Annual Transition Reminders

On numerous occasions over the past several weeks, three things have been confirmed for me. The rather artificial and yet psychologically significant transition from one calendar year to the next seems to be a good time to share them. Actually, if you know Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) you already know these things, and this simply amounts to a reminder.

  1. Learning and becoming a more mature individual in relationships is a matter of “being” first of all, and of “doing” only if it is based on being rather than technique. Techniques for dealing with oneself or others may be helpful in some circumstances, but they are superficial and seldom hold up over time. What makes a difference in one’s life and work is becoming a well defined and emotionally well-regulated individual. That is the work of a lifetime, and one in which we benefit greatly from collaboration with others who know BFST.
  1. The practice of being well differentiated, especially with one’s family but also with friends and work colleagues, is not focused on short-term gain, and it is not about changing or getting something one needs from others. Sometimes genuinely being oneself (well-defined and emotionally well-regulated) will result in agreeable responses from others. But more often it will elicit reactivity and criticism whether covert or overt. Whenever one’s focus is on the response of the other rather than on one’s own functioning, one’s self-definition is compromised or completely sabotaged. Focusing on the response of others will almost always defeat one’s intentions.
  1. Emotional systems (family, work, friendship circles, etc.) will change when even one member of the system is able to become better differentiated and less reactive in system relationships. However, it is good to remember first, that such change is most likely to happen over time, often a long time, which means the one making the self-differentiating effort must persevere. In the meantime, the one becoming better differentiated (at least a little better than others in the system) will find themselves less anxious and so healthier regardless of resistance in the system. Be observant, curious, as calm as possible, and let the system find its way. Your job is to be that better defined and less reactive you.

Facts, Context, Emotion, and Truth

In her very recent book (May 2017), The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, and in an on-line interview with Poynter, Brooke Gladstone of NPR’s On the Media says, “facts, even a lot of facts, do not constitute reality. Reality is what forms after we filter, arrange, and prioritize those facts and marinate them in our values and tradition.” She says that this doesn’t change the role of journalists to fact-check, because facts are key components of truth. But, she continues, there is a difference between the things we can fact-check and the broader context that is largely unseen. We have “facts,” and we have “truth.” Facts are easier, but truth is a bigger story and often more important. Journalists should be concerned with presenting both of them.

While this piece is interesting and cogent as related to the work of journalists and the importance of citizens paying attention to the “contexts” of reported facts, Gladstone’s idea of “reality” and its relationship to “facts” leaves out another very important consideration, which admittedly may be beyond the scope of journalism but which is critical in understanding the current societal malaise in the United States.

A significant factor in a person’s “understanding” reality involves that person’s emotionality, i.e. his/her instinctual emotional orientation, the degree to which one is self-defined rather than defined by others, and the degree of anxiety he/she is experiencing. And to understand the reality of a society we should consider, together with a society’s political and social realities, its collective emotional orientation.

Today we are living in a period of societal regression in which heightened anxiety leads most people toward a reactivity (rather than thoughtfulness) that includes herding (togetherness as the highest value and seeking safety rather than adventure), scapegoating (blame displacement), and a quick-fix mentality (low threshold for pain and seeking quick, simple answers). Simply “contextualizing facts” will not make much difference for people who are unaware of the deep roots of their emotions and the degree to which their inherited and learned instincts influence their thinking and behavior.

And how might we get in touch with those deep roots of our emotional responses? For us as individuals it’s back to family, nuclear and extended, favored or not, and so to the relationships that formed us. It takes time and persistence and, more often than not, a coach or guide. As a society we should seek to understand the emotional heritage of founding leaders and a society’s early social and political influences.

“What is truth?” you ask. It’s even more complicated than you think.


Do You Know Yourself?

Think about it. How well do you know yourself? How much of your relationships with significant others each day is more or less automatic, without much thoughtfulness and almost beyond your control? Our emotional reactions to our children or spouse, our parents or siblings, our co-workers and friends tend to be pretty routine, almost unconscious. How we respond to political affairs or cultural directions or popular trends comes close to being mechanical and often beyond our control. Over years of experience, we have developed certain emotional reactions; they are “instincts” embedded in who we are, and they are very difficult to change. These instincts determine our responses to significant events and relationships. And they are the roots of our anxieties.

Where did this automatic emotional reactiveness come from? We learn it in our earliest years in our family of origin and/or with primary caregivers. We are the product of generations of such automatic responses. We receive the family emotionality, i.e. “instincts,” from our parents, who received them from theirs, and so on through generations. We learn how to relate to others in interaction with our siblings. It all comes to us without our knowledge or choice—without, that is, until we reach a time of recognition and discernment, and ask ourselves, “Who am I?”

