Social Pressure and Differentiation of Self
Yesterday, January 31st, would have been Murray Bowen’s 103 Birthday.
Dr. Bowen left a tremendous inheritance to all of us. His broad grasp of nature, his deep understanding of emotional process, his funny southern humor, his shocking insight and his love of challenging people, all are deeply missed. Neither Bowen nor his theory was perfect. As he said, his mission was to simply point towards a new way to think about human behavior.
Family Systems thinking has yet to be integrated into most people’s thinking. So I am grateful for the many people and organizations that both acknowledge and continue his work.
Now I am deeply involved with the Murray Bowen Archives: http://murraybowenarchives.org/. If you Google Bowen Family Systems Theory you will find many other organizations that offer various viewpoints and ways to understand Bowen Theory. (I found about 147,000 results in 0.31 seconds).
Last month I was honored to speak to the participants in The Vermont Center for Family Studies’ training program. They asked me many great questions about social pressure and how to define a self as a coach and as a family member. http://www.vermontcenterforfamilystudies.org/training-program/
I wrote this essay to expand on their questions and to acknowledge some of what I learned from Dr. Bowen and where his ideas have led me.
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Social Pressure and Differentiation of Self
How hard is it to be who you want to be? How much do you conform to what others need or want you to be? How challenging is it to see and act when relationship pressures are intense to go along or to avoid issues?
The effort to define one’s self to important others is usually a tension filled danger zone. Our near and dear can act as part of a system and resist self-definition by anyone.
We are often blind to the mechanisms supporting social pressure. Evolutionary forces have rigged the family to function as a social unit so that some give up self for the group. Therefore it is challenging but necessary to uncover and understand the mechanisms promoting relationship blindness, especially during times of great change.
It is difficult to say what is really important to you or for others to hear about your principles, or what it is you will or will not do. One needs courage and the ability to postpone the comforts of approval to be self-defined. People are willing to take on this task – to be more self-defined and respectful of others – because they deeply believe that in so doing, they and others will be able to function at higher levels. And they do it because they can accept the moments or months or years of social tension that may be necessary to unwind an anxious family system.
The Slippery Slope of Social Pressure
Bowen noted that as individuals became better observers of emotional process they could often do something about the way they reacted to social pressure. He would often tell stores about how these mechanisms worked to lure others into going along with an “other focus” rather than a self-focus.
One story he liked to tell was about an experience he had one day driving from work in Kansas to his home in Tennessee. On the several hour drive he found himself wondering about people at work: “What is going on that I am upset with Bob? Bob is a nice enough fellow. I see that the further I get away from the system the more neutral I feel about Bob. Perhaps I just got taken in by all the gossip at the water cooler.” After he returned to Menninger, he found he could relate to Bob pretty well for a couple of days. Then he would find himself going along with the majority viewpoint of Bob. As he became aware of these automatic mechanisms, the triangles, he developed strategies to deal with the gossipers and Bob.
Bowen called this the automatic and out of awareness joining of one’s self with others – fusion. It’s a natural state for a youngster to join with others and to believe what their parents or teachers say, but taken to an extreme some people can be so highly fused they are unable to separate from others. They react to social pressure from parents and others and are unable to determine their own separate identity. Their emotional growth is stunted and they are vulnerable to all kinds of physical and emotional symptoms.
No one knows how these fused states come to be. There may be a genetic vulnerability to becoming fused with others or it may be purely psychological phenomenon.
My own experience with fusion into the undifferentiated ego mass of my family of origin is remarkably consistent with what I have observed in a broad spectrum of reasonably well-integrated families with whom I have worked in my teaching and practice. I have never seen a family in which the “emotional fusion” phenomenon is not present… There are others so intensely “fused” they probably can never know the world of emotional objectivity with their parents. Few people can be objective about their parents, see and think about them as people, without either downgrading or upgrading them”.
