Andrea Schara – Developing My Mindful Compass

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Andrea M. Schara (photo by my granddaughter, Madeline M. Mauboussin)

Ms. Schara offers a broad perspective and specializes in creative ideas to enable individuals to become more objective about family process and thereby build a solid self in all important relationships.

After an initial consult Ms Schara offers her clients Real Time Coaching, by phone (203-274-1069) or email (arms711@aol.com). Being able to mange self in social systems, takes both knowledge and courage. Being able to understand how anxiety influences behavior is crucial. Being able to comment on the family relationships system in more detached ways is a skill that can be learned. A crucial technique involves mind-body integration, when one is trying to alter self in important relationships. One amazing technique is neurofeedback training. I do see people at my office at The Learning Space, in Washington, D.C. http://www.livingoptimally.com/tls/connections.html and in my office in Darien, CT.

I currently serving on the Board of Leaders for Tomorrow, a 501 C non profit, whose mission is to open the archives of the papers, audio and videotapes of Murray Bowen, M.D. to the public. They are currently stored at the National Library of Medicine.

My first book was published in Spanish, October 2009: “Create Your Mindful Compass: Navigating in the Social Jungle for Success”. Her soon to be published next book is called: Interrupting: The Family as an Organism.

I am engaged in developing a family based organization, The Zen Farm, enabling family members to both understand and take action, when one person in the family has a serious life problem. The Zen Farm, in Fredericksburg, Va. operates using principles derived from Bowen Theory and offers weekend meetings with family members.
http://www.thezenfarm.com/Zen_Farm/Zen_Farm.html

Andrea’s Family Story
Born in 1941 as an oldest sister of two younger brothers, I was going to take charge when things were off kilter. Both my parents collapsed after WW II as a reaction to the accumulated war provoked stress and anxiety. In 1951 she and her bothers went to live with her maternal grandparents in Virginia Beach.The early years during the war had been spent with these grandparents and the return to this family unit was warm and safe and gave me the opportunity to wounder, to enjoy the world, to seek knowledge and to become an observer of my family. There was little clarity as to what had happened to create the chaos in my family and this lack of understanding lead to my interest in psychiatry.

After attending boarding school at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, DC I went on to finish two years of college at Marymount College in Terrytown, New York. Married in 1962 I now have a son, a daughter and eleven grandchildren.

Beginning my work in psychiatry I worked as an alcoholism counselor at a psychiatric hospital in Virginia Beach in 1975. It was here that I met the paradoxical Dr. Bowen. Having read his Anonymous paper I saw that he had been able to see the family totally differently and to deal with it in a new way. The family for the first time could be seen as an interactive organism, reacting and responding more to habits than to the reality of the here and now. OMG, I thought, how did he do it?

I listened carefully to his talk, looking for answers, but instead I heard about life time learning and universities without walls, I was hooked. His focus was not on fixing alcoholism, the symptom of the moment, but on understanding mechanisms in the family and how the relationship system played out under stress. Bowen saw anxiety in the family in an impersonal, not in a blaming way.

I had the courage to ask Dr. Bowen if he had any family courses for those who had not yet finished college? Bowen sent me a post graduate application. Was this a mistake? No, despite my lack of formal education I was admitted to the training program at Georgetown University Family Center in 1976.

This four times a year program allowed people to travel to Washington for three days of intensive course work and personal supervision. I took the course for five years. In 1980 Dr.Bowen offered her a job as the audio visual coordinator for the Georgetown University Family Center. In 1980 I moved to Washington, D.C. and continued to work with Dr. Bowen until his death in 1990. In 1991 I was appointed to the faculty by Dr. Michael Kerr, M.D.

During this time at the Georgetown Family Center, I arranged for the archiving Dr. Bowen videotapes, over two hundred tapes, covering fifteen years of Dr. Bowen working with two families, at the National Library of Medicine in Washington, DC. Theya re available for researchers, but not yet for the general public.

