Category Archives: Uncategorized

Relationship Anxiety & Lowered Immunity

Check out the link below for an interesting article on the relationship between relationship anxiety and lowered immunity, i.e. increasing vulnerability to illness.  It is a reminder of the importance of self-differentiation and self-regulation in the context of our most important relationships.


Societal Regression and Leadership

I have been trying to make sense of the nonsensical policy debates and public statements with which we are bombarded these days. “Nonsensical” not because the issues are unimportant—many are vital issues with a critical impact on society—but because so many of the arguments make no sense at all. And I have been trying to discern what my job is in the midst of this confusion.

There is a very interesting quotation of Ed Friedman which has made it onto the Internet at a number of places. It resonates with leaders who seek to motivate or change the mind of other people. I remember Friedman saying something like it on one or a number of occasions when I was present, but I have not been able to find a published source for it.

The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to hear you when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

I offer it here because I think it addresses the natural inclinations and frustrations of many in the face of the foolishness (and often serious damage) produced by the societal regression we have been experiencing in the United States. Murray Bowen described societal regression as a society’s loss of the ability to cope with change. He said it is characterized by a chronic anxiety developed as a society is overwhelmed by the quantity and speed of change at a time when the institutions and leaders traditionally used to absorb such anxiety are no longer available. Regression, i.e. emotional regression, is one way of dealing with anxiety, albeit a counter-productive way. I think the character of our public policy debates is strong evidence of such regression.

You may argue that rather than being in regression our society is in its greatest period of scientific and technological progress. But regression doesn’t mean going back scientifically or historically. It means going down.” There may still be “progress,” i.e. impressive development, in a society, but to the extent that a society is in emotional regression such development will be put in service to emotional immaturity. In many ways technological and scientific developments have allowed people to be less mature emotionally.

The signs of societal regression are the same as those in chronically anxious families: reactivity that trumps the instinctual drive toward self-regulation; irrational arguments sustained by emotional appeal; herding that calls people to adapt to weakness, i.e. to the crowd and its pressures to embrace togetherness rather than self-definition; scapegoating or blame displacement which is a refusal to take responsibility in the face of challenge; a quick-fix mentality that refuses to allow time for processes to mature and situations to be clarified; and the failure Friedman so strongly emphasized, the failure of nerve in leadership which involves all of the above.

Eventually societal institutions pick up the anxiety (reactivity/herding/blaming, etc.) of people and families, and magnify it. Public media are particularly good at such magnification. The media don’t cause problems/anxiety; they amplify it. They tend to focus on pathology in society rather than on strength, and in response to pathology on the search for certainty and security.

Regressive societies and their leaders will always focus on information, technique, and security. Safety and the reduction of mistakes are the greatest goods. In this sort of climate challenge and adventure are casualties. Mistakes are acceptable in the context of adventure; we learn from them. But mistakes are magnified and punished in the context of safety.

Societies, like families, in regression tend to bind their anxieties around certain individuals—almost always either the most responsible or the most vulnerable person or group in the system—or around certain issues. Note how the President is blamed (or praised) for almost everything: he appears to be responsible for everything from grandma’s lack of medical insurance to wars around the world. At other times it is immigrants or a minority or welfare recipients (the vulnerable) who are spotlighted.

Ed Friedman said that one knows that a society is in emotional regression when society becomes so anxious that the toddler is in charge. These days there is evidence of “the toddler in charge” in most every news cycle. Friedman suggested that the vital question for us is “How does one get distance or perspective to reduce anxiety?” The issue is not how we convince others of our wisdom, or of a particular course of action, but rather, how we can get perspective, define ourselves, and then regulate our behavior in terms of that perspective and self-definition. Friedman again, “Insight is being aware of self in relation to one’s environment.”

