanted to separate from us. The message seems to be “we don’t like you”, but initially she wanted closeness. Now I can see some of how the family history may be impacting us.
In my dad’s family his sister never liked him but instead she became close to my mother. His sister was stubborn and had a child outside of marriage and then she had three marriages.
AMS – People seem to need alliances in order to maintain self in a cut off. Is your daughter trying to make an alliance with her sister? Would she be aware of the stories of cut off in your family history?
M . Not sure that she would be aware.
AMS – In my book I recommend that people write up their family stories. It is a good way to think and reflect and to put out your ideas in a different sensory modality than talking.
J – I was adopted and have to work hard on the cut off part as to knowing more about both my families. So its not shocking that there is cut off in the younger generations.
AMS – Do you think that experience has helped you to take this latest upheaval less personally? It’s a challenge to get outside your own experience and to be more neutral. Where would you put you effort so far? On a ten scale, with ten being objective and zero being totally anxious, where are you?
J – Probably I am somewhere between a 5 to a 7. There is hope that we will be able to work things out. Since March I have had a better handle on things. People seem to have to go through something like the stages of grief as to a loss. The family was drifting into cut off and now we are beginning to see hope for reconnection. I realize things can happen to neutralize the effort to go forward., therefore I do not want to answer letters and phone calls that might distract or create reactivity.
AMS – Yes, the emotional system is an ancient reactive system and it can eat you alive if you try to escape from its control. How does one go about changing with out creating too much reactivity? A little reactivity is needed for change to occur. One way that I worked on getting more information out and making contact with the broader system was to write stories about the past. In my family, my father died early in his fifties. My children knew little about him. So I wrote up a view of his life and invited many people who knew him to come and tell stores about him at a luncheon celebrating my father 20 years after he had died. Of course I had a reaction from my uncle, his brother, who was negative about him, but that was not as important as doing it for my children and for me.
There are always reactions to forward progress. There are people who act like jerks in your family and on your staff, but so what? How will you deal with the problems? What is the strategy? In this strategy you are writing the story to make things less personal and you do it to stay connected and put your viewpoint in. Others can object and they are free to have their own viewpoint.
How do you stay connected to people who do not want to stay connected to you?
The emotional system can eat you alive and control your life, if you go along with the way things are. How do you maintain your curiosity and keep making a bit of progress for you being you?
C – What I am dealing with concerns my father and stepfather. When I was 17 I found out that my stepfather was not my father. It was a relief as my stepfather had been the source of all problems. So I created an imaginary dad. He was amazing. He taught at a university and was well regarded by all. Just in the last couple of years I made contact with my biological father’s brother. He was easier to find than my father. It turned out that my biological father was very similar to my stepfather, who died 23 years ago. My biological father’s wife was negative and wanted nothing to do with me. I found out I had a half brother and a sister but I was not going to be allowed to see them. Now this next weekend I’m going to meet my cousins, the children of my uncle. I thought that I had made progress in becoming more neutral but then I am talking to my sister and saying the same things like I used to say – “Dad is a jerk.” I really thought I had gotten beyond that.
AMS – These kinds of emotional set points are hard to alter. The reoccurring issues have to do with being triggered in triangles and level of anxiety and not so much with learning. Perhaps it is as primitive as smell activating patterns and responses. Its still a mystery as to how these patterns repeat and repeat and just what it take be aware and to be able to change.
C – Here is an interesting example of patterns repeating. My mother breaks up with the man who is to become my stepfather. Then she gets pregnant with this other man (my biological father) but she does not want to marry him, so she goes back to my stepfather and they decide to go talk it over with his parents. His parents report that the very same thing happened to them. She too was pregnant with another man’s child but this man still wanted to marry her. It is very strange how these patterns repeat.
One of the things that was very powerful was that one of the consultants I went to listened to my story and said “You have really been caught in a tsunami.” This comment freed me of the blame and gave me a way to continue to explore the system. When I saw the issue with my son in comparison to the issue with my father and stepfather I thought – this tsunami is not as bad as the last one.