Know thyself,” or γνωθι σεαυτόν (gnothi seauton) in Greek, is a familiar aphorism usually linked to Plato’s Dialogues, in which he puts these words into the mouth of Socrates. It is familiar wisdom likely to have come from ancient Egypt and the lore around the Luxor Temple. Even more widely afield, the same idea can be found in 5th century B.C.E. Chinese wisdom, viz. from Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, chapter 33: “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” In European and North American contexts people of letters from Thomas Hobbs in the 17th century to Alexander Pope and Rousseau in the 18th and Emerson and Coleridge in the 20th used the phrase in various ways to describe this very human challenge. Carl Linnaeus in his first edition of Systema Naturae described human beings with the same phrase, now in Latin “Nosce te ipsum.”

We know instinctively that it is true. Knowing oneself is vital in the course of the decisions and relationships that mark ones life. It is the antidote to the automatic reactivity that defines so much of daily intercourse. It is only when we begin to know ourselves that we can do anything about the automatic and surprisingly instinctual nature of our response to other people, the world around us, and our own selves.

The best way for us to learn about ourselves is to observe ourselves in the most significant relationships we have, those with our families of origin, and watch how we react. Who we are with our families is who we are. That’s because it was in our earliest years within our families or primary caregivers that we learned our automatic responses. What we learn from watching ourselves—doing careful and honest observation—over a period of time in family interactions will provide an encyclopedia of information and feedback about the emotional undercurrents that drive, or at least influence, our relationships. Without awareness of what we have inherited, how we react, what pushes our buttons, i.e. our emotional inheritance from our family, we have no solid foundation for understanding ourselves or for developing more thoughtful approaches to relationships.

This is what Bowen Family Systems Theory is about. It provides a means for personal understanding that propels us on a journey toward a more thoughtful and less anxious approach to daily life. It helps us to know ourselves and “where the persons we are come from” via an investigation of our interaction with our family. Then, if there are changes we would like to make in how we respond to the people and world around us, it helps us to make them first in our family of origin and then in all the other relationships in our lives.

Know yourself. Then and only then will you be able to begin the journey toward being the person you want to be.

When the Toddler is in Charge

Anxiety was high over the past six months leading up to the November 8 elections. Analysts and academics have offered dozens of commentaries to explain the high anxiety and turmoil in which we find ourselves. Explanations are political, cultural, economic, psychological, you name it. And each field of analysis has something of interest to offer. But I hear very few people talking about our society as an emotional system.

In the 1950s through the 1980s Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Health, developed a natural systems theory of human development and behavior focused on the emotional. By emotion Bowen did not primarily mean feelings, but instinct, that is, the energy that produces and results from the interaction between living things and between them and their environment. When people get together in a group an emotional system is established. Whether they are marriages or families, churches or businesses, clubs or countries, human systems are directed by emotionality as well as by those forces we usually understand as driving group action.

Who we are as emotional/instinctual beings we learn in the first years of our lives within our family or with the primary caregivers in our lives. To become emotionally mature is to be self-defined or self-differentiated (some might say “principled”) within our families rather than only being emotionally tied, whether positively or negatively, to our families, and so defined by them. As we move out from our families into the wider world we bring our emotional being (including our unresolved emotional baggage) into other groups and those groups into societies. Groups and societies are marked by the emotionality of their founding members, and especially by founding leaders and those leaders’ interaction with the group’s context.

Anxiety challenges self-definition and inclines people toward emotional reactivity. The recent presidential campaign and the reactionary participation of large segments of the population are clear evidence of that. We also see the anxiety in society’s reaction to the realities of a changing climate, immigration issues, increasing litigiousness and violence, racial diversity, and the poverty that, despite our wealth, we seem incapable of remedying. We live in a chronically anxious society.

Dr. Edwin Friedman was an ordained Jewish rabbi, a Bowen Systems family therapist, and a leadership consultant in the Washington D.C. area. His work with government, military, and religious leaders in the 1960s into the 1990s led him to think that U.S. society is “leadership toxic.” That is, he thought that the emotional climate of our society sabotaged good leadership.

Friedman contended, with others who worked with the family emotional system concepts of Dr. Bowen, that the key to excellence and health in leaders is self-differentiation and emotional self-regulation. That is, leaders must be self-differentiated, rather than allowing themselves to be defined by others, whether family, friends, or colleagues, or by the issues and pressures current in society or their system within society. Leadership and self-differentiation are synonymous.

