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.