Dr Leonie White
Clinical Family Therapist, Psychologist
Co-Director Queensland Institute of Family Therapy
How does Family Therapy understand and work with family patterns, and the power they can exert? How does Family Therapy help individuals define themselves and work towards a solid sense of self? Bowen Family Systems is a school of Family Therapy that is particularly helpful for this.
“Bowen Family Systems theory is a theory of human behaviour that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe complex interactions in the unit” (Kerr, 2000). This way of thinking is incredibly helpful for understanding ourselves in terms of where we come from, the emotional process that shaped us in our first school of life and love, AKA family of origin, and then in using this knowledge to decide how to be….to define ourselves and consciously decide on our values, principles and how to be our best selves. The trick is to then learn to act in line with our hopes for our best selves and to do this we need to be able to resit the pull of family patterns.
You’ll notice that I’m writing in the first person, and that’s because we all face the challenge of being human in relationships. From a Bowen Family Systems perspective Helping Professionals are also seen as being subject to the pull of family patterns, and as being shaped by our first school of life and love. So the added bonus of learning about Bowen Family Systems is that we all have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and work towards our own emotional maturity in defining ourselves as well as helping the people we work with. In fact, just as Freud said you can only take a client as far as you have been, so too do we need to understand that in Family Therapy we need to have an awareness of how our life experiences both help and hinder our work in order to support our clients to go where they’d like to.
So, what’s important to know from a Bowen Family Systems perspective for ourselves as Helping Professionals and for the people we work with?
“Families are anxiety-managing machines, and they do this remarkably well most of the time” (Smith, 2020: 47). What’s meant by anxiety? And why are families anxiety-managing machines? Think of anxiety as your body’s natural survival device thanks to evolution – one of the prime drives for a human being is survival. There’s a part of your brain that’s a highly tuned survival device and it’s like a smoke alarm… it goes off to let you know you need to respond to a threat to your survival. But the problem is that this smoke alarm can’t tell the difference between burnt toast (no threat to survival) and a house fire (real threat). The distress associated with the smoke alarm going off leads to emotional reactivity, and without the benefit of calm, thoughtful self-reflection this reactivity can get us into a pickle. Put simply, anxiety is defined as emotional reactivity to threat, real or imagined, and this applies to relationships.
Depending on the family emotional process a person grows up in, that person will have different abilities to tolerate and manage their anxiety in relationships, any tensions in relationships, to resist the pull of other’s anxiety and to resist the pull of relationship patterns.
Anxiety can be experienced emotionally and physically and can look like:
Giving up or withdrawal,
Rigidly sticking to a position,
Telling others what to think and/or do,
Agreeing with another to avoid any stress or tension,
Perusing and chasing another for connection to feel settled,
Over-functioning for another to ensure ‘things get done’ or to ‘spare them the trouble’,
Under-functioning because things seem too overwhelming or it's easier to let someone else take over,
Working increased hours to avoid tensions at home,
Using things like alcohol, drugs, gambling, internet, or gaming to avoid relationship connections that involve tension or anxiety,
Focusing on the children because this is more comfortable than focusing on couple or family issues, or
Avoiding another person to avoid stress and tension.
“Bowen argued that in relationships people experience ‘chronic anxiety’ in relation to each person’s different needs for togetherness and separateness” (Bowen & Kerr in Mackay, 2012:234). Being able to stay centred and have a healthy balance of self and connection with others is what this “togetherness and separateness” is all about. Murray Bowen called this differentiation and put simply differentiation is the ability to separate your thoughts from feelings (healthy connection with self), and, separate your thoughts and feelings from those of other people (healthy connection with others).
If you are after a definition of differentiation, consider this, “the ability to connect to others without being excessively emotionally reactive to the ebb and flow inherent in all significant relationships” (Hill, Hasty and Moore: 2011: 43). This doesn’t mean you have to stay in relationship with harmful people – it means that you need to find ways for this to not impact other relationships so that you can experience differentiation in health relationships, and enhanced wellbeing.
Differentiation is related to emotional intelligence and empathy. At it’s core it’s about retaining individuality while also remaining in a significant and effectual relationship with others. It’s a way of thinking that translates into a way of being that enables people to be in emotional contact when there are difficulties and tensions without doing things like feeling compelled to tell others what they should be doing, rush in to fix problems, over-function for others to keep things smooth, or pretend to be detached to avoid stress or distress. And the best part? When operating from a position of differentiation everyone else’s anxiety is less contagious.
