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Published on Amazon December 1, 2013
Following the review of the book below, you are invited to read the first 14 pages, an overview of the book.
Laurie Lassiter, Ph.D. This is an unusually good book: intelligent, informed, and engaging. Andrea’s understanding of Bowen’s theory, and, even more importantly, of the phenomena Bowen described, is unerring. The challenge of understanding just how vulnerable we all are, though to different degrees, to being regulated by the environment, is stunning.
Andrea backs this up by looking at social research from Stanley Milgram to other well-known social scientists.
She has also broadened the focus on the family as a system, to the consideration of the work of other systems observers like E.O. Wilson and Deborah Gordon.
There is an interesting mix of her personal story and the stories from the leaders who were interviewed. These leaders are not Bowen trained people but can see and understand much about how relationship systems work just from living life.
This is a first-rate book. It includes so much of what is important to say about Bowen theory and practice, that hasn’t been said, including the use of the triangle toward increasing differentiation of self. It is a relief to me to have it stated so well in written form now.
Basic relationship patterns, developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood, are used in all other relationships throughout life.
Murray Bowen, M.D.
In gratitude I am deeply grateful to Murray Bowen. A revolutionary thinker and pioneer, Murray Bowen (1913–1990) was the first psychiatrist to develop a theory of human behavior based on the family as an emotional unit. Bowen demonstrated this in his own family encouraging others, like this author, to alter one’s participation in the ongoing system, allowing change to take place.
Bowen believed in me when I was struggling, gave me a hand up, accepted me into postgraduate training at the Georgetown University Family Center despite my having only two years of college, and then allowed me to take photos in exchange for tuition to various symposiums. After four years of family systems theory training, he hired me to work at the Georgetown University Family Center as the audio visual (A/V) coordinator, saying it was easier to teach me the A/V role than teach an A/V expert Bowen theory.
I quickly recognized that what Bowen said was so far from mainstream psychiatry; that taping him and listening to the tapes again and again would be the only way to grasp this totally new way of thinking. A/V coordinator was perfect for me. As a teacher Bowen was at times direct and challenging. Using metaphors, paradox, and even slights of hand as a Zen master might, he delivered his out-of-sync, interrupting messages. (Each of us has our way of seeing things, our perceptual blindness, our way of getting along with others, and our beliefs as to how the world is. How does anyone interrupt these, allowing another to think differently?)
Bowen once took my arm and, pointing to a couple, asked in his Socratic way: “What are these people doing? Who is in charge? How do you know?” The first time I heard him speak to an audience he peppered his talk with unanswerable questions: “How do you de-twitch people? How is what you do with people different from what you might do to calm animals down? Do you know what you are up against in yourself and in relating to your multigenerational family? How about the challenges with your friends and loved ones? Are you ready for the kiss of togetherness?”
Bowen challenged me to deal with tricks—his and others. Like an imp he was watching, smiling, getting upset, and never explaining what he was up to. He explained himself in books, letters and videotapes. Writing about the role of a coach in being outside the emotional system, he explained how such a position allowed one to teach, give suggestions and tell personal stories without forcing, preaching, or believing he knew the “right way.”
Demonstrating with his own life what it takes to be a lifelong participant-observer, he was quick to challenge and “jam people up.” “Let’s see what you can do” seemed to be his mantra. He was constantly putting others into some kind of an alliance, while separating himself out as different. Bowen would say, “I am listening to you.” Yes, listening to you but not agreeing with you. Bowen made people uncomfortable unless they could stand alone and did not need approval for their ideas. He was challenging people to rise up and take a stand to say what they would and would not do, to define more of a Self. Who knows what research questions were on his mind as he interacted with you? But when his blue eyes were twinkling and he was looking at you, you knew that questions and unusual, what I call “non-linked” behavior responses, were about to be unleashed in your direction.
An endlessly curious researcher of human behavior, Bowen watched many others and me. We were part of the human parade on a multigenerational train ride. Bowen rode alongside family after family, inserting a question here, a story there, just to see how people would react—if they would grow or get off the train. Sometimes he might throw a pearl and another time some coal. Ready or not, “relationship stuff” was always coming your way.
