A tragedy of ignorance unfolds as more evidence comes to light about the relationship between a vulnerable person and society.
How much do we know about how a seemingly relatively well functioning person can become psychotic/suicidal and crash a plane into the French Alps killing150 people? How much do we see him in isolation?
What are the chances that when the pilot yelled “OPEN THE DOOR!” this command from an authority decreased the chance that any useful outcome would occur?
Using Bowen’s systems theory we can find a deeper understanding of the emotional pressure that blindsides us and can turn vulnerable people into revenge machines.
If you watch the news shows you can see the emotional reactivity spread as pundits, news anchors, pilots, and psychologists, etc. focus on and “analyze” the “depressed” co-pilot. People react to the threat that there could be other depressed pilots out there. Some pilots joke that they are happily married. They pick up the importance of relationships. More worrisome are the comments like, “There is nothing we can do”, or the suggested quick fix, “Make that door open from the outside or put a stewardess in there.” And so goes the emotional responses to a threat.
What would it be like to hear a TV pundit say, “I need to back up and take a broader systems view of this tragedy”? This might require the pundit to deeply enquire as to the different variables influencing this situation. No diagnoses alone will enable us to understand what this individual was up against. A broader view may.
There is limited awareness and no talk about how emotionality spreads through a social system. People react and cannot notice how infectious and other focused their reactivity is. Some are so relieved that is wasn’t a terrorist plot that they are willing to dismiss this as a horrid act by just another “crazy” person. To some degree we have all become part of the reactivity to this event, creating the possibility of more emotional reactivity aimed at the vulnerable.
Just as in so many of these senseless and violent acts from Columbine and Sandy Hook to the Boston Marathon, there is the initial confusion which eventually gives way to helplessness (“There’s nothing we can do…”) or an angry reaction of blame towards those with depression and mental illness. It takes deep awareness not to be swept into a reactive state where the media (and our family and friends) overly influence the way we think and feel.
Unanswered questions for us as a society
- How factual is the press portrayal of the problem?
- What are the emotional reactions of the public?
- How does reactivity recreate the same problem?
- How can information about this incident promote learning?
- What are the limits of current psychotherapy treatment?
- Is a family approach needed to reorganize a stressed social system
- Can we learn from the co-pilot’s family about his early years?
- What was his recent relationship like with his family?
- Did he have relationships with people in his extended family?
- What were his relationships like with his friends?
How do people communicate and the downside of controlling others
The conventional wisdom or posture of the current psychology/psychiatry establishment is: “I will figure out what the problem. You are depressed. Please follow the doctor’s orders and take your medication”. (Even though following doctor’s orders could make you more depressed). The co-pilot was faced with a maddening bind: “Do as I say. Take the drug, lose your job.”
Doing what others want can lead to less self for a vulnerable person. Telling someone who is weak and confused what they must do can lead to a lack of compliance and increase the possibility of rebellion. This probably happened in his family, at work with his girlfriend and in the doctor’s office. The co-pilot tears up his prescriptions. The doctor feels that he did the right thing. The co-pilot is lost to anger, revenge and throws himself towards death.
The pilot yells at the co-pilot demanding that he follow orders, but the co-pilot is allergic to following orders and the pilot has not been trained to deal with emotionally disturbed people. Even if he had been, could he have figured out how to get the co-pilot to cooperate? What if he said to the co-pilot, “I need help. Please, please help me”? It is hard for the one in charge to see the big picture. Little can be done once the door to our fellow human being is locked. Can we know more about understanding the emotional tone in language?
Early on Bowen wrote about the schizophrenic family exhibiting a kind of “emotional oneness”. The self of the child is never developed so that he or she can think and live independently from the parents. The self is “borrowed” from others. This borrowed self is very vulnerable to being rejected and or invaded by the needs, wishes and demands of others. We all have this vulnerability to our relationship networks to some degree or another. Bowen said there are 100 degrees of difference in the level of emotional maturity. Each of us is influenced by our position in our social networks to be more or less dependent and or reactive.
If the co-pilot found some kind of “self” in his job and it was enough “self” to manage his relationships then he might be able to live a “normal” life. But if the relationship system were disturbed, then he would no longer be able to borrow enough “self” to function. The loss of one’s job could be one threat but there were other relationships threats that add to his vulnerability. By looking carefully at what was going on in his family, with his girlfriend and his social status at work we begin to see what went wrong that pushed him to become a killer.
What do we know so far about the disturbance in the relationship networks that the copilot used to sustain himself? What do we know about the way in which the copilot tried to control and produce his version of a “family oneness”?
Some have suggested that the relationship with his girlfriend was disturbed by her pregnancy and he was threatened by this addition of a new person in their relationship. Being on the outside of a mother-child relationship, just like being on the outside of any intense triangle, can make people feel threatened and vulnerable. Current reports suggest that she was actually moving out and leaving him. Other “reasons” for his actions, some suggest, were his fear that his vision problem would end his flying career. (Yet another report implied that his vision problem was psychological. This would be more evidence of the fragile nature of his functioning. ) And after he crashed the plane, his girl friend and her family fled the village they lived in. Would they be blamed for the pilot’s murderous rage? How will they face the future and make sense of that has happened? How will we?