Sound fairly straight forward? It’s not. Relationships can be the most amazing things, and also the most tricky things. Relational cues can be significantly triggering and determine the activity of our nervous system even without our conscious awareness. Some interactions with family, friends, colleagues, or strangers will down-regulate the action of the nervous system which is triggered by stress, and some will trigger stress and even up-regulate the nervous system to higher levels of stress. So how does Bowen Family Systems make sense of this?
Bowen Family Systems helps people to understand how their early relationships shape other relationships, especially in times of stress and tension. The idea is to find out about the generations of a person’s family, to be a researcher and to understand the patterns, themes, strengths, and vulnerabilities so that “our family can be a rich resource, instead of a liability, in our growing up” (Brown, 2012). When a person explores and considers their family patterns and how these patterns have influenced themselves, then they have the opportunity to take control of their lives, by becoming responsive instead of reactive, to resist the pull of family patterns, defining and learning to act in accordance with their values and principles and literally become a better version of themselves.
This means that the goal of therapy from a Bowen approach is to help family members become ‘systems experts’, to know their emotional processes and patterns. When a person is a ‘systems expert’ then ultimately, they can readjust without the help of a professional. How do you help someone become a systems expert?
Focus on patterns that develop in families in order to defuse anxiety, e.g., too much closeness or too much distance, or triangling in a third person or thing to buffer the tension.
Facilitate awareness of how the emotional system functions.
Focus on making changes for the self as opposed to changing others.
Support clients to develop thoughtful responding rather than anxious reactivity.
Help clients to define themselves in their family and family of origin. This means working on a solid self - the self that operates from a person’s true beliefs, values, intentions, and abilities, rather than the pseudo self. The pseudo self is negotiable, susceptible to relationship pressures and interacts differently depending on who is in the room.
So how exactly do you do that? Bowen Family Therapists operate from a “neutral stance, supporting a whole-system understanding of problems and helping family members move beyond blame to face their own family problems” (Becvar and Becvar & Bowen in Gatfield, 2017: 273). In more detail:
Clients are engaged in ‘family research’.
The genogram is a key tool for this.
Genograms help clinicians understand clients and help clients understand their problems and their lives and decide what changes they would like to make.
A genogram can identify relationship patterns, roles, themes.
“By learning about your family and history and getting to know what made family members tick, how they related, and where they got stuck, you can consider your own role, not simply as a victim or reactor to your experiences but as an active player in interactions that repeat themselves”
McGoldrick in Brown, 1999: 6
Clients are ‘coached’ through dialogue to address emotional reactivity and triangling in of other people (or things like alcohol) to soothe tensions.
How do you coach clients? Coaching involves things like helping people develop:
Ability to identify family relationship patterns and functioning, and rules and roles within the family
Thoughtfulness and intentionality in order to act in accordance with principles and values
Differentiation is considered a continuum and a life-long journey. It’s part of the process of growing ourselves up and working towards emotional maturity. It takes work, but it’s worth the effort because …
“When you are differentiated from the system you are able to act on your own behalf without being selfish, and on the behalf of the group without being selfless”
This type of balance engenders wellbeing in self and relationships…and ultimately supports people to resist the pull of family patterns and define themselves.
Brown, J. (1999). Bowen Family Systems Theory and Practice: Illustration and Critique. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 20 (2), 94 – 103.
Brown, J. (2012). Growing Yourself Up. Woollombi: Exisle Publishing.
Hill, W., Hasty, C., & Moore, C. (2011). Differentiation of self and the process of forgiveness: A clinical perspective for couple and family therapy. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 32(1), 43 – 57.
Gatfield, E. (2017). Augmenting Bowen family of origin work: Using the genogram and therapeutic art-based activity. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 38, 272 0 282.
Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000. http://www.thebowencenter.org
Mackay, L. (2012). Trauma and Bowen Family Systems theory: Working with adults who were abused as children. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 33(3), 232 – 241.
Miller, J. A. (2008). The Anxious Organization: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things. Facts on Demand Press.
Smith, K. (2020). Everything Isn’t Terrible. NY: Hachette Books.
First photo- Benjamin Escher on Unsplash
Second photo - Vecteezy Pro
Please note that this article is educational in nature and does not constitute professional advice.