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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Family, the Brain, and Differentiation of Self

The concept of differentiation of self entails two primary aspects based on the observations of Dr. Bowen. The first is that individuals vary in the degree to which they differentiate or develop emotional autonomy in relation to the family in which they grew up. The second aspect is the degree to which an individual’s higher cortical systems, referred to by Bowen as the intellectual system, differentiate over the course of development. The differentiation of this function underlies an individual’s capacity to utilize the intellectual system in self-regulation and self-direction over their life course. This presentation will describe the above and place these processes in the context of the co-evolution of the family and the brain.

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Meditating towards Differentiation of Self

Bowen has theorized, that each human being is the culmination of the mass of ancestors who have preceded her, each human being generations in the making, If we assume that is true, then, like a diamond, it may take a fair amount of excavating before we uncover the shiny nugget of “self” be-neath all the accumulated rock. When we look at humans, we tend to focus on their individual be-haviors or at best the individual within the context of their nuclear family. Bowen advocated getting information on as many as five generations of family history, in order to understand the patterns we observe. He advocated doing this so that we might see the patterns that have been active in our families and begin to distinguish between patterns that we have chosen and ones we may have simply inherited. Kerr in his most recent book describes one of the components of differentiation of self as “the phenomenon of thoughts and feelings operating as a working team”, those who are least differentiated have achieved the least separation from behavior driven purely by instinctual responses to others. Achieving more “self” requires distinguishing between one’s thoughts and one’s feelings, so that one’s actions more closely reflect one’s thinking, and are not merely a reflection of how we are feeling at any given moment.

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Unexpected Moments of Connection

Recently a friend introduced me to a colleague of his from another state, and suggested that we meet. I asked why, and he said, “I just think you two will have an interesting conversation”. I trust this person, so when his colleague called, we agreed to get together for lunch when she was visiting family in our area. We did indeed have a rich conversation and that evening I wanted to write some of my thoughts to her. The rest of this blog post started as an email to her, but since my grandchildren (and some of my friends) tell me my emails are always way too long, I decided to turn it into a blog for “The Systems Thinker”.

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