I am going to see my cousins and I do not feel threatened. I am going to ask them what they know of their Polish grandparents. A while ago I went to Poland on a visit and was stopped by people who asked if I was related to so and so? I learned that my family had a hard life coming form Poland and my uncle does not want to talk about it but I’m hoping my cousins will. It’s a different generation. The wife of my biological uncle is also reluctant to have me around and it may be related to a family secret, who knows?
AMS – One strategy that I use when entering a negative, fearful system is to spread positive rumors. You can say all kind of positive things out in the system once you meet them. It’s not uncommon for the wife to react to your being interested in getting to know your uncle. That is what happened to me with my Uncle. His wife could call me names and say I was just trying to get on his good side like everyone else. I realized I had to make friends with her first, or she was going to chop my head off, as I was just one of “them.” It’s a work out if jealousy gets into it, but you can compliment people on how they look, the food they offer you- there are a million ways to stay positive. You can even go so far as to comment on how much better your uncle looks as long as you give the aunt the credit.
C – I do wonder about my part in it – is my old attitude still there – “Men are no good.” I cut off from my stepfather and from then my husband as they too were no good.
AMS _- I do not think you think these kinds of thoughts or have these attitudes without being programmed by the system. (Consider the possibility that the system needs your reactivity to continue with its patterned ways of responding as to what is right and what is not.) How do you see the way you should feel as programming? Could this viewpoint increase your ability to think your way through these emotional barriers? People will talk to you in a way to raise the old issues. It’s like bait, but you do not have to take the hook, if you can see it as a hook. It’s a fantastic adventure to see the system and to set yourself and others free of its gripping ways.
System seems to need someone to blame, the scapegoat. They are needed to absorb the anxiety. But you do not have to follow the system’s dictates and play your part. People say I am manipulating the system with all my strategies. Well, the system is trying to manipulate me. The bottom line question is – how can I be my best self?
M – I just realized that my two brothers married wives who did not like my mother. It looks like the sons pull away but really it’s the wives. They pulled away and wanted noting to do with her. Most people find her charming but her daughter-in-law wanted distance. In general it’s not that unusual to have problems with mother-in-laws. It takes a lot of strength to resist what some might consider an instinct.
AMS – You are gathering up a lot of family history that you might be able to write up and communicate. If you can do it without a lot of emotion (and keep expectations near zero) it might make a difference. The key things are to let others know there have been tendencies in the family, over the generations, to distance and to cut off but that does not have to be our future.
K – There are three things that I am thinking about that might not be that connected.
First, was the email from you about the bedside with your brother being in the hospital and all that went on. It was so interesting to hear your description of being present but not being co-opted into going along with things you did not see as useful. It was helpful to read how you took a stand – “You can do what you want but if I were you I would not take that medicine again, etc.” What I got were two things, first the importance of description and second what it was you saw and what it was you decided to do, for you, not so much for him.
Second was how hard cut offs are. You think you’re a good person and wonder why they don’t want to talk to you? That was so hard in my marriage and drove me crazy. Now 15 years later we can talk about the past in ways that are easier to hear. It speaks to just how hard it is to bridge cut off. Lately my niece said to me, “No one in the family understood what you were doing. That’s why they cut off.” I said, “Well, that was because I did not know how to explain well enough what I was doing.
Now I see my part and can joke about it. Now I am more able to see the system and so if I feel personally attacked I can work to see another viewpoint as to all that is going on in the system. I have cases where I am trying to describe this in a basic simple way to people. You wonder, can anything that simple describe the system, offer people an opportunity to change? I see it as useful in helping people see another way to be with others. It’s been a real benefit.
AMS – You’re describing the emotional process in the system as an impersonal force. What do you think about writing? You ask people to do this in meetings? I notice that it will take me writing up my thoughts 3 or 4 times before I can get the emotional out and be clearer. It seems like this kind of an effort helps people integrate their thinking and feeling. If you have a goal of becoming more objective and neutral about what you see and experience, it can be very useful.
K – Things just coming at you and you react. My daughter says to me that her son is quiet since they moved and she is worried, he could be depressed. I start thinking, “what is the matter with him? Finally I am able to think, the other grandmother is a psychiatrist and she may think about giving him drugs for his “depression.” After all the whole family looks good except for him. Even in this conversation I find that I am going along with the emotional system. How does this happen?