So what is a leader to do in the face of a regressive and disoriented society? A leader’s first job is always to understand her/himself. That involves knowing where one has come from, i.e. the context, relationships, and challenges in one’s family of origin. It also involves a clarity about one’s identity and commitments and a willingness to articulate and live them out consistently. This will require a leader to take some time outside the emotional climate of the day, i.e. to allow her/himself a context within which to see things differently. A leader needs a sense of where she/he begins and ends and of her/his distinction from others. Of course, this means leaders will be “exposed and vulnerable.” In fact, Friedman says, “Leaders must not only not be afraid of that position; they must come to love it.” Leaders require “persistence in the face of resistance” and “stamina in the face of sabotage” (A Failure of Nerve, p.188-89).

A leader’s primary effect has to do with his/her presence and how that presence affects the emotional processes in the systems he/she leads. That presence is an outgrowth of how the leader understands him/herself and takes responsibility for his/her words and actions. A leader is responsible for his/her own functioning in a system, not for that of others. For a leader to take responsibility for the functioning and relationships of others is to take on the kind of stress that finally undermines his/her leadership even as it compromises his/her health. Communication depends upon the “emotional context,” as I noted above, and its variables of direction, distance, and anxiety.

I know there are some, perhaps many, leaders who believe that they are called to speak a particular word that will bring clarity to our national or local malaise. There are a great many who have tried and have found in the trying great disappointment and frustration. Others think it is a matter of finding new techniques for our time. And still others believe that some special action or a mass movement will bring society and its disparate population, or their particular portion of it, out of this regression. I would like to be able to offer such formula for healthy change, but there are no easy answers, new or old.

Societal health or the health of any organization is a function of a much more complicated systemic landscape. It does not depend upon charisma, how-to manuals, political deal-making, or leaders who depend on them. The closest we can come to an effective intentional force for societal and organizational health is leaders who know themselves, define themselves, and regulate their emotional reactivity. Such healthy leaders will be persistent in the face of opposition and have stamina in the face of sabotage. Healthy leaders will be able to get enough distance from their systems to observe and make objective judgments while staying connected with those they lead. Such leaders will open the door to increasing health for organizations over time—the extended time that it almost always requires—and eventually, I trust, for the societies those healthy leaders and their organizations serve.

What do you think? What are the questions this raises for you?

Pastors (other leaders too) & Health

In an article dated October 22, 2012, written for the Christian Century under the title “Fit for Ministry” Amy Frykholm reports on recent research by the Clergy Health Initiative (CHI) funded by the Duke Endowment. The article, if not the CHI, tends to lay the blame for poor clergy health on the job rather than pastors, who are portrayed as poorly differentiated servants to the expectations of others. While CHI “believes that the motivation for changing behavior must come from the pastor” the head researcher suggests that the one cultural change that would make the most difference for clergy health would be a shift in “the way that congregants think about their pastor.”

The article is peppered with comments offered in support of its conclusion, e.g. “The schedule of church work is clearly an impediment to clergy health.” “…eating is a major part of doing one’s job.” Clergy see their work as divinely ordained, and so think that “whenever they act on behalf of their congregations, they are living in faithfulness to their vocations.” “Self-determination is impeded on several levels.” “Decisions about what and how much to eat or when to exercise often seem outside a minister’s control” (emphasis mine).

Here we have the wrong-headedness of a church (and society) in regression. The primary problem is that the vast majority of clergy depend on others, from congregations to communities to church authorities, to define them. Without clear self-definition, and then self-regulation, i.e. regulation of their anxiety, in the face of attempts to sabotage their self-definition, clergy will inevitably experience increased stress and with it vulnerability to the multiplicity of health problems that attend it.

The culture of congregations with its ingrained expectations of pastors is a product of congregations’ founding leaders, primarily founding clergy. Change in such culture will only come when new clergy leaders clearly define themselves differently, and persevere over an extended period of years in that definition in the face of congregational and judicatory sabotage of their efforts. The culture was not installed in a day, and it will not be changed quickly. Nor will it be changed without a change in the behavior of clergy.

