Almost daily we encounter situations that frustrate us – individuals, groups, and even we ourselves, behave in ways that are clearly unproductive – we respond with fear and anxiety where none is needed. People begin to “spin” rather than simply remain still and listen. We talk about reacting rather than responding – the first an automatic response, the second a thoughtful response. We may see others acting out their anxiety and not know why, or how to help. And then we feel our own anxiety rise, leading us to thoughts, words and actions that betray our better selves. Family Systems Theory gives us a way to understand ourselves and others, to ‘see’ what is happening, and empowers us to choose differently.
What is Bowen Family Systems Theory?
* Borrowed from www.hsystems.org – Center for the Study of Human Systems, Roberta M Gilbert, MD
Bowen family systems theory, developed by Dr. Murray Bowen begining in the 1950’s, and developed throughout his life, is a new way of thinking about the human phenomenon. In it, the nuclear family, rather than the individual, is seen as the emotional unit. Several concepts grow out of that basic understanding, from the scale of differentiation of self to the importance of the generations to functioning of people in the present.
The tremendous usefulness of the theory in the lives of individuals and families gave rise to a new and more effective psychotherapy. Organizations such as businesses and congregations have used the ideas with great benefit. Leadership training based on Bowen theory is proving to have effectiveness for those in religious, business, educational and other types of organizations.
His major papers are found in his book, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” Jason Aronson, New York, 1978.
Some Quotations from Dr. Bowen’s Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Aronson, New York, 1978
“If society functioned on a higher level, we would have a higher percentage
of people oriented to responsibility for self and others.. . .” p. 449
“. . . what man thinks about himself , and what he says about himself, is different in many important ways from what he is.” p.158
“As families move from the compartmentalized, less mature world of secrets and foibles which they assume they are keeping under cover, and into the world of permitting their private selves to be more open and a possible example for others to follow, they grow up a little each day.” p. 520
“The goal is to be as much of a ‘self’ as is possible. . .and to permit the others as much latitude as possible toward developing their selfs.” p. 463
“Any time one key member of an organization can be responsibly responsible for self, the problem in the organization will resolve.” p.463
“There is a fine line between accepting the responsibility for the part self plays in a situation and accepting the ‘blame’ for it.” p.464
Bowen theory is constructed with 8 core concepts: Nuclear Family Emotional System; Differentiation of Self; Triangles; Cutoff; Family Projection Process; Multigenerational Transmission Process; Sibling Position; and Emotional Process in Society. Central to our ability to make use of these concepts is our willingness to see, feel, and name the anxiety present in ourselves, others, and the larger system. Once we do, then we begin to gain some power to change, and the 8 concepts become the tools by which we can learn to construct a better self, and a better world.