Toward the end of his life I traveled with him because of his serious physical limitations. Perhaps my family position as an oldest daughter of brothers favored by grandparents, plus luck, allowed me to figure out how to relate well enough, especially to his wife and family. I appreciated this opportunity more than any words can convey.
Bowen would not approve of my explanation of Family Systems theory, of how I have managed myself, coached others or have written this book. Approval was at the bottom of his list as to what was important. Figuring out the right kind of challenge fascinated him, often leading to his highlighting the creative ways people developed to overcome or wiggle out of intense problems.
Watching, reading, and listening to Bowen, I was often struck with his ability to observe the human condition and take an action based on his theory to stay interested and connected while separating himself out from the others. As with us all he had his own issues and peculiarities but his real gift was to point us in a direction to see what we had not seen about the human and the mechanisms of family life under pressure. His lasting, jarring question, “How come you cannot see what is right in front of you?” is as important and as unanswered today as it was back then.
I designed this book in his memory to do for others what he did for me: To enable motivated individuals be more for Self, to have a few systems ideas, to grasp a deeper understanding of our link with other social species and to really see how social systems function. The future is uncertain. But what is certain is that we will always need to understand how to manage ourselves and to see the impact of our very social relationships on each other.
Murray Bowen and Andrea Schara, Walter Reed’s TV Studio, Washington, DC, 1988
Introduction and Overview of Chapters
We are all painfully blind to relationship processes which are generated by the larger system to control its members. The larger unit has to survive. The individual is often expendable. However, the human has the ability to see the social pressure and to then gain some degree of independence from the constraints of these ancient social systems. In this day and age we are born into an accepted view of relationship dynamics, which is an individual centric view of the world. To see how systems function to pressure us, requires a dose of systems knowledge as an antidote to our social blindness. Knowledge will not matter unless it is personal. Therefore, this book only gives you a peek into a deeper understanding of how systems regulate the individual members in both subtle and brutal ways. Now if you use a Mindful Compass to navigate through the social constraints, then this knowledge becomes yours.
I have combined both personal and coaching ideas to give you my best understanding of Bowen Theory. The Mindful Compass is designed to enable you to build a knowledge pathway through any social system. We can learn from success and also from frustration or even failure to navigate and then correct our view of social systems. Being able to relate well to others can impact the lives of future generations and is well worth the effort to understand and learn a new way to relate to difficult people and or challenging situations. There is freedom in developing a Mindful Compass and learning how to alter your part in these sensitive and sometimes reactive relationship systems. It is, overall, hard to comprehend how we are automatically “controlled” by ancient emotional process. It is easier to see once one begins to develop a deeper understanding of both your multigenerational family life and Bowen theory. The interactions with Bowen, to challenge and to think for self and to keep learning and questioning, were useful in altering my automatic responsiveness. Therefore, I pass this knowledge on to others as best I can.
Introduction to Bowen Theory 101. Murray Bowen, M.D. was the first psychiatrist to hospitalize members of nuclear families for two or more years at the National Institute of Mental Health (the first whole family was admitted at the very end of December 1955 and the last family left December 31, 1958). Bowen studied relationships in families as family members dealt with a schizophrenic family member. Observing interactions, not diagnosing individuals, led to his development of the eight interlocking concepts of his theory. These eight concepts explain how the various parts of the family system function. He explained that two forces influence the human— one for “togetherness,” encouraging people to think alike and to go along with others and the other, a counterbalancing force for individuality, to be all for Self. Differentiation represents the observation that there is a middle way—to be for Self and to be for others. Bowen “coached” people to be aware – to see and manage Self in the emotional system. The family as a unit is a different way to understand and deal with human behavior. The real source of healing was in one’s family system itself. When under the influence of “togetherness” forces, people are reactive and more regulated by the group. By enabling people to see what they are up against, to be more neutral and to find ways to develop the skills to be better able to relate well during turbulent times, people can increase their functioning. Few things are harder but more worthwhile than this effort to be a Self in a social group.