Perhaps the first step in defining a self is just to acknowledge the problem of perception. We are under evolutionary pressure to act as part of a social unit and that pressure overrides the inclination to be an individual. The togetherness force is common to all social animals, and for good reason. The herd is a powerful protection, both physically and emotionally. Maybe this is the evolutionary reason we have a strong tendency to automatically fit in with our social groups.
Until one achieves some ability to doubt one’s initial instinct to go along with the group, we are destined to follow the instinct to be for the group. So, what does it take to find your own small difference, or a principle that you can base your decisions on, rather than relying on the love and approval from going along with others?
Laurie Lassiter and others have suggested that there is an evolutionary “gain” from being a bit more separate from the social group. Usually the more separate individual is a more factual observer of the situation and can lead others in a better direction. Evolution favors increasing awareness to contend with changes in the environment, shifting alliances and the transfer of information to enhance survival. 
Part of a leader’s responsibility is to see the world accurately and decide what needs to be done now to prepare for the future. So how do leaders emerge? In some social groups, leadership is decided on criteria about who can be the fiercest chimp in the pack. But violent individuals cannot make much progress. Such leaders do not prepare us to organize well to face a complex future. Differentiation prepares people to be more separate and more autonomous so they can be useful to the social group without compromising self.
Cell differentiation creates an organism with many parts that function “differently”, e.g. kidney, liver, heart, limbs, etc. What does it take to have a well-run family, business or society? It requires that each of us live up to our potential as individuals who are well defined for self and can also be connected to the group in a useful way.
How do you really know what is important to you if you are willing to alter it to please others? What does it take to know the beliefs, ideas and opinions that you have acquired in order to get along with others? And how can you lead yourself, let alone others, in a complex world without your own principles to guide you?
The Social Science of Influence
Many years of social science research have demonstrated that our perception is a personal and biased view of the world, reflecting the family we grew up in and the pressure we experience even subliminally to conform. Social science researchers like Solomon Asch show us that our social groups can cause us to radically alter what we believe we see about something as fundamental as our perception of the length of a line.
Asch’s most famous experiments set a contest between physical and social reality. His subjects judged unambiguous stimuli – lines of different lengths – after hearing other opinions offering incorrect estimates. Subjects were very upset by the discrepancy between their perceptions and those of others and most caved under the pressure to conform: only 29% of his subjects refused to join the bogus majority. This technique was a powerful lens for examining the social construction of reality, and gave rise to decades of research on conformity. Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority were inspired directly by Asch’s studies.
“Behavior is not a response to the world as it is, but to the world as perceived.”]
Asch told his colleagues that his idea to study conformity was brought about by his childhood experiences in Poland. He recalls being seven years old and staying up for his first Passover night. He recalls seeing his grandmother pour an extra glass of wine. When he asked who the glass of wine was for, she said that it was for the prophet Elijah. He then asked her whether he would really take a sip from the glass and his uncle assured him that he would. His uncle told him to watch very closely when the time came. “Filled with a sense of suggestion and expectation” Asch “thought he saw the level of wine in the cup drop just a bit. Thus, early in life, Asch succumbed to conformity, which fostered his idea to investigate conformity later in life.
Asch believed that social interaction reflects the ability of individual people to synthesize information about group norms, the viewpoints of others and their own perceptions of themselves as group members. He emphasized that independent thought and disagreement among group members is a cornerstone of group functioning. He believed that only by settling our differences with other group members, can we actually understand the shortcomings of our own beliefs. 
I don’t know if Murray Bowen knew of Asch’s 1951 research. However, by the 1950’s Bowen had his own view of how people see self and what part of self they would like others to see. Bowen would eventually call the ability to negotiate self in the social system differentiation and the process whereby one becomes de-selfed, fusion.
From Psychoanalysis to Biology
Bowen was in psychoanalysis during his early years at the Menninger Clinic. He often talked about how he saw transference as a growth process in the two-person relationship between therapist and patient. In relationship to an objective and knowledgeable analyst, the other is able to learn to see self and others more accurately. This two-person relationship was predictable and he thought it could be part of science.
