From Psychoanalysis to Systems Thinking

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ITS EASY TO SEE THE TREES BUT HARDER TO KNOW THESE ASPEN TREES HAVE A LARGE INNERCONNECTED ROOT SYSTEM. 

EACH TREE IS PART OF ONE OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST SINGLE ORGANISMS.

YES – its the system. Dr. Bowen described family systems theory in his 1978 book, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice.” I had read three of the papers that later formed the book when I first meet Dr. Bowen in 1976. I was an alcoholism counselor at a local hospital. The talk sponsored by a hospital turned away from the quick fix for the individual- “just say no to drugs” to understanding the anxiety generated throughout three generations.Dr. Bowen noted that trying to solve problems made them worse if you tried to force others to change. The force in families to make others do “right” was a window into a system view of symptoms. After the conference we talked and Dr. Bowen, knowing that I had only two years of college, encouraged me to apply to the special post-graduate program in FST. I applied and was surprised to be accepted. This began a four year commute to the GFC postgraduate training program, from 1976 -1980. In 1980 I joined the staff as a clinician and the Audiovisual Coordinator. I am still there as a faculty member.As an oldest daughter, raised with two younger brothers, it was easy to see that the family expected certain responsibility from me. Most especially that I should care for my younger siblings. I was also encouraged to bring home a few new ideas. Both were automatic response. Both have a down side. Each can create a welfare state in those you are hoping to set free. Dependency increases, as do rebellion and passivity.What I learned early on about the process in families. People operate automatically. Each system has roles, which are interlocking. Human families also assign roles, often based on one’s sibling position, similar to the way that roles are assigned in an ant colony. Overfunctioning, sensitivity and dependency are automatic process that absorb anxiety. People are often not aware of what is happening. A few people in the system gain energy while others are losing energy.

Anxiety is the central force that operates on the individual’s ability to mange self. When anxiety goes up, people can either use the automatic mechanism or define a self outside the systems expectations. Enough anxiety and vulnerable people get symptoms. Anxiety is contagious. Anxiety is in our responses to one other. Some are calmer during a crisis. Some people are just born into a time and a place where they can grow up more thoughtful. Time will allow us to gather more factual evidence about the interlocking processes between ones so called genetic destiny and the emotional process.

Variations in emotional functioning can be seen by the intensity of side taking, conflict, distance and projection. The more anxious people become the more they fight, distance or get sick. These are background mechanisms that operate automatically for those who can not calm themselves down. Yes, anxiety makes people and other animals crazed. Anxiety also makes life interesting. You have to have enough emotional maturity to deal with life. FST simply describes these behavior patterns. The awareness of these patterns can enable people to make choices about how to respond to the family drama.

Most families can provide plenty of practice for anyone who wants to become an observing family therapist. I was in my early thirties before I could begin to reflect on my life choice and the impact of stress on decision making. Death and loss of the older generation produced emotional chaos. The family was unprepared for the loss of several key functioning individuals. Not knowing how to prepare for such changes provoked an emotional shock wave. Networks of relationships can stabilize us all. Once an emotional system has significant loses; it takes time and knowledge to replace people and the ways in which they have functioned.

Many families automatically rebuild relationships after a loss. Dr. Bowen used to say “A good family offers replacements for those who have died.” In many families one has to root around until someone is found who will do the job. For a percentage of families rebuilding a positively connected family after significant losses can take many years. Multiple losses and the resulting challenges were the primary motivations that sent me on a mission to understand how families functioned.