The nutritional components, stress management programs, and wellness advocates advised by the article are sensible and helpful in the context of the development of self-differentiated leaders. Otherwise, such efforts are only band-aids, i.e. temporary and superficial treatments, on the deadly institutional cancer of poorly self-defined and poorly self-regulated leadership. Being a pastor is bad for one’s health only if pastors allow it to be.

Of course, pastors would do well to seek assistance on the road to self-differentiation and the health and well-being it affords. None of us is free of the inclination to be and do what others want us to be and do at least some of the time, and most of us are expert at fooling ourselves about our own capacities. Pastors need people (colleagues, coaches, friends) who will regularly keep them honest and ask the questions that direct them to their own resources and the development of them. Self-differentiation is hard work; it is the task of an entire life. And that work does not end with retirement. As a matter of fact, it is just as important for one’s well-being at that point as ever it was in one’s working life. “Being fit for ministry” is only a small slice of the larger task of being “fit for life.”

Finally, any non-pastors who may read this, instead of “pastor” read “leader.” It is all true of you, whatever your vocational leadership, as well.

The Fall (and Everyday) Project

As clergy and other leaders are considering a return to regular organizational schedules and a busier time in the Fall, they would do well to remember Michael Kerr’s words (Kerr and Bowen, Family Evaluation. 1988. Page 93.)                 “The higher the level of differentiation of people in a family or a social group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one another’s welfare, and stay in adequate contact during stressful as well as calm periods. The lower the level of differentiation, the more likely the family, when stressed, will regress to selfish, aggressive, and avoidance behaviors; cohesiveness, altruism, and cooperativeness will break down.” (Note this is true for social groups like a family or a working group within a business, school, or public office.)

Ronald Richardson reminded me of this in his recent book, Polarization and the Healthier Church: Applying Bowen Family Systems Theory to Conflict and Change in Society and Congregational Life. (2012) It is an excellent resource for leaders during what we all know to be times of significant polarization in our society.

In your preparation for the Fall consider your personal goals, and then find ways (and perhaps a coach, whether formal or informal) to help you through the inevitable challenges to accomplishing those goals. Let your health and peace of mind be at the top of your list. Here are a few health-promoting goals you might consider in the face of the increased polarization you will be facing.

  • Work to lower your level of anxiety. Plan and take time for meditation, relaxation, rest. You are first of all responsible for yourself and for your inner peace. If you are healthy in that way, there is a good chance others will find their anxiety lowered as well.
  • Consider and articulate for yourself your core principles, beliefs, and convictions; be prepared to share them with others as opportunities arise. That is, know yourself and share that self.
  • Live out your principles. There are ideas and plans and schedules that may call for compromise; principles do not. Principles may be reconsidered, but don’t confuse thoughtful reconsideration with the insistence of desire or the pressure from opposition.
  • Don’t criticize the beliefs of others. Rather, be ready to state your convictions. Be more thoughtful about your position and more accepting of the positions of others.
  • Don’t become involved in emotional debate if/when others react to your stating and living out your principles, i.e. regulate your reactivity. Watch out for sabotage, and when it comes stay focused on yourself and be ready to reaffirm your convictions. Be thoughtful, not reactive.

The only thing you can change positively in ways that will endure is yourself. Stay connected with others, but define only your self. The higher your level of self-differentiation (self-definition and -regulation), the higher will be, over time, the self-differentiation of the system you are a part of, ala the Kerr quote I began with.

The Way of Nature

I was recently invited to bring a greeting from the Faith and Environment Network (FEN) to the opening of The West Central Convergence, whose subtitle was “a convergence of ideas and people to promote neighborhood resiliency through sustainable food, water, energy exchange and transportation systems in inner-city Spokane.” I had three intentions for the presentation. First, I hoped that the presentation would reflect FEN’s commitment to re-thinking our human place in nature, or in natural systems, and so contribute to an honoring of the natural world. Second, I intended the presentation to be a clear statement that humanity is part of larger systems, and should define itself in the context of those systems, i.e. as part of them, rather than as a system unto itself, i.e. as the systems’ center and defining reality. We must “find our place” in nature or the universe rather than trying to alter or control nature to suit our desires and perceived needs. Third, I wanted to imply that we or any other part are determined/controlled by the system more than we or any part can control the system they are a part of. I think this last intention is very important though due to time constraints it is not adequately fleshed out here. (See the presentation below.)

