Navigating in Social Systems: The use of social interactions around illness and death

bowen and bobbie holt

            Murray Bowen and Bobbie Holt  1983 at a Third Thursday Meeting at Georgetown University

The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interactions – the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete, and from all these deep warm pleasures of belonging to your own social group. Social intelligence enhanced by group selection made homo sapiens the first fully dominate species in earth’s history. E.O. Wilson[1]


Adaptation and other Relationship Shifts

The death or the illness of a family member are the most obvious times when families are required to change and adapt to the coming and going of its members. How the ongoing social group interacts during these periods can be subtle or dramatic.  Some families pull together and can function at high levels while others fall into chaos. What is the difference between these families?

When a close family member falls ill or gracefully prepares for death, each family member is challenged to become more aware of the shifts in relationships. For some the automatic response is denial and for others there is opportunity to rethink and reorganize the part one has played in the family.

A social group maintains equilibrium and is dependent on individuals to function in specific ways. We probably “inherit” a position in our family depending on the family’s history, current needs and our natural abilities.

In other words, there is a general tendency to function according to one’s position in the group. The sibling position is an easy way to look at the “jobs” that are handed out by the family. Oldest are expected to be responsible, but not all oldest are leaders, not all middles are negotiators and not all of the youngest are funny.

Walter Toman, who did some of the original work on sibling position, noted that all things being equal, and often they are not, people function in predictable ways according to their sibling position.[2]

You might think of the family unit as a kind of ant colony where the colony “trains” its members to function in ways that can be useful to the way the colony has functioned over time. It is not really useful for members of the colony to see or recognize that they are being influenced to “do” or “be” for the colony. To be aware of relationship pressure is incredibly difficult for most people.

We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness. Daniel Kahneman[3]

Shifts in relationships can usually be managed in a “stable” system, but losses of important members can throw off the balance in more fragile families. Anxiety increases as people react to how life has changed with the loss of an individual. The threat is very challenging if a death occurs in a relationship system in which people are highly dependent on one another in unseen ways.

Here are a few examples.

  1. A husband dies unexpectedly and his wife has never paid the bills and has no knowledge of the family’s financial situation.
  2. A husband is unable to cope with taking care of his children after the loss of his young wife.
  3. A child dies, and all the hopes for the future are lost.

There are many twists and turns in how tasks are divided between a husband and a wife and when you add children the complexity of the “need” for the other to function can become enormous.

The premise here is that people are dependent on each other in ways that are not seen or felt until something happens to the one we are dependent upon. The evidence of connection seems to be hidden until then.

Parental expectations, hidden dependency and “freedom”

In another example, parents may depend on one offspring and another seems to be “free” of the parental expectations. But when parents get sick, the “freer” sibling may be the one who has the most intense symptoms. The free one may say he is too busy to help out and may refuse politely to help with the care of parents, and then a few months later when mountain climbing, he has an “accident” and breaks his leg. If someone asks him if his parent’s illness impacted him, he will deny that there is a relationship between the accident and his relationship with his parents.

A highly dependent person will still not see that stress is increasing. Neither can he see that the distant communication with parents and siblings are not reflections of freedom but rather a “run away” position in which the dependent person gives up responsibility to manage self responsibly in the relationship system.

Sometimes it is very difficult to know who is responsible for what. It is difficult to be a mindful observer of self and even to ask, “Am I relating well to others or am I pretending in order to get along and make things OK?”

Often the family dependency is denied. You can listen for the denial, but hopefully remember that you cannot cure denial with confrontation. If a person is admitted to the hospital with a broken leg, or a broken head, or a broken heart, and someone points out that the timing of the symptom is connected to a death in the family, then the person will often say some variation of: “That is a coincidence, it means nothing. It isn’t relevant. I don’t care about my parents. What happens to them is their business.”

When I worked in a psychiatric hospital my favorite research was doing a three-generation family diagram to see if there were clusters of symptoms or deaths around the time people were admitted to the hospital. Turns out a majority of individuals were admitted around a death in the family or the anniversary of a death. However, this data was not popular with the medical staff. Psychiatry is still focused on the individual and his or her symptoms, not on the state of the system.

When people deny attachments there is little that can be done to make them wake up. If one is mindful of the blindness in the family as a natural way to manage anxiety, one can be more neutral and less upset about the blindness.   If one can hypothesize that anxiety is going up and that people are reacting automatically to a threat, then more attention can be paid to reducing the threat than to trying to fix someone.

When something difficult happens in a family, one person often ends up dealing with the pain in the family because they are more observant and have a greater ability to maintain a more neutral stance. These are often the family leaders. If one is mindful of others suffering, then one is less likely to be drawn into the family emotionality or the drama. And then eventually the more observant person may find a way to be useful.

Anxiety can play out in predictable ways

The emotional process that surrounds death or threatened loss can seduce anyone to join in, take sides and try desperately to fix things. Siblings who at one time were in relatively good contact with each other can have a fight over the care of parents, or the will, or who said what to whom, resulting in a complete lack of ability to cooperate. The tension among people increases, people try to control one another and there is overall less mindfulness and less respect between family members.

Instead of open and calm communication there is the blame game that intensifies all interactions. The gossip network carries the latest news.   Joining in by anyone can lead to generations of cut off, altering the way the social system is able to function both in the present and in the future.

Jumping in, getting over involved, cutting off, being distant and fighting, getting sick, worrying and blaming others are all automatic ways people respond to threats. These are mindless interactions in which the anxiety in the system has begun to control family members.

Knowing Bowen theory gives people a basic understanding of the automatic way that systems function and gives us a method, differentiation of self, to work on our part in any problem.

As one becomes a better observer of emotional process, one has a greater ability to change the part one is automatically asked to play, and to choose to redefine self in the system. This is a crucial skill to have during times of heightened threat.

The Emotional Shock Wave

As noted, it is incredibly challenging for some to see an impending death or ongoing loss of function of important family members as automatically influencing the way individuals are able to relate to one another. To become more mindful and less reactive to changes in the family is our biggest challenge. When one sees this automatic reaction to threat unfolding, how we refrain from getting overly reactive?

There is nothing harder than to bear witness while someone in a family is dying or losing function. Some people “respond” by having affairs, working all the time, or cutting off relationships. What do you do when you see these challenges in your own family or when you see the difficulty families have in coming to grips with each other and with the way they are connected to one another? Can you put in different thoughts without judging and blaming?

The threat travels underground and it’s hard for people to understand that the anxiety in one relationship can end up being expressed in another relationship. Think of the challenge for the average parent in dealing with a teenager who wants to do what she or he wants to do during a time when one of the grandparents is ill.

In general people have a hard time seeing the connection between illness or death in one member of the family affecting others in the family. It is automatic and therefore easier to blame the child than to say something that both informs and disturbs the blindness like: “It might be hard for you to manage yourself now that your grandmother is not doing well.”

When automatically reacting, the teenager’s parents can end up being angry that the child is not coming home on time. The child can seek more distance away from the blaming/controlling parents. But neither of them sees that this anxiety is related to the illness of the grandmother.

In addition to the turmoil and disruption in relationships that can be created around an impending loss, when a family member dies there is a missing person, a void that has been created and people must respond to the actual loss.

Death family pressure and acknowledging each person’s contribution

Many thoughts and reactions mix and swirl around the death of a family member, depending on the kind of relationships people had with the person and how that person functioned in the family. Some think that the deceased lived a good and productive life and may find it easy to acknowledge all that he or she did. Or maybe the deceased did not live a productive life and was the family scapegoat. Nevertheless, an acknowledgment of their functional role in the family can go a long way towards acknowledging the pressure that people are up against and allow people to be more aware of how family pressure works to do in some people and give others an extra boost.

Individuals in more mature families can deal with their dependency on each other without threats and blaming for the small and even more serious problems that arise. They are aware that there is increasing anxiety around losses and are able to be more mindful about the tensions in the system. Less mature families try to deny the dependency and end up with increasing symptoms.


  1. What can we do to understand how death might impact relationships?
  2. What are the possible shifts and challenges to the social system?
  3. How has the system adapted to such threats in the past?
  4. Have individuals made plans as to living well at the end of their lives?
  5. Can they talk about these plans?
  6. Do rituals serve a higher purpose for the social group?
  7. What can the lives of Jesus and Buddha tell us about how life is lived as a strong expression of purpose?

What can enable people to be more thoughtful about the end of life?

The funeral provides an opportunity for the coming together of one’s family and friends to lend support around the death. An open casket allows people to see the body and recall the life of this person. The reality of life is seen and celebrated. Some religious groups consider it to be disrespectful to the dead to look the body.[4] In some traditions, a prescribed period of mourning provides daily gatherings for grieving families and friends to talk about the life of the person. Each belief has its reasons and one is free to pick whatever “belief” they would like. Often people pick the family tradition

Since cremation has become more popular there have been an increasing number of people who prefer to dispense with funerals and memorial services. They inadvertently may be seeking to avoid the reality of death and the honoring of a life. This appears to encourage greater weakness and discourages bringing up and dealing with difficult things in the social group.

Open and Closed Systems

Death is a part of life but how we deal with it may be determined by the kind of social system we are born into. Death comes to each of us. It cannot be avoided. But how one manages and copes with death is another question. One can hide from and avoid the death of loved ones or even of one’s pets. The thesis here is that there is a cost in denial or in hiding out. For most families it can make an enormous difference in the short and long term, if family members purposely see the stress related to death as enabling them to become a more resilient group.

It is not that people have free choices as to feeling overwhelmed and wanting to get away form the challenges. People are more likely to avoid the subject of death and the planning around death if they are born into a closed system where people are not at ease talking about difficult or personally meaningful subjects.

Closed systems are more intense and up tight than open systems. Most families are somewhere in the middle of this continuum. It is important for people to know that most people recover from the stress and strain around a death, and are as happy as they were before the loss after some time passes.

When people have some guidelines or hear about others who have done well after a death it gives them hope. This is another reason for people to work towards being more open and to be able to derive meaning and talk about their experiences with others.

When people are able to be open they have an easier time bringing up difficult and challenging topics. They are more open to both new people and new ideas. In addition new behaviors are seen as interesting and as representing something others can learn or appreciate. People in open families are often thinking of new ways to adapt rather than hide out and regard anything new as threatening.

  1. What do you do if you are born into a closed system and no one is allowed to talk about death, or make plans like wills or even to re-examine the old wills or possibly outdated trust agreements?
  2. Do you break the taboo and talk openly?
  3. If so what is the cost to you, to them?
  4. Can one person who makes an effort to be more open about death and illness alter a closed system? At what cost?
  5. Can the acceptance of death as just another life event give us more courage to adapt to the needed changes and be supportive of others without pity or criticism?

Those who seek to avoid difficulty and stress are more likely to be depressed. Yes, when people state they try to avoid stress, this answer was shown to predict greater difficulty in the years ahead. This was a ten-year study done by the Veterans Affairs in Palo Alto, California, demonstrating that the more one tries to maximize happiness and pleasure, the greater the conflict and problems, and the less meaning in their lives, and the greater the disruption in their community.[5]

 Other species and behavioral responses to death

gorrilasmother gorilla

Chimps “Mourn” Nine-year-old’s Death?

Our instincts about life, reproduction and survival are not that different from other species. Can we watch the way other animals manage the illness and loss of a member of their social group to learn more about the basic adaptation to loss? Other animals participate in rituals enabling these animals to successfully adapt to the changes in the social group.

Mammals may not have rituals or a belief in a God or an afterlife, but they seem to understand that rituals like the cleansing of bodies and the visiting of the dead, serves them well. Even for elephants and chimps, the caring for the other does not end with the physical ending of life.

Elephants keep track of the health of their members. If one is sick they look after them, nudging them back to health. As an elephant approaches death the other animals nudge them towards the family burial spot. Elephants routinely visit these bone filled graveyards, and carefully touch the bones of ancestors. They seemingly come to pay respect or perhaps to remember.   (You Tube Elephant Grieving BBC-Wildlife)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5RiHTSXK2A

Clearly the brain has to be adaptable for social learning as so many challenges occur in a lifetime. Our brains cannot have fixed responses. We need room to think, to reflect on what is happening, or did happen or might happen and what should we do about it?

Social learning, not instincts, enable us to solve problems in the here and now and not rely as much on what worked in the past. This is vastly different than for many mammals. Only the brain of the elephant is close to the human capacity for social learning.

These animals are matriarchal and require high levels of cooperation within the social group to promote survive. One speculation is that the attention paid to the death of one animal makes it easier for the troop to adapt to the loss and to find a way to replace the functioning of that animal. For example, a new matriarch is chosen or in the case of the death of the young, to move on and to reproduce once again.

There has been no documentation (that I can find) of an elephant troop failing to function after the death of one of its members. However there have been reports of elephants seeking revenge against poachers who have shot and killed animals.

Social interactions and selection:

Interactions occur in response to the history of interactions or habits plus the perceived or real changes in the environment.   There can be grunt of recognition followed by a stare, a downward glance, which might be a reaction to shifts in relationships or in strategy. Has one animal or person entered into the relationship to dominate another or to cooperate? The way the hierarchy is formed, by either force or by invitation, can produce two very different kinds of social groups.

As E. O Wilson pointed out, evolutionary biology has been forced to return to group selection as a way to see how social groups are selected for as to a group’s ability to adapt and cope. The group is formed by the way in which interactions play out.

Consider the long history of funerals and the advantages that accrue to those who practice such rituals. Researchers have found burial grounds of Neanderthal man dating to 60,000 BC with animal antlers on the body and flower fragments next to the corpse indicating some type of ritual and gifts to the deceased. One of the first examples of this was unearthed in the Shanidar cave in Iraq; Neanderthal skeletons were discovered with a layer of pollen.[6]

One of the most prescribed death rituals takes place among the Hindu and requires intense cooperation and obedience to ritual.[7]

In all these examples of a ritualized way of dealing with death, the advantages to the ongoing social group are not always clarified. The guess is that the reasons such funeral practices have been found in every human society is that funerals enable the group itself to maintain a way of relating. If the group can find ways to promote survival of its members, these rituals may enable greater survival and therefore rituals around death would be selected for. This does not rule out selection for the individual members of the group. Selection for both individual traits and for a group may occur.

Strong individuals in a cooperative group may fare well as may weaker individuals in a strong group.   But weaker individuals in a weak group will not fare as well.

Questions remain as to be how to be a “strong person” who is contributing to a “strong group?” Bowen’s observation was that if an individual could be more of a “differentiated” self that persons would not be as controlled by the emotionality in the group. Therefore, overtime the group itself would become stronger, less feeling driven and able to make more thoughtful decisions.

Family Strength:

The hypothesis is that social groups that can manage the emotionality and expression of feelings around the death of a significant person can move with more strength into the future.

Three indicators of strength to consider:

  • People find ceremonies and rituals useful in allowing a public expression of respect for those who die.
  • The memories of the person are useful. Recall how even elephants visit the bones of the ancestors.
  • People are able to build new relationships that in some sense “replace” the function of the person who died. When a father dies a son becomes more involved with a distant uncle.
  • Preparing for one’s own death. There are many details that one can attend during one’s life that can relieve the pressure on others. These range from funeral arrangements, the memorial service and obituary, to medical consents and powers of attorney, to speaking more openly with people.

Summary: Striving towards Clarity

Social interactions are key to how families are organized. Much of the way one interacts is influenced by the history of the social group. Death is one of the upheavals that forces social systems to change, for better or worse. The effort to manage relationships and responsibilities sets the stage for the future.   Each of us has some idea about what kinds of relationships are worth striving towards, no matter if the person is dead or alive. Finding ways to relate well to others, during times of great upheavals, are our gifts to the future.



