Recognizing That Social Pressure Lives in All of Us

“Why limit ourselves solely, to what we know? The ingenuity that we find in biology should never surprise us.”

— Rodger Penrose

The way I see it is not always the way others see it. The way I understand is not the way others understand. As a young person, I believed people saw the world the way I saw it. But as I explained my truth to others, there was less agreement—and perhaps some laughter. Some wanted me to think as they did: You should believe and think x.  Only later did I understand this was social pressure to be delivered by words or actions: Give up your thoughts and ideas. Be the way we want you to be.

Recounting My Experience

Back in the seventies, I was not alone in the effort I made to figure out what I believed and where I stood, which set me apart from others. There were all kinds of social movements encouraging people to do this.  Then, later, as a professional listening to various people who hailed from the same family, I would hear stories of the “reasons” people mishear, and fight over who said or did what and to whom.  The inevitable pressure for agreement would then come—followed by the “should” world and a corresponding variety of reactions. People would shut down or become distant, others would choose to focus on their children and what they should be doing. Oftentimes, someone would experience symptoms, and the battle would be over.

Dr. Bowen Called This Pressure Fusion or Togetherness

The origin of life highlights this primitive process whereby modern eukaryotic cells evolved from more primitive cells that engulfed bacteria with useful properties, such as energy production. Combined, the once-independent organisms flourished and evolved into a single organism, approximately two billion years ago.[1]

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Under stress, this ancient fusion process takes place as individuals begin to react to one another in less thoughtful and more automatic ways. One can investigate this phenomenon of social pressure by developing a research project.  Consider how we use language to pressure one other towards greater agreement or fusion. 

Bowen began his theory as an explanation of the fusion and the mother-child dependency, and then went on to include the father and the nuclear family.  At the National Institutes of Health, he witnessed predictable tension between mother and child, which spread to the father and then to the staff.  Chaos resulted. In early research, it was often the fathers who were the first to change. 

What Made That Change Possible?

Were some fathers simply less vulnerable to pressure and more susceptible to agreeing or giving in?  Were these fathers less invested in pressuring their offspring? Or were they more capable of standing up for what they saw as important to their spouse? Ultimately, once one person took a stand based on a principle, then this nuclear family system would begin to respond and be slightly more capable. Eventually, this person would become the family leader, competent of guiding by defining self. 

Of course, not all families have a family leader capable of calming others. A leader can acknowledge people’s feelings and guard against getting waylaid.  As things improve, there is always the possibility that one can get intercepted or fall back into the fusion. 

There Will Be Back Sliding if a Strong Leader Does Not Emerge

Sometimes the child would begin to grow up as the father stepped in.  However, to Bowen it often seemed that the child’s growth created some level of fear in the parents. In some cases, the mother would become ill—then the father would relent and back down from his stance.  Subsequently, the child would act out and neither the father nor the mother would be able to take a stand. Each one is dependent, to some degree, on the strength of the others.

How to Keep Track of Togetherness Pressure in the Family or in Work

After all, let’s remember nice people fight over a dollar! And now we fight over vaccines, over political parties, over directors on a board, over the way the marriage functions. Is there some way people could be aware of what they say and how it impacts the relationship system? Is there a way to tone down a family or organization’s intensity and reactivity by using language? 

It is possible to develop a spectrum to only consider the messages. At one end will be the “We or you should, must, or will do this or that. Feel sorry for me and do this or that.” At the other end would be a “focus on self” in language. For instance, “This is the way I see it, and this is what I will or will not do.”

The way we talk to one another can be seen as biological phenomena capable of giving information to either: 1) set people free to find their own way; or 2) constrain them and pressure them to believe as we do.

Social Pressure and What People Say and Do

Consider the tendency to use language to dominate, create hierarchies, or solve short-term problems.  Language can offer us clues as to the state of the system and expose ways one might choose to define self to the emotional system. Consider if people say these kinds of things to you, what do you say back to them? 

  • You must, you will, you should, and YOU are going to do “X!”
  • I have a right, you do not.
  • I demand that you do X, Y, and Z, or else.
  • You are stupid, lazy, unmotivated, and silly.
  • You made me bad, sad, or quiet.
  • I will never tell you what I think as you don’t care.
  • I can talk to so and so who is not like you, she/he listens agrees, and is kind.
  • You are wrong.
  • I am right.
  • I am hurt.
  • I want you to…
  • Why don’t you grow up, be nice, do the dishes, etc.?
  • For once just agree with me.

People are often hoping and wishing that someone would just agree with them.  Recognize the fusion pressure allows one to introduce non-threatening differences and realize that the automatic starts to make way for one to begin to experiment with differences.   What you might say or do will be the subject of the next blog.   Until then, just keep track of social pressure—we all do it.