Anthropocentric orientations are not sufficiently systemic to address our current environmental challenges. Efforts at sustainability and resilience, while important and commendable in most any form, will ultimately fail to accomplish either enduring or wide-ranging system change if they don’t ground their thinking and energies in the natural systems of which human beings and our cities are only a part.

In 1978 psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen wrote about the societal emotional regression being experienced in the United States and other developed countries. He said, “man’s increasing anxiety is a product of population explosion, the disappearance of new habitable land to colonize, the approaching depletion of raw materials necessary to sustain life, and growing awareness that ‘spaceship earth’ cannot indefinitely support human life in the style to which man and his technology have become accustomed. Man is a territorial animal who reacts to being ‘hemmed in’ with the same basic patterns as lower forms of life. Man tells himself other reasons to explain his behavior while important life patterns are the same as non-thinking animals.” He challenged people to think of themselves as part of larger natural systems, and to mend the “cut-off” of humanity from nature that he thought pervasive in his time, and which we know continues in ours.

Initiatives like the West Central Convergence are important and hopeful, as are the efforts of local governments to develop ecologically sound, sustainable, resilient projects and systems. But they will only succeed and endure if they are based on a new orientation to nature and natural systems, a new way of thinking with nature at its center. Think systems. Think natural systems.

FEN’s Greeting to the West Central Convergence – May 13, 2012

The Faith and Environment Network (or FEN) engages people of faith in caring for Creation. FEN both salutes and congratulates those of you who have worked hard to put this initiative together. Many more such efforts are necessary if we are to address, however inadequately, the environmental and humanitarian crises faced by the inner-city in particular and the whole city in general. Promoting neighborhood resilience through sustainability is key in moving toward a healthier life for cities.

While I think every effort taken now and in the future at addressing global warming, species extinction, and environmental health in general is too late to avert the societal and cultural degradation that has already begun, much less to reverse the wrenching environmental transformations that are coming, it is never too late to reclaim our responsibility for ourselves and to our children, our fellow creatures (i.e. the slitherers to the four-legged, the thousand-legged, the winged, the swimmers, as well as to the trees and grasses that sustain us all). It is never too late to discover, or rediscover, our place in the universe, no matter how much damage our ignorance in that matter has already caused. Despite the fact that the natural world will not be as rich and diverse for millennia as it was only one hundred years ago, it is not too late to trust and to glory in and to live as part of the power of nature to continue its inexhaustible evolutionary march toward beauty, what Alfred North Whitehead called “the harmony of contrasts” or the “ordering of novelty,” or what this convergence might call “the building of community based on and valuing diversity.”

But let me suggest that all such good efforts will fail if they continue to issue from an anthropocentric orientation, from an orientation that has human beings at and as its center. And I am not suggesting that a “faith”perspective with “God” at its center is necessarily any better, at least not in the way “religion” has usually characterized God in the past, i.e. anthropomorphically. As long as our religion, the human attempt to orient ourselves toward the mystery of life, places humanity at the center, as long as religion or sustainability initiatives, no matter how well-meaning, base their efforts on such grounds—the decay of humanity and human community as we know them will continue. So, for the most part, religion and ethics have failed us. An anthropocentric way is not sustainable.

Many wise people have made this point over the past century, Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Rachel Carson, Thomas Berry among them. Rachel Carson’s ethical philosophy was “non-anthropocentric”: “Respect nature.” “Know nature.” and “Place yourself in proper perspective.” Thomas Berry said, “The universe is a community of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

Nature, the way things are in the universe, the way life happens is at the center of everything. That is true because the universe is rooted in a mystery however we may name it. Our calling is to find our place in that universe together with all the other creatures who quite naturally find their place there.