1 Wilson, E.O. The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014, W.W. Norton, Page 75        2 http://birthorders.com/theory.html, and Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior, 4th Edition 4th Edition by Walter Toman PhD                                          3 Levitt, Stephen and Dubner, Stephen, 2014, Think Like A Freak, Page 172             4 Viewing a corpse is more likely to bring to mind opinions on how the body appears, or an emotional reaction that is more tied to how we feel when seeing a dead person or grappling with our own mortality. None of these truly honor the deceased. https://au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20130528054143AAMZTFW               5 McGonigal, Kelly, The Upside of Stress, Page 84                                                                     6 http://thefuneralsource.org/history.html                                                                7 http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Hinduism/2001/02/Rites-Of-Transition-Hindu-Death-Rituals.aspx?p=2

Abstracts of Interesting Readings:


“70% of family-owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over. Just 10% remain active, privately held companies for the third generation to lead. In contrast to publicly owned firms, in which the average CEO tenure is six years, many family businesses have the same leaders for 20 or 25 years.  https://hbr.org/2012/01/avoid-the-traps-that-can-destroy-family-businesses.

2) In 1838 Darwin read Malthus’s assertion that human population would skyrocket if not for natural controls such as famine and disease, Charles Darwin has a new insight: other a nimals’ populations must also be kept low by a struggle for existence, in which only the best adapted survive. The theory of natural selection is born. From Evolution:“Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”

Malthus believed that unless people exercised restraint in the number of children they had, the inevitable shortfall of food in the face of spiraling population growth would doom mankind to a ceaseless struggle for existence. Out of that unforgiving battle, some would survive and many would not, as famine, disease, and war put a ceiling on the growth in population.

These ideas galvanized Darwin’s thinking about the struggles for survival in the wild, where restraint is unknown. Before reading Malthus, Darwin had thought that living things reproduced just enough individuals to keep populations stable. But now he came to realize that, as in human society, populations bred beyond their means, leaving survivors and losers in the effort to exist.

Immediately, Darwin saw that the variation he had observed in wild populations would produce some individuals that were slightly better equipped to thrive and reproduce under the particular conditions at the time. Those individuals would tend to leave more offspring than their fellows, and over many generations their traits would come to dominate.[8] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/02/5/l_025_01.html

3) Hare studies how chimpanzees and bonobos solve problems, and in 2007 he happened to see one of our closest evolutionary relatives die. He was at a bonobo orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Lipopo, a newcomer to the orphanage, died unexpectedly from pneumonia. Although the other bonobos could have moved away from his body and travel anywhere in their very large, heavily forested enclosure, they chose to stay and groom Lipopo’s corpse. When their caretakers arrived to remove the body, the vigil morphed into a tense standoff.

In the video Hare took, Mimi, the group’s alpha female, stands guard over Lipopo’s body. When the caretakers try to push the corpse out of the enclosure with long poles, Mimi fights them, viciously. She grabs the poles with both hands, wrenching them away from Lipopo. She calls to other bonobos, who help her fend off the humans from two sides. Even when the vet arrives with a tranquilizer gun, Mimi stands her ground, her mouth open wide in a scream that’s inaudible in the silent film. Mimi wasn’t related to Lipopo. In fact, she barely knew him, Hare told me. But Mimi was willing to risk an encounter with a gun to protect the body of a mere acquaintance. “That’s why I started to cry,” Hare said. “I don’t know why she did it.”


4) Scientists have watched chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates deal with death in ways that look strikingly like our own informal rituals of mourning: watching over the dying, cleaning and protecting bodies and displaying outward signs of anxiety. Chimps have been seen to make loud distress calls when a comrade dies. They investigate bodies as if looking for signs of life. There are many cases of mothers refusing to abandon dead infants, carrying and grooming them for days or even weeks.


When the scientists at the park realized Pansy’s death was imminent, they turned on video cameras, capturing intimate moments during her last hours as Blossom, Rosie and Blossom’s son, Chippy, groomed her and comforted her as she got weaker. After she passed, the chimps examined the body, inspecting Pansy’s mouth, pulling her arm and leaning their faces close to hers. Blossom sat by Pansy’s body through the night. And when she finally moved away to sleep in a different part of the enclosure, she did so fitfully, waking and repositioning herself dozens more times than was normal. For five days after Pansy’s death, none of the other chimps would sleep on the platform where she died.


5) The pictures of a baby elephant in Borneo, nudging and nuzzling the body of its dead mother in obvious distress and bewilderment, cannot fail to move us. Allegations that up to ten pygmy elephants were poisoned, perhaps by local farmers, are upsetting — perhaps because elephant emotions seem so like our own, so heartbreakingly close to human sorrow and grief. Any scientist knows how dangerous it is to project human feelings on to an animal, to force them into human molds or ‘anthropomorphize’ them, but it’s equally dangerous to ignore a wealth of scientific data based on decades of observation in the wild.

We may never know exactly what goes on inside the mind of an elephant, but it would be arrogant of us to assume we are the only species capable of feeling loss and grief. I have been filming animals in the wild for more than 20 years, and that has often meant being around elephants: they live across a huge range of habitats. But mass poaching has put them into terrible decline — around 40,000 elephants a year are killed by poachers and, according to some estimates, since the Sixties the population has been culled from 3.5 million to just 250,000.

6) Elephants are widely believed to mourn the deaths of members of their herd, and even pay homage to long-dead elephants. A 2005 study in the UK found the creatures displayed traits similar to humans and, coming across the remains of an elephant, would gently touch the skull and tusks with their trunks and feet. They are also believed to display a ritual around death, with several elephants travelling to visit a dead body and touching the corpse with their trunks. Some elephants have been seen to weep and others make sounds associated with grief as they cover the body with leaves and branches before keeping a silent vigil.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2090915/Well-forget-Elephants-say-sad-farewell-month-old-calf-died-heart-defect.html#ixzz3inoaI0Iw
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7) Like humans, elephants must learn behavior as they grow up. They are not born with the instincts of how to survive.[24] Elephants have a very long period in their lives for learning, lasting for around ten years. One comparative way to try to gauge intelligence is to compare brain size at birth to the fully developed adult brain. This indicates how much learning a species accumulates while young. The majority of mammals are born with a brain close to 90% of the adult weight,[24] while Humans are born with 28%,[24]bottlenose dolphins with 42.5%,[25] chimpanzees with 54%,[24] and elephants with 35%.[26] This indicates that elephants have the highest amount of learning to undergo next to humans, and behavior is not mere instinct but must be taught throughout life. It should be noted that instinct is quite different from learned intelligence. Parents teach their young how to feed, use tools and learn their place in the highly complex elephant society. The cerebrum temporal lobes, which function as storage of memory, are much larger than those of a human.[24]

8) Elephants are the only species of mammals other than Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals[citation needed]known to have or have had any recognizable ritual around death. They show a keen interest in the bones of their own kind (even unrelated elephants that have died long ago). They are often seen gently investigating the bones with their trunks and feet while remaining very quiet. Sometimes elephants that are completely unrelated to the deceased still visit their graves.[15] Elephant researcher Martin Meredith recalls an occurrence in his book about a typical elephant death ritual that was witnessed by Anthony Hall-Martin, a South African biologist who had studied elephants in Addo, South Africa, for over eight years. The entire family of a dead matriarch, including her young calf, were all gently touching her body with their trunks, trying to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream, but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return.[35]


If the elephant’s gargantuan cerebellum—as well as its intricate olfactory and temporal lobes—equip the creature with sensory superpowers, what features of the elephant brain account for its more sophisticated, more abstract mental talents: for its cooperative problem-solving, understanding of death and self-awareness? Based on what we know about brains generally, this type of intellect arises from the cerebral cortex. Manger and Herculano-Houzel’s recent investigations confirmed, however, that despite having a brain three times as large as our own, the elephant’s cerebral cortex contains surprisingly few neurons and is nowhere near as dense as the human or chimpanzee cortex. Yet the elephant is clearly capable of astounding intelligence.

9) Benjamin Hart of the University of California Davis has speculated that the elephant cortex derives its intellectual prowess not from local density but from widespread interconnectivity. He suspects that, whereas the human and chimpanzee brains have evolved many tight-knit networks of nearby neurons throughout the cortex—akin to states packed with highly populous cities—the elephant brain has favored lengthy connections between far-flung brain areas, building the equivalent of an extensive cross-country railroad system. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/searching-for-the-elephants-genius-inside-the-largest-brain-on-land/

10) Quotes from Bowen’s chapter on The Family Reaction to Death
Direct thinking about death, or indirect thinking about staying alive and avoiding death, occupies more of man’s time than any other subject. Man is an instinctual animal with the same instinctual awareness of death as the lower forms of life. He follows the same predictable instinctual life pattern of all living things. He is born, he grows to maturity, he reproduces, his life force runs out, and he dies. In addition, he is a thinking animal with a brain that enables him to reason, reflect, and think abstractly. With his intellect he has devised philosophies and beliefs about the meaning of life and death that tend to deny his place in nature’s plan. Each individual has to define his own place in the total scheme and accept the fact that he will die and be replaced by succeeding generations.[9]

[1] Wilson, E.O. The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014, W.W. Norton, Page 75

[2] http://birthorders.com/theory.html, and Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior, 4th Edition 4th Edition by Walter Toman PhD

[3] Levitt, Stephen and Dubner, Stephen, 2014, Think Like A Freak, Page 172

[4] Viewing a corpse is more likely to bring to mind opinions on how the body appears, or an emotional reaction that is more tied to how we feel when seeing a dead person or grappling with our own mortality. None of these truly honor the deceased. https://au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20130528054143AAMZTFW

[5] McGonigal, Kelly, The Upside of Stress, Page 84

[6] http://thefuneralsource.org/history.html

[7] http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Hinduism/2001/02/Rites-Of-Transition-Hindu-Death-Rituals.aspx?p=2

[8] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/02/5/l_025_01.html

[9] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 321). Jason Aronson, Inc.


When Does an Emotional System Guide Your Behavior?

Bowen and the gorilla

Murray Bowen, MD and a very smart gorilla  around 1987

Is it possible or even probable that we can learn about our own emotionally oriented, automatic behavior?  Can we get a clue from observing other social species? Can they show us what it is like when you only feel your way through life?

Can other mammals use thinking to overcome a feeling response?

Does reflection enable humans to self regulate?

Are we the only species able to think about our feelings?

Do we humans gain a little bit of freedom by being able to think and reorganize our feelings?

How do we know when we are outside the stimulus-response world?

Can reflecting on our feelings allow us to be a bit more separate from the controlling ways of the emotional system?

We saw in Jack Calhoun’s experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), how mice interacted poorly under conditions of overcrowding.

Calhoun’s early experiments with rats were carried out on farmland at Rockville, Maryland, starting in 1947.[6]

While Calhoun was working at NIMH in 1954, he began numerous experiments with rats and mice. During his first tests, he placed around 32 to 56 rodents in a 10 x 14-foot case in a barn in Montgomery County. He separated the space into four rooms. Every room was specifically created to support a dozen matured brown Norwegian rats. Rats could maneuver between the rooms by using the ramps. Since Calhoun provided unlimited resources, such as water, food, and also protection from predators as well as disease and weather, the rats were said to be in “rat utopia” or “mouse paradise,” another psychologist explained.[7]

Following his earlier experiments with rats, in 1972 Calhoun would later create his “Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice”: a 101-inch square cage for mice with food and water replenished to support any increase in population,[8] which took his experimental approach to its limits. In his most famous experiment in the series, “Universe 25”, population peaked at 2,200 mice and thereafter exhibited a variety of abnormal, often destructive behaviors. By the 600th day, the population was on its way to extinction.[6]

They seem to live in a stimulus-response universe. Their interactions determine their health. Crowding conditions created too many frustrating interactions and the mice lost the ability to recognize one another as individuals, reproduce, cooperate and care for the young.

The plight of the mice resulted from relationship problems, not a lack of food and water. The increasing numbers of animals in a small universe led to population crashes. By restructuring the physical environment Calhoun forced the animals to notice each other, and to cooperate in order to drink water.

With this change in the environment the animals could tolerate eight times the social density. Jack Calhoun observed that animals could create meaningful social roles when they had to figure out how to cooperate with one another to obtain water.

Rats, mice and chimpanzees are all mammals that share an inability to think or override their feeling oriented guidance systems. They are wired to respond quickly to threats. The mice had to rely on the thinking of an innovator like Jack Calhoun to figure out how to organize their relationships.

A thinking brain can impact survival. The inability to see the big picture and to think rationally, what I call relationship blindness, may be a mammalian vulnerability. The early ancestors of humans also needed to respond to threat and developed quick reflexes to survive. Those in small tribes could react quickly to a simple decision – friend or foe? And so our very human brain evolved to confront short-term phenomena.

Like most mammals, for thousands of years humans too have lived and died in the moment. As a result, the brain orients and perceives in a narrow range. What is coming at me now? Whose fault is this? Humans could not easily understand systems. For millennia, for example,humans thought the earth was the center of the universe, not understanding the earth was being influenced by the solar system as it traveled around the sun.

As human society has became more complex, various mental skill sets were developed to slow down these stimulus-response reflexes, allowing individuals to think longer term, like “How do I survive the winter and get along with the people in this village?”

As population has increased, there has been an increased need to develop greater awareness of the environment to slow down our automatic reflexes and thereby manage relationship dynamics reduce stress and make better long-term decisions.

Ten thousand plus years ago agriculture forced humans to do more thinking, to learn how to reflect and create different ways of behavior rather than simply following along with the group. As the population grew it required humans to use more thinking about the distant future. It also required that individuals be more of a stand alone self rather than operate as part of the togetherness group. (see Julian Jaynes)

Since there is no Jack Calhoun to think of a better way to force us to cooperate we must learn to engage more of a thinking response to challenges. The brain begins to do this by observing the traps of stimulus-response feelings and begins to adapt to changing conditions through trial and error efforts. (see Jack Panksepp)

Understanding what it means to be an “I” has taken many mysterious paths. (See Douglas Hofstadter) Mediation may have been one way that humans began to withdraw energy from a pure feeling response to reduce complexity and gain insight into phenomena.

Over time more and more people learned to withdraw energy from the stimulus feeling response world to think and reflect. Indian artifacts point to the origins of “tantric” meditation which 5,000 years ago allowed individual members to slow down their reactivity and increase their ability to reflect. (http://www.how-to-meditate.org/)

In addition to learning how to alter one’s brain state, increasing population leads to role diversification as humans began to expand into towns, cities, nations and finally a human community on planet earth. We learned from Jack Calhoun that our mammalian brains make us vulnerable to social breakdowns. The early failure of social bonding in Calhoun’s mice was due to poor interactions and a lack of gratification resulting in greater emotional blindness and high contact rates with the young animals who were no longer being protected by their mothers.

Calhoun noted: “High contact rate further fragments behavior as a result of the stochastic social interactions which demand that, in order to maximize gratification from social interactions, intensity and direction of social interactions must be reduced in proportion to the degree that the group size exceeds the optimum.”

The optimum group size for Calhoun’s mice was 12 individuals resulting in a 50/50 chance that each interaction might be positive. If it was negative and one was not gratified they might withdraw and be frustrated. But if they could reflect on and think about the encounter and possibly learn from it, the animal was more creative in their next encounter. Frustrating interactions in a small social group often lead to creativity. We know all to well, however, that an increase in frustrating interactions may lead to destruction of relationships and/or of the individual as well.

Bowen described differentiation of self as a method to reorganize the brain and to be able to think carefully about ones behavior and the principles that are guidelines for defining a self. You could think about differentiation as a process of recognizing self separate from the other while being able to recognize self in the other. At one end of the spectrum people cannot see self as separate. Others are threatening all the time. They are subject to heightened emotionality. At the most mature end of the spectrum, there is great knowing and management of self while relating well to others and their differences with respect and compassion.

The effort to be more separate and not take sides while still being in good emotional contact with others creates a very different emotional system, one that is driven more by managing self and less

by the emotional push and pull of the group. Differentiation allows an individual to think and override automatic habits. If one can see the tricks of the emotional system for what they are, automatic behavior, one can stand-alone and not be manipulated by relationship signals. As one has greater ability to perceive and to think about relationship signals one has a better ability to choose how and when to interact.

Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky have all written and spoken about the basic social instincts in various species of mammals. By looking at their behavior it’s easy for us to identify with these animals as we experience these basic emotions: affection, love, betrayal, mistrust, the need for domination and the fear of being dominated.

How has man altered these basic social templates? Bowen thought that by using our thinking to act differently in relationships we had begun to separate more of our thinking system from the overriding commands of the emotional system. Bowen thought it possible that differentiation of self could influence evolution.

Differentiation can lead us to more thoughtful social interaction as we stand-alone on our principles and avoid being tricked by the emotional system as best we can. The possibility is that seeing the emotional system operate on all of us offers the possibility that we can have other social roles that that will give us a place (or in Calhoun’s terms a social role) in the system.

For example a creative person might like to work alone but the family objects and is critical, and calls him or  her crazy. If one person in the family can not join in and react and if the person can relate to others and manage self, the creative person may have a chance to play a useful role in the family and in society.

Or consider that the family emotional system can program an individual to be an over or under responsible oldest. By seeing the family process one has the ability to redefine self to others rather than to blindly follow  the programming.

Knowing self and the system would be more important than giving up self to go along with the social pressure from others. Therefore defining self becomes a way to create various social roles for self in any number of social systems.

Murray Bowen described a way of managing relationships and separating out using the knowledge of triangles. “Put a stranger into the system in place of the child. After a brief time the stranger will  either become programmed into the familiar patterns of the triangle, or he will withdraw—also a predictable response to triangles.

Put a family therapist with knowledge of triangles into the triangle in the place of the child. The parents will make predictable moves designed to involve the therapist into the triangle with them. If the therapist can avoid becoming “triangled,” and still remain in constant emotional contact with the parents over a period of time, the relationship between the parents will begin to change.”

“This is the theoretical and practical basis for much of the family psychotherapy in this theoretical- therapeutic system, in which a family is considered to consist of the two most important people in the family, together with the therapist who constitutes a potential triangled person. Theoretically, a family system can be changed if any triangle in the family is changed, and if that triangle can stay in meaningful emotional contact with the others. Practically, the two spouses are usually the only ones

who are important enough to the rest of the family and who have the motivation and dedication for this kind of an effort. The second way to modify a triangle is through one family member. If one memberofatrianglecanchange,thetrianglewillpredictablychange. Andifonetrianglecan change, an entire extended family can change. Thus, an entire family can be changed through one family member, if this motivated family member has sufficient dedication and life energy to work toward his or her goal in spite of all obstacles. The “change” mentioned here is not some superficial change in role or posture, but is deeper and more far-reaching than the change generally associated with most therapeutic systems.”

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 246). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.

Other References:

  • Stress in the Animal Kingdom: What We Can Learn
  • Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, By Frans de Waal
  • Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, Jul 2, 1999 by James H. Austin
    • Used for $4.89 here.
  • I AM a Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstader
    • Used for $1.89 here.
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Aug 15, 2000 by Julian Jaynes
    • Used for $1.26 here.
  • The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)Sep 17, 2012 by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven

Societal Reaction to the Killing of Nine People in Charleston SC . Are We Blindsided by the Emotional System? 

These ideas were generated by the first summer session for Navigating Systems and Murray Bowen’s Concept of Societal Regression.   http://www.navigatingsystemsdc.com/

bowen chalk on finger tips

Each day we are bombarded by the difficulties we as a society face: random violence, wars, mass migrations, acts of terrorism, senseless murders, posturing politicians, our decreasing attention span, increases in autism, breakdowns in relationships and many other challenges. How can we understand the essence of these societal problems? And what will it take to make a difference?

This week Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old man, joined a prayer meeting at the historic African-American Church Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. Cool and deliberately, he killed nine people there.

“A drunken Dylan Storm Roof boasted one night about an unspecified six-month plan “to do something crazy”. This weekend Roof’s sister was to be married. Roof had repeated the ninth grade at the Lexington County High School, and was described as “very transient,” he “came and went.” In a Washington Post interview, Roof’s uncle, Carson Cowles, said his mother “never raised him to be like this.” “The whole world is going to be looking at his family who raised this monster,” Cowles told the Post. “I’d be the executioner myself if they would allow it.”[1]

Only a few things are known about Roof now. But there will be analysis of his environment and his family, as there has been for the others who slay innocent people. Once again we will learn more about the profile of a loner who had as much difficulty relating to others as they had relating to him. All the mechanisms are engaged; distance, conflict and projection.

This is another example of family emotional process, intensifying and impacting society. The family patterns of relating create intense polarizations and blaming over the generations. It is these patterns of reactivity that draw “fault” lines in a family that become more and more deeply imbedded in that family and in society.

Systems Thinking is Hard to Do

Can we become more objective about the primitive mechanisms that influence us? Faster than the speed of light the our automatic response is to feel upset and “know” that so and so is to blame, that guns or “lone wolves”, etc. explains these frightening phenomena.

Thinking systems can enable us to go beyond good guys and bad guys even though it’s just not “natural” or automatic for us to see and deal with the emotional system. Although our tendency is to buy into a particular story line to explain what has happened, when we do that we limit our objectivity and become more emotional, focusing on short term fixes. Bowen called this the force for togetherness. It allows us to be popular and agreeable and not think as hard.

Being careful of “group think” around any emotional area is probably very wise. After all societal regression occurs when large numbers of individuals come together, with high emotions and not much thought. Under stress and the pressure to be a part of the upset group, people lose the ability to become more objective and thoughtful. It is automatic to be controlled by the stress and fear generated by the emotional system.

In societal regression there is anxiety produced by many threats including but not limited to the loss of new frontiers, land, water supplies and other basic resources. The inability to manage self under increasing stress is seen in the withdrawal of some individuals and/or in frustrating and stressful interactions between individuals.

When one becomes more objective, one can both increase the ability to relate to one another as separate individuals and can take the time to deeply analyze new trends in society. One example can be seen in Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids. Here we see how there are many long terms trends that are changing slowly, making our society less functional. We have to see these trends as important in order to address them.[2] But we are often blind to the patterns in the emotional system.


Like our forebears who thought the earth was the center of the universe, so does the conventional wisdom suggest that the individual is “the problem”. What will it take to understand the influence of the family and the larger social systems on all of us?

When we understand that heightened emotions and criticism harms and doesn’t help, perhaps we can be better at monitoring how we communicate. If people understand that being able to relate to others is the highest priority, then they might be able to tone down the polarized talk.

I am not sure the mayor of Charleston has any idea he may be making the situation worse in using his emotional reactions as a city leader. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the suspect was “filled with hate and with a deranged mind.” “The man is a “no-good, horrible person,” he said. “Of course we will make sure he pays the price for this horrible act.”[3]

Family Reaction to Death

It is somewhat easier to see a system in action if it is your own family. It is harder to see that society is a system. Perhaps if you thought of news organizations somewhat like your gossiping aunt, then you could see how an emotional system be it the family or society, can be driven by anxious perceptions.

Once we are triggered into becoming more anxious, then we tend to follow the crowd and cling to short-term solutions that reflect some ancient value (like revenge or forgiveness). It is easy to be overwhelmed by problems in society. It seems somewhat more rational for us to respond and find solutions when our own families become symptomatic.

Back in the 1970’s, Bowen spelled out the emotional confusion and anxiety in describing the family reaction to death. When you take a family history you often see clusters of symptoms around the loss of an important family member. In these cases, it is easier to see that the family is an emotional system, where threat spreads from one person to another in a predictable almost deterministic way.

When families (and larger social systems) have good contact and tolerance or a deep appreciation for one another, then they have more resilience to deal with loss. Families where people are unable to talk cannot prepare well for death.

Any family can be impacted by multiple symptoms following a death.

The opposite can also happen when someone dies and others have a renewed sense of the importance of life.

The behavioral patterns that are generated in emotional systems regress into blame, polarization and distance resulting in symptoms. If on the other hand there is a pattern-breaking leader who is able to have enough awareness and insight to break patterns, the system will be influenced to move towards progression.

Awareness and understanding of what it is that one faces makes it possible to use our intellectual system to deal more effectively with the automatic emotional system. We can develop creative solutions for old problems when the emotional system settles down.

One of the most challenging things is to notice when you are being unduly influenced by the people around you. If you are feeling highly emotional (think sad, mad, disgusted, fearful, blaming, guilty etc.), then the family emotional process might just be controlling you. Can you be more separate? Can you let the emotions calm down? Take a deep breath relax for a moment, let the storm subside. Pay attention to what it takes to get out of an emotional reaction. Somewhere in the emotional upheaval there might just might be useful information. But in a storm you can also be swept away.

Losing open contact among family members is a storm warning that you may be under the control of the family emotional process. Without contact there is little ability to cooperate and to care for one another. Once we get stressed one of the early warning signs is you no longer want anything to do with “those people.”

Be it in our family or as a reaction to what goes on in our society, our brains “automatically” respond to stresses, producing cortisol, damaging connections in the brain, even if we are not aware of the growing threats and pressures.   By studying the human family Bowen saw that even as the family was at its lowest point, one person could become more differentiated and slow down or stop a regression in the group.

Bowen’s observation was that those who are more differentiated are not regulated by the emotional system. At higher levels of emotional maturity, they are more capable of thinking for self and sustaining ideas that are unusual without attacking others. They are not bullies trying to get others to agree. Instead they are good listeners and creative in considering a wide range of ways to solve complex problems without letting the disapproval of others stop them.

Greater differentiation allows one to notice and respect others while maintaining one’s own direction. A focus on self and managing as best one can to relate to others can promote greater cooperation and less anxiety in relationships.

Murray Bowen:

One principle about differentiating change is probably more important than all the others. Differentiation begins when one family member begins to more clearly define and openly state his own inner life principles and convictions, and he begins to take responsible action based on convictions.


This is in contrast to principles derived from the rest of the family. It may require months or longer for this one to become reasonably sure within himself.


The remainder of the family opposes this differentiating effort with a powerful emotional counterforce, which goes in successive steps: (1) “You are wrong,” with volumes of reason to support this; (2) “Change back and we will accept you again”; and (3) “If you don’t these are the consequences,” which are then listed. The accusations commonly list indifference, meanness, lack of love, selfishness, coldness, the sadistic disregard for others, etc.


When the differentiating one defends himself, or counterattacks, or falls silent, he slips back into the old emotional equilibrium. When he can finally stay on his own calm course, in spite of the togetherness forces, the accusations reach a peak and quickly subside.


The opposition then expresses a single statement of appreciation at the conviction and strength of the differentiating one and the entire group pulls up to the new level attained by the first.


Later, another member of the group will start his or her own effort at the better definition of self. The togetherness opposition to individuation, or differentiation, is so predictable that differentiation does not occur without opposition from the togetherness forces. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 437). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting-suspect/index.html

[2] Robert Putnam lays out a case for a societal regression in his book: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.   Putnam shows us the disintegration of fragile families, the crumbling communities, the increase in child poverty rates, the increase in prison populations, the decrease in jobs and shows is how both kin and non kin networks have shrunk in the last ten years. Americans are disengaged. (Putnam page 211) Even the upper classes have lost social trust. In the 1970’s 78% of people in the most educated agreed with the statement “most people can be trusted.” (Putnam page 220) By 2010 people’s ability to trust others was down to 25%.

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/18/us/charleston-church-shooting-suspect/index.html


If You Open Your Mind Can You Open the Door?


Andreas Lubitz poses at the Golden Gate Bridge in his Facebook profile photo.
Andreas Lubitz poses at the Golden Gate Bridge in his Facebook profile photo.

A tragedy of ignorance unfolds as more evidence comes to light about the relationship between a vulnerable person and society.

How much do we know about how a seemingly relatively well functioning person can become psychotic/suicidal and crash a plane into the French Alps killing150 people? How much do we see him in isolation?

What are the chances that when the pilot yelled “OPEN THE DOOR!” this command from an authority decreased the chance that any useful outcome would occur?

Using Bowen’s systems theory we can find a deeper understanding of the emotional pressure that blindsides us and can turn vulnerable people into revenge machines.

If you watch the news shows you can see the emotional reactivity spread as pundits, news anchors, pilots, and psychologists, etc. focus on and “analyze” the “depressed” co-pilot. People react to the threat that there could be other depressed pilots out there. Some pilots joke that they are happily married. They pick up the importance of relationships. More worrisome are the comments like, “There is nothing we can do”, or the suggested quick fix, “Make that door open from the outside or put a stewardess in there.” And so goes the emotional responses to a threat.

What would it be like to hear a TV pundit say, “I need to back up and take a broader systems view of this tragedy”? This might require the pundit to deeply enquire as to the different variables influencing this situation. No diagnoses alone will enable us to understand what this individual was up against. A broader view may.

There is limited awareness and no talk about how emotionality spreads through a social system. People react and cannot notice how infectious and other focused their reactivity is. Some are so relieved that is wasn’t a terrorist plot that they are willing to dismiss this as a horrid act by just another “crazy” person. To some degree we have all become part of the reactivity to this event, creating the possibility of more emotional reactivity aimed at the vulnerable.

Just as in so many of these senseless and violent acts from Columbine and Sandy Hook to the Boston Marathon, there is the initial confusion which eventually gives way to helplessness (“There’s nothing we can do…”) or an angry reaction of blame towards those with depression and mental illness. It takes deep awareness not to be swept into a reactive state where the media (and our family and friends) overly influence the way we think and feel.

Unanswered questions for us as a society

  • How factual is the press portrayal of the problem?
  • What are the emotional reactions of the public?
  • How does reactivity recreate the same problem?
  • How can information about this incident promote learning?
  • What are the limits of current psychotherapy treatment?
  • Is a family approach needed to reorganize a stressed social system
  • Can we learn from the co-pilot’s family about his early years?
  • What was his recent relationship like with his family?
  • Did he have relationships with people in his extended family?
  • What were his relationships like with his friends?

How do people communicate and the downside of controlling others

The conventional wisdom or posture of the current psychology/psychiatry establishment is: “I will figure out what the problem. You are depressed. Please follow the doctor’s orders and take your medication”. (Even though following doctor’s orders could make you more depressed). The co-pilot was faced with a maddening bind: “Do as I say. Take the drug, lose your job.”

Doing what others want can lead to less self for a vulnerable person. Telling someone who is weak and confused what they must do can lead to a lack of compliance and increase the possibility of rebellion. This probably happened in his family, at work with his girlfriend and in the doctor’s office. The co-pilot tears up his prescriptions. The doctor feels that he did the right thing. The co-pilot is lost to anger, revenge and throws himself towards death.

The pilot yells at the co-pilot demanding that he follow orders, but the co-pilot is allergic to following orders and the pilot has not been trained to deal with emotionally disturbed people. Even if he had been, could he have figured out how to get the co-pilot to cooperate? What if he said to the co-pilot, “I need help. Please, please help me”? It is hard for the one in charge to see the big picture. Little can be done once the door to our fellow human being is locked. Can we know more about understanding the emotional tone in language?

Emotional Oneness

Early on Bowen wrote about the schizophrenic family exhibiting a kind of “emotional oneness”.[1] The self of the child is never developed so that he or she can think and live independently from the parents. The self is “borrowed” from others. This borrowed self is very vulnerable to being rejected and or invaded by the needs, wishes and demands of others. We all have this vulnerability to our relationship networks to some degree or another. Bowen said there are 100 degrees of difference in the level of emotional maturity. Each of us is influenced by our position in our social networks to be more or less dependent and or reactive.

If the co-pilot found some kind of “self” in his job and it was enough “self” to manage his relationships then he might be able to live a “normal” life. But if the relationship system were disturbed, then he would no longer be able to borrow enough “self” to function. The loss of one’s job could be one threat but there were other relationships threats that add to his vulnerability. By looking carefully at what was going on in his family, with his girlfriend and his social status at work we begin to see what went wrong that pushed him to become a killer.

What do we know so far about the disturbance in the relationship networks that the copilot used to sustain himself?  What do we know about the way in which the copilot tried to control and produce his version of a “family oneness”?