I recently she published my first book in Spanish: Create Your Mindful Compass: Navigating in the Social Jungle for Success.

Also published various articles and presented internationally in Japan, Sweden, Norway, France and now Mexico. I have focused on developing a humorous and insightful approach to difficult problems, which can enabling people to observe relationship dynamics and to think clearly about the issues they face.

The Mindful Compass approach is a quick way to understand how to define a self using the principles taken from Bowen Theory. The goal is to enhance people’s strengths and insights in social relationships. Below you will find the four points of The Mindful Compass.

1. ACTION – Clarifying values and goals, defining a vision which will be brought to life in a social system:

2. RESISTANCE – Some poeple think about resistance as equilibrium or that all system like to maintain the statuesque. its an impersonal rule in social systems. We see it all the time. People do not like to change. It is hard. It is uncomfortable. Therefore those who are connected to one another, predictably react to changes in any person in their social system, even if the change is for the better. Understanding the natural ways that the larger social system is connected, enables people prepare for change in self and in others. Thinking ahead enables us to manage reactions from others in any system. There are various clues that one can observe which are signals that one is falling into a reactive trap.
Recognizing the urge to be helpful without considering the possibility of increasing dependency in others. Seeing acknowledging but not acting on fear in others or self.

3. SYSTEMS KNOWLEDGE – The ability to connect with others and the ability to understand the history of relationships in a system and how that history affects one: Being able to see all side in any problem, while deeply understanding the history of how problems have arisen. Keeping up with broader areas of knowledge, for example research in evolutions, brain functioning and the broader social, financial and political system systems.

4. ALONE AND SELF DEFINED – The ability to be separate, while maintaining contact with important others: Learning how to have fun with people who oppose you.  understanding communication and the use of pronouns: I, We and You.  Being separate, while connecting to others is being a present and accounted for responsible for self person. This is a daily discipline and an ongoing process of learning from errors.

If one has courage and motivations, one can learn to better navigate his or her way through any social system.

Becoming an observer of relationships allows us to see the fifty/fifty process that is useful when people lend you a hand.
A practical example below my grandson Alex helps me across a small chasm and I am responsible for my footing as is he.

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Telling Your Life Story to Develop Your Mindful Compass

A useful tool to improve one’s overall functioning is to tell their life story.  It does not have to be dramatic or contain all the details.

The focus is to learn what you can by looking at how you NOW think about your past.

Just try to write down how you recall your life without too much “emotionality.”  The effort is to get as objective as possible.

A thoughtful story, especially one’s own life, demonstrates how people learn from experiences.  If we look carefully we can see and here just how we have applied our knowledge of how systems function.


If you are not sure where to begin, you can start by just listing only the facts, e.g. when you were born, how many siblings you have, what education you have, etc. Although these facts alone will not do much for increasing awareness they give you a place to start. Most facts need explanations. For example, it is a fact that someone dies, but how does this death took place is not explained. Nor do we  understand the impact of  facts, like a  death ora divorce on the functioning of the people who are left in the system.


When people get neutral about their own story and can explain it well to others, something magical can happen.


There are many ways to understand the functioning and structure of any family system. The following three factors are good ways to begin to describe a family:

1) socioeconomic data

2) available relationships – those influencing your family or others important to you.

3) the family’s expectations.


These are some of the factors that matter. How one understands and deals with these factual events and what kinds of forces people encounter as they move through their lives are what builds the backbone of our “life story.”


Even though we may know only bits and pieces about our genetic ancestry, each piece we see gives us more awareness of the influence of the past on the present. Although the distant past may be only a quiet genetic relic, reminding us of how we got to be the people we are, our genes appear to be the basic material we inherited allowing us to adapt to any new environment.  How the environment affects the gens is yet to be clarified.


There are also emotional sensitivities, kind of like genes, that come from our family of origin.


The family is a force field, continually shaping our sensitivities. Our multigenerational family reaches to our lives today, affecting our functioning and our families even though we may have no direct knowledge of the origin of the sensitivity.