However you may think about “God”—or if you think about something like mystery, or the “yet-unknown,” rather than God—it need not and should not be separate from nature. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich spoke of God as the “ground of being”; Jesus and Lao Tzu spoke of “the Way.” Whitehead called God “a tender care that nothing be lost.” Nature is the expression of that Way, Nature’s Way (or God’s Way in nature, if you will)—however you name it—that moves toward beauty, which consists of maximum diversity and the ordering of novelty, that razor’s edge between chaos and monotony.

This convergence will have enduring meaning only if it is driven by or contributes to a new orientation to nature as the Way, or to the Way of nature (which some, as I said, may wish to call the Way of God—fine, as long as it is a way in which human beings are “one part of” it, not its center). It is a way both vulnerable and adaptable in the face of the enemies of life and beauty and diversity and novelty. If we can disengage from our anthropocentrism and engage this orientation to the way of life expressed in nature, then we may find the health and beauty and community offered everywhere.

What if this convergence reflected that new orientation for us, and so for the wider world? What if religious and environmental organizations would help us focus on that new orientation to beauty and novelty and health? The most enduring contribution of this convergence could be our thinking differently, our cultivating a new orientation to life with nature at its center. Anthropocentric orientations are not sustainable—we have and are proving that. Nature’s way is sustainable, and we will find the promise for the future there.

PARADOX ala Ed Friedman

Edwin H. Friedman (1932–1996) was an ordained Jewish Rabbi and a family therapist who established the Center for Family Process in Bethesda, MD.  He suggested that there are three ways to change a relationship, i.e. ways that primarily address ones own anxiety and role in a relationship and thereby open up the possibility of change.

   1.  Silence.

   2.  Insert a 7-10 second delaybetween the other’s comments and any responses one makes.

   3. Say the opposite of what one is thinking—180 degree response. I.e. paradox.

This posting focuses on that third way of responding. Friedman frequently spoke of the value of using paradox in addressing anxiety and maintaining a self-differentiated position in ones relationships. He insisted that such use was not a “technique,” but rather a way of thinking. It is a matter of thinking one thing and saying another as a response to seriousness—and seriousness is usually related to anxiety.

Paradox is a natural part of systems thinking, because “life itself is paradoxical.” So to use paradox in relationships (or in therapeutic practice) is to engage life. Nobody gets the problem they can handle; otherwise it would not be a problem. Problems, in turn, are crystallizations of patterns of interaction. They don’t come full-blown; they develop over time. And they are not interchangeable between relationships, i.e. systems.

Friedman suggested the following description as the nature of paradox in family systems:  A man wanted to go home to deal with issues he had with his family, but every time he took a step toward home, he went two steps back. He finally had to turn around and go away from home in order to get there.  (Here “home” is the established systemic way of relating.)

He also noted, paradoxically, that people have to get stuck before they can get free. Thus one not only must return home to work on issues; one must return to the upset/anxiety within which patterns of behavior/relationship were established.  Occurrences of change are really occasions of one thing displacing or replacing another in an otherwise unchanging object/system.

Friedman suggested five things about the use of Bowen Family Systems Theory in the practice of therapy that are paradoxical:

  • Transference is discouraged.
  • The therapist is responsible for the session, not responsible for the client.
  • The therapist is responsible to the strongest rather than to the weakest in the system. Strength is reinforced rather than weakness supported.
  • The therapist asks questions rather than giving answers.
  • The client becomes his/her own therapist.

Now think about those paradoxical elements in terms of other/any relationships.

  • Don’t take on another’s problems/issues.
  • Be responsible for your own integrity in a relationship, not that of the other.
  • Always encourage strength, i.e. challenge the other, rather than trying to comfort weakness. You may acknowledge, but don’t take on, another’s pain.
  • Be curious; approach the other with a keen interest in how they are interacting, but without letting yourself be coerced by it. Retain the choice for your own response.
  • Allow and encourage as much as possible the other person to be responsible for their own issues.