Some have suggested that the relationship with his girlfriend was disturbed by her pregnancy and he was threatened by this addition of a new person in their relationship.   Being on the outside of a mother-child relationship, just like being on the outside of any intense triangle, can make people feel threatened and vulnerable. Current reports suggest that she was actually moving out and leaving him.    Other “reasons” for his actions, some suggest, were his fear that his vision problem would end his flying career. (Yet another report implied that his vision problem was psychological. This would be more evidence of the fragile nature of his functioning. ) And after he crashed the plane, his girl friend and her family fled the village they lived in. Would they be blamed for the pilot’s murderous rage? How will they face the future and make sense of that has happened?[2] How will we?

As more facts are gathered we see the gradual desecration of all the important ingredients that held this person’s life together; his health, his job and his family relationships, were all threatened.

Other Focus

How is it that no one noticed that in losing his relationships and his health, he lost what ever was left of his self. This is what can happen. The emotional process in a social group is sensitized to focus on others and to be critical of others to get them in line. The automatic response is to look at others, focus on them and blame them, thereby freeing the rest of us from seeing our part in how the system is organized. Pause for a moment and consider the degree to which you can see how blaming individuals keeps us from seeing the larger system and this blindness makes events like this more likely to recur.

It has been reported that even the co-pilot wanted to change “the system”.  It would have been better if he had wanted to change himself but he too was focused on “others”. The best case is if this tragedy makes a small dent in the way we think about the individual and social systems and how we deal with troubled people. Perhaps he will help us understand what the “family oneness” is? Can we be more aware of what happens to others if we are too distant, too controlling, too needing of others? It is automatic to pressure others to make us happy or safe, but this “other focus” eventually leads to the erosion of self and to some kind of tragedy.


The co-pilot who crashed a passenger jet into the French Alps, killing all 150 aboard, worried “health problems” would dash his dreams and vowed one day to do something to “change the whole system”, an ex-girlfriend told a German newspaper.[3]

Understanding the system and the trapped person

One hypothesis is that the co-pilot felt trapped by the events happening to him and believed, “If you know of my problems you will fire me and that will kill me. I feel that you are against me and I must kill you”. The others around the co-pilot could have reassured him in an unsatisfactory way or been critical, making him more anxious. People feel how others regard them and often find it difficult to think or consider the facts of the situation when they are upset. They hide out, disappear and can then project their worries and negative feelings onto others. (“What I feel you are doing to me I am going to do to you.”) The primitive and reactive part of the brain is in control and the logical rational part is over-ridden.

Effective therapy allows people to be in a positive questioning relationship that enables them to see how they are tangled up and learn to gradually unhook from the emotionally driven reactions enough to begin to alter, improve and broaden their relationships with significant others. Bowen was the first person to notice that by being in good emotional contact with one’s extended family, people were able to make progress twice as fast as those in psychoanalysis.

Over time people can THINK about how automatically they behave. Eventually their thinking can alter their behavior. But if people are too sensitive to tolerate a relationship that calls things into question they can leave therapy in a negative way and may be more inclined to hurt self or others.


People are born into a functional position in their families. Some are able to observe how they are influenced by the social system, while others are born more highly sensitive and reactive to relationships. The individuals who take challenges personally cannot see the system as a larger mutigenerational system that influences and impacts all the individuals in it.

The German co-pilot was probably not a good observer of the push and pull in the human social system. Possibly he took things very, very personally and was unsure of himself and pushed people away from him. Bullies are the flip side of this dynamic. They threaten others directly, while a more passive person can hurt self or act quietly to get revenge for real and perceived hurts.

As in the case of the co-pilot social pressure leads to threatening others. As people lose self they are unsure of what they think.   They copy others and mouth the right words and sometimes this pretending works to fool others and to get along. But under stress the façade can crumble because it’s not solid. The language used in families where there are serious symptoms often shows a disregard for the identity of the individual. There is lot of telling others what to do, criticizing them, ignoring them, not letting them get a word in edgewise, using ego merger words like “YOU must, you will, you are, we are the right ones and you are the wrong one”. There are just a few of the indicators of increasing anxiety. The overall message is, “We are not sure of you and you are not sure of you either”.

Many vulnerable people are sensitive to being told what to do and so they go away, fight with you, get sick, blame or worry about others to preserve themselves in a hostile environment. The main thing one can notice is that it is difficult for people to focus on self and talk about self and easier for them to try to get the others to behave.

Once there is an “other focus” it becomes difficult to work on self. There is no “I” position that can help build an emotional backbone. And without an emotional backbone, there is no dealing with challenging relationships. Those who have become focused on can be de-selfed and under pressure they can tumble into psychosis and can do “mad “ and destructive things. When told what to do or when threatened, they seek revenge. These are the few who never had a solid self and who believe deeply that “if you will not agree with me one of us will die”.

What does it take to see patterns of relationships? What does it take for individuals to integrate negative experiences? What does it take to find a more thoughtful way to relate to those who have hurt you? These are all questions for testing levels of emotional maturity.

What would it take to change the system?

We know that integrating one’s thinking and feeling about one’s life experiences takes time and the process is not very well understood. Perhaps as we learn more about the co-pilot and his relationships, this knowledge could be generalized and change the way society understands and deals with emotional problems. But seeing these events differently requires changing the way we as a society understand mental health, shifting our thinking to a broad view of systems and how systems influence individuals, not the other way around. We would have to see the individual as in and part of the system, not as isolated from it.

The Brain

Our brain is not built for interpersonal reflection. Our ancient brain was taught to operate in and preserve hierarchies, no matter the cost to a particular individual. Humans like other animals distribute anxiety unfairly. Without thought, the weak are picked on and the strong get the better deal. This is the emotional system at work. It takes courage to look at our part in problems and to think that even how we simply react to challenges, how we act, talk and think, may be “messing up” others.

Differentiation of self

We have the capacity to lead and to take on the “unfair” nature of the emotionally driven system. In most systems there are one or two who can see that the automatic nature of blaming, shaming and isolating does not improve human functioning. These are the ones who can rise above diagnosis of the individual and think differently about how to increase functioning by managing themselves in relationships.

If one can see the social system and relate to others by being more separate, we know others will object and be upset. But this changes the direction of the “worried focus”. When one person begins to change how they deal with a problem person in the family, a different level of change occurs. One person decides, “I’m not doing ‘this diagnosing’ anymore. I am going to change the way I am acting toward so and so”. This begins to create change throughout the whole system.

Sometimes we may feel that there is only a small chance of finding a more mature leader (in a family, organization or the larger society) willing to change self in the face of a monumental problem. But if you look around there are examples everywhere. There are people stepping up to change some aspect of society that they find appalling.

One example of social change

It may be that our mental heath system based on seeing and treating the individual will come under greater scrutiny. It may be that enough evidence will be gathered to say that the surrounding social system must be involved in the treatment of those with serious symptoms. At this point, to go from an individual focus to a family focus seems way too difficult. It would involve way too much social change. But great social change is possible.

The March 29, 2015 issue of the New York Times magazine describes the story of how a few people in Norway changed a prison system from punishment to a focus on rehabilitation: Prison Planet: How do we treat the world’s most dangerous prisoners and what does it say about us.[4] The prison was designed to restore the basic elements needed for humans to grow and develop: exposure to sunlight, to open space, to encourage those in authority to play games with the inmates, to “learn” to interact with people. Halden Prison spends $93,000 on each prisoner, focusing on preparing inmates for life when they get out.   The US spends $32,00 for punishment.[5]

System Theory offers a path to a quiet revolution

Bowen theory allows us to consider the nature of the relationship systems surrounding us and to more deeply understand what is influencing our ability to stand-alone and to be mindful of emotional pressure. There are many things that go into giving up of self and the automatic desire to have an emotional oneness with others. We can notice it in our lives if we are able to see emotional pressure and how often we automatically agree with or fight with or disappear from defining ourselves in relationships with others. We give up a little bit of self when things are not questioned, when we go along with the powerful ones, when we do not put forth our differences with others, and when we cut off from difficult relationships and conversations.

We as a society are blindsided by the power of the emotional system and find it difficult to observe its influence. This is the double bind for us all. The social system is automatically functioning to identify someone as the problem and that individual is done in while we stand by silently participating. This blaming, worried process lets the group survive. And we are part of it as long as we do not see the larger process that is occurring.

In families we see how easy it is to get upset with the one who does not do his or her homework, clean the room, stays out too late and is not obedient. These are the ones who can draw the negative focus.  We have built a lucrative social structure to deal with the vulnerable ones without realizing how we are participating and benefiting from this process.

Bowen theory offers an alternative, an open window, a fresh breeze, a different way to see and understand the suffering around us. Theory offers each of us a full time job. There is a way to be more aware of relationships, and to be a more thoughtful self in the effort to open any door.

…………………………………………………….. Footnotes………………………………………………..

[1] Intensive Family Therapy: Theoretical and Practical Aspects, edited by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, James L. Framo

[2] Kathrin Goldbach, a 26-year-old secondary school teacher, told her students two weeks ago that she was pregnant, and she was planning to marry Lubitz. However, the day before the Germanwings airplane crash, Goldbach told Lubitz, 27, she was moving out of the apartment they shared in Dusseldorf, Germany. Goldbach cited his insecurity and controlling personality as reasons for her decision. Goldbach also believed Lubitz had been seeing another woman. She accused him of having a five-month relationship with a Germanwings stewardess. Newsmax reported that Goldbach’s friends said she was leaving Lubitz because she could no longer live with him because of his erratic behavior. Goldbach had been vocal about the way he treated her. Her friends said Goldbach told them Lubitz tried to order her about what to wear, and who she could and could not talk to. Kathrin Goldbach and her family are said to be so afraid of being blamed for the Germanwings crash – caused by Lubitz after he flew the plane he was co-piloting into the French Alps – that they have fled the town and vowed to never return.

Read more at http://www.inquisitr.com/1969270/kathrin-goldbach-girlfriend-of-germanwings-co-pilot-who-crashed-plane-might-be-expecting-his-baby/#w1KG75wrfWPyj14i.99

[3] http://nation.foxnews.com/2015/03/29/crash-co-pilot-ex-girlfriend-everyone-will-know-my-nam

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/magazine/the-radical-humaneness-of-norways-halden-prison.html?_r=0

[5] Currently the prison system in Norway is designed to “ease psychological pressure, mitigate conflict, and minimize interpersonal conflict”. Norwegians have altered the system. If a prison environment can be altered, how hard is it to alter the way we think about treating people with mental heath issues?


Social Pressure and Differentiation of Self

Social Pressure and Differentiation of Self

Bowen lauging at CC 1979

Yesterday, January 31st, would have been Murray Bowen’s 103 Birthday. 

Bowen smilinig 86

Dr. Bowen left a tremendous inheritance to all of us. His broad grasp of nature, his deep understanding of emotional process, his funny southern humor, his shocking insight and his love of challenging people, all are deeply missed.   Neither Bowen nor his theory was perfect. As he said, his mission was to simply point towards a new way to think about human behavior.  

Family Systems thinking has yet to be integrated into most people’s thinking. So I am grateful for the many people and organizations that both acknowledge and continue his work.

Now I am deeply involved with the Murray Bowen Archives: http://murraybowenarchives.org/. If you Google Bowen Family Systems Theory you will find many other organizations that offer various viewpoints and ways to understand Bowen Theory. (I found about 147,000 results in 0.31 seconds). 

Last month I was honored to speak to the participants in The Vermont Center for Family Studies’ training program. They asked me many great questions about social pressure and how to define a self as a coach and as a family member. http://www.vermontcenterforfamilystudies.org/training-program/

I wrote this essay to expand on their questions and to acknowledge some of what I learned from Dr. Bowen and where his ideas have led me.

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Social Pressure and Differentiation of Self

How hard is it to be who you want to be? How much do you conform to what others need or want you to be? How challenging is it to see and act when relationship pressures are intense to go along or to avoid issues?

The effort to define one’s self to important others is usually a tension filled danger zone. Our near and dear can act as part of a system and resist self-definition by anyone.

We are often blind to the mechanisms supporting social pressure. Evolutionary forces have rigged the family to function as a social unit so that some give up self for the group.   Therefore it is challenging but necessary to uncover and understand the mechanisms promoting relationship blindness, especially during times of great change.

It is difficult to say what is really important to you or for others to hear about your principles, or what it is you will or will not do. One needs courage and the ability to postpone the comforts of approval to be self-defined. People are willing to take on this task – to be more self-defined and respectful of others – because they deeply believe that in so doing, they and others will be able to function at higher levels. And they do it because they can accept the moments or months or years of social tension that may be necessary to unwind an anxious family system.

The Slippery Slope of Social Pressure

Bowen noted that as individuals became better observers of emotional process they could often do something about the way they reacted to social pressure. He would often tell stores about how these mechanisms worked to lure others into going along with an “other focus” rather than a self-focus.

One story he liked to tell was about an experience he had one day driving from work in Kansas to his home in Tennessee.   On the several hour drive he found himself wondering about people at work: “What is going on that I am upset with Bob? Bob is a nice enough fellow. I see that the further I get away from the system the more neutral I feel about Bob. Perhaps I just got taken in by all the gossip at the water cooler.” After he returned to Menninger, he found he could relate to Bob pretty well for a couple of days. Then he would find himself going along with the majority viewpoint of Bob. As he became aware of these automatic mechanisms, the triangles, he developed strategies to deal with the gossipers and Bob.

Bowen called this the automatic and out of awareness joining of one’s self with others – fusion. It’s a natural state for a youngster to join with others and to believe what their parents or teachers say, but taken to an extreme some people can be so highly fused they are unable to separate from others. They react to social pressure from parents and others and are unable to determine their own separate identity. Their emotional growth is stunted and they are vulnerable to all kinds of physical and emotional symptoms.

No one knows how these fused states come to be. There may be a genetic vulnerability to becoming fused with others or it may be purely psychological phenomenon.

My own experience with fusion into the undifferentiated ego mass of my family of origin is remarkably consistent with what I have observed in a broad spectrum of reasonably well-integrated families with whom I have worked in my teaching and practice. I have never seen a family in which the “emotional fusion” phenomenon is not present… There are others so intensely “fused” they probably can never know the world of emotional objectivity with their parents. Few people can be objective about their parents, see and think about them as people, without either downgrading or upgrading them”.[1]

Perhaps the first step in defining a self is just to acknowledge the problem of perception. We are under evolutionary pressure to act as part of a social unit and that pressure overrides the inclination to be an individual. The togetherness force is common to all social animals, and for good reason. The herd is a powerful protection, both physically and emotionally. Maybe this is the evolutionary reason we have a strong tendency to automatically fit in with our social groups.

Until one achieves some ability to doubt one’s initial instinct to go along with the group, we are destined to follow the instinct to be for the group.  So, what does it take to find your own small difference, or a principle that you can base your decisions on, rather than relying on the love and approval from going along with others?

Laurie Lassiter and others have suggested that there is an evolutionary “gain” from being a bit more separate from the social group. Usually the more separate individual is a more factual observer of the situation and can lead others in a better direction. Evolution favors increasing awareness to contend with changes in the environment, shifting alliances and the transfer of information to enhance survival. [2]

Part of a leader’s responsibility is to see the world accurately and decide what needs to be done now to prepare for the future. So how do leaders emerge? In some social groups, leadership is decided on criteria about who can be the fiercest chimp in the pack. But violent individuals cannot make much progress. Such leaders do not prepare us to organize well to face a complex future. Differentiation prepares people to be more separate and more autonomous so they can be useful to the social group without compromising self.

Cell differentiation creates an organism with many parts that function “differently”, e.g. kidney, liver, heart, limbs, etc. What does it take to have a well-run family, business or society? It requires that each of us live up to our potential as individuals who are well defined for self and can also be connected to the group in a useful way.

How do you really know what is important to you if you are willing to alter it to please others? What does it take to know the beliefs, ideas and opinions that you have acquired in order to get along with others? And how can you lead yourself, let alone others, in a complex world without your own principles to guide you?