Transference and counter transference involves a step by step process of getting to know one’s self in relationship to an analyst who is non-threatening, objective and interested in clarifying each one’s perceptions of relationships. The assumption is that each person has his or her version of people and events and acts in accordance with that view.
Bowen called the misperception of others and the behavior it produced as evidence of “fusion”. His effort was to ground human behavior in a biological process. In the beginning cellular lives are clumps without a nucleus. The cells fuse and slowly begin to separate from one another and take on a specialized role. Differentiation then is the process of a cell or an individual developing its special functions and no longer functioning as part of the undifferentiated mass.
In effective psychotherapy or coaching you can see the progress that a person makes in becoming more of a self and less reactive and dependent on others.
During Bowen’s early years at the Menninger Clinic, he described the way he observed shifting relationship pressures in psychotherapy.
- what patient thinks his parent thinks he is;
- what patient feels he is;
- what patient feels his wife and therapist think he is ;
- what patient tries to act like;
- what patient hopes outside people think he is (often he thinks they suspect #1); 6. what patient hoped therapist saw on first appointment;
- what patient hopes to be;
- what patient wants therapist to think of him.
The urge to agree with and to thereby fuse with another, to figure out what “they” want you to be, happens so fast and in the most innocent ways. “Do you like my dress?” “No!” “Of course you are right, I do not like it either.” This is the fused or automatic response, confirming our vulnerability to want to fit in well with the other. This can range from dressing “properly” to hating a broad swath of people, e.g. “If it weren’t for the (nations, peoples, religion, etc.), the world would be a better place.” Social pressure can be extreme and the reasons complex, especially when manifest in individuals or groups who hold their truths to be sacrosanct and who terrorize others to control them.
Knowing all of this, one senses the need to be more of a strong self in order not to fall under the automatic influence of social groups. How do any of us go about changing our selves to be more like whom we want to be, and less like the complaint ones (go along to get along), or the ghost from the past (living as though the realities of the past are the realities of today), or the rebel (being “different” for the sake of being different, not based on any thoughtful principles), or the puppet that is strung along on the social expectations of another (living without awareness of any of the above).
A Time for Change
There are two ways that change seems to happen. One is the automatic response to changes in the system: time for you to leave home for college or a job, to fall in love, to start a family, to watch your parents die and to cope with all that comes at you. For most people these are knowable changes that the family adapts to. People can do a good job at this but they have to change. There may be emotional shock waves that create havoc during these transitions. People have to adapt.
The second path is “mindful” change. Can I be better defined, can I use this time of change in the system to understand the system and my part in it and better manage the anxiety related to transitions? Bowen took this second path in his work in his own family. He wrote up his experience doing this in “The Anonymous paper.”
For curious and motivated people the answer is yes, I want to know how systems work and I want to alter myself in relationship with others. For these folks, the first goal is to cool down anxious situations, and redirect anxiety away from the vulnerable ones.
The basic challenge in system learning is to be vulnerable and to observe the reality of people’s lives. How does one get out of blind fusion with others and develop a person-to-person relationship? Can you talk about the way you see things and listen to the how the other person sees things without defending or attacking? Sounds easy, but it’s a big risk.