The following are my understanding of some of the ways the use of paradox is helpful in maintaining ones health and the health of one’s relationships and relationship systems:

  1. It addresses (calms) ones own anxiety, assuming it is genuinely playful.
  2. It disrupts homeostasis. Paradox changes the other’s perspective and encourages thinking.
  3. It moves toward challenge; it challenges the other person to assume responsibility for their own work.
  4. It is doing research, i.e. it tends to raise information and thought in the other person that might not otherwise be uncovered.
  5. It helps people think the “other side” of their issues. It can operate as a kind of “reverse psychology”: one’s thoughts are symptomatic of the system one is in at the moment, e.g. one’s family, work system, client-session, etc., and paradox can help a person break out of a systemic bind.
  6. It is a way one may engage contrary people, i.e. a way of “distancing” from them or suggesting that one cannot help them and thus inclining the other to pursue you, which changes their perspective in the relationship and hopefully their functioning. (EF: One cannot give people insight who do not want it, and one should not waste his/her time trying.)
  7. It is a de-triangling move (viz no. 1 above). It challenges a system’s most predictable reality or response, and pushes people in the direction you are most fearful of them going. In so doing, it relieves ones own anxiety and assigns responsibility to the other, i.e. where it belongs.

Systems and the Forest

Take a look at the following clip.  What does it say about your family, your workplace, your organization?

Transference vs. Self-differentiation

Transference is a term used by Sigmund Freud to identify the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object” (Merriam Webster), especially a redirection toward a ones therapist. The idea is that a patient developed an emotional and psychological relationship with the therapist like that which he/she had with parents or another important person in childhood. If the therapist could retain an objective posture, Freud posited, the patient might be able to work out a troubling relationship in a new way. When, on the other hand, the therapist became engaged in counter-transference, i.e. engaged with the patient like the therapist did with an important person in his own childhood, little positive could be expected for the patient in dealing with troubling issues.

Dr. Michael Kerr of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family likens “transference” to emotional fusion, at least on a descriptive level. The difference is that transference is linked to Freud’s notion of the “unconscious,” and emotional fusion relates to the family system. According to Murray Bowen transference happens when unresolved emotional attachments with one’s family become lived out in other relationships, like that of patient to therapist, spouse to spouse, parent to child, or friend to friend. There is no good evidence that such transference in either formal or informal therapeutic settings addresses the underlying issues of unresolved emotional attachment in one’s family of origin in anything but a short-term and functional way. It is necessary, rather, for those seeking to address troubling issues in their current life and relationships with enduring results to do their work in the context of their families of origin.

Every person leaves home with a certain degree of unresolved emotional attachment to their parents or parental figures. Bowen states

The degree of unresolved emotional attachment to parents is determined by the degree of unresolved emotional attachment each parent had in their own family of origin, the way their parents handled this in their marriage, the degree of anxiety during critical periods in life, and the way the parents handled this anxiety. The child is ‘programmed’ into the emotional configuration very early in life, following which the amount of unresolved emotional attachment remains relatively fixed except for functional shifts in the parents….All things being equal, the life course of people is determined by the amount of unresolved emotional attachment, the amount of anxiety that comes from it, and the way they deal with this anxiety.(Bowen, M. 1994. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Pages 536-37.)

Bowen’s response to address this situation was what he termed defining a self, working toward individuation, or self-differentiation. The principles involved were as follows (Ibid., pp 439-43):

1. Work toward person-to-person relationships with as many persons in one’s family as possible. A person-to-person relationship is one in which two people can “relate personally to each other about each other” without talking about others or about impersonal things (triangling). It is particularly important, but also very difficult, for a person to be able to develop this kind of relationship with each parent, if parents are still living. For such work with parents a coach is highly advisable so that one doesn’t waste time in dead ends because one has made critical decisions based on emotionality.