A well-defined leader will also be emotionally self-regulated. He or she will be thoughtful rather than reactive in the face of opposition and anxiety. Such a leader will resist the pressure to follow the crowd or to blame others for problems. A leader will let problems and challenges “mature” rather than seeking or offering a quick-fix to allay present anxiety.

Chronically anxious societies are incapable of selecting the good leaders they need, but they usually have a sizable number of emotionally reactive people who are happy to offer themselves as leaders. Friedman said that in a chronically anxious and leadership toxic society “the toddler is in charge,” and emotional immaturity rules.  When a genuinely capable leader does arise, one who stands on principle, allows issues to mature, and keeps his/her goals in mind—one who is well-defined and not satisfied with quick-fixes that inevitably are simply part of a recycling of problems—then an anxious society will work to sabotage that leader. In such a society good leaders, the ones it needs, tend to avoid societal leadership positions. A good leader recognizes the impossible nature of the leadership task in such a society. And those willing to be leaders are not likely to have the self-differentiation and emotionally well-regulated character that is required in a leader.

So what do we require today as a nation, i.e. in this highly anxious societal emotional system? We need people in whatever smaller systems they find themselves (families, churches and charitable organizations, community and political organizations, agencies of government, etc.) to stand on principle and thoughtfulness rather than emotional reactivity. That is, we all need to work at defining/managing ourselves clearly and consistently in terms of what we stand for rather than for what we oppose. We need leaders who promote evolutionary and sustainable goals of diversity and wholeness, goals with an orientation toward challenge rather than comfort, strength rather than weakness, and goals that recognize our place as part of rather than over the natural world. We need leaders who will take responsibility and persevere in their values regardless of the sabotage of reactionary forces. And we need citizens who support such leadership.

Then as we grow in such maturity in all the smaller system sites in our society, perhaps we will be able to choose national leaders who are mature, well-defined, emotionally self-regulated … essentially something other than we witness in the emotionally reactive President- and Vice President-elect.

Organizational Guidance Systems

Recently I ran across a quote often attributed to organizational guru Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Actually, one can find many versions of it from many different sources: “Culture beats (or trumps) strategy.” “… culture determines and limits strategy” (Edgar Schein). It is a maxim that has been going around “change management”circles for a long time.

The point, of course, is not that strategy is unimportant, but that “culture” frequently sabotages strategy in organizations … and families. In organizational literature culture is all the invisible stuff that holds things together, things like mission, values, traditional ways of doing things. These are things that are hard to measure and evaluate, and they defy managing. While strategy can be improved and taught, culture is very difficult to change. Culture is caught day by day and week by week. Culture is built over time by the daily functioning of an organization.

I think we can go this management meme one better. While culture is important and certainly deeper than strategy, the nature of an organization’s emotional system is deeper than culture. An organization’s emotional system is its guidance system. By “emotional” I mean the instinctive (or automatic) responses a system has to the challenges and vagaries of everyday life, i.e. not only its response to its mission, but the very shape of the mission itself. We are not just, or even primarily, talking about feelings here. We are talking about an organization’s DNA, the hereditary way it responds to its life within society.

Such “emotional DNA” is established in an organization’s beginnings, largely on the basis of the emotional character of its founding leaders, which character grows from the family emotional systems of those leaders. Once established this guidance system may be refined through succeeding generations, but the DNA remains the same and determines the possibilities and limitations of all future refinement. So if you want to understand the deep and enduring character of an organization, study its founding history and the emotional character of its early leadership. It will tell you what you can expect of an organization in the present.

The emotional DNA of an organization does not change. However, which segments of DNA get expressed is influenced by experience and environment. Strong leadership in a system can influence what segments of an organization’s emotional DNA get expressed. That is, an organization’s emotional guidance system can be influenced for the better. When strong leadership is lacking, or when leadership changes frequently, an organization tends to revert to that of its founding emotional guidance system. For there to be a lasting change in a system’s emotional character, such leadership must continue for many years.

So organizations may do all the strategizing for strength and stability that they want. Without attending to the emotional system, positive results from strategy will be short-term and limited, if they happen at all. On the other hand, for lasting change one must attend to the emotional system, and that will first and foremost mean attending to leadership and engaging well-defined and emotionally self-regulated, i.e. thoughtful, emotionally responsive rather than reactive, leaders. And that “eats everything for breakfast.”

Never Done . . . with the work of Self-Differentiation

According to Bowen Family Systems Theory differentiation of self and anxiety (or stress) are the two main variables of human functioning. One’s experience of these variables grows out of the ways one learned to function emotionally in his or her family of origin. They are with us in various forms from birth to our last breath. So for the sake of our emotional health, they require daily awareness, understanding, and attention.