AMS – It is hard to think on your feet with all the anxious stuff coming at you. That is why I write emails to help me think and reflect on what I just did. I cannot think in the presence of the pressure I feel so I say “I will get back to you. I am confused. I like to confess my confusion. People tend to feel sorry for me and back off. When I have time to think I might say to my daughter… “I am more depressed that the grandson is…” All of this is to draw the focus away from him to get the anxiety up a generation or two.
When my brother, Butch had the abdominal aorta aneurism, he should have been dead in 2 minutes, as most people bleed out that fast. Only one in a million survive. It happened last Friday when he was in the ocean surfing with a friend. He felt the pain and headed for shore and managed to get to the beach and fall in font of a lovely woman with a cell phone. People at the hospital could not get over it and they said how very special he was. He liked that and began to get pumped up. Then they added a drug – prednisone. It is a wonder drug to help you breath and yet on the other side – it impacts your behavior and made him feel high. Butch has a history of enjoying being high, so perhaps not shocking when he left the hospital he told me he was going to do his recovery “his way.” I left the discharge papers on the counter with all the instruction as to what he was to do and left. I knew I couldn’t think so I got out and wrote down what I wanted to say.
“Butch, you are figuring out how to manage yourself. I am not sure if the prednisone is making you feel high. But you are clear you will do things your way no matter. So I will stand on the sidelines and let you figure stuff out.” Butch replied, “Sometimes you are the good sister and sometimes you are not. I am not going to do what the doctor says.” And I said, “I see that you will learn from your experience.”
Within a week he was back in the hospital having had something like a heat stroke, which led to a seizure.
Once again he survived this incident – even though his heart stopped three times. Now he has survived one more thing and is out, planning on playing golf again, but slowing down and figuring out how to make his life better his way. http://hamptonroads.com/2014/08/death-came-knocking-legend-rode-it-out
C – In your book you mentioned the way the brain developed in evolution and that change was costly. Can you explain more about that?
AMS – I’m not exactly sure as to your question but it makes me think about the cost of new behavior for the brain, and for the social system. Change takes a lot of energy, whereas coasting is less expensive, at least in terms of energy cost. It takes a lot of energy to learn to play the piano or relate differently to people.
There has to be a pay off for energy expenditure or people or animals will not make the effort to learn a new behavior. Consider the idea that humans might “learn” to be more differentiated if there would be a payoff for the extra energy it costs to be more defined. The pay off for being more differentiated might be that people can better perceive the environment and solve problems. With the increasing population and complexity of problems in the world, it is more challenging to sort out facts from feelings and to self regulate under fearful conditions. These people might just have a better shot at solving problems. It would then be worth the extra energy it takes to be more defined. Eventually the social system could also learn to support such people, even if they are difficult.
Back up and consider that from an evolutionary viewpoint the family unit has been automatically producing leaders under stressful conditions often at a cost.
Consider that a social unit has a way of learning form changing conditions and altering behavior. Some bit not all ant colonies figure out how to survive and passes on specific behavior to the next generation. In certain colonies when there is no rain, the behavior of the individual ants is altered by the feedback they get from the environment. Some colonies do not change their behavior and keep sending the ants out, while others do not send the ants out as often. We humans also need leaders to perceive the environment more accurately and to adapt to changes and give feedback that will allow others to adapt.
There are four automatic ways to manage stress and anxiety and then there is the effort to learn about the emotional system and to be more of a self. This effort is costly but may be worth it.
Laurie Lassiter, PhD has written about the automatic ways of managing changes in the environment using an example of life in a social colony of cyanobacteria. They have been around for the last 3,000 million years. About ten percent of the cells are altruistic. Under stress they live for the colony. When the hydrogen is low the heterocyst fix nitrogen and this frees the other cells from having to transform nitrogen. (Heterocysts are chosen by the colony to fix nitrogen, as they are more sensitive to nitrogen starvation.) They have given up their reproductive rights, and pass on the nitrogen to the reproductive cells for the colony’s survival. (Others. Page 88 Chimeras and Consciousness: Evolution of the Sensory Self, edited by Lynn Margulis , 2011, MIT )
When you back up and look at the way life forms have interacted with one another to preserve the social group you see some very basic patterns. The process of change and adaptation has an immediate cost (in terms of longevity and reproduction) to certain individuals.