The Social Science of Influence

Many years of social science research have demonstrated that our perception is a personal and biased view of the world, reflecting the family we grew up in and the pressure we experience even subliminally to conform. Social science researchers like Solomon Asch show us that our social groups can cause us to radically alter what we believe we see about something as fundamental as our perception of the length of a line.


Asch’s most famous experiments set a contest between physical and social reality. His subjects judged unambiguous stimuli – lines of different lengths – after hearing other opinions offering incorrect estimates.  Subjects were very upset by the discrepancy between their perceptions and those of others and most caved under the pressure to conform: only 29% of his subjects refused to join the bogus majority.  This technique was a powerful lens for examining the social construction of reality, and gave rise to decades of research on conformity.  Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority were inspired directly by Asch’s studies.


Behavior is not a response to the world as it is, but to the world as perceived.”[3]]

Asch told his colleagues that his idea to study conformity was brought about by his childhood experiences in Poland. He recalls being seven years old and staying up for his first Passover night. He recalls seeing his grandmother pour an extra glass of wine. When he asked who the glass of wine was for, she said that it was for the prophet Elijah. He then asked her whether he would really take a sip from the glass and his uncle assured him that he would. His uncle told him to watch very closely when the time came. “Filled with a sense of suggestion and expectation” Asch “thought he saw the level of wine in the cup drop just a bit. Thus, early in life, Asch succumbed to conformity, which fostered his idea to investigate conformity later in life.[4]


 Asch believed that social interaction reflects the ability of individual people to synthesize information about group norms, the viewpoints of others and their own perceptions of themselves as group members. He emphasized that independent thought and disagreement among group members is a cornerstone of group functioning. He believed that only by settling our differences with other group members, can we actually understand the shortcomings of our own beliefs. [5]

I don’t know if Murray Bowen knew of Asch’s 1951 research. However, by the 1950’s Bowen had his own view of how people see self and what part of self they would like others to see. Bowen would eventually call the ability to negotiate self in the social system differentiation and the process whereby one becomes de-selfed, fusion.

From Psychoanalysis to Biology

Bowen was in psychoanalysis during his early years at the Menninger Clinic. He often talked about how he saw transference as a growth process in the two-person relationship between therapist and patient. In relationship to an objective and knowledgeable analyst, the other is able to learn to see self and others more accurately. This two-person relationship was predictable and he thought it could be part of science.

Transference and counter transference[6] involves a step by step process of getting to know one’s self in relationship to an analyst who is non-threatening, objective and interested in clarifying each one’s perceptions of relationships. The assumption is that each person has his or her version of people and events and acts in accordance with that view.

Bowen called the misperception of others and the behavior it produced as evidence of “fusion”. His effort was to ground human behavior in a biological process. In the beginning cellular lives are clumps without a nucleus. The cells fuse and slowly begin to separate from one another and take on a specialized role.[7] Differentiation then is the process of a cell or an individual developing its special functions and no longer functioning as part of the undifferentiated mass.

In effective psychotherapy or coaching you can see the progress that a person makes in becoming more of a self and less reactive and dependent on others.

During Bowen’s early years at the Menninger Clinic, he described the way he observed shifting relationship pressures in psychotherapy.

  1. what patient thinks his parent thinks he is;
  2. what patient feels he is;
  3. what patient feels his wife and therapist think he is ;
  4. what patient tries to act like;
  5. what patient hopes outside people think he is (often he thinks they suspect #1); 6. what patient hoped therapist saw on first appointment;
  6. what patient hopes to be;
  7. what patient wants therapist to think of him.[8]

The urge to agree with and to thereby fuse with another, to figure out what “they” want you to be, happens so fast and in the most innocent ways. “Do you like my dress?” “No!” “Of course you are right, I do not like it either.” This is the fused or automatic response, confirming our vulnerability to want to fit in well with the other. This can range from dressing “properly” to hating a broad swath of people, e.g. “If it weren’t for the (nations, peoples, religion, etc.), the world would be a better place.” Social pressure can be extreme and the reasons complex, especially when manifest in individuals or groups who hold their truths to be sacrosanct and who terrorize others to control them.

Knowing all of this, one senses the need to be more of a strong self in order not to fall under the automatic influence of social groups. How do any of us go about changing our selves to be more like whom we want to be, and less like the complaint ones (go along to get along), or the ghost from the past (living as though the realities of the past are the realities of today), or the rebel (being “different” for the sake of being different, not based on any thoughtful principles), or the puppet that is strung along on the social expectations of another (living without awareness of any of the above).

A Time for Change

There are two ways that change seems to happen. One is the automatic response to changes in the system: time for you to leave home for college or a job, to fall in love, to start a family, to watch your parents die and to cope with all that comes at you. For most people these are knowable changes that the family adapts to. People can do a good job at this but they have to change. There may be emotional shock waves that create havoc during these transitions. People have to adapt.

The second path is “mindful” change. Can I be better defined, can I use this time of change in the system to understand the system and my part in it and better manage the anxiety related to transitions? Bowen took this second path in his work in his own family. He wrote up his experience doing this in “The Anonymous paper.”

For curious and motivated people the answer is yes, I want to know how systems work and I want to alter myself in relationship with others. For these folks, the first goal is to cool down anxious situations, and redirect anxiety away from the vulnerable ones.

The basic challenge in system learning is to be vulnerable and to observe the reality of people’s lives. How does one get out of blind fusion with others and develop a person-to-person relationship? Can you talk about the way you see things and listen to the how the other person sees things without defending or attacking? Sounds easy, but it’s a big risk.

Understanding self and others will help us do well with all kinds of sticky situations where people are sensitive to one another. Understating fusion and what it takes to be a more separate self can enable one to run or dispose of a family business, or help us deal more thoughtfully with a family member who has been hospitalized for a serious physical or emotional illness. It can be very challenging to see self as part of the problem and part of the solution. Instead of telling others what to do or running from them, you get to know them and you reveal more about you. You stick with the “I” position and not with the “YOU should” position

One of Bowen’s Efforts to be Better Defined

The new plan was to define myself as a person as much as possible and to communicate individually to a wide spectrum of extended family members; I tried to establish as many individual relationships within the family as possible. Every possible opportunity was used to write personal letters to every niece and nephew. The less differentiated family segments still tended to reply with letters to my entire family, but more and more some began to write personal letters addressed to my office, and since they were addressed to me personally, my family never saw them. The return on this endeavor is like a long-term dividend; it has modified my image within the entire family. Another project was the development of a “person-to-person” relationship with each of my parents and also with as many people as possible in the extended family. A person-to-person relationship is conceived as an ideal in which two people can communicate freely about the full range of personal issues between them. Most people cannot tolerate more than a few minutes on a personal level. When either party becomes anxious, he begins talking about a third person (triangles in another person), or the communication becomes impersonal and they talk about things. In such an effort, one encounters every rejection, alliance, and resistance that are present in emotional systems everywhere. In disciplining the self to do this, one develops versatility and emotional courage in all relationships; one learns more about people than in most endeavors, and the family profits too. In some family situations the positive results are sweeping, both for the family and the one who initiated the effort. These experiences were used in clinical practice, which in turn made contributions to the effort with my own family. [9]

A Method to See and Deal with Emotional Pressure

Sometimes words pressure us to go along with others. For example, “we” can be a word of confusion. Who is this “we”? Can you see the folding in on one another? No one asks if you want to be part of the “we”.

Fusion happens so fast because we want others to agree with us or we want to go along with others as in the Solomon Asch experiment. “We” can be a short cut to cooperating to get things done. Or it can be a short cut to control others, to feel in control or simply feel “in” with a social group. Anxiety can create confusion and limit our ability to know where our responsibilities to and for others begin and end.

Love affairs, raising teenagers or trying to train a new manager to take over the business often present this kind of challenge. One way to see how anxiety and fusion work is to notice when people get “other focused”. They blame, worry about others, or become adamant about a stance they are taking.   Listen for the words of fusion and see the loss of self-focus:

  • “You better do what I say or you will get sick, flunk out of school, lose your job or prove you’re a jerk!”
  • “If you want to be married to me, you better do, x, y and z!”
  • “You are the problem. If it were not for you I would be happy!”
  • “Take the garbage out, drive the car, stop drinking and smoking, etc.”

The ability to be less reactive is enhanced with the effort to be aware of the automatic nature of emotional pressure and the urge to go along with others. If one can tone down one’s automatic responsiveness one can build a better more meaning filled life.

What will it take to think before you act and to define what principles guide your actions?   To the extent one can do this, one has the opportunity to become a more defined self and a person who can offer self and others more freedom.

Profile of moderate to good differentiation of self.

This is the group in the 50 to 75 range. These are the people with enough basic differentiation between the emotional and intellectual systems for the two systems to function alongside each other as a cooperative team. The intellectual system is sufficiently developed so that it can hold its own and function autonomously without being dominated by the emotional system when anxiety increases. In people below 50, the emotional system tells the intellectual system what to think and say, and which decisions to make in critical situations. The intellect is a pretend intellect. The emotional system permits the intellect to go off into a corner and think about distant things as long as it does not interfere in joint decisions that affect the total life course. Above 50, the intellectual system is sufficiently developed to begin making a few decisions of its own. It has learned that the emotional system runs an effective life course in most areas of functioning, but in critical situations the automatic emotional decisions create long-term complications for the total organism. The intellect learns that it requires a bit of discipline to overrule the emotional system, but the long-term gain is worth the effort.

Murray Bowen, M.D.,

Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 369).

Bowen and Family Diagram300

[1] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 494). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Lassiter, Laurie, Chapter 7, Others, Edited by Lynn MargulisCeleste A. Asikainen and Wolfgang E. Krumbein, Chimeras and Consciousness :Evolution of the Sensory Self


[3] http://www.brynmawr.edu/aschcenter/about/solomon.htm

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Asch#cite_note-NYtimesArticle-11

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Asch

[6] Transference is a phenomenon characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another. One definition of transference is “the inappropriate repetition in the present of a relationship that was important in a person’s childhood.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transference

[7] Cell fusion is an important cellular process in which several uninuclear cells (cells with a single nucleus) combine to form a multinuclearcell, known as a syncytium. Cell fusion occurs during differentiation of muscle, bone and trophoblast cells, during embryogenesis, and during morphogenesis. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_fusion

[8] Williamsburg Collection: The Murray Bowen Archives of Leaders for Tomorrow

[9] Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 499). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.


The Murray Bowen Archives of Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT)


Bowen and Family Diagram300


There are archives for many famous people available to those interested in investigating the life, times and works of people like Darwin, (http://darwin-online.org.uk/) and Einstein, (www.alberteinstein.info/ ).


For those of you who come to my blog to read about the various ideas generated by Bowen Theory, I want you to know about the Murray Bowen Archives, and the non-profit organization (Leaders for Tomorrow or LFT) that was created for the purpose of archiving the collected works of Murray Bowen, MD.  Below is an explanation about the archives and its new leadership.

And many thanks to all of you who have shown interest in and/or supported the mission of (LFT), to make Murray Bowen’s work available to the public. LFT is a one-of-a-kind collection of documents and audiovisual materials chronicling the development of Bowen Family Systems Theory (http://murraybowenarchives.org/).

The good news is that LFT is expanding in a meaningful way.  Carol Jeunnette is the first Executive Director of Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT).  As an LFT board member I am very pleased. Carol has already made a difference by enabling Joann Bowen, who remains the president of LFT, to finish a long list of tasks.  Carol is personal, intuitive and organized; she listens to people, and finds a practical set of actions to move forward.

Joann Bowen sent the following note to the board of directors: I’d like you to have a short summary of Carol’s background and interest in Bowen Theory and Murray Bowen’s archives.  In 1996, Rabbi Edwin Friedman introduced her to Bowen theory.  It was in the context of congregational leadership as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Since then she has been an avid student of the theory, including multiple years of study at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.  Carol is a licensed professional counselor and holds a Ph.D. in Religion and Psychological Studies with a focus in Bowen theory.  For a decade, she has chaired the Voyagers, a clergy group that meets regularly to consider congregational leadership using Bowen theory.

The Work on collecting “Bowen Stories”

As head of the oral history project for the Bowen Archives, I took part in obtaining over 40 interviews from professionals who knew and worked with Bowen.  Stories from those whose lives were impacted by meeting and dealing with Murray Bowen can explicate the depth of Bowen Theory as a guide for action.

Other volunteers who conducted the interview process were: Priscilla Freisen, Kathy Wiseman, Frank Gregorsky, Monica Bague, Randy Krabel, and Pam Allen. LFT hired Ellen Chapman to transcribe the audiotapes using ELAN software. Laurie Lassiter was asked to identify topics to use to search a database so that future researchers can look for common themes with regard to how Bowen interacted with people and how they responded to him.

Overall these interviews will shed more light on the many ways one can go about building meaningful relationships and strengthening social systems.

The Significance of Bowen Theory

There is much to learn from the stories of those who knew and were influenced by Murray Bowen, M.D.  I saw him as a master observer with an amazing ability to communicate to others what he was seeing. This made a difference in how people were able to function around some challenge in their family. What was his secret? What was he doing in his interactions with folks?

People tell us in these interviews what they were able to do in their families after contact with Bowen. Apparently he could penetrate the emotional fog to see the system in action. Bowen was using his theory to see various ways out of life’s predicaments and help others see some ways out too.

Of course his ability to communicate systems ideas was also dependent on people having the courage to risk and change self. This interactional process is brought to life in these recorded stories.

To change self in a social system requires one to learn a new way to understand problems, to see beyond the current focus on symptoms, and to deeply understand the automatic nature of evolutionarily designed social systems. If you can see beyond what you have been taught to see, then problems and symptoms can be fascinating. Understanding the family as a unit and your part in it allows you to become something like a maze runner, someone who is freer to relate to others beyond the emotional constraints (the maze), which are present in every family system.

Bowen understood and conveyed in stories, or with questions or even a long lecture, just how a self-focus could decrease the “other focused” anxiety in the system. Simply put, symptoms can decrease as more resilient relationships are developed. Such a different theoretical approach to problems in one’s family is far removed from today’s accepted beliefs about mental illness.

Bowen believed the family unit functions as an evolutionary guided social system. The “conventional wisdom” and automatic tendency is still to focus on fixing the sick one, while other family members and society in general often are left blaming, rescuing and becoming polarized. Can this be due in part to society being uninformed about the nature of a family system under pressure?

After all, when the idea of family psychotherapy first emerged, many in society heard it as blaming the family, not that knowledge of family can be a resource for seeing life more broadly.

When first reading the Bowen Anonymous paper in 1976, it struck me that Bowen had redirected the anxiety in the system away from individuals that people in his family were worried about and onto himself. He communicated with people in a way so as to draw attention and present the family with a different view of what might be going on.

For those who have not read it, perhaps you may read it as an epic of how Bowen struggles to define the way the emotional world is functioning out of our awareness.

The radical idea, that the family governs the development and behavior of its members, was brought into focus by Murray Bowen’s efforts in his own family. This paper shocked the professional community, which had not yet integrated the new ideas of Bowen Theory.

There are many letters in the Bowen archives showing how Bowen made an effort to open communications with others, how he discovered who his ancestors were and how to make more sense of his own past. His comments on how society functions, the role of polarization and the response to the pressure of increasing populations and diminishing resources are but a few of the topics he discusses in his letters.

Now, with the addition of the recorded stories of those who spent time with Dr. Bowen, we have a fuller idea of who Bowen was. This collection of life stories shows how others were impacted by Bowen and went on to live in a bit more aware and self-defined way.

There are many wonderful and funny stories of how Dr. Bowen both shocked and challenged people to rise up to be a bit more free of the emotional morass everyone is born into. You can see how Bowen both tricked and inspired people to be able to both think systems and become a resource to others. These stories are valuable examples of how Bowen lived theory and knew more than he could tell us.

You may have your own story of understanding the system and altering your part in it. So you too know that Bowen discovered a completely different way to improve the ability of individuals and families to function at higher levels.