“Thinking Systems” – Developing your Mindful Compass There are ways to enable people to broaden their thinking to become better observers of the many ways each of us are a part of a social system and often unduly influenced. When times are tough, going along can lead us into quagmires. A Mindful Compass allows us to know the obstacles to change. By using the compass one can develop a deeper Self with a capital S. Otherwise, people respond automatically, as a small self (a reaction to others or following automatic programs). Through interacting mindfully, people build a more mature Self and in so doing encourage maturity and less dependency throughout the family. This has important implications for the future evolution of the family as a system.
Action for Self and Resistance as Natural. In describing the Mindful Compass the first two points are (1) the ability to take ACTION and to define one’s vision and (2) to deal with the RESISTANCE one faces to being more of a Self in any system. To change one has to be able to reduce anxiety, (response to real or imagined threat), and see the emotional systems as it is, a natural force. This enables one to develop a less reactive and more differentiated Self. The trip through the social jungle is fraught with challenges. We can all be duped into giving in to please others or into backing down when it comes to articulating and clarifying one’s view points. A family leader calibrates a personal compass by questioning and clarifying the world around him or her, establishing principles for being a more mature self, and becoming less sensitive to the emotional forces in the multigenerational family and in other social systems.
Systems Knowledge and Standing Alone. The last two points on the Mindful Compass are (3) the ability to use KNOWLEDGE to connect meaningfully with others and (4) the ability to STAND ALONE and to be more separate. Knowledge enables us to stand alone, to be more objective and strategic, to welcome and endure emotional challenges, and to understand deeply the reason for taking on issues in one’s family or work place. In achieving this different way of relating, one grants freedom to another to be the way the other is, while still holding each individual responsible for his or her actions. People have the ability to act in ways to get beyond the emotional road blocks, to know cut off individuals in their extended family, to get beyond the multigenerational gossip problems, to reduce stress in interactions, to relate from curiosity rather than from a need for social approval or to command or control others. Changing self to be more of one’s best Self requires seeing the system, increasing knowledge, and lowering reactivity, while interacting with others or even thinking about others. This and more can lead to the building of one’s emotional backbone.
The Usefulness of Developing Your Mindful Compass. Family or workplace “rules” are not unlike the rules of other mammalian social groups or even ant colonies. Interactions determine how the mind/brain/body is influenced, which leads individuals to function in specific roles for the group. Humans are sensitive to one another. This sensitivity can run the gamut from being totally independent to being totally dependent on others. (Bowen called this “fusion,” indicating the primitive nature of our association whereby two function as one.) Differentiation allows individuals to become more Self. We live in some degree of fusion and dependencies with others. These overlapping relationships, where people are not sure what they stand for, or sometimes who they are, are the result of fusion – to look at it less seriously one can humorously refer to this as con-fusion or our life as scrambled eggs. We are somewhere in a scrambled mix of ideas and opinions. We are not yet well defined, and therefore we are vulnerable to becoming more scrambled.
Substantial life energy is devoted to figuring out social relationships. Our brain no longer has to focus on the lions and tigers in the social jungle, but instead must manage complex relationships. Unwanted, intrusive, and unavoidable social interaction can drive even fairly social creatures mad. And we are vulnerable to sticking with ineffective “rules” (or the status quo), especially when threatened. Aware leaders can identify system’s level problems and effectively use knowledge to alter his or her participation in social systems.
Understanding Triangles in the Social Jungle. Contrary to popular opinion, scientific facts show how triangles are the most stable alliance between people. Triangles consist of two individuals, who agree with each other, while a third individual is on the outside. Such alliances can both manage anxiety by promoting scapegoating, or triangles can allow an outside person to change the dynamic for the better in that three-person system. If one person can remain neutral while relating to the other two as individuals and avoid side-taking the other two will be able to resolve conflict. This is the basis for mediation and marital counseling. One-on-one relationships tend to collapse. Enter the “triangled one,” who can reduce anxiety of the twosome for better or worse. Such alliance building occurs in colonies of bacteria and in learning. Triangles often determine social rank. You can see this at the dinner table. When tension is high there is more gossip, taking sides or blame. If one person is neutral and does not take sides, then triangles can enable problem solving simply because of that neutrality and refusal to take sides. Interlocking triangles occur as more and more people are drawn into a conflict and begin to take sides. People can be drawn in and not take sides and form alliances to do productive work, too. Therefore, understanding the functioning of triangles as anxiety absorbers or as ways to generate more cooperative behavior is needed. Knowledge of triangles helps individuals understand anxiety and how it can be managed mindfully.