In my family the vulnerable ones, in this generation, have been my two brothers. They were younger when my father returned from the war with serious symptoms and they were boys. Expectations for girls were far lower. As the anxiety increased there was more demand on my brothers to function in a specific way, both academically and socially. My brothers didn’t meet those demands, the anxiety escalated and the result was serious symptoms in both my brothers. The changes in my brothers’ behavior activated my interest in learning about families, eventually going to work in a psychiatric hospital. As one example here the system produced both altruistic individuals (in the specific sense that neither of my brothers reproduced) and a reproducer (me) who is learning to more aware of the tricks in the environment. Both of these functions, reproduction and not, are equally important to the survival of the system.
You can look for this kind of working family unit as part of a process of adapting in families. How many presidents have siblings that do not function as well as they do? Could it be that 80% of families have this kind of a dynamic? You could make a case that some leaders arise through suffering and endure cut offs as part of the price for adapting.
A broader perspective might help people to grow self up and not buy into the automatic way of promoting leaders through scapegoating. A more mature leader might want to grow self up to deal with the scapegoated people, and release them from being controlled by the emotions in the system. Often the leader is a bit freer to take on the anxiety in the system instead of letting it be distributed automatically. Its almost like your kids are caught in a bear trap and now you have to figure out how to undo the trap.
You need a good brain to figure out the traps, and to know more about what you are up against.
In the book I referenced, Paul MacLean, MD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_D._MacLean) who described the triune nature of the brain. People differ with the details but in general the early part of the brain, the reptilian brain, in charge of 23 different behaviors like mating and guarding territory, then the mammalian brain evolved which gave us three new behaviors, play, audio vocal communication, and care for the young. The latest is the cortex- the computer, offering us logical decisions without feeling.
People look at the influence of the automatic brain and our tendency to save energy and wonder do we have free will? There is a lot of evidence as to be a function of our saying “no“ as some evidence we can maintain choice about repeating the past or not. There is so much we do not know.
Kathy has said that no one understands the actions she took in her husband’s family. Kathy said, “I might have done a better job of explaining it so there would be less reactivity. But it took 15 years for the relationship system to be calm enough for understanding of some type to take place.” Kathy, what was it you were trying to learn?
K – I needed to find a way to be myself. Perhaps there was no way to say I needed to change my part in the system. But overall I could have died if I hadn’t taken a stand for myself. The effort was to be surer of what I thought and to not give in to the pressure to go along with what others wanted me to do. I am may have been lonely, at times but I am alive. I just kept saying, “I see it differently than you do.” I am getting better at saying what I see but I can still get hooked by the emotional process in the system and repeat my old patterns.
AMS – You see better but you are not above the social pressure? If someone you love like your daughter is worried you can get hooked again?
It is such a common experience. Sometimes I try not to look directly at someone who is emotional, I look at the forehead. It’s hard for family members to take in new information about their behavior. It’s like we are not supposed to notice what we are doing and we certainly should not talk about it. We can take in other kinds of information – like there are 120 newspapers in France all with a different viewpoint but it is not about our own behavior. The way we are with one another, the way we interact with each other, that’s what is so hard to see and hear.
M – I can say I see it differently but when they reject me I withdraw. I realize I have to do something about that. My daughter actually writes me back sending along a short video of the grandson making a noise like the Morning Doves in the background. That activates all my emotions.
AMS – You have an opening about Morning Doves as a way to continue the conversation at a different level. Can you keep up a funny conversation about birds and not focus too much on wanting to see your grandson? Your daughter is reaching out and that is a good sign. How do you focus on being less reactive and less vulnerable and still being partially acceptable to the emotional system? How do you keep thinking at a systems level, see what people are up against and not take what people say to seriously. If you can do it you can keep relating.
I see that our time is almost up and we have covered a lot of subjects today. The last session will be next month, see you all then.