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.

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