Opportunities for Ongoing Individual Growth: Bowen Theory in Clinical Work

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it new alternatives for people seeking help with anxiety. Online platforms became a viable option for therapy resulting in easier access to services. While this shift toward technology has increased the number of providers available, wide variations exist among treatment modalities. For those seeking long-term modifications in their lives, finding a provider who can meet both the immediate need and a goal of lasting change can be a challenge. This dual objective is best met by a provider who has the ability to “think systems” while viewing anxiety and other problems from a broad perspective. Whether you are a social worker, a family therapist, coach, teacher, clergy, or a consultants or leader in business, you can increase your knowledge of how human systems function by participating in a Bowen theory post-graduate training program.

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Reactivity Paused: Took a Breath and a Stand

My understanding of differentiation of self after listening to Murray Bowen and reading the materials is that each person emerges from the multi-generational family organism with a certain amount of undifferentiation (or fusion) that needs to be handled using various mechanisms such as distance, conflict, over/under-functioning, and/or projection to the next generation. The more self that one has, the less intense these mechanisms will appear given a certain level of anxiety. With that same level of anxiety, a person with less self than the previous person, the mechanisms will be more intense.

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Collective Intelligence and Differentiation of Self

Why do humans dominate the planet?  Not, as often assumed, because of individual intelligence according to science writer, Matt Ridley.  Not because we have big brains.  Having smarter, cleverer people is not what makes societies work better.  He proposes that

“Human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon.  It is by putting brains together through the division of labor — through trade and specialization — that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity and knowledge base of the species. …Human achievement is based on collective intelligence–the nodes in the human neural network are people themselves.  By each doing one thing and getting good at it, then sharing and combining the results through exchange, people become capable of doing things they do not even understand.” 

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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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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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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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Bowen Theory Conferences Adapt to Pandemic Conditions

For all of its tragic impacts on humanity, the coronavirus pandemic is presenting us with an opportunity and impetus to take time out for serious thinking.  Since the time of social distancing began several weeks ago, two important Bowen theory network events have taken place:  the annual Spring Conference of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (April 3-4) and the 37th Midwest Symposium of the Center for Family Consultation (May 1).  Both were originally planned as onsite conferences but converted to online.  In so doing, the conferences became very different experiences for all involved–planners, presenters, and audience members—and much was learned in the process.  This essay offers thoughts on what was learned, particularly in the area of human behavior and human response to threat.          

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