Understanding self and others will help us do well with all kinds of sticky situations where people are sensitive to one another. Understating fusion and what it takes to be a more separate self can enable one to run or dispose of a family business, or help us deal more thoughtfully with a family member who has been hospitalized for a serious physical or emotional illness. It can be very challenging to see self as part of the problem and part of the solution. Instead of telling others what to do or running from them, you get to know them and you reveal more about you. You stick with the “I” position and not with the “YOU should” position
One of Bowen’s Efforts to be Better Defined
The new plan was to define myself as a person as much as possible and to communicate individually to a wide spectrum of extended family members; I tried to establish as many individual relationships within the family as possible. Every possible opportunity was used to write personal letters to every niece and nephew. The less differentiated family segments still tended to reply with letters to my entire family, but more and more some began to write personal letters addressed to my office, and since they were addressed to me personally, my family never saw them. The return on this endeavor is like a long-term dividend; it has modified my image within the entire family. Another project was the development of a “person-to-person” relationship with each of my parents and also with as many people as possible in the extended family. A person-to-person relationship is conceived as an ideal in which two people can communicate freely about the full range of personal issues between them. Most people cannot tolerate more than a few minutes on a personal level. When either party becomes anxious, he begins talking about a third person (triangles in another person), or the communication becomes impersonal and they talk about things. In such an effort, one encounters every rejection, alliance, and resistance that are present in emotional systems everywhere. In disciplining the self to do this, one develops versatility and emotional courage in all relationships; one learns more about people than in most endeavors, and the family profits too. In some family situations the positive results are sweeping, both for the family and the one who initiated the effort. These experiences were used in clinical practice, which in turn made contributions to the effort with my own family. 
A Method to See and Deal with Emotional Pressure
Sometimes words pressure us to go along with others. For example, “we” can be a word of confusion. Who is this “we”? Can you see the folding in on one another? No one asks if you want to be part of the “we”.
Fusion happens so fast because we want others to agree with us or we want to go along with others as in the Solomon Asch experiment. “We” can be a short cut to cooperating to get things done. Or it can be a short cut to control others, to feel in control or simply feel “in” with a social group. Anxiety can create confusion and limit our ability to know where our responsibilities to and for others begin and end.
Love affairs, raising teenagers or trying to train a new manager to take over the business often present this kind of challenge. One way to see how anxiety and fusion work is to notice when people get “other focused”. They blame, worry about others, or become adamant about a stance they are taking. Listen for the words of fusion and see the loss of self-focus:
- “You better do what I say or you will get sick, flunk out of school, lose your job or prove you’re a jerk!”
- “If you want to be married to me, you better do, x, y and z!”
- “You are the problem. If it were not for you I would be happy!”
- “Take the garbage out, drive the car, stop drinking and smoking, etc.”
The ability to be less reactive is enhanced with the effort to be aware of the automatic nature of emotional pressure and the urge to go along with others. If one can tone down one’s automatic responsiveness one can build a better more meaning filled life.
What will it take to think before you act and to define what principles guide your actions? To the extent one can do this, one has the opportunity to become a more defined self and a person who can offer self and others more freedom.
Profile of moderate to good differentiation of self.
This is the group in the 50 to 75 range. These are the people with enough basic differentiation between the emotional and intellectual systems for the two systems to function alongside each other as a cooperative team. The intellectual system is sufficiently developed so that it can hold its own and function autonomously without being dominated by the emotional system when anxiety increases. In people below 50, the emotional system tells the intellectual system what to think and say, and which decisions to make in critical situations. The intellect is a pretend intellect. The emotional system permits the intellect to go off into a corner and think about distant things as long as it does not interfere in joint decisions that affect the total life course. Above 50, the intellectual system is sufficiently developed to begin making a few decisions of its own. It has learned that the emotional system runs an effective life course in most areas of functioning, but in critical situations the automatic emotional decisions create long-term complications for the total organism. The intellect learns that it requires a bit of discipline to overrule the emotional system, but the long-term gain is worth the effort.
Murray Bowen, M.D.,
Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 369).
 Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 494). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
 Transference is a phenomenon characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another. One definition of transference is “the inappropriate repetition in the present of a relationship that was important in a person’s childhood.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transference
 Cell fusion is an important cellular process in which several uninuclear cells (cells with a single nucleus) combine to form a multinuclearcell, known as a syncytium. Cell fusion occurs during differentiation of muscle, bone and trophoblast cells, during embryogenesis, and during morphogenesis. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_fusion
 Williamsburg Collection: The Murray Bowen Archives of Leaders for Tomorrow
 Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 499). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.