2. Become a better observer and control one’s emotional reactiveness. These two things go together. Work to become a better, more objective observer of family relationships and interactions will reduce reactivity. One is encouraged to approach ones family and family events with as much of a “clinical” posture as possible, making connections and gathering information. The more one reduces their reactivity, the better observer once becomes. This posture will serve a person well in many other of life’s emotional situations.

3. De-triangle from emotional situations. The goal is to be in contact with an emotional situation involving two other people and oneself without taking sides, without defending oneself, and without counter-attacking when attacked. One should strive to have a neutral response. By neutral is not meant silent, for silence is most often interpreted as assent, or it can be interpreted in whatever way is most strategic by others in the situation.

In order to do de-trianling in one’s family one must seek to be present–and as neutral as possible–in one’s family when emotional issues are present.  Granted this is often very difficult.  At least one should strive to be less reactive and more neutral than the others involved.

There may be the temptation to be emotionally confrontive in order to accomplish a desired result, and to think of this as part of self-definition.  In reality, emotional confrontation is always reactive (unless it is chosen in an objective manner, which is exceedingly rare).  Self-definition grows out of a calm, objective position.

Societal Regression and Leadership

The eighth concept in Dr. Murray Bowen’s emotional systems theory is “emotional process in society.”  He makes the case for the extension of family emotional process into larger social systems and finally to the whole of society.  In a paper he wrote in 1974 he spoke of a societal regression which he thought began already in the 1950’s and ’60’s,

“Society’s emotional reactiveness in dealing with societal problems is similar to the years of slow build-up of an emotional breakdown in a family.  When the first symptom appears, the family either ignores it or does enough to relieve the immediate symptom, considering the problem to be solved.  Then they continue the usual course until another more serious symptom, which is followed by another superficial effort to relieve the symptom.  The process keeps repeating until the final breakdown, which is seen as having developed unexpectedly” (Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, 1994, p. 273).

Bowen’s hypothesis was that this societal regression grew out of society’s anxiety over changes occurring with increasing rapidity.

“…[humanity’s] increasing anxiety is a product of population explosion, the disappearance of new habitable land to colonize, the approaching depletion of raw materials necessary to sustain life, and growing awareness that ‘spaceship earth’ cannot indefinitely support human life in the style to which man and his technology have become accustomed.  [A human being] is a territorial animal who reacts to being ‘hemmed in’ with the same basic patterns as lower forms of life.  [Human beings tell themselves] other reasons to explain [their] behavior while important life patterns are the same as non-thinking animals” (Ibid, p.272).

Is there any doubt that anxiety has continued to increase over subsequent decades and into the twenty-first century?  There is growing evidence that basic building blocks of American society are breaking down: increasing rates of alienation, apathy, rebellion, delinquency, and violence.  The American family, that institution that bears primary responsibility for socialization in our society, has been seriously compromised.

Bowen thought that such societal regressions simply needed to run their course, and he suggested that the current one would extend for decades to come, until a “final major crisis” would come, he thought, in the mid-21st century.  Bowen student and colleague, Daniel Papero, also suggested it would last into the mid-21st century, at which point society would run out of stop-gap or “quick-fix” responses.  Bowen said,

“A regression stops when anxiety subsides or when the complications of the regression are greater than the anxiety that feeds the regression.  [Human beings are] are not willing to give up the easy life as long as there is a way to ‘have his cake and eat it too … The type of [person] who survives that will be one who can live in better harmony with nature.  This prediction is based on knowledge about the nature of [a human being] as an instinctual being, and on stretching existing thinking as far as it can go.  There are many questions about what [humanity] can do about [its] environmental crisis.  The thesis here is that [it] might modify [its] future course if [it] can gain some control over [its] reaction to anxiety and [its] instinctual emotional reactiveness, and begin taking constructive action based on [its] fund of knowledge and on logical thinking” (Ibid, p.281).