As more facts are gathered we see the gradual desecration of all the important ingredients that held this person’s life together; his health, his job and his family relationships, were all threatened.
How is it that no one noticed that in losing his relationships and his health, he lost what ever was left of his self. This is what can happen. The emotional process in a social group is sensitized to focus on others and to be critical of others to get them in line. The automatic response is to look at others, focus on them and blame them, thereby freeing the rest of us from seeing our part in how the system is organized. Pause for a moment and consider the degree to which you can see how blaming individuals keeps us from seeing the larger system and this blindness makes events like this more likely to recur.
It has been reported that even the co-pilot wanted to change “the system”. It would have been better if he had wanted to change himself but he too was focused on “others”. The best case is if this tragedy makes a small dent in the way we think about the individual and social systems and how we deal with troubled people. Perhaps he will help us understand what the “family oneness” is? Can we be more aware of what happens to others if we are too distant, too controlling, too needing of others? It is automatic to pressure others to make us happy or safe, but this “other focus” eventually leads to the erosion of self and to some kind of tragedy.
The co-pilot who crashed a passenger jet into the French Alps, killing all 150 aboard, worried “health problems” would dash his dreams and vowed one day to do something to “change the whole system”, an ex-girlfriend told a German newspaper.
Understanding the system and the trapped person
One hypothesis is that the co-pilot felt trapped by the events happening to him and believed, “If you know of my problems you will fire me and that will kill me. I feel that you are against me and I must kill you”. The others around the co-pilot could have reassured him in an unsatisfactory way or been critical, making him more anxious. People feel how others regard them and often find it difficult to think or consider the facts of the situation when they are upset. They hide out, disappear and can then project their worries and negative feelings onto others. (“What I feel you are doing to me I am going to do to you.”) The primitive and reactive part of the brain is in control and the logical rational part is over-ridden.
Effective therapy allows people to be in a positive questioning relationship that enables them to see how they are tangled up and learn to gradually unhook from the emotionally driven reactions enough to begin to alter, improve and broaden their relationships with significant others. Bowen was the first person to notice that by being in good emotional contact with one’s extended family, people were able to make progress twice as fast as those in psychoanalysis.
Over time people can THINK about how automatically they behave. Eventually their thinking can alter their behavior. But if people are too sensitive to tolerate a relationship that calls things into question they can leave therapy in a negative way and may be more inclined to hurt self or others.
People are born into a functional position in their families. Some are able to observe how they are influenced by the social system, while others are born more highly sensitive and reactive to relationships. The individuals who take challenges personally cannot see the system as a larger mutigenerational system that influences and impacts all the individuals in it.
The German co-pilot was probably not a good observer of the push and pull in the human social system. Possibly he took things very, very personally and was unsure of himself and pushed people away from him. Bullies are the flip side of this dynamic. They threaten others directly, while a more passive person can hurt self or act quietly to get revenge for real and perceived hurts.
As in the case of the co-pilot social pressure leads to threatening others. As people lose self they are unsure of what they think. They copy others and mouth the right words and sometimes this pretending works to fool others and to get along. But under stress the façade can crumble because it’s not solid. The language used in families where there are serious symptoms often shows a disregard for the identity of the individual. There is lot of telling others what to do, criticizing them, ignoring them, not letting them get a word in edgewise, using ego merger words like “YOU must, you will, you are, we are the right ones and you are the wrong one”. There are just a few of the indicators of increasing anxiety. The overall message is, “We are not sure of you and you are not sure of you either”.
Many vulnerable people are sensitive to being told what to do and so they go away, fight with you, get sick, blame or worry about others to preserve themselves in a hostile environment. The main thing one can notice is that it is difficult for people to focus on self and talk about self and easier for them to try to get the others to behave.
Once there is an “other focus” it becomes difficult to work on self. There is no “I” position that can help build an emotional backbone. And without an emotional backbone, there is no dealing with challenging relationships. Those who have become focused on can be de-selfed and under pressure they can tumble into psychosis and can do “mad “ and destructive things. When told what to do or when threatened, they seek revenge. These are the few who never had a solid self and who believe deeply that “if you will not agree with me one of us will die”.
What does it take to see patterns of relationships? What does it take for individuals to integrate negative experiences? What does it take to find a more thoughtful way to relate to those who have hurt you? These are all questions for testing levels of emotional maturity.
What would it take to change the system?
We know that integrating one’s thinking and feeling about one’s life experiences takes time and the process is not very well understood. Perhaps as we learn more about the co-pilot and his relationships, this knowledge could be generalized and change the way society understands and deals with emotional problems. But seeing these events differently requires changing the way we as a society understand mental health, shifting our thinking to a broad view of systems and how systems influence individuals, not the other way around. We would have to see the individual as in and part of the system, not as isolated from it.