Thank you again for your interest in and or for supporting the Bowen Archives Project of Leaders for Tomorrow. I have enjoyed and am honored to be learning from these recorded stories and seeing how people are making a difference in their own lives.

original photo of mb


The Nuclear Family and the Rabbi

sunset in fall

JSB EDITS 10/29/14 8:30 AM

The Nuclear Family and the Rabbi

As part of the Navigating System’s (http://www.navigatingsystemsdc.com) monthly webinar to discuss the basic ideas of Bowen theory, we saw Dr. Bowen’s video on the nuclear family emotional process. Dr. Bowen describes the nuclear family as two people, in an unstable relationship, putting pressure on one another so that eventually one person impinges on the other. I wondered about the implications for society if we are each born into emotional systems where we naturally and automatically impinge on one another.

As the nuclear family begins to form, love itself makes it hard to see “reality.”  One wants to spend time with the other warm and fuzzy person. It is so hard to see the beginning of the world of compromise. Hard to see how “wanting” to be with the other could be a part of impinging. Relationship pressure can be as silent as a wink, a smile, or even a sad look. We can be beaten, get sick or just make compromises to keep the peace in important relationships. Without a thought or even a whimper, we distance, we avoid, we may even get sick, or best or worst of all, when impinged upon, we blame others for creating our troubles, seek revenge or go to war.

Everyday we see the evidence of how these very same nuclear family dynamics leak out into society at large. The media and our newspapers show us some horrid situations and proclaim:  We are very busy looking to see who is to blame.  Stay tuned. No questions allowed. Each of us has blind spots that remain unacknowledged and of course, out of our awareness. Some people are unusually good at seeing the automatic emotional system working on us. That emotional system is full of urges, encouraging us to pick on people, to focus on others, to be negative, to worry, to blame to dislike, and finally to polarize (“They are not human”) and to cut off. Lacking knowledge of relationship dynamics often leaves people reacting to others, living in smaller and smaller relationship circles, barricading themselves against the “others” and living in a “social wasteland”.

The headlines amplify the blame game. Take for example the following alert: Washington Rabbi arrested. For the victims of voyeurs, a terrible theft of trust.   Read and be alarmed. One of our trusted leaders arrested for a dirty secret. Look what he did to us, the headlines screech. Not how did this person fall so far down? What leads to these kinds of behaviors?   Are we part of the problem? Is this the primitive emotional system at work tugging at us to follow along? People read the headlines and automatically blame, want the perpetrator to be punished and to suffer for his crimes. Perhaps there is another story that we can all learn from? Perhaps the rabbi was blindsided, not seeing the emotional nature of the pressure in his own marriage and in the synagogue?


The Georgetown rabbi arrested for allegedly hiding a camera in the mikvah pool area where Jewish women take sacred, private ritual baths, the Baltimore gynecologist who secretly filmed his patient examinations, the freaks hacking into celebrity mobile phones and even creeps snapping photos up women’s skirts all have easy access to plenty of porn. The turn-on here is about power, subjugation and humiliation. It’s about men getting what they want, despite what women say. Members of the local Jewish community were stunned this week by the news that Rabbi Barry Freundel, a renowned scholar and a towering figure in the Kesher Israel Congregation, had been charged with six counts of voyeurism and could face up to six years in prison. Investigators say Freundel, 62, recorded women in the mikvah area using a clock radio that contained a hidden camera. This is the wise man who guided women on their spiritual path, who helped them through times of tribulation or urged them on to further enlightenment. ….Twitter: @petulad.[1]

Understanding what happened here is not to excuse anyone. (People must be held responsible for their actions and breaking the law.)   The need is for us to understand, to gain knowledge in order to intervene early and to see who is vulnerable.  It is already an automatic behavior not to hold leaders responsible for their actions or the actions of their colleagues.  The question is how do we get beyond this? What could the family, the rabbinic council or the congregation have done differently?

People want to know how this man with so much talent and so many gifts become obsessed with crazy ways to stabilize himself.   How will the wife of this man understand her part in his acting out, if as I assume, everyone has a part in the nuclear family dance? She might have noticed and been fearful to act, or she may have been unaware. At this time there is no way to know what might have been useful to her or to the rest of the family, the rabbinic council and the congregation, although the rabbinic council had, according to news reports, information about the rabbi’s misuse of his office, e.g. asking potential converts to do clerical work for him without pay and the council had told him to stop cease and desist on those counts.

Right now we do not know enough about the situation to be useful.  But we can become more aware of the difficulty of understanding others.   Not just the Rabbi and the terrorist, but all of us, are to some degree relationship blind.  We are blind to the way we see ourselves, the way others see us, the way we see others and of course how each wishes others would see us. For a few it is worth the time and effort to untangle relationships and to learn to function rather than be swept along the emotional stream of life.

But do not give up on the media because sometimes they do follow the clues and turn towards the family for understanding. After the recent terrorist act in Canada, the press looked at the family.  “Details of Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s life are hard to come by. But his radicalism seems only to have strengthened as his grip on ordinary life grew weak. And his hold appears to have begun to slip in the late 1990s, when his family fell apart.”[1] Just one fact as to the intensity of cut off: he had not seen his mother in 5 years.

Explanation/speculation 101 – Now back to the nuclear family. Often people do not like the behavior of their spouse and so they distance, hoping to keep the marriage or the family going. They are impinged on by the way the other is, and have little ability to come back and relate well. Anxiety rises and each individual in the relationship looks for relief. One wants closeness to feel better. The other wants distance. Over time each pretends to be something they are not, and to compensate in some way that is sustaining or possible. Probably both are cut off or compromised by distance in their own families.

It all begins in the two-person relationship, when one innocently impinges on the other. “Please take out the garbage. After all you have more time than I do.” It is so subtle as one person begins to impinge on the other and the other begins to look for a way out, “OK I will do it,” or “You’re so maddening,” “In a minute…” or “I feel sick.” And then of course, “You and I can make the kids do it.” The intensity of these mechanisms (conflict and winning or losing, distance, sickness and projection) have been highlighted by researchers like John Gottman and others, as one of the central causes of marriages ending. But just suppose you can find a small place to hide and feel better and save your marriage and pretend….for awhile.

Is it possible this man’s behavior began a long time ago, when the need for distance crept into the synagogue, infecting and overwhelming all his wisdom? Was this rabbi psychologically blind or knowingly revengeful or malicious? Was this synagogue different from any other organization, where peace and comfort is prized over disruption, where differences and disruption are frowned upon? Darwin shined the light on diversity but differences in families and organizations make people uncomfortable. To understand the way the system distributes anxiety onto the weak, and what one can do, requires a new way to think about how to function in social systems with differentiation in mind.

What can I do? If the only one I can change is me, then how do I see what is going on in the relationships around me in order to change the social system around me as it accidently impinges on me? What does it take to recognize the automatic nature of threat? Can I get to the middle kingdom so to speak by at least describing what is going on?

Can I create a “no blame, but hold them responsible zone?”

Perhaps evolution will provide us with a periscope that peeks out and sees our part in relationship compromises? Perhaps Jiminy Cricket could stop by, sit on our shoulders and tell us what is going on in the “no blame zone”. While we wait for evolution to provide us with an easy out there is another way to deal with these automatic mechanisms that govern life, the fifth way, differentiation of self. I believe that by observing and commenting on the system you can create opportunities to be more for self and less reactive to “perceived pressure.” Of course in so doing, you run the risk of upsetting the others. There is no risk free zone.

Of course all kind of events stir our biochemistry, even turning on and off our genes, as we try to cope with the outside world. From the time we are born until we die we are influenced. We are almost pre-programmed to attack, to defend, and to seek comfort without awareness of what we are doing and why.

Choices can be made about the way we react to others.  We can learn about our automatic behaviors, and in so doing we can rise up to relationship challenges and offer the system a bit more information. This is not always fun, but it does promise a bit more emotional freedom for each of us and for others.

[1] www.washingtonpost.com/local/at-a-georgetown-synagogue-a-terrible-theft-of-trust/2014/10/16/36b27288-554f-11e4-809b-8cc0a295c773_story.html

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/25/world/americas/ottawa-canada-gunmans-radicalism-deepened-as-life-crumbled.html?_r=0

begins sunset fall fall stone wall


What are the Costs and Benefits of Leadership along the Border with Mexico?


October 10, 2014 I presented at a conference in El Paso, Texas honoring Louise Rauseo’s retirement.  I have known Louse and admired her work since 1976. Her team asked me to present on my new book, Your Mindful Compass, and talk about the cost and benefits of becoming a leader in your family and in your community. My overall theme was that one can know that people play into problems of all sorts and still stay focused on being more separate and less reactive in social systems, and at the same time build strength in individuals, families and communities.

The four points on the Mindful Compass are about the process of decision making: 1) This is what I am going to do, 2) this is the resistance I might encounter, 2) this is my level of knowledge to deal with the problems and 3) this is my ability to stand-alone.

Bowen and Family Diagram

Dr. Murray Bowen died 24 years ago on October 9, (1913-1990). His theory was the first to point towards the family as an emotional system that “governs” the behavior of family members. He was a mentor for both Louise and me in learning how families “work.”  Bowen’s view of the significance of relationships to change human behavior is a long, long way from our current worldview of diagnosing the weaker ones and fixing their symptoms.

Bowen was a visionary who could “shock” people into seeing how they just might do more with their lives if they were willing to become more aware and self-defined. Changing self became more of a knowledge adventure than a fixing answer.  This was the road that Louise took.  I am fortunate to have been able to walk alongside her on several of her adventures along the border.

Louise has a life long fascination with families who have endured emotional cut off. She has brought the phenomena of cut off into people’s awareness, clarifying how past generations’ actions impinge on people’s current lives.  The question of cut off and its consequences is “in your face” along the border as many people come here to leave the past and search for a new life. Louise has pointed to the question- what is the cost of leaving your extended family? How are people prepared to deal with transition from rural to urban and factory life? What are the important things to keep in mind in order to maximize the chances for success in such moves?

Many have followed the allure of jobs and money to come to the border and found there is no infrastructure to support the basics of life.  People have torn themselves away from their roots to start over.  How many of these folks know it might be useful to stay connected to their extended families?  Who among these emigrants/immigrants really knows the difference it makes to manage themselves in their own family over a lifetime?

To be cut off from the family also occurs with emotional, not just physical distance.  Way back in 1989 Louise organized a meeting bringing Dr. Bowen to give a talk to the Winnebago Indians who were caught up in an epidemic of drug abuse.  First the chief spoke. He was an old man whose voice still carried strength as he spoke of the old ways with hints of wisdom and suffering.  The chief told the story of the modern era, how few were interested in the old ways or spoke the native language of the people. Tribal and family culture were being abandoned and along with them the identity of the people. Tribal members had become cut off from their history while living in the middle of it.

The chief was perhaps the only one in the tribe who could see this and talk about it. It was more than the problem of alcoholism.  It was the problem of those who had lost their history and who now did not know who they were.  In 1989 the tribe spent its time negotiating rights with the federal government.    Dependent on the federal government, the tribe was trying to regroup around the right to have casinos on reservations. The chief speculated that the loss of his peoples’ identity had opened the way for drug abuse and that abandoning one’s history was a problem that casinos would not solve.

Bowen was interested in the man’s wisdom. Rather than focus on the drug problems, which he noted were “squishy”, Bowen said that trying to make alcoholism better will only make it worse because “the strategy” is so focused on FIXING OTHERS.

Given these issues in the tribe (and in all of our lives to some degree or another), how do you hold someone responsible who is acting out or impinging on you?  How do you bring what is going on into awareness? How do you focus on self and not participate in blame or shame to control others? Are symptoms a part of one’s multigenerational family history? It is far more complex to understand a problem and relate to others when you do not want to get caught in the trap of telling others what they “should” do.

Bowen and the chief became fascinated with how you might rebuild a Winnebago nation once again.   Bowen explained that family systems theory was a way of thinking about a problem that allows people to know more about science and the world around them. With most serious questions, the answers are not immediately available as it involves changing self and not changing others.

Well, this was a difficult message to hear and understand for people who had come to the conference seeking answers.  A woman got up and said she just wanted her husband to stop drinking and then things would be better… wasn’t that the way everyone sees the drug problem?  (A hundred thousand people around the world were nodding their heads in agreement.)  But Bowen said:  “I hear you saying mostly the men have drinking problems. What about the woman? What kinds of problems do they have?”  “Weight,” the woman said.  “Well”, Bowen replied, “if the women worked on the weight problem then maybe the men would do better.”

That was not a happy moment in the room and the muttering began as the opposition in the group to the idea that you work on self rather than just blaming others, gathered steam.

The woman continued by saying that there were some problems that did not involve responsibility for each person as in sexual abuse, but Bowen kept the focus on each one’s part. It went something like this. Some believe that sexual abuse is only the responsibility of the abuser and that the “victim” has nothing to do with it. Yet woman can be playing some part in the problem, if only by being fearful of the man and then staying in the relationship, or by cutting off from her own family to join his, making herself more isolated and vulnerable.  Well, as you might imagine, things went from bad to worse and only the chief seemed to regard Bowen as worth listening to. Louise and I were glad to get out of town with our heads still on.

And that was the way it often was with Bowen. He focused like a laser on the way people influence each other.  He said what he saw, that the focus on others to be “fixed” or to do things “the right way”, was automatic, instinctual and out of awareness.   And such focus only intensified the symptoms because by focusing on fixing others, people didn’t have to think about working on self.

Both Louise Rauseo and Dr. Bowen found ways to refocus from what is “wrong” with others or identifying pathologies, to building awareness of emotional process and managing self in relationships.  The importance of this kind of leadership is the life long accumulation of knowledge with a focus on defining self while relating well to others.

Louise may not have made much progress that day but she has a way of taking on gigantic problems that start with self.  I am privileged to walk alongside Louise on some part of her journey of the challenges of seeing and understanding emotional process for those of us on both sides of the border.

Other who came from far away to participate in the conference and who helped make it a success: Victoria Harrison, Katie Long and Dan Papero.  Each has made a significant difference to the border programs over the years. The time with these important people, dedicated to making a difference in their communities, was a genuine celebration for all that Louise has accomplished.  It was also great fun. I so enjoyed the good questions from Louise’s husband, Nick, who has been a mainstay in this adventure in El Paso that began way back in 1993. We will see what these years of good work might produces in the future.


The Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family (CSNSF) Border Programs sponsored the Mindful Compass meeting this year.  It was the last meeting for 2014, and as noted, honored Louise Rauseo as its retiring director.

Three people have volunteered to take over the job that Louise did. Ada Luisa Trillo, Anita Ochsner and Liza Richardson will develop future programs and projects to bring Bowen theory into the larger community.  Each woman has a history of working with Bowen theory in her own family, her field of work, and in projects such as understanding violence and resilience at the border (Ada Trillo), relationships and emotional process that have an impact on contemplative practice (Anita Ochsner), and the impact of anxiety on health care organizations (Liza Richardson).

The day before the conference I crossed the border into Mexico with several nuns and Rosa Villeela, the director of Centro Santa Catalina, to support this programs in Juarez, which enables families to function better.


This is a woman’s center with programs for women, a school with pre-kindergarten and kindergarten for young children and a sewing cooperative that allows some of the women to support themselves (www.centrosantacatalina.org).  Sister Donna Kustusch, OP, started this organization and Louise was glad to lend her a hand.  Now Ada Trillo is helping them in several ways, including the fundraiser she kindly invited me to where I signed copies of my book, Your Mindful Compass.

I am looking forward to seeing how each of these leaders develop programs that are important and useful in the years ahead.   This past conference was an example of how each person took responsibility and worked together effectively and creatively. Stay tuned, as further programs will be announced as they are developed.  http://csnsf.org/programs/descriptions-of-border-programs.

Louise Rauseo will continue to serve on the Board of Directors of CSNSF and will continue to travel to El Paso for her own research and teaching in the Border Programs there.  Victoria Harrison, Katie Long, and Ada Trillo are the other members of the CSNSF board.

Family Systems Forum, the quarterly publication of CSNSF, has published several articles by Louise Rauseo on migration and family emotional process, on violence and resilience, and on spirituality in the context of differentiation of self.