How should leaders respond to societal regression, and specifically to the one we are currently experiencing?  Robert Creech, Professor of Christian Ministries and Director of Pastoral Ministries at Truett Seminary of Baylor University, suggests three foci or strategies, which I recommend in slightly altered form.

1.      Leaders should focus on themselves, their functioning, their roles and their responsibilities rather than on the anxious reactivity of others.  Self-definition and self-regulation is the gold standard in the face of anxious systems.  That will inevitably involve one’s exploration of ones relationship to family and the bedrock work of self-definition and –regulation there.

2.     Leaders should focus on the “big picture” and on their vision for their own and their organization’s future.  This is a version of number one above, because it again requires self-definition and encourages such work at definition in the life of the organization one leads.  It requires one to be clear about and always conscious of one’s own beliefs, values, and principles.  The search for quick-fixes for symptoms—the shapes societal regression take—will simply find problems and issues (the symptoms) recycling in new forms.

3.     Leaders should focus on finding their place in nature.  Bowen said that the type of person who would survive the current regression and its crises will be “the one who can live in better harmony with nature” (Ibid, 281).  That sense grows out of his insistence that Bowen Family Systems Theory was a natural systems theory.  Human beings are part of an earth system that is under siege by a human population that does not recognize its interdependence with the natural world and all its creatures; therefore, we either do not recognize or will not acknowledge our limits.  Our self-definition within the earth’s natural system is mistaken; it refuses the reality of our interdependence.  As powerful as we may be, we are not in charge, and there are no quick-fixes for our environmental challenges.  Appropriate and life-sustaining action will only grow from an acceptance of nature’s way and our dependence on it.  Understanding our relationship to the natural world is a foundation for understanding our relationship with one another and for creating and nurturing healthy human systems.

Good Presidential Leadership

In the face of this year’s presidential election campaign marathon, what should we look for as an indication of a well-differentiated (emotionally mature) leader?  In a chronically anxious society, a media-saturated marketplace, and a reactive political climate—all of which theU.S.has these days—it is difficult for hopeful candidates not to get caught up in poor leadership habits.  However, non-anxious, clear-headed, well-differentiated leadership is what is required in our confused and anxious situation.  So which candidates give evidence of emotional maturity and well-defined leadership?  This is more about character than it is about policies, but it is clear that good leadership generally produces good policy.  Here’s what a few leadership “gurus” have said?

Rabbi Dr. Edwin Friedman: A well-defined, resilient leader …

  • focuses on strength rather than pathology, i.e. rather than on what’s wrong
  • is concerned for one’s own growth rather than on techniques
  • works with motivated people rather than simply with the symptomatic, i.e. the disgruntled
  • seeks enduring change rather than symptomatic relief
  • is concerned to define self, i.e. take stands, not simply to give insight
  • is willing to look at one’s own “stuckness” rather than always diagnosing others
  • adapts toward strength rather than toward the weak
  • has a challenging attitude that encourages responsibility

Dr. Peter Steinke: A good non-anxious leader will …

  • be calm (in the face of crisis)
  • be challenging (when a system/person is stuck)
  • focus (in the face of confusion)
  • be ready to change (when there are new conditions/situations)

A leader works on self, on his/her own functioning rather than on personality, gaining consensus, techniques, information, or expertise.  The field in which the leader works is most importantly influenced by the leader’s being and functioning/doing.

Dr. Ronald Heifetz:

      “Exercising Leadership from a position of authority in adaptive situations [situations/challenges in which there are no clear and agreed upon answers/strategies] means going against the grain.  Rather than fulfilling the expectation for answers, one provides questions; rather than protecting people from outside threat, one lets people feel the threat in order to stimulate adaptation; instead of orienting people to their current roles, one disorients people so that new role relationships develop; rather than quelling conflict, one generates [conflict]; instead of maintaining norms, one challenges [norms].”  (Leadership Without Easy Answers, p. 126)

So how do you think the candidates stack up?