Our brain is not built for interpersonal reflection. Our ancient brain was taught to operate in and preserve hierarchies, no matter the cost to a particular individual. Humans like other animals distribute anxiety unfairly. Without thought, the weak are picked on and the strong get the better deal. This is the emotional system at work. It takes courage to look at our part in problems and to think that even how we simply react to challenges, how we act, talk and think, may be “messing up” others.
Differentiation of self
We have the capacity to lead and to take on the “unfair” nature of the emotionally driven system. In most systems there are one or two who can see that the automatic nature of blaming, shaming and isolating does not improve human functioning. These are the ones who can rise above diagnosis of the individual and think differently about how to increase functioning by managing themselves in relationships.
If one can see the social system and relate to others by being more separate, we know others will object and be upset. But this changes the direction of the “worried focus”. When one person begins to change how they deal with a problem person in the family, a different level of change occurs. One person decides, “I’m not doing ‘this diagnosing’ anymore. I am going to change the way I am acting toward so and so”. This begins to create change throughout the whole system.
Sometimes we may feel that there is only a small chance of finding a more mature leader (in a family, organization or the larger society) willing to change self in the face of a monumental problem. But if you look around there are examples everywhere. There are people stepping up to change some aspect of society that they find appalling.
One example of social change
It may be that our mental heath system based on seeing and treating the individual will come under greater scrutiny. It may be that enough evidence will be gathered to say that the surrounding social system must be involved in the treatment of those with serious symptoms. At this point, to go from an individual focus to a family focus seems way too difficult. It would involve way too much social change. But great social change is possible.
The March 29, 2015 issue of the New York Times magazine describes the story of how a few people in Norway changed a prison system from punishment to a focus on rehabilitation: Prison Planet: How do we treat the world’s most dangerous prisoners and what does it say about us. The prison was designed to restore the basic elements needed for humans to grow and develop: exposure to sunlight, to open space, to encourage those in authority to play games with the inmates, to “learn” to interact with people. Halden Prison spends $93,000 on each prisoner, focusing on preparing inmates for life when they get out. The US spends $32,00 for punishment.
System Theory offers a path to a quiet revolution
Bowen theory allows us to consider the nature of the relationship systems surrounding us and to more deeply understand what is influencing our ability to stand-alone and to be mindful of emotional pressure. There are many things that go into giving up of self and the automatic desire to have an emotional oneness with others. We can notice it in our lives if we are able to see emotional pressure and how often we automatically agree with or fight with or disappear from defining ourselves in relationships with others. We give up a little bit of self when things are not questioned, when we go along with the powerful ones, when we do not put forth our differences with others, and when we cut off from difficult relationships and conversations.
We as a society are blindsided by the power of the emotional system and find it difficult to observe its influence. This is the double bind for us all. The social system is automatically functioning to identify someone as the problem and that individual is done in while we stand by silently participating. This blaming, worried process lets the group survive. And we are part of it as long as we do not see the larger process that is occurring.
In families we see how easy it is to get upset with the one who does not do his or her homework, clean the room, stays out too late and is not obedient. These are the ones who can draw the negative focus. We have built a lucrative social structure to deal with the vulnerable ones without realizing how we are participating and benefiting from this process.
Bowen theory offers an alternative, an open window, a fresh breeze, a different way to see and understand the suffering around us. Theory offers each of us a full time job. There is a way to be more aware of relationships, and to be a more thoughtful self in the effort to open any door.
 Intensive Family Therapy: Theoretical and Practical Aspects, edited by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, James L. Framo
 Kathrin Goldbach, a 26-year-old secondary school teacher, told her students two weeks ago that she was pregnant, and she was planning to marry Lubitz. However, the day before the Germanwings airplane crash, Goldbach told Lubitz, 27, she was moving out of the apartment they shared in Dusseldorf, Germany. Goldbach cited his insecurity and controlling personality as reasons for her decision. Goldbach also believed Lubitz had been seeing another woman. She accused him of having a five-month relationship with a Germanwings stewardess. Newsmax reported that Goldbach’s friends said she was leaving Lubitz because she could no longer live with him because of his erratic behavior. Goldbach had been vocal about the way he treated her. Her friends said Goldbach told them Lubitz tried to order her about what to wear, and who she could and could not talk to. Kathrin Goldbach and her family are said to be so afraid of being blamed for the Germanwings crash – caused by Lubitz after he flew the plane he was co-piloting into the French Alps – that they have fled the town and vowed to never return.
 Currently the prison system in Norway is designed to “ease psychological pressure, mitigate conflict, and minimize interpersonal conflict”. Norwegians have altered the system. If a prison environment can be altered, how hard is it to alter the way we think about treating people with mental heath issues?