It is useful to see and understand  how individuals try to escape the pas.  After all in most families some take the often emotionally reactive step of cutting off from family members. This often happens because one is so sensitive to another that he/she believes that this relationship is threatening, perhaps even life threatening. OFten this is an over reaction.  Through knowledge of triangles people begin to be able to reconstruct these more challenging relationships.  If one cuts off the relationship field is still there—it is just frozen in time.


Staying in contact is hard, especially if the family has been cut off.  Unfortunately if people have taken sides over any thing that has happened in the family we see that this kind of intense polarization persists but with different reasons over the generations. But one can overcome sensitivity to past hurts and move forward. If one is able to make sense of the past, one is automatically more neutral and can therefore carve out a better future.

From the impersonal to the personal.

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From the Theoretical to the Practical – My Story

Here’s how the emotional forces in the family system mentioned above affected (and continue to affect) my life.

1) My Socioeconomic Setting:


I was born into a relatively well off family with a focus on education and high performance. Over the generations this mostly Irish/German/English family had a fair share of people with alcohol problems. In fact my great uncle was one of the original 12 people in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).


The social and economic forces provide a strong force that tends to keep the majority of people in the groups they were born into. I grew up with a strong sense of family loyalty and some fear of being ostracized if one did not stand out.

Marginalizing or cutting off from those who did not do well is a strong multigenerational theme.

See- The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become by Dalton Conley, for many more interesting ideas.


2) My Available Relationships:

Fortune smiled, there were many available relationships to step in when needed. All four of my grandparents were around until I was 17. My paternal grandfather was the first of that generation to die. My paternal great grandmother was alive until I was twenty. Many great aunts and uncles were available to me.


My dad was the oldest of five. My mother was an only child. My paternal grandmother was the oldest of eight. Her husband was the second son of seven. My maternal grandparents were older siblings also from families of four and six siblings. I grew up in this niche as an oldest daughter, with two younger brothers.


The available relationships made the big difference when both of my parents became dysfunctional after WW II. Since my maternal grandparents stepped in when I was nine years old, I grew up in this family and was far more distant from my father’s family.


My father lived with his brother and parents in a nearby town and we would see him a few times a year. My mother went to live in Portland, Oregon, 3,000 miles away. I did not see her again until I was 23. It is easy to see how my mother’s extended family became so important and was preferred over my father’s family. In addition my mother’s family came from a higher socio economic group. Therefore it took years, (I was in my thirties), before I began to have personal relationships with people in my father’s family.


The available relationships formed various tribes. Each tribe was bound by loyalty positions that were not clearly defined. But to break these relationship habits I had to be clearly defined about wht I would and would not do.


3) My Family’ Expectations:

Since I grew up with two younger brothers, it is easy to guess that the multigenerational influences and expectations would shape me into a “helping big sister.”

This is how I now think about what I know about my family.

Expectations and Separating Out a Self


Initially, I was caught in the confusion? What did I want to do and what did others want from me? If I always did as I was asked, was I really being responsible?


When I was 20 and getting married, my grandparents wanted me to “get” my younger brother to go to confession before the wedding, but he refused. (In this particular situation, by the way, the priest eventually had to negotiate a truce.)


My “responsibility” was to pressure or force him to somehow comply. Forcing others to do the right thing happens in organizations and families every day and this is what my family expected of me.


I thought I was being “helpful” by doing as my grandparents asked. But with time and experience I have learned to pause and question authority, hopefully in the most thoughtful way possible.


Moderating the Family Push


I can still rush in to solve problems, but time has given me a better view of what “helping” others really looks like. Now I enjoy “helping,” although it has become a far more complex job.


Sometimes I refer to helping others as playing emotional tennis with them. Often I explain my job as a systems coach by saying that I trick people into getting unstuck by asking them penetrating questions. I keep myself on my toes by having as much fun as possible challenging people to think clearly.


When I was young and confused about what helping was, I was not very helpful. (Some say this is still true!) I have since learned that “doing for others” is an automatic response to the confusion that arises from not knowing who is responsible for what.


