Reflections on Changing Self in a Multigenerational Family System

Published by Navigating Systems October 25, 2018

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. – E. E. Cummings

Laws that govern man’s emotional functioning are as orderly as those that govern other natural systems. and our difficulty in understanding the system is not so much in the complexity of the system as in man’s denial of the system.[i] – Murray Bowen

This spring and summer there were very obvious increases in symptoms in my family. At times like this I am vulnerable to anxiety, to overreacting, over-helping and rescuing. This is not a pretty sight: an anxious older sister ready to help. Yes, I need to up my game. So, I sat down to think about what is the history of drug problems in my family. What I have been told or witnessed seems to fall under the general idea around a negative focus on the weaker ones in the group.

Before I tell the story of how these symptoms played out in the family, let’s back up to see how social systems functioned three billion plus years ago. Let us consider the heterocyst.[i] They live as a colony and under threatening conditions they pressure the weaker ones in the group to give up their reproductive right so they can fix nitrogen for the group. The group must survive. Some individuals are sacrificed. Is this the only choice for us humans?

Emotional systems found among cells, bees, ants, and humans automatically alert its members to focus on and fix problems. Alerting can be useful to solve problems or spread panic. What makes it possible to slow down and consider options instead of blaming one or two people for problems? What are the principles used to maintain our ability to listen and understand more about how to communicate with others? I don’t want to pile on with a negative focus on others so: How can I keep focused on and develop my “I” position? Can I communicate how I see things differently? Can I focus on learning about my internal reactivity? Can I communicate a different way of thinking to anxious upset family members? Can I accept the blame or upset without defending myself?

People say so and so has a drug problem. Do something. NEW IDEA: Drug problems are not so much about the drug as it is about how the relationship system is organized. My Irish family has had generations of drug problems. It could be a gene; it could be relationship pressure. It takes time for people to decide what they will and will not do about the problem in a thoughtful way. People react negatively. They rush in telling others what to do. They invade the others’ ego boundaries. This is the reactive family culture at work. Just trying to solve problems quickly and if I run over you, so sorry.

More mature people are just not as reactive. They can calm down and think about the deep nature of the problem. The challenge is to be able to hold all the people around you, and yourself, responsible for each one’s part in the problem. Decrease blaming or telling others what to do. If people use drugs as they are unsure of self, how is blaming them helping them to gain more self? 

The family emotional process is about blaming others. One day the family was gathered around the fire and so the story goes – my great grandfather, Nicholas Dominic Maher, (known as NDM – No Damn Monkey business) was president of the Norfolk and Western Railroad. 

It was 1928. Horace, his third son, had a drug problem. Some said it was due to wounds from WWI. According to the family story, NDM went to rescue his son in New York City. That night it was raining; NDM was out in the cold. A few days later, NDM was diagnosed with pneumonia and died. Many people, including my grandfather, were mad at Horace and never even mentioned that he was one of the first original 12 members in AA. People who had drinking problems were seen as a serious threat to the family.

The answer to the threat: cut off from those with drug problems, do not let them in, send them money, and do not talk to them about the reality of the situation. Despite this “let us be tough on the drug problem people”, drug problems increased. My mother and father became the focus of negative anxiety after WWII. They both died from alcoholism. Then when my brother came of age, he began drinking. No amount of anger could get him to stop. I saw this family focus on negativity and blame as being more dangerous than the drinking and drug use.

This does not indicate that one does nothing. No one has to relate well to those with drug problems. Relating well to those with drug problems requires one to be less reactive and have some ability to be free enough to say things like: “If you get drunk and pass out, OK then I will be able to come over and clean up your house. You’re free to choose, to drink or not to drink, but you might not be able to keep me out of your house.”

Telling others what they should do stinks. When one person “knows” what the other should be doing and then is critical of them, that person is in the dominating and controlling position. Can you alter this dynamic as though it were a seesaw? Can you use the “I” position to move around instead of staying in a fixed position? Can you use systems knowledge to decide what you will and will not do in a non-uptight way?

When things settle down, it is easier to talk about difficult things. Then the focus shifts as to how to communicate rather than who is wrong or bad. Cooperation often requires more openness and that’s uncomfortable. But it’s better than getting drunk or watching others get drunk. 

How do I talk about concerns in a non-uptight way? Can I shrink my concerns down to a few sentences? If there is less blaming of self or others, then the system can move towards greater maturity.


  • When anxiety increases can I see problems more objectively?
  • Can I be less reactive?
  • What is the impact of one person altering self in the system?
  • How does change, (e.g. the death of an important person, the birth of a new child, or new symptoms) impact individuals and the system?

In summary: Some in the family or the larger society are suffering more than others and those who are not addicted to drugs can get addicted to telling others what to do. We can get over- or under-involved, get mad, get sad, and lose contact with the person we care about.

The challenge is how to relate well to the person without trying to force them to be someone for you. For example, “I am curious as to what drugs do for you, and I wondered about the challenge for you, if and when you decide to walk away from the drug world?

This does not indicate that one does nothing; the job is to relate well to those with drug problems. Clearly relating well to those with drug problems requires one person being less reactive and upset by the other’s behavior. If one can be more emotionally separate, then one can be more playful rather than being paralyzed, angry, or dominating.

Another challenge is that making real contact with another often requires us to give up our dreams and hopes for others and accept them as they are. That does not indicate one must live with people who are acting crazy. When people behave well then, then they can live with you. There is always a choice.

Once you can separate who the person is from his or her behavior, then things may begin to change. Negative behavior may just be the system’s primitive voice, asking “others” to absorb the family anxiety as though they had nothing better to do with their lives.

Just as a good heterocyst does, one can be asked or pressured to give up self for the group. The question for us humans seems to be: can we notice when we are asked to give up self for the group?

[i] Ideas about the heterocyst from a presentation by Laurie Lassiter, PhD

Read more about multigenerational process.