Life and relationships being what they are anxiety, or stress, of one kind or another is inevitable; there is not much we can do about that. Accidents happen. Changes occur. Job demands, economic uncertainty, health problems assault us. All have significant effects on our relationships and increase the stress we feel. Even our attempts to reduce the conditions that trigger stress have a way of promoting it anew.

On the other hand, there are a good many things we can do about our level of differentiation, and that in turn can reduce stress significantly. Differentiation of self is the life-long effort to become a mature person with the ability to thoughtfully direct ones life in the face the pervasive emotions in human relationships. Differentiation is the ability to think as an individual while staying meaningfully connected to others. It is the capacity of a person to balance emotions and intellect, and to balance the need to be attached to another and the need to be a separate person. It is the ability to act for oneself without being selfish and to act for others without being selfless.

We all leave our family of origin with a certain degree of unresolved emotional attachment—just a fact, not good or bad. That becomes a significant part of our default means of responding to others. We continue working on what remains unresolved between ourselves and our family in all the other significant relationships in our lives.

Many individuals learn to function in healthier ways with new relationships than they have with their families, at least while life is fairly calm and changes or problems don’t complicate things. However, when stress increases individuals tend to revert to their emotional default settings, and they find themselves replaying, in one form or another, old family emotional scenarios. To work most effectively on these deeply embedded ways of emotional functioning one needs to return to the place and people, the family system, where they were first learned.

Self-differentiation, whether high or low, is not about right or wrong, good or evil. Nor is it a matter of tracking down the “cause” of an emotional challenge; cause-and-effect thinking does not change the life we have lived in our families. Self-differentiation is simply about “what is,” and how we might become more aware of the continuing presence of that “what is” in our lives. Self-differentiation is the life-long work of addressing the “what is” with knowing oneself , being oneself, and regulating our emotional reactivity while staying in meaningful contact with others. It is at a deep level the story of one’s life with others.

The continuing nature of the work of self-differentiation is the reason it is important for one to have a coach or a coaching group—an objective and skilled “other”—with which to process the challenges in life. Coaching helps one mine the knowledge and understanding one already has. Coaching helps one see more clearly the relationships in his/her life. Coaching helps one acknowledge differences without losing connection. Coaching helps one clarify where one has come from, who one is, and who one wants to be.

Never Done

Shall we never  finish

with this work of making earth a home?

This week the feel of air has changed.

Apples blush even on abandoned trees.

Maple leaves join in the turning,

grass yellows, brave cone flowers

soldier on though slowly fading

as nights grow chill and summer

fails to rally in its dotage.

What have I learned this year

not forgotten from the past?

What do I know of life today

I need not learn again?

Spring will come, and life renew

once more, older, wiser only

in not assuming life will be different

even in its seasonal freshness.

Perhaps in this we will recall again

that earliest start we made

with parents replaying the ways

they learned from parents replaying

the ways they learned from parents …

never done.

Thinking Systems Day by Day

A Bowen Family Systems Theory Seminar

& Clinical Training

This unique, concentrated course of learning and study of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) offering presentations and case study coaching is open to members of the helping professions and to others who have a working knowledge of BFST. There will be one two-hour session per month from October 2014 through June 2015. This seminar offers participants an alternative to the widely recommended but more expensive option of individual coaching sessions. It is offered by Systems Coaching LLC, W. Thomas Soeldner, coach/consultant.

After a review of the foundations of BFST and the nature of emotional systems in the first session, each session will consist of a theory presentation of one BSFT’s eight concepts followed by a clinical study of work or family case presentations offered by seminar participants. The objectives are to assist individuals in the study and learning of BFST and to encourage the practice of applying systems thinking to the individual’s personal and professional lives. The learning and application of theory usually come with increased self-awareness and more mature, thoughtful functioning that seeks the long term best interest of self as well as of the family and/or organization.

The first session will be on Thursday, October 16, 2014, 1:30 p.m. at Salem Lutheran Church, 1428 W. Broadway Ave, Spokane, WA. Following sessions are scheduled for the third Thursday of each month at 1:30 p.m., although changes to the schedule are possible with the agreement of other participants. Cost for the 9 sessions is $250. The seminar will be limited to eight full participants. Those who only wish to attend some of the sessions may do so at a cost of $60 per session. Contact W. T. Soeldner for interest in the course or for questions either by email or by phone (509)270-6995.

Bowen Family Systems Theory describes how families function, and how individuals function in other contexts as a result of their unique family relationships. The family is an emotional unit with patterned ways of interaction involving various degrees of intensity. These repetitive ways of relating throughout an individual’s developmental years result in automatic ways of functioning in later life, especially when one is under pressure.