The Woman’s March: Reflections on observing self in a social system

The following blog was written for Navigating Systems D.C.


                  Reflections on Seeing the Influence of the Emotional System 
In an era of societal polarization, how can I understand the power of the emotional system to manipulate me?  One way is to take time to think and write about an emotional event. This is my purpose here.
A good example occurred when my granddaughters wanted to go to The Woman’s March in Washington, D.C., and have their voices heard. It took time to understand that their request activated a fear response in me based in old memories of the impact of the Vietnam War, WWI and WWII on my family life.
Andrew J. Maloney, my father , right of photo on Saipan, WWII.
Were these emotional memories preventing me from acting with greater emotional maturity and living more optimally? Was I vulnerable to losing my way in current relationships due to old threatening memories?
Initially, feeling anxious and not knowing what was going on, I started asking questions. What does it mean that one takes a stand?  How much thinking and how much feeling goes into this kind of a political stand?  Can anyone take a stand for self and not be against others? What happens when you are against others?  Will those who are different become the “enemy?” If so, how long before one’s family members become the enemy?  If we want agreement from others, how much are we controlling others? Can I understand more about emotional reactivity and where it originates? Will talking about my reactivity (around the March) help me move a bit away from automatic responses? What can I possibly learn?
                                        Differences in the Ability to Feel Safe
Different generations, different faiths, different social positions, different values – all these differences exist and are highlighted during times like this. Our brains are stressed with these differences. Our physiology responds and is on high alert or shuts down. The reactions can produce damaging cortisol and increased adrenaline. The fear about the other becomes chemical, reinforcing the feeling that those who are different are the enemy. Differences breed fear and translate into becoming afraid of others. Wait, perhaps this is not rational? How can we stand up for what we believe, relate well and respect the values of others?
Our emotional system does not routinely answer these questions. Waiting gives time for reflection and helps to recognize the drivers of fear and to begin to integrate our thinking and feeling systems. One can ask what part of our brain is running the show. Can we sort out facts from the use and abuse of fear?  The pause-reflection process helps.
                                                                  The March
The march developed in opposition to the direction of Donald Trump. Many friends and family warned me not to go. They recalled the 1970s when fear, anger, tear gas and the shooting of students marked the resistance to the Vietnam War. I hesitated to go due to memories and to the influence of those who were telling me not to. Asking questions, thinking about the past and identifying the anxiety helped me to see this emotional process. I could then hear my granddaughters’ hopes for standing up for a better future. They wanted to express their opposition to Trump and his tweets. They are concerned about the environment, civil rights, and being rational about immigrants. Standing up for one’s values always sounds good, but it can also fuel the reactivity in the emotional system. It fueled my anxiety and that of the social group that is a part of my relationship system.
Arriving at the Capital we found friendly, energetic strangers.
Most had signs stating their purposes. Many of which were funny. No one was angry or threatening. The closer we got to the stage, the more we saw there was no room to march. Stuck behind the stage, surrounded by the muted sound of the milling crowd, I moved towards the walled off VIP area. The girls were unsure about this idea but I thought there might be a way to get information or find a way out about the crowd. We found our way to the fence. The security people told us the situation was hopeless. There was no plan for this large of a crowd.
DSC03270.jpgEventually the man next to me tried to get his friend David’s attention. I joined in. “David, David.” David came over and said, “Jump over.” My new friend said he could not. I put my leg up on the fence and said, “I can.” Everyone laughed. “OK, you can come too.” I grabbed Madeline and Isabelle and in we went. Being able to be separate from the crowd and think for myself was a relief.
Once over the fence there was room to breathe. Alicia Keys was singing, “Girl on Fire” then Janelle Monae led a chant; “Say her name…. Sandra Bland.”
DSC03302.jpgAngela Davis spoke eloquently and quietly of sacrifices needed to gain respect for minorities. After that surge of emotional lyrics came the super woman in orange football player pants. Madonna welcomed us to the love revolution, “It took this horrific moment of darkness to wake us the f— up.”
Hopefully, a better tweet will emerge.
There in the shadow of The National Museum of the American Indian, there were many signs as people seemed to join with the original at-risk group.
Will this march bring greater awareness and cooperation?
Will it build to a political force to advocate for positive change?
Will people retreat and spin more devil stories about the others?
Was the march a work of art?
Will it much like a Buddhist mandala?
At the end of the day will the sand be blown into the wind?
                                             Reactivity and the Brain
One automatically responds to emotionally perceived threats.  The threat can be a sound, or a memory. As we acquire language we can explain our reactivity often as feelings. Explanation of how we feel, may be real or imaginary but it gives our intellectual system the ability to reason with and then increase or dampen our reactivity. Instinctively we are influenced to strive for pleasure and avoid pain. Emotions are primitive and often out of awareness. Older parts of the brain can direct us to preserve the status quo, most often by scapegoating the vulnerable. We are often blind to the more primitive emotional guides for behavior. There has been little need to be aware if the greatest threats to our survival came from animals in the jungle.  The higher parts of the brain encourage us to care for the young, talk, and be playful. The newest part the neocortex looks for patterns and apply a kind of statistical analysis to evaluate the problem and offer solutions. We know the brain itself does not perceive the outside world objectively. Therefore, we test to see what is “out there” and what we might do to solve problems with some chance pf success.  By being aware and integrating the three parts of the brain we have the best chance to find a mature direction for self.
Change in One’s Impact on the System: We can learn to “see” the emotional system as it controls our functioning. One can remember that when you say “I am for ‘x’,” the ‘y’ must arise. It is not personal. By defining to the group what I value, others will oppose. When attacked, there is a push back. This is the way of systems. Changes come about slowly. One step forward, a half-step back. Eventually the system finds a new balance. Once triggered and recognized, the automatic arousal of fear can be overcome.
Reflections on Living Optimally: Observing One’s Response to the Emotional System
While my initial fear of the January march was based in memories of the past, the more rational thinking system could overcome these fears and hear the principles for which my granddaughters were advocating. This improved our relationships. I learned more about them and how they think and they learned a bit about me. The joyful crowd offered evidence that going to the march was a good decision. No, we were not in a war. However, when caught in the crowd, there was threat, engendering the feeling that “this is a hopeless situation.”  As soon as the thinking system developed a plan, as to what I was going to do, resistance to the plan surfaced. I used the energy of the feeling system to go against the negative response to the plan and was playful with the security people. At the same time my thinking system needed to calculate the risk of playfully putting my leg up and over the fence. The calculation worked and David responded positively.
This story is just one example of living optimally. Clarifying the natural functioning of the emotional system and understanding stressful triggers enabled me to think and respond with greater clarity. The granddaughters experienced not only a never-give-up moment, but also a grandmother who could slowly think in the middle of emotionality. Relationships and life experiences do improve with increasing knowledge of the emotional system. The outcome is a better defined people who can articulate that “this is me and this is what I will or will not do.”
 The following quote by Murray Bowen, MD is from a conference in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 19-20, 1990, six months before he died. Currently at the National Library of Medicine, the videotape is available on the Bowen Archives website:
Individuality comes from inside self. You don’t take it to the group to find out. If you do not know where you stand, then ask your neighbor. How are you going to stand up if you do not know yourself?  Most people do not want to bother.
Andrea M. Schara
February 21, 2017

