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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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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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 Use of Force: Law Enforcement as a Reflection of Society

The use of physical force is an instinctual response to a real or perceived threat.  In a moment of fear, who has not found themselves raising a voice, or raising an arm, or seeking a way to constrain the other and protect self?  The use of force to bring conflict under control should be a last resort and applied judiciously, yet with rising emotional intensity, it easily becomes the first resort, setting in motion an escalation of conflict. 

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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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A Proposed Alternative Pathway to a Bowen Theory of the Spiritual

In preparing for the Vermont Center for Family Studies’ upcoming conference on Meditation and Family Health (also available via streaming) I skipped ahead in my journey through Dr. Michael E. Kerr’s recent book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, to his chapter on the potential 9th concept of Bowen theory, “Toward a Systems Concept of Supernatural Phenomena”.  I’ll begin with a summary of that chapter before proposing an alternative pathway to a Bowen theory of the supernatural.

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Family-of-Origin Work: The Road to Maturity

At the Family Research Conference in 1967, Murray Bowen gave a presentation that was unusual for a professional meeting.  He had been seeking a way to teach family systems theory in a way that trainees could grasp.  He had also been “working intensively in a new phase of a long-term effort to differentiate my own ‘self’ from my parental extended family.”* He had reached a “dramatic breakthrough”* shortly before the conference. He decided to present his experience in his own family to his colleagues.  It was a very different kind presentation than expected and sparked surprise and much interest from the audience.  He described it as “a practical application of the major concepts in my theoretical and therapeutic systems (page 468).”* It was premised on the concept that the family emotional system is universal in all families, including those of family therapists.  Taking responsibility for defining oneself in one’s own family translates into greater maturity in one’s life overall, and is key to one’s effectiveness as a clinician.

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