Societal Reaction to the Killing of Nine People in Charleston SC . Are We Blindsided by the Emotional System? 

These ideas were generated by the first summer session for Navigating Systems and Murray Bowen’s Concept of Societal Regression.

bowen chalk on finger tips

Each day we are bombarded by the difficulties we as a society face: random violence, wars, mass migrations, acts of terrorism, senseless murders, posturing politicians, our decreasing attention span, increases in autism, breakdowns in relationships and many other challenges. How can we understand the essence of these societal problems? And what will it take to make a difference?

This week Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old man, joined a prayer meeting at the historic African-American Church Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. Cool and deliberately, he killed nine people there.

“A drunken Dylan Storm Roof boasted one night about an unspecified six-month plan “to do something crazy”. This weekend Roof’s sister was to be married. Roof had repeated the ninth grade at the Lexington County High School, and was described as “very transient,” he “came and went.” In a Washington Post interview, Roof’s uncle, Carson Cowles, said his mother “never raised him to be like this.” “The whole world is going to be looking at his family who raised this monster,” Cowles told the Post. “I’d be the executioner myself if they would allow it.”[1]

Only a few things are known about Roof now. But there will be analysis of his environment and his family, as there has been for the others who slay innocent people. Once again we will learn more about the profile of a loner who had as much difficulty relating to others as they had relating to him. All the mechanisms are engaged; distance, conflict and projection.

This is another example of family emotional process, intensifying and impacting society. The family patterns of relating create intense polarizations and blaming over the generations. It is these patterns of reactivity that draw “fault” lines in a family that become more and more deeply imbedded in that family and in society.

Systems Thinking is Hard to Do

Can we become more objective about the primitive mechanisms that influence us? Faster than the speed of light the our automatic response is to feel upset and “know” that so and so is to blame, that guns or “lone wolves”, etc. explains these frightening phenomena.

Thinking systems can enable us to go beyond good guys and bad guys even though it’s just not “natural” or automatic for us to see and deal with the emotional system. Although our tendency is to buy into a particular story line to explain what has happened, when we do that we limit our objectivity and become more emotional, focusing on short term fixes. Bowen called this the force for togetherness. It allows us to be popular and agreeable and not think as hard.

Being careful of “group think” around any emotional area is probably very wise. After all societal regression occurs when large numbers of individuals come together, with high emotions and not much thought. Under stress and the pressure to be a part of the upset group, people lose the ability to become more objective and thoughtful. It is automatic to be controlled by the stress and fear generated by the emotional system.

In societal regression there is anxiety produced by many threats including but not limited to the loss of new frontiers, land, water supplies and other basic resources. The inability to manage self under increasing stress is seen in the withdrawal of some individuals and/or in frustrating and stressful interactions between individuals.

When one becomes more objective, one can both increase the ability to relate to one another as separate individuals and can take the time to deeply analyze new trends in society. One example can be seen in Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. Here we see how there are many long terms trends that are changing slowly, making our society less functional. We have to see these trends as important in order to address them.[2] But we are often blind to the patterns in the emotional system.


Like our forebears who thought the earth was the center of the universe, so does the conventional wisdom suggest that the individual is “the problem”. What will it take to understand the influence of the family and the larger social systems on all of us?

When we understand that heightened emotions and criticism harms and doesn’t help, perhaps we can be better at monitoring how we communicate. If people understand that being able to relate to others is the highest priority, then they might be able to tone down the polarized talk.

I am not sure the mayor of Charleston has any idea he may be making the situation worse in using his emotional reactions as a city leader. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the suspect was “filled with hate and with a deranged mind.” “The man is a “no-good, horrible person,” he said. “Of course we will make sure he pays the price for this horrible act.”[3]

Family Reaction to Death

It is somewhat easier to see a system in action if it is your own family. It is harder to see that society is a system. Perhaps if you thought of news organizations somewhat like your gossiping aunt, then you could see how an emotional system be it the family or society, can be driven by anxious perceptions.

Once we are triggered into becoming more anxious, then we tend to follow the crowd and cling to short-term solutions that reflect some ancient value (like revenge or forgiveness). It is easy to be overwhelmed by problems in society. It seems somewhat more rational for us to respond and find solutions when our own families become symptomatic.