What Does it Take to Observe Self in Your Own Family?


Do you find yourself wondering what makes you avoid family relationships? Do you wonder, what is going on, why is so and so upset or picking fight or will not return phone calls,  etc.?  What are people trying to tell you?  What must you do to figure out relationship issues? How can I see who is influencing me and how am I influencing them? Where do “I” begin and end? How much can I do for others before “I” am over functioning for them, and being less responsible for self? What happens if I become overly helpful, too distant or too conflictual?  How do any of us become more self-defined?

Relationships under pressure have common automatic responses to heightened anxiety and over time people are less and less able to be with one another without feeling threatened. The questionnaire below is one way to consider how you participate in your family system.  By making a disciplined effort to be a better observer of relationships one can step back and observe the push and pull in relationships as part of how family systems just naturally operate.

Based in evolutionary theory and the behavior of other social species, Murray Bowen, MD, described the family as an emotional unit, distributing anxiety unfairly. Living in a family unit often results in greater pressure being put on the weakest members of the unit. This automatic response to stress can be decreased by one person being a more separate yet connected individual in the family organism. Leaders can direct and deal with anxiety far better than the weaker members who become symptomatic.

Not to be forgotten is just how the emotional system promotes both the survival of the unit and of the individual. There is a cost and a benefit to belonging to social groups. If over time you are better defended from predators or get the needed help raising children by being a member of a family group, then joining the groups enhances your survival.  Yes, we each pay the cost of belonging and of doing for others. It may be that we have to lend some energy to others or they to us. Do for me and I will do for you, but let’s hope it does not cost that much to belong.

“In evolutionary biology, reciprocal altruism is a behavior whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time.” Robert Trivers

 Social systems are organized to encourage or force individuals to assume functional roles.  If an organism fits into the “needed” roles the anxiety in the group is diminished. When anxiety is high the system applies more pressure to individuals to perform more for the system than for self-directed needs. Observing the system increases the ability to clarify values and positions and to relate with greater openness. If one person in a system begins to think for self and decides to challenge the status quo it is expected that others will react negatively to the change. If the person thinking for self does not react to the negative responses, and continues to relate differently, then the system slowly settles down to a new level with more knowledge.

Below are some of the assumptions of the challenges of understanding the family as an emotional unit that governs individuals’ behavior and development over evolutionary time.

  • While there is variation, we all have a resistance to self-scrutinize.
  • Less awareness promotes automatic responses to challenges.
  • Observing self requires a considerable amount of energy and time.
  • Our behavior is influenced by emotional and logical needs to be in any social group.

