The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

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An online forum to further the discussion of research and applications of systems thinking that continue to emerge from the ongoing study and practice of Bowen theory by family therapists, clergy, business leaders, consultants, and scientists.

Reflections on the 3rd International Conference on Bowen Family Systems Theory

The Lapland of northern Sweden proved to be an idyllic location for the 3rd International Conference.  Like the waters, reindeer and midnight sun intrinsic to the land, observations of differentiation of self were integral to the many excellent presentations I attended.

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Michael Kerr, A Review and Presentation on Leonard Mlodinow’s book, “Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking”

Dr. Kerr’s presentation at the Midwest Symposium on May 6, 2022, on Leonard Mlodinow’s book, “Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking” focused on a key component of Bowen Systems Theory: developing the capacity for self-regulation and the impact of anxiety on one’s ability to self-regulate. Mlodinow discusses the impact of anxiety on brain function writing: “an anxious state leads to pessimistic cognitive bias – when an anxious brain processes ambiguous information it tends to choose the more pessimistic among the likely interpretations.” (Chapter 4, How Emotions Guide Thought). Kerr emphasized two aspects from Mlodinow’s book: Motivation and Determination.

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The Composition of the Family System and Adaptive Success

This presentation by Dr. Dan Papero focused primarily on how concepts related to adaptive success or failure apply to the family system.  Dr. Papero observes that the human family faces similar pressures to adapt to changes in the environment as all living things do.  One way that helps me to think about this concept is to relate it to the functioning of ant colonies that are discussed in Chapter 12 of “The Family Emotional System”, edited by Robert J. Noone and Daniel V. Papero.  The ant colonies clearly do not function as a collection of individuals working toward a common goal, but more as a single organism with each individual as more of an appendage.  The human family faces similar pressures from the environment, which require a response from the system if it is going to survive and thrive. 

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Learning Bowen Theory

My first acquaintance with the thinking of Murray Bowen was through reading “On the Differentiation of Self,” the paper in which Dr. Bowen presents his theory and describes how it guided his effort toward differentiation of self in his own family. In my first couple of readings, I understood little of the theory or what Dr. Bowen was doing on those visits home, but I heard him clearly on the results. His family became calmer and more flexible. Personal communication opened up. Seriousness gave way to humor.

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The Survival and Adaptation of the African American Family Mignonette Nunn Keller, PhD Summary of Dr. Keller’s presentation at the CFC Summer Conference in 2021

“How does a slave develop a self in an oppressive dehumanizing system forcing him into a no-self position?” a question posed by Murray Bowen, MD was addressed in the conference “The Survival and Adaptation of the African American Family”, a presentation by Mignonette Nunn Keller, PhD. at the Center for Family Consultation, July 23, 2021.  Bowen’s conceptualization of chronic anxiety and “differentiation of self” traced the early years of Aaron Guice, his family experiences with two slave owners, and his relationships with his second owner’s family.  Aaron Guice was sold at approximately age 14 to his second owner.  He was able to exercise principled oriented decisions in delaying marriage and children, being able to accept both his black and white heritage and continuing to have positive relationships with both black and white family members.  From this writer’s perspective, some positive external experiences and his being a free spirit and having some distance from the emotional system he grew in enabled him to develop sufficient “self” to withstand the stresses and losses he experienced growing up.

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Process, Process, Process

You may be familiar with the old saying about the three most important things in real estate:  Location, location, location.  This means there is one most important thing in every aspect of our lives. In Bowen theory, the cornerstone concept of differentiation of self holds that pivotal position.  To deeply know oneself and work toward a more separate yet connected self is the key.  Being focused on the act of becoming more differentiated requires thinking about process.  How do you see yourself and your reactivity more clearly and objectively? And then, how do you work to respond differently when you observe high reactivity?

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Searching for Nature’s Rules

“When we ponder the workings of the human body or of the life of the Serengeti National Park, the details would seem overwhelming, the parts too numerous, and their interactions too complex. The power of a small number of rules…is their ability to reduce complex phenomena to a simpler logic of life.” (10) With this thought, Sean B. Carroll introduces his book, The Serengeti Rules:  The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters. 

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Reflections on a Presentation by James P. Curley, PhD: Power Differentials in Social Hierarchies, Why and How They Emerge and Their Consequences for Behavior and Health

This report on the keynote address given at the Midwest Symposium on May 7 2021 was prepared by Dr. Rosalyn Chrenka, a student of the CFC Post-graduate Training program. I took notes and have commented below on some things that struck me as interesting in relation to theory.

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Anxiety, Stress and Triangles: Pressurized Human Relationship

Dan Papero’s review of the fundamentals, such as the automatic and instinctual reactions within the emotional system, the preferential sensitivity among the family members, and the constant flow and counter flow of emotions within the system was helpful in understanding triangles.  How the forces of togetherness and individuation are always in play, how anxiety increases the pressure towards togetherness and how too much closeness results in distancing.  The mechanisms of distancing include conflict, overfunctioning/underfunctioning and projection.  They are utilized to control the emotional flow and maintain regulation. Triangles operate to maintain equilibrium.  The example of the spinning top continuing to adjust the balance of the threesome in the triangle was helpful.

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The Caste System and The Emotional System

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste:  The origins of our discontents, is a hard book.  Her words confront us with a hard truth about human behavior:  that humans are capable of imposing extreme cruelty and suffering on other humans and have done so at many points in history.  With brilliant writing and thorough research on three caste systems–American slavery and its aftermath, Nazi Germany, and the millennia-long caste system of India–she traces the forces that drive human behavior to destructive extremes.

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