Learning by Watching

Early on I saw that my grandparents, in setting out to help others, created a welfare state that trapped those they were hoping to set free. As a result, my grandparents had to live with my mother’s life-long dependency and its counterpart—rebellion.

I also saw my WW II hero Dad sink slowly into alcoholism. I saw people blaming him and focusing on what he was doing wrong rather than on what he was doing right. I also saw that no one could seem to help him.


Years later I went to work in a psychiatric hospital. I was hoping to learn how to cure alcoholism, of course—a goal that clearly had a family drive to it.


I saw that people had a million and one reasons for drinking and a thousand and one ways to try to stop. But neither knowing the reasons why they drank nor trying to force them to stay sober seemed to be the answer.


Personal Response to Anxiety


Since my parents were not able to function well after WW II, my brothers and I had plenty of separation anxiety. Will people be there or not? Will leaders lead or not? Can I take care of myself?


I used some of my anxiety to become a very good athlete in high school and college. I had plenty to prove. Other bits of anxiety influenced me to marry early. Even thought I had to drop out of college after two years, I wanted to provide grandchildren for my family.


The family was reasonably stable for the birth of my two children and for the first eleven years of marriage. During a two year period in which both my material grandmother and mother died, I was divorced and both of my brothers had mental breakdowns. This was like a perfect storm.

All the turmoil in the family made it easy for me to be invested in knowing more and more about mental illness and wht psychiatry had to offer. I wanted to learn everything I could about how the family functions.


Overall, these were good decisions. My athletic experience allowed me to see how to be my personal best and to see how team work functioned. One of my teachers was pivotal in recognizing I had talent and encouraged me to perform. Although I married young, the family was stable and this also allowed me to enjoy being a youngish grandmother.


I was also able to finish college as an adult after completing four years of post graduate work in Family System Theory.


Death in the Older Generation


Often it is the loss of the higher functioning individuals that sends an emotional spin coursing throughout the family network. One era ends, another begins.


Family members often just don’t recognize the inner dependencies. But when someone is gone a hole is clearly there. In a large network of solid family relationships we are stabilized, and perhaps lulled into complacency.


Time and knowledge is required to replace a significant person. A good family has members who will step up and increase their interactions with other family members. After a death the family alignment will change.

In many families, including mine, one has to go and meet a lot of people [in the extended family?] until a strong network can be rebuilt.


Rebooting the Network


In my case the family relationships were there and I was willing to make connections with the extended family and bring old relationships back to life. For me, and for a percentage of families, rebuilding a positively connected family after significant losses can take many years. I was fortunate, however, because my family was more of “drift away” family. In a drift away family there are no real hurt feelings, no one who wanted to kill someone or even sue them. Establishing new relationships with the extended family just took time.


I also realized that the multiple losses (four within two years in my family) and the resulting challenges made the appearance of temporary symptoms in others almost inevitable. I was at least somewhat prepared, therefore, and clearly understood that there was no one to blame.

After my brothers hospitalization in 1974 I decided to enter the field of psychiatry to understand what had happened and what I could do about it.


I knew that with knowledge from of the field of psychiatry and other areas, I could do a better job of managing myself.

Andrea Schara’s Mindful Compass 1. The ability to define a vision: Clear long term motivation to find common sense approaches to mental heath. 2. The resistance to change in self and/or in any system: Over coming the urge to be helpful without considering the long term consequences.

3. The ability to connect with others and the ability to understand the history of relationships in a system and how that history is affecting you now: Being able to see both side in any behavior problem and the history of how the problems have occurred. 4. The ability to be separate, yet maintain contact with important others: Learning how to stay connected, while being separate, is a daily and ongoing process.

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The Influence of the Coach

I began to see and understand family emotional process far better after I met Dr. Murray Bowen. It was 1976 when I first heard Dr. Bowen speak. He was already famous for having been the first psychiatrist to hospitalize entire families at the National Institute of Mental Health in
Bethesda, Maryland. He was also the first psychiatrist to write about how he saw and participated differently in the emotional functioning in his family.