The latest two issues include an interview of Louise Rauseo by Katie Long, editor in chief of Family Systems Forum (FSF).   Back issues of FSF that include articles by Louise Rauseo can be located under http://csnsf.org/author-index-family-systems-forum. Please contact Victoria Harrison at vaharrison@sbcglobal.net if you want to discuss buying the collected works of Louise Rauseo.

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Decisions, Decisions – from Ants to Humans-

In this blog I have tried to demonstrate one way that scientific research can enable us to consider how our families and other social system function.

Traveling along the road of life even ants know when it pays to make decisions as an individual, and when it pays to follow the signals from the group.

isa and tree walk

When you see streams of ants at a picnic they may be uninvited but they stream in as though they know exactly what to do.  They display the fine coordination of the group mind. There is no individual standing up to say, “Follow me”, or “Retreat, these people have anti-ant spray in the wicker basket!”

The group mindset of the ant may resemble fans watching an athletic competition. All eyes are on the players and the crowd responds.  They are not thinking for self.  In the sports world, team building is up to the coaches and that often works out well.

However this group mindset is also present in families, where people are afraid to differ or are always differing from the rest of the family. When we humans are surrounded by influential others it becomes more and more difficult to make decisions for self that is different from the “political correctness” of the group.  What are the circumstances that promote greater ability to make decisions for one’s self in ants and humans?

The usefulness of individuals who can define self to others may differ from one circumstance to another but the importance of individual decision-making appears across many species including ants and bees.

Social systems seem to promote a great deal of groupthink.  That is, we have eyes and so it is easy to look and see what others want or need, and under anxious conditions to either 1) just do  and give in, 2) react like hell and get mad, or 3) get sick or get distant (literally and figuratively) from the needs of others.   “What are the others doing?  OK, that tells me what I should do (depending on my wiring to react or to be more of a Self).”

In the extreme, this kind of dependency on others’ behavior, forcing the other to behave correctly, leads to con-fusion and the ongoing inability to take responsibility for self. For ants it just comes down to making poorer decisions.

However we also have evidence that there are times when making decisions by one ant all alone, far from the pressure of the crowd, has a pay off for the group.  Perhaps this evolutionary trait, decision-making based on one’s ability to “see” the environment more as a single individual, is one of the basic components of differentiation of self.

Much of the time ants are influenced by what the other ants are up to.   See the Ted talk by Deborah Gordon on “The Emergent Genius of Ant Colonies”. 

“By studying how ant colonies work without any one leader, Deborah Gordon has identified striking similarities in how ant colonies, brains, cells and computer networks regulate themselves.”

We are not like exactly like ants because we can (with an effort) observe ourselves and communicate to one another after reflecting on the state of the relationship system.  But like insects, we too are sensitive to what the other members of our family and social communities want from us and direct us to do. We too are often guided by information generated by the relationships system. 

Think about making decisions against doctor’s orders if you happen to be in the emergency room far away from family and friends. Consider trying to buy a car? How about getting married when the in-laws do not seem to like you? These are familiar experiences for me and you can name your own.

Perhaps the lowly ants are the best at using information from others to make decisions that enable the whole colony to adapt. They rely on chemical messages.   No words that might be interpreted the wrong way will emerge from the ant.

Unlike ants, humans have the ability to communicate about the macro view of the system.  In order to communicate a “different” viewpoint to others who may be following ancient habits of communication, a human has to be somewhat “immune” to the signals from others.  If a single individual opposes or interrupts the state of the social system, they are likely to be stung by the system.

Ants and some humans live in a hypersensitive, stimulus-response world. Here sensitivity rules. The more sensitive an individual is, the more one reacts to what others say and do, and the less opportunity the individual has to make a decision based on thinking well for self. 

How would it be if humans became more aware of their sensitivity to others and enhanced the ability to think for self and communicate about the state of the system to others? Yes, there are those who can observe the relationship system and even take the bold move of commenting on the way the relationships are going.

There is a push and pull among people.  Like ants we can join coalitions and march forward with those who believe as we do, or those we need, or those who frighten us.

The question is how does one become aware of the communication that is flowing around one’s self and learn to distill the information and to communicate in a way that promotes a bit more autonomy.

As individuals observe the state of the system, a few can describe it to others without stirring up reactivity and opposition.  This is a skill that Dr. Bowen demonstrated in his book Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1982) in the chapter: “On the Differentiation of Self”, pages 467 – 528.

Now we have evidence, from ants no less, that being a lone observer who is a more separate individual from others in the social jungle can lead to better decision-making.  But it is still a leap for humans to note how the relationship system is acting to pressure us for better or worse.

When it comes to making decisions, bees and ants can act against stereotype says Robert M. Sapolsky in the September 19, 2014 issue of the WSJ.   (I added bold to highlight a few ideas I thought were particularly worth noting.)

Social insects excel at what we’ve come to call the “wisdom of the crowd,” in which a group of moderately informed individuals is more accurate than a lone “expert.”

Suppose two bees each discover a different food source. As research beginning almost a century ago has shown, each bee then returns to the hive and “dances,” communicating the direction and distance of the food; when a bee in the hive encounters a dancer, she investigates that source. How does the hive figure out which is the better resource?

Suppose site B has twice the food as site A, and as a result, the scout from that source dances for twice as long. The other bees in the hive will encounter the site B scout dancer twice as often as the other bee; soon, twice as many bees investigate and return from site B as from site A, and they dance for twice as long, too. This results in four times as many bees checking out B than A, then eight times as many, then…everyone. No bee investigates both sites, yet the better site is chosen.

Work by Takao Sasaki and Stephen Pratt of Arizona State University and colleagues, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explores something similar in ants. Given two nests, how does an ant colony determine which is preferable (in this case, which has a darker interior)? 

A scout returns, and the better the nest, the sooner she leads a second ant to it, causing that exponential shift of colony preference for that site. Ants sometimes move randomly, so this system can amplify a wrong choice; still, it works much better than chance.

To test the limits of this method, the authors had groups of ants and single ants pick nests. The choice was either easy (major lighting differences between the two nests) or difficult (subtler distinctions).

For difficult comparisons, ant groups were more effective than singletons in selecting the best nest in a set time. But critically, for easy tasks, it was the other way around. For one thing, by the time a lone ant had made the obvious choice, the group was still forming subcommittees to write the Environmental Impact Statement. And for easy choices, a single ant is likely to be more accurate, since it isn’t vulnerable to random fluctuations amplifying the wrong choice.

Ants are a well-coordinated group.  They adapt by paying attention to signals. But even ants realize that communication signals can be “noisy’ or wrong. The colony is wired to benefit from a single ant making a decision (for self and for the colony).

Ants do not define a self in important relationships.  We humans have the ability to be more separate in relationship systems and to reorganize our response to the social group. 

Yet, understanding how other social systems function gives us a deeper understanding of circumstances surrounding decisions made for self and when and how one might “choose” to go along with the group’s decisions.

The goal of this effort to notice social pressure is that individuals will become more aware, objective and self defined thereby creating greater autonomy or even greater wisdom in the social system.

During harsh conditions, or even chaotic times, the ability of a lone ant or a lone human to make good decisions, allows these “leaders” to give accurate and more understandable feedback to the group and this can redirect the behavior within the social system.

Humans, like ants, are wired for herd behavior and can be manipulated by emotions.  The importance of problem solving and decision-making is crucial to survival and can be found in ants and bees, organisms millions of years old. We can certainly learn from these insects about the importance of individual decision-making and autonomy in communication and problem solving.

We have the ability to understand just how sensitivity functions in reactivity (obedience or rebellion).  We can learn what it takes to manage self by seeing the social forces pressuring others, and us and take action as a more mindful self.

The complex and messy communication styles of humans

Clearly humans have trouble untangling the message when communication gets anxious and intense.  The following are two letters from my brother reflecting back on his childhood. I thought they were informative as to the challenge of seeing and understanding social pressure.  There are a few questions to think about after the letters.

Other Focused Confusion 

When we were children my parents and even grandparent’s made me eat foods that we didn’t like: “Just try one spoonful, you’ll like it…. “ Ad nausea! The food might change but the thought or lack of process is the same “eat your carrots Megan…. Umm good, mommy likes them.”

Of course she wouldn’t make you eat your peas like her narrow-minded mom did. Why would we somehow feel vindicated if our child likes what we like?  Is this what makes us right? 

Has any mother, grand or great grandmother stopped to consider that Christopher Columbus went to find the east rounding the corners of our square earth, while mothers were still coaxing and coercing veggies down reluctant pallets. Unless you’re an Eskimo mother and your child doesn’t like seafood, then relax; treat your children the way you want to be treated as a child.

Creative Procrastination

The act of waiting till the last minute always being late or barely on time are not sinful. However if the one about coveting your neighbor’s wife had been replaced with  “they shall not dillydally,” I would be headed straight down the heated highway.

After being respect fully late for National Guard meetings, my sergeant had some questions – he growled, “I don’t get it, if the meeting is at 6 o’clock you get here at 6:15 if it’s at 7:00 you arrive at 7:15. It is the same; you are always 15 minutes late.  I just don’t get it. ” Shrugging my shoulders I honestly reply, “I don’t get it either, Sarge. “

  • Would it be useful to know more about what goes into sensitivity to others?
  • Would it be useful to know the circumstances under which a nuclear family becomes so intense that the suggestion of what food to eat becomes a threat?
  • Does an individual need a more neutral view of the family from someone outside it, to see the pressure put on him to conform?
  • How do people get over this pressure from the family to “do and be” for others?

If you took a detailed family history you would find evidence of the nuclear family intensity increasing as our parents were struggling after World War II and became more distant from the extended family.  Finding comfort in focusing on and making children more obedient, when the world around you is disintegrating, is a great anxiety binder.

Can seeing how ants function enable us to see both the tendency to be influenced by the crowd around us and how making a decision for self can enable us to adapt to changing conditions?  Should I be guided by listening to you (whoever you are) or make up my own mind and stand-alone?

My thesis is that to see the pressure applied in a relationship system, one has to observe the state of the system. This requires being motivated to enter a discipline – becoming more neutral about what one sees, and to communicate well with others.  This is a very handy skill to have, enabling the ability to decrease spiraling anxiety.

Increasing awareness may part of the trajectory of evolutionary forces that have been developed since the beginning of life on earth and we humans are benefiting from riding on the forward thrust of increasing awareness.


Thanks for reading






Learning to be a more neutral observer gives us tools to decode the family emotional system as it marches through time, encroaching on one and all.

At its most pressured the family system “uses” one or two people to automatically absorb anxiety. At its best the family system allows for courageous leaders to transform the system. People CAN learn about the automatic nature of the system.

In this blog you will see how people begin to pull self out from the maturations of the system and to see the automatic pressuring.

There is a continuum of learning as one “acts” to interrupt the automatic nature of the system. Once one decides that the system can function at higher levels- but I have to be more aware and more thoughtful – then amazing, even biochemical, changes can occur.

The path to understanding human behavior is not always easy or fun. It is a social jungle after all. Uncertainty is at the heart of the enterprise, but one is willing to risk and to guess.
There are times when clusters of events in the family can retard progress or even sink the effort.

There is no guarantee, but there is an emotional process you can see, perhaps bringing understanding action.
There is a spectrum along which people begin to discover the emotional system and to take a stand to be more separate.

This blog is long, but gives you several examples of people making the effort to discover the family as a system. Following are questions and thoughts from four people about the effort to discover the emotional process, which guides families over time. The effort ranges from a couple that just started, a five-year effort and then two people who have been at it for thirty plus years.

Does a systems perspective enable people to function better? You decide….

Transcript: The 3rd Session on Your Mindful Compass: Breakthrough Strategies for Navigating Life/Work Relationships in Any Social Jungle

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C – I find it difficult to think systems without ongoing contact with a course or a coach. Usually I think from a fix-it mentality and from a systems view things are never really fixed. I find that I am thinking now but not perfectly. It’s been five years that I’ve been involved with Bowen Theory in different groups.
When I came to Bowen theory I had been raising two children on my own, and my son had challenges. At 16 he had dropped out of school. I was taking him to psychologists to get him fixed. Finally, I met a person who talked with me about my family and not just about my son. I was intrigued and begin to think about the larger system and my part in things. This led to taking a course on Family Systems Theory. As I learned about the larger system, I begin to see the emotional process. Then I started to learn about my mom’s history and things started to shift and change in the way that I thought and acted. Now my son is 23 and is doing remarkably well.

Using the theory has enabled me to resist the blame game. I’m more aware each day that the automatic for the family unit is to absorb the anxiety and act out the family problem. So I do not go with that automatic feeling that so and so is to blame. I refocus on managing my reactivity and find this is a far healthier focus for me. Once I started to see the system I was less inclined to blame others or myself and to see how the histories in the system lead to certain sensitivities and tendencies in the way people related. Once I could see this as a process then things began to shift and change.

I also try to use systems thinking in my business and focus on my reactivity. But it’s hard as I still find I have the anxious focus and may not connect with my staff. It’s difficult because I can see I’m not making the bridge from my family to my work.

AMS – Often I hear people say that the main issue in both family and work is that you are often in it by yourself, as no one seems to get it. Your not connecting with your staff or family the way you once were. Is it anxiety or resistance?

The way you see things is not the way others see it, and so it’s challenging to maintain your observations and knowledge in the face of the reactivity from others. One motivated person sustains the effort to change. Only over years do they become surer of the observations of the system and get better at altering their part in the system. But because you are doing it on your own it is always a challenge to know if you are doing it right.

J –There is an advantage to learning systems when you have your own real time example. A year ago our youngest daughter decided to cut off contact around seeing her child. Its taken 6 months to plan for a mediated meeting. So I am thinking about this problem as I am reading the book, and that motivates me to read with more acuity.

AMS – How hard is to make a personal problem impersonal? How hard to really see and feel that the family unit during periods of high anxiety will focus on one or two as a problem? Can you get curious and not defensive or want to fix things? Can you wonder look at the family system over time and question- how did this come to be now?

J- In the study of consciousness there is talk of a global connector that allows billions of people to have different experiences of our one consciousness. It’s personal and different but in the big picture we are similar. It’s interesting to see for example science as operating like a family. Science reacts with anxiety to new ideas that are different from what has been. At times when new inventions or new ideas are introduced, the people and the work they produce are resisted and they are left to deal with the anxiety. There can be enormous resistance to change. on any scale from the individual to the family to science itself. General system theory seems to also address this.

AMS – Hopefully I will not get too caught in the distinction between general systems and family systems Theory but they are different way of understanding systems. General systems is looking for a way to use observations from many different disciplines to have a common language and understanding of principles, whereas family systems is the observation of one system – the family. General systems theory does not observe emotional cut off but rather identifies general principles across systems.

I think they are not studying what an ant colony does but they might break down the parts to understand the feedback principle in ant colonies and other “systems” and how those principles may operate in many different systems. Bowen was interested in looking at the human family and as in the title of the book Family Evaluation Bowen wrote the family is the unit that governs the individual’s behavior and development.

You can see something like emotional cut off as it operates in families and society whether in Israel, Palestine or Mexico. These mechanisms operate because we are all human. There may be confusion around an issue like the drug problems in Mexico but you also see this tremendous loyalty to Mexico, even from those who have emigrated from other countries. Do we understand issues from a family systems perspective or from a general systems perspective, because they are two very different perspectives?

M – I am just beginning to think about the family as a system. Growing up in my nuclear family there were four of us siblings and mother held us tight as to our behavior. My typical way is to withdraw if there’s a conflict. So it’s been a real learning tool for me to consider a strategy like staying connected and being involved despite conflict.

AMS – That is interesting how the past can influence the future. So in this generation your daughter wants control. Could that be a similar pressure as the one you experience with your mother but this time it comes from your daughter? Could it be an insidious pressure to be together in the “right way” and then that pressure backfires. Your daughter wanted you to move closer to her and then she objected to your behavior and began to control you more or less like your mother did.