Reducing Con-fusion at Home and Work: Getting to Know Your Extended Family. Knowledge of Self, family and others in social systems is the key to change. By focusing on self and seeing how one’ family has managed challenges over the generations, we can see the impersonal nature of emotional process. In seeing the system, people are far better observers and can relate more effectively to each individual. Knowledge of history enables us to redirect anxiety and to appreciate differences. As one is able to know others in the family, they are automatically freer of the projections and gossip of the past. A mature leader can listen to others without reacting automatically. They can communicate what they are thinking and what they will do in a variety of ways, some of which can be shocking. A Mindful Compass can be more important than an automatic compass. This effort, to be more defined in a social group, has a multigenerational payoff. It is this capacity to see relationship dynamics and alter how one functions in them that results in solving system-level problems more effectively.
Relationships Blindness and the Evolving Brain. The emotional system, with its ancient mechanisms, does not function well on automatic pilot, if one is trying to manage Self in our modern jungle. When one is faced with emotional issues, how does one become more rational and factual? The tigers are everywhere now. In today’s social jungle, we react to traffic jams as though they were tigers. Our primitive brain is over-reactive to threats, especially when we do not “see the system.” We have in common with reptiles the most primitive instincts—mating, defense of territory, and giving in to the dominant ones. The instinctual brain areas are not in direct communication with the more cognitive part of the brain. Therefore, in the sending of signals and the recognition of old clues, one is never sure which part of our brain is in charge of our actions. The brain, after the fact, explains it all to us as though it acted in our best interest. But did it? Or is your brain just singing the multigenerational instinctual song? The brain produces justifications for taking actions to increase comfort, which decreases maturity. Not being able to reflect on the long-term consequences of our actions reduces our ability to know one another and to solve problems. Our blindness to the impact we have on one another can be a result of our brains short-term orientation. In this brave new world, there is no one to blame, there are no simple solutions, but there are many ways to be observant and creative in our ability to see and to respond to one another. We are all vulnerable to being blinded by our investment in our own way of doing things, and it is a risk to become more aware of the social jungle and our part in it.
The Rise of Systems Thinking in the Social Sciences. There is a payoff for those willing to examine the social research to understand the way the human brain is set up to perceive the environment, and how that then influences decision-making. We are prejudiced and can easily be blindsided by innocent or manipulative stories parading as facts. In addition, linear (ie., 1, 2, 3) thinking can encourage us to make poor decisions. Reality becomes a “social reality” under pressure. The social group itself may need to become more oriented to providing ways to develop perceptual independence in its members. One can understand the way the human brain is set to react or to more rationally predict the future. Sorting this out – reactivity from rationality –will be key to any kind of orderly transition during chaotic times. There can be catastrophic consequences when applying short-term, cause-effect thinking to an impending challenge. We all have some access to a “bubbling sea” of systems information, but our tendency towards cause-effect thinking influences (in this case negatively) our ability to anticipate and respond realistically to the potential challenges that are likely to occur. We can understand how systems work. Leaders can learn to think outside the automatic and to have the courage to redistribute the anxious focus on the weak and vulnerable. For this skill to become more widespread, leaders need to find others who are aware of the possibility of runaway, primitive thinking and or relationships traps. By being more aware of others and the impact they have on us and we on them, leaders can better adapt during times of great change.
Writing Your Story: Learning and Reflecting. As a leader, changing one’s Self to deal with problems rather than trying to force others to change, requires building one’s emotional backbone. Writing or telling a story about one’s life can help people gain greater objectivity and even find ways to put a positive spin on difficult events. Research notes how journaling strengthens immune cells. Exploring and writing about one’s family is a workout, but these exercises in “the multigenerational emotional gym” will build your emotional backbone. Those willing to undertake the task of building family relationships increase their resilience and emotional backbone. The potential payoff for gaining knowledge about both family history and the process of building or repairing relationships gives us a stronger relationship base for future generations. Building more compassionate relationships may overturn some of an individual’s most cherished beliefs. This is a small price to pay to live in a less emotionally driven world. We are too easily swayed by emotional appeals and social relationships. It requires discipline to understand others and our deeper self and to communicate, despite rejection.