Back in the 1970’s, Bowen spelled out the emotional confusion and anxiety in describing the family reaction to death. When you take a family history you often see clusters of symptoms around the loss of an important family member. In these cases, it is easier to see that the family is an emotional system, where threat spreads from one person to another in a predictable almost deterministic way.

When families (and larger social systems) have good contact and tolerance or a deep appreciation for one another, then they have more resilience to deal with loss. Families where people are unable to talk cannot prepare well for death.

Any family can be impacted by multiple symptoms following a death.

The opposite can also happen when someone dies and others have a renewed sense of the importance of life.

The behavioral patterns that are generated in emotional systems regress into blame, polarization and distance resulting in symptoms. If on the other hand there is a pattern-breaking leader who is able to have enough awareness and insight to break patterns, the system will be influenced to move towards progression.

Awareness and understanding of what it is that one faces makes it possible to use our intellectual system to deal more effectively with the automatic emotional system. We can develop creative solutions for old problems when the emotional system settles down.

One of the most challenging things is to notice when you are being unduly influenced by the people around you. If you are feeling highly emotional (think sad, mad, disgusted, fearful, blaming, guilty etc.), then the family emotional process might just be controlling you. Can you be more separate? Can you let the emotions calm down? Take a deep breath relax for a moment, let the storm subside. Pay attention to what it takes to get out of an emotional reaction. Somewhere in the emotional upheaval there might just might be useful information. But in a storm you can also be swept away.

Losing open contact among family members is a storm warning that you may be under the control of the family emotional process. Without contact there is little ability to cooperate and to care for one another. Once we get stressed one of the early warning signs is you no longer want anything to do with “those people.”

Be it in our family or as a reaction to what goes on in our society, our brains “automatically” respond to stresses, producing cortisol, damaging connections in the brain, even if we are not aware of the growing threats and pressures.   By studying the human family Bowen saw that even as the family was at its lowest point, one person could become more differentiated and slow down or stop a regression in the group.

Bowen’s observation was that those who are more differentiated are not regulated by the emotional system. At higher levels of emotional maturity, they are more capable of thinking for self and sustaining ideas that are unusual without attacking others. They are not bullies trying to get others to agree. Instead they are good listeners and creative in considering a wide range of ways to solve complex problems without letting the disapproval of others stop them.

Greater differentiation allows one to notice and respect others while maintaining one’s own direction. A focus on self and managing as best one can to relate to others can promote greater cooperation and less anxiety in relationships.

Murray Bowen:

One principle about differentiating change is probably more important than all the others. Differentiation begins when one family member begins to more clearly define and openly state his own inner life principles and convictions, and he begins to take responsible action based on convictions.


This is in contrast to principles derived from the rest of the family. It may require months or longer for this one to become reasonably sure within himself.


The remainder of the family opposes this differentiating effort with a powerful emotional counterforce, which goes in successive steps: (1) “You are wrong,” with volumes of reason to support this; (2) “Change back and we will accept you again”; and (3) “If you don’t these are the consequences,” which are then listed. The accusations commonly list indifference, meanness, lack of love, selfishness, coldness, the sadistic disregard for others, etc.


When the differentiating one defends himself, or counterattacks, or falls silent, he slips back into the old emotional equilibrium. When he can finally stay on his own calm course, in spite of the togetherness forces, the accusations reach a peak and quickly subside.


The opposition then expresses a single statement of appreciation at the conviction and strength of the differentiating one and the entire group pulls up to the new level attained by the first.


Later, another member of the group will start his or her own effort at the better definition of self. The togetherness opposition to individuation, or differentiation, is so predictable that differentiation does not occur without opposition from the togetherness forces. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 437). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


[2] Robert Putnam lays out a case for a societal regression in his book: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.   Putnam shows us the disintegration of fragile families, the crumbling communities, the increase in child poverty rates, the increase in prison populations, the decrease in jobs and shows is how both kin and non kin networks have shrunk in the last ten years. Americans are disengaged. (Putnam page 211) Even the upper classes have lost social trust. In the 1970’s 78% of people in the most educated agreed with the statement “most people can be trusted.” (Putnam page 220) By 2010 people’s ability to trust others was down to 25%.



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