M- the other strange thing is that my daughter also cut off contact with her mother-in-law and then we were shocked that she wanted to separate from us. The message seems to be “we don’t like you”, but initially she wanted closeness. Now I can see some of how the family history may be impacting us.
In my dad’s family his sister never liked him but instead she became close to my mother. His sister was stubborn and had a child outside of marriage and then she had three marriages.

AMS – People seem to need alliances in order to maintain self in a cut off. Is your daughter trying to make an alliance with her sister? Would she be aware of the stories of cut off in your family history?

M . Not sure that she would be aware.

AMS – In my book I recommend that people write up their family stories. It is a good way to think and reflect and to put out your ideas in a different sensory modality than talking.

J – I was adopted and have to work hard on the cut off part as to knowing more about both my families. So its not shocking that there is cut off in the younger generations.

AMS – Do you think that experience has helped you to take this latest upheaval less personally? It’s a challenge to get outside your own experience and to be more neutral. Where would you put you effort so far? On a ten scale, with ten being objective and zero being totally anxious, where are you?

J – Probably I am somewhere between a 5 to a 7. There is hope that we will be able to work things out. Since March I have had a better handle on things. People seem to have to go through something like the stages of grief as to a loss. The family was drifting into cut off and now we are beginning to see hope for reconnection. I realize things can happen to neutralize the effort to go forward., therefore I do not want to answer letters and phone calls that might distract or create reactivity.

AMS – Yes, the emotional system is an ancient reactive system and it can eat you alive if you try to escape from its control. How does one go about changing with out creating too much reactivity? A little reactivity is needed for change to occur. One way that I worked on getting more information out and making contact with the broader system was to write stories about the past. In my family, my father died early in his fifties. My children knew little about him. So I wrote up a view of his life and invited many people who knew him to come and tell stores about him at a luncheon celebrating my father 20 years after he had died. Of course I had a reaction from my uncle, his brother, who was negative about him, but that was not as important as doing it for my children and for me.

There are always reactions to forward progress. There are people who act like jerks in your family and on your staff, but so what? How will you deal with the problems? What is the strategy? In this strategy you are writing the story to make things less personal and you do it to stay connected and put your viewpoint in. Others can object and they are free to have their own viewpoint.

How do you stay connected to people who do not want to stay connected to you?

The emotional system can eat you alive and control your life, if you go along with the way things are. How do you maintain your curiosity and keep making a bit of progress for you being you?

C – What I am dealing with concerns my father and stepfather. When I was 17 I found out that my stepfather was not my father. It was a relief as my stepfather had been the source of all problems. So I created an imaginary dad. He was amazing. He taught at a university and was well regarded by all. Just in the last couple of years I made contact with my biological father’s brother. He was easier to find than my father. It turned out that my biological father was very similar to my stepfather, who died 23 years ago. My biological father’s wife was negative and wanted nothing to do with me. I found out I had a half brother and a sister but I was not going to be allowed to see them. Now this next weekend I’m going to meet my cousins, the children of my uncle. I thought that I had made progress in becoming more neutral but then I am talking to my sister and saying the same things like I used to say – “Dad is a jerk.” I really thought I had gotten beyond that.

AMS – These kinds of emotional set points are hard to alter. The reoccurring issues have to do with being triggered in triangles and level of anxiety and not so much with learning. Perhaps it is as primitive as smell activating patterns and responses. Its still a mystery as to how these patterns repeat and repeat and just what it take be aware and to be able to change.

C – Here is an interesting example of patterns repeating. My mother breaks up with the man who is to become my stepfather. Then she gets pregnant with this other man (my biological father) but she does not want to marry him, so she goes back to my stepfather and they decide to go talk it over with his parents. His parents report that the very same thing happened to them. She too was pregnant with another man’s child but this man still wanted to marry her. It is very strange how these patterns repeat.
One of the things that was very powerful was that one of the consultants I went to listened to my story and said “You have really been caught in a tsunami.” This comment freed me of the blame and gave me a way to continue to explore the system. When I saw the issue with my son in comparison to the issue with my father and stepfather I thought – this tsunami is not as bad as the last one.

I am going to see my cousins and I do not feel threatened. I am going to ask them what they know of their Polish grandparents. A while ago I went to Poland on a visit and was stopped by people who asked if I was related to so and so? I learned that my family had a hard life coming form Poland and my uncle does not want to talk about it but I’m hoping my cousins will. It’s a different generation. The wife of my biological uncle is also reluctant to have me around and it may be related to a family secret, who knows?

AMS – One strategy that I use when entering a negative, fearful system is to spread positive rumors. You can say all kind of positive things out in the system once you meet them. It’s not uncommon for the wife to react to your being interested in getting to know your uncle. That is what happened to me with my Uncle. His wife could call me names and say I was just trying to get on his good side like everyone else. I realized I had to make friends with her first, or she was going to chop my head off, as I was just one of “them.” It’s a work out if jealousy gets into it, but you can compliment people on how they look, the food they offer you- there are a million ways to stay positive. You can even go so far as to comment on how much better your uncle looks as long as you give the aunt the credit.

C – I do wonder about my part in it – is my old attitude still there – “Men are no good.” I cut off from my stepfather and from then my husband as they too were no good.

AMS _- I do not think you think these kinds of thoughts or have these attitudes without being programmed by the system. (Consider the possibility that the system needs your reactivity to continue with its patterned ways of responding as to what is right and what is not.) How do you see the way you should feel as programming? Could this viewpoint increase your ability to think your way through these emotional barriers? People will talk to you in a way to raise the old issues. It’s like bait, but you do not have to take the hook, if you can see it as a hook. It’s a fantastic adventure to see the system and to set yourself and others free of its gripping ways.

System seems to need someone to blame, the scapegoat. They are needed to absorb the anxiety. But you do not have to follow the system’s dictates and play your part. People say I am manipulating the system with all my strategies. Well, the system is trying to manipulate me. The bottom line question is – how can I be my best self?

M – I just realized that my two brothers married wives who did not like my mother. It looks like the sons pull away but really it’s the wives. They pulled away and wanted noting to do with her. Most people find her charming but her daughter-in-law wanted distance. In general it’s not that unusual to have problems with mother-in-laws. It takes a lot of strength to resist what some might consider an instinct.

AMS – You are gathering up a lot of family history that you might be able to write up and communicate. If you can do it without a lot of emotion (and keep expectations near zero) it might make a difference. The key things are to let others know there have been tendencies in the family, over the generations, to distance and to cut off but that does not have to be our future.

K – There are three things that I am thinking about that might not be that connected.
First, was the email from you about the bedside with your brother being in the hospital and all that went on. It was so interesting to hear your description of being present but not being co-opted into going along with things you did not see as useful. It was helpful to read how you took a stand – “You can do what you want but if I were you I would not take that medicine again, etc.” What I got were two things, first the importance of description and second what it was you saw and what it was you decided to do, for you, not so much for him.

Second was how hard cut offs are. You think you’re a good person and wonder why they don’t want to talk to you? That was so hard in my marriage and drove me crazy. Now 15 years later we can talk about the past in ways that are easier to hear. It speaks to just how hard it is to bridge cut off. Lately my niece said to me, “No one in the family understood what you were doing. That’s why they cut off.” I said, “Well, that was because I did not know how to explain well enough what I was doing.
Now I see my part and can joke about it. Now I am more able to see the system and so if I feel personally attacked I can work to see another viewpoint as to all that is going on in the system. I have cases where I am trying to describe this in a basic simple way to people. You wonder, can anything that simple describe the system, offer people an opportunity to change? I see it as useful in helping people see another way to be with others. It’s been a real benefit.

AMS – You’re describing the emotional process in the system as an impersonal force. What do you think about writing? You ask people to do this in meetings? I notice that it will take me writing up my thoughts 3 or 4 times before I can get the emotional out and be clearer. It seems like this kind of an effort helps people integrate their thinking and feeling. If you have a goal of becoming more objective and neutral about what you see and experience, it can be very useful.

K – Things just coming at you and you react. My daughter says to me that her son is quiet since they moved and she is worried, he could be depressed. I start thinking, “what is the matter with him? Finally I am able to think, the other grandmother is a psychiatrist and she may think about giving him drugs for his “depression.” After all the whole family looks good except for him. Even in this conversation I find that I am going along with the emotional system. How does this happen?

AMS – It is hard to think on your feet with all the anxious stuff coming at you. That is why I write emails to help me think and reflect on what I just did. I cannot think in the presence of the pressure I feel so I say “I will get back to you. I am confused. I like to confess my confusion. People tend to feel sorry for me and back off. When I have time to think I might say to my daughter… “I am more depressed that the grandson is…” All of this is to draw the focus away from him to get the anxiety up a generation or two.

When my brother, Butch had the abdominal aorta aneurism, he should have been dead in 2 minutes, as most people bleed out that fast. Only one in a million survive. It happened last Friday when he was in the ocean surfing with a friend. He felt the pain and headed for shore and managed to get to the beach and fall in font of a lovely woman with a cell phone. People at the hospital could not get over it and they said how very special he was. He liked that and began to get pumped up. Then they added a drug – prednisone. It is a wonder drug to help you breath and yet on the other side – it impacts your behavior and made him feel high. Butch has a history of enjoying being high, so perhaps not shocking when he left the hospital he told me he was going to do his recovery “his way.” I left the discharge papers on the counter with all the instruction as to what he was to do and left. I knew I couldn’t think so I got out and wrote down what I wanted to say.
“Butch, you are figuring out how to manage yourself. I am not sure if the prednisone is making you feel high. But you are clear you will do things your way no matter. So I will stand on the sidelines and let you figure stuff out.” Butch replied, “Sometimes you are the good sister and sometimes you are not. I am not going to do what the doctor says.” And I said, “I see that you will learn from your experience.”
Within a week he was back in the hospital having had something like a heat stroke, which led to a seizure.

Once again he survived this incident – even though his heart stopped three times. Now he has survived one more thing and is out, planning on playing golf again, but slowing down and figuring out how to make his life better his way. http://hamptonroads.com/2014/08/death-came-knocking-legend-rode-it-out

C – In your book you mentioned the way the brain developed in evolution and that change was costly. Can you explain more about that?

AMS – I’m not exactly sure as to your question but it makes me think about the cost of new behavior for the brain, and for the social system. Change takes a lot of energy, whereas coasting is less expensive, at least in terms of energy cost. It takes a lot of energy to learn to play the piano or relate differently to people.
There has to be a pay off for energy expenditure or people or animals will not make the effort to learn a new behavior. Consider the idea that humans might “learn” to be more differentiated if there would be a payoff for the extra energy it costs to be more defined. The pay off for being more differentiated might be that people can better perceive the environment and solve problems. With the increasing population and complexity of problems in the world, it is more challenging to sort out facts from feelings and to self regulate under fearful conditions. These people might just have a better shot at solving problems. It would then be worth the extra energy it takes to be more defined. Eventually the social system could also learn to support such people, even if they are difficult.

Back up and consider that from an evolutionary viewpoint the family unit has been automatically producing leaders under stressful conditions often at a cost.

Consider that a social unit has a way of learning form changing conditions and altering behavior. Some bit not all ant colonies figure out how to survive and passes on specific behavior to the next generation. In certain colonies when there is no rain, the behavior of the individual ants is altered by the feedback they get from the environment. Some colonies do not change their behavior and keep sending the ants out, while others do not send the ants out as often. We humans also need leaders to perceive the environment more accurately and to adapt to changes and give feedback that will allow others to adapt.
There are four automatic ways to manage stress and anxiety and then there is the effort to learn about the emotional system and to be more of a self. This effort is costly but may be worth it.
Laurie Lassiter, PhD has written about the automatic ways of managing changes in the environment using an example of life in a social colony of cyanobacteria. They have been around for the last 3,000 million years. About ten percent of the cells are altruistic. Under stress they live for the colony. When the hydrogen is low the heterocyst fix nitrogen and this frees the other cells from having to transform nitrogen. (Heterocysts are chosen by the colony to fix nitrogen, as they are more sensitive to nitrogen starvation.) They have given up their reproductive rights, and pass on the nitrogen to the reproductive cells for the colony’s survival. (Others. Page 88 Chimeras and Consciousness: Evolution of the Sensory Self, edited by Lynn Margulis , 2011, MIT )
When you back up and look at the way life forms have interacted with one another to preserve the social group you see some very basic patterns. The process of change and adaptation has an immediate cost (in terms of longevity and reproduction) to certain individuals.
In my family the vulnerable ones, in this generation, have been my two brothers. They were younger when my father returned from the war with serious symptoms and they were boys. Expectations for girls were far lower. As the anxiety increased there was more demand on my brothers to function in a specific way, both academically and socially. My brothers didn’t meet those demands, the anxiety escalated and the result was serious symptoms in both my brothers. The changes in my brothers’ behavior activated my interest in learning about families, eventually going to work in a psychiatric hospital. As one example here the system produced both altruistic individuals (in the specific sense that neither of my brothers reproduced) and a reproducer (me) who is learning to more aware of the tricks in the environment. Both of these functions, reproduction and not, are equally important to the survival of the system.

You can look for this kind of working family unit as part of a process of adapting in families. How many presidents have siblings that do not function as well as they do? Could it be that 80% of families have this kind of a dynamic? You could make a case that some leaders arise through suffering and endure cut offs as part of the price for adapting.

A broader perspective might help people to grow self up and not buy into the automatic way of promoting leaders through scapegoating. A more mature leader might want to grow self up to deal with the scapegoated people, and release them from being controlled by the emotions in the system. Often the leader is a bit freer to take on the anxiety in the system instead of letting it be distributed automatically. Its almost like your kids are caught in a bear trap and now you have to figure out how to undo the trap.
You need a good brain to figure out the traps, and to know more about what you are up against.

In the book I referenced, Paul MacLean, MD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_D._MacLean) who described the triune nature of the brain. People differ with the details but in general the early part of the brain, the reptilian brain, in charge of 23 different behaviors like mating and guarding territory, then the mammalian brain evolved which gave us three new behaviors, play, audio vocal communication, and care for the young. The latest is the cortex- the computer, offering us logical decisions without feeling.

People look at the influence of the automatic brain and our tendency to save energy and wonder do we have free will? There is a lot of evidence as to be a function of our saying “no“ as some evidence we can maintain choice about repeating the past or not. There is so much we do not know.

Kathy has said that no one understands the actions she took in her husband’s family. Kathy said, “I might have done a better job of explaining it so there would be less reactivity. But it took 15 years for the relationship system to be calm enough for understanding of some type to take place.” Kathy, what was it you were trying to learn?

K – I needed to find a way to be myself. Perhaps there was no way to say I needed to change my part in the system. But overall I could have died if I hadn’t taken a stand for myself. The effort was to be surer of what I thought and to not give in to the pressure to go along with what others wanted me to do. I am may have been lonely, at times but I am alive. I just kept saying, “I see it differently than you do.” I am getting better at saying what I see but I can still get hooked by the emotional process in the system and repeat my old patterns.

AMS – You see better but you are not above the social pressure? If someone you love like your daughter is worried you can get hooked again?

It is such a common experience. Sometimes I try not to look directly at someone who is emotional, I look at the forehead. It’s hard for family members to take in new information about their behavior. It’s like we are not supposed to notice what we are doing and we certainly should not talk about it. We can take in other kinds of information – like there are 120 newspapers in France all with a different viewpoint but it is not about our own behavior. The way we are with one another, the way we interact with each other, that’s what is so hard to see and hear.

M – I can say I see it differently but when they reject me I withdraw. I realize I have to do something about that. My daughter actually writes me back sending along a short video of the grandson making a noise like the Morning Doves in the background. That activates all my emotions.

AMS – You have an opening about Morning Doves as a way to continue the conversation at a different level. Can you keep up a funny conversation about birds and not focus too much on wanting to see your grandson? Your daughter is reaching out and that is a good sign. How do you focus on being less reactive and less vulnerable and still being partially acceptable to the emotional system? How do you keep thinking at a systems level, see what people are up against and not take what people say to seriously. If you can do it you can keep relating.

I see that our time is almost up and we have covered a lot of subjects today. The last session will be next month, see you all then.