What does it take to be a self in any system? Just as no one ant can build an ant colony, no one person can create for him or herself all that is needed for survival. We are dependent on the work of others for our food, water, clothes, education and protection, among other things. By cooperating, we benefit. Therefore, the pressure to fit in is enormous and can intrude on our equally deep urges to become our unique selves. The emotional system consists of instincts and all kinds of psychological mechanisms. It is an automatic guidance system. Our biology is over reactive to threats. Anxiety degrades relationships. We can see how it works in the way people behave when there are stressors in the system. Anxious people are more likely to maintain a negative or overly positive focus on others, neither of which is realistic. Relationship changes, exercise, mindfulness training, neurofeedback and many other efforts, which can help one to manage anxiety, integrate new knowledge, can redirect anxiety and to maintain the courage to be one’s best Self. By “reorganizing” Self, an individual can find ways to also set others free from any automatic and anxious focuses. By taking an action stance, more for Self rather than following the dictates of the emotional system, we promote the ability of others to do the same. Leading by example may take longer, however it is a more solid commitment to respecting and focusing on how to relate to others well.
Learning from other Living Systems. From ants to humans there may be general laws organizing the nature of all emotional systems. Looking at ants you see that if you remove a few from one job, such as searching for food, there is a seemingly automatically compensation. The colony decreases the rate at which ants assume the tasks of removing garbage or defending the nest in order to “force” more into searching for food. Without much of a brain, ants know what the others in the colony are up to and adjust their role automatically. Neither humans nor ants need much of a brain to pick up signals about the needs of the group or colony and what we need to do for them in the moment. We are shifting in response to others without knowing. The brain is multilayered, evolutionarily designed, and connects us with other mammalian and reptilian species. Because of the “design” of the brain, it is very difficult to become aware of deep emotional states in one’s own brain or self. We honor those who can perceive the environment more accurately.
Social Pressure and the Ability to Redirect Anxiety. Stanley Milgram demonstrated how people’s obedience to authority is automatic, even when it leads to the potential death of innocent people. He was curious as to how interactions in the social group lead to an event like the Holocaust. The research shows that a majority of people will do harm to others based on a command from an authority figure, even if that command goes against a value not to harm others. How can good and normal people be so blind to the consequences of their behavior? Solomon Ash showed that one-third of people would alter their perceptions as to the length of line, so as to go along with a social group that formed an hour previously. Last but not least, logic is of little use when people are vulnerable to emotional guidance. You may only intensify emotions with logic. Therefore, the ability to understand and use emotionality to both communicate and understand others is a skill that has a significant impact on both individuals and social groups. Bowen described a road map allowing us to understand how to be a more separate and well-defined individual, with all the costs and benefits of so doing. If using a Mindful Compass does confer an adaptive response, then we should see more leaders who are aware of the system and the process involved in changing Self.
Interviews. Dr. Bowen’s idea that being able to separate out a more principled, mature Self, while staying in contact with others (the process of differentiation of self), was a natural phenomenon. People could figure out the emotional system intuitively, experiment and know how to lead. I wondered could leaders explain how they were able to separate out from the pressures in their social systems – to be better defined in relationship to the important people in their family or at work. Would they tell me what it took to be a Self and stand apart from the group? Would they tell me how others, would automatically oppose the growth of a “leader?” To answer these questions I asked friends for names of people they considered natural and mature leaders. I interviewed ten, all of whom were local leaders. None had any knowledge of Bowen Theory or were they famous or well known beyond their communities. They are people who have made a difference in some area of society, telling us fascinating stories of leading under conditions of uncertainty. Each individual reflected on what they have been up against in trying to move forward through the social jungle. Our brains are designed for story telling as part of how we have interacted over the generations. We tell stores as a way to learn from the past. This playfully activity integrates the higher and lower parts of the brain. Stories promote our ongoing ability to cooperate for basic survival needs, the gathering of recourses, the passing on of values and the raising of child