There are many methods that can enable people to become better observers and manage self in relationships. The questions below are one effort to keep track of your effort to understand your family system by observing the extent to which you are influenced by the emotional system.  It also provides a way to keep track of changes in the family when one believes they are taking steps to be more separate and more mature in relationship to others.



By becoming an observer of the family system one can become aware of the impersonal forces operating in one’s family thereby becoming more sure of self and better defined.The formula below enables people to understand the various influences on behavior.

Self – The ability to manage anxiety (A) and to stand on principles (P).

Self is then influenced by

  1. the amount of emotional intensity in triangles(T)
  2. how one manage his or her functional role as a sibling, (S)
  3. in the family emotional process (FSP),
  4. in the multigenerational family emotional process (MGFEP),
  5. in the nuclear family process (NFEP),
  6. which includes the four mechanisms in the family projection process (FPP 4)*,
  7. the level of emotional cut off (ECO)
  8. and finally, the current state of society or societal emotional process (SEP).



One has to manage (A) and  defined principles (P)

Self is also influenced by often unseen social pressures.


                              S (A) (P)

 T+ FSP + MGFEP + NFEP + FPP (4) + ECO + SEP

(FPP 4 = 1)  Automatic mechanisms that mange anxiety: distance, 2) conflict, 3) reciprocal relationships, 4) projection onto children


Tracking the nature of the contact with family members: 

First name each person in your three-generational family. Then describe the nature of the relationships: close, distant, conflictual

  1. How many people in your three-generational family have you had contact with during your life time?
  1. Have you made an effort to contact people who have drifted away from you?
  1. Are there people you are mad at and do not want to see?
  1. Who have you contacted in the last six months?
  1. Who contacted you?
  1. Please name them and note the kind of contact: positive, negative or neutral.
  1. Did the contact with this individual alter the way others in the family related to you? Yes or No. Please describe:
  1. Was the contact made just to stay connected, to be polite?

Yes or No If no please describe the reason.

  1. Was the contact made to allow you to be separate from the emotional system? Yes or No. Please describe:
  1. Was the contact an effort to de-triangle? If yes please describe.
  1. Were there other efforts to be more separate? Please describe:
  1. Did you anticipate a negative reaction in trying to be more self-defined? Please describe:
  1. Were you thrown off by any reactions? Please describe:
  1. If people are critical can you stay in low keyed contact? Please describe:
  1. Are there people you cut off from as they are just to difficult to relate to?

Please describe:

Understanding the family system and making an effort to be more defined.


Overview of Relationships and the Level of Reactivity

  1. Can you name those in your family that you are currently most aligned with and those you are distant from?
  1. Can you name those you react to the most?
  1. Can you name those who currently have symptoms and the extent to which those symptoms manifest from mild to severe?
  1. Can you identify the level of functioning, from high to low, for each individual you’ve identified above?
  1. Can you note the individuals’ level of ability to be open from high to low?
  1. Can you observe the basic relationships patterns in those you are close to?
  1. If so identify the dominant pattern: conflict, distance, reciprocity or projection onto others?
  1. What do you do with yourself to alter these relationships patterns?
  1. Which relationships are the most challenging for you and which are more open?
  1. Are you currently working on being more open with any one in your family?
  2. And if so, why did you select this person?
  1. How do you go about being more open?
  2. (For example, some people will think ahead of time and others will practice being spontaneous, just keeping the goal in mind. There is not one right way as people are different.)
  1. How many people do you have contact with in your three-generation family?
  1. How much do you know about your extended family?
  1. Can you go back a hundred years in any of your family lines?
  2. If yes can you describe in one paragraph how you learned about these ancestors?
  1. What kind of visits do you have with family members?
  2. Do you visit people or do they visit you?   What is the difference?
  1. Are you able to notice the formation of triangles, (the two against one formation) often found in innocent social gossip about others?
  1. Name the people you are on the inside with and those where you are on the outside.
  1. Have you ever set out to purposefully get on the outside of a triangle by putting two people together and pulling self out?
  2. If yes, please describe in one paragraph.
  1. Do you have a time line for changes in your family?
  1. Can you create a time line as to disruptions following a nodal event?
  1. Can you track efforts to change self in the system, and how the system responds? Please describe one effort:
  1. Have you ever taken a stand to alter your part in the relationship system? Please describe:
  1. If you changed yourself in how you relate to others in the relationship system,what kind of resistance have you encountered?    Please describe:
  1. What kinds of techniques do you use to manage self when anxiety rises?
  1. How do you manage your own upset in relationships?
  1. Do you prefer to write out issues to clarify where you stand?
  1. Do you tell people where you stand based on a principle?
  1. Do most people in the family know your principles?
  1. Do you know where your principles came from?
  1. What do you do when people challenge your viewpoint?
  1. Would you consider yourself open to others’ feedback?
  1. What does it mean to be emotionally independent?
  1. Can you write out how you think you have been more for self and less caught reacting to the system?