Dr. Bowen was an advocate for “universities without walls.” His unquenchable interest in ideas and knowledge was an antidote for rigidity and certainty in this age of increasing anxiety.


Bowen advocated differentiation of self—that is, becoming a more mature individual by successfully separating from the family while staying in good emotional contact with family members. What could be easier?


Dr. Bowen was a master of paradox (I used to call him the original Bowen Buddhist) and he made you think. I learned as much as I could from him in the 14 years before his death. Since then, I have continued to learn. (If he were still around, he might laugh at all this effort and I would laugh, too.) I was and continue to be curious about the family as a system. And I am still curious about the difference one person might make in any family system. There is nothing simpler or more complex.


Summary – My Understanding of Anxiety in Our Ordinary Reactions


In psychiatry, there are many terms to describe emotional process or how the emotional system governs behavior. I heard, for example, that over functioning, sensitivity and dependency are perpetuated throughout the family over the generations. I began to think of the extended family as a big washing machine. It took in the new people and washed them in with the old family laundry.



Although people are not aware of what is happening, emotionally some are gaining self while others are losing self. The family claims some as more sponge like creatures who will absorb more of the problems and others are set free and to function more autonomously. Dr. Bowen used to say, half of your children will be more mature than you and half less mature.


You can see the automatic nature of a family play out during a crisis. Often in response to disagreements, the family members take sides and sometimes there are emotional splits. Often then you can hear that some are labeled, “the bad people” and others the “good ones.”

It is hard to see one’s own part in all of this or to relate to both sides of an intense emotional process but that is the long term key to functioning on a higher, more productive level.


Anxiety is the central force, operating outside of awareness, pushing and pulling people to behave in reactive ways.


When anxiety goes up, people absorb it and eventually develop symptoms that prevent them from managing themselves well and functioning at optimal levels.

Anxiety is also contagious, affecting the functioning not just of the original sufferer, but of those around him or her. Anxiety in part determines our automatic responses to one another, influencing how we react when we hear news about our families or society in general. Anxiety is in the programming in our heads that leads us to behave in certain predetermined ways.

Check out, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being by Daniel J. Siegel, for a detailed look at how intention can override old habits of behavior.

Some people are calm during a crisis, some are not. Some people are just born to think and be more thoughtful, some are not. There is variation within a family.


To get a snapshot of the variations in emotional functioning, take a look at how many people negatively react when there is a crisis and how many are able to think and not react as much.


Automatic behaviors in the family system such as side-taking, distancing and projection are ways to bind up anxiety.

I have experienced them all.


The more anxious people become, the more they fight or distance or get sick. These are the background mechanisms that operate automatically for those who cannot calm themselves down and think clearly about the forces affecting them.


We are not puppets, we are not caught in a spider web, but we are subject to emotional forces both in our brains and in our relationships. Yes, anxiety makes people and other animals crazed. But anxiety also makes life interesting. It can make you study or be a risk taker, either path might make an individual incredibility successful. If the anxiety makes you crazy then the chances of doing well are far less. Anxiety is a doubled-edged sword.


By telling my story any number of times I can see where I am still sensitive and how much I have learned about relationships. This gives me more confidence whenever I undertake a new project. I can figure out what I am up against and have a bit more fun with it all.


******************* A few Points from Bowen Theory

(1) Bowen theory offers a way to see how individual functioning is derived from relationships with other members in the group, or system, and is an ongoing balancing act between the individuality and togetherness forces.

(2) Humans have instinctive ways of functioning in a group that are similar to but not the same as behaviors found in other mammalian social groups.

(3) Mechanisms in the brain influence people to go along with the social group.

(4) During times of stress, many individuals’ ability to function degrades. The balance tips toward more togetherness with others, and less ability to be a separate self.

(5) Awareness of past patterns of behavior gives individuals greater ability to define a self based on knowledge and principles.

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