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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The Gift That Never Stops Giving

Back in 2004, I was introduced to Bowen Theory by a colleague of mine who gifted me some audio tapes of Dr. Bowen’s lectures. I was sold after listening to the first hour. It was the only psychological theory that truly made sense to me and I was hungry to learn more. Much of the affinity I felt toward Bowen theory resulted from my previous studies and career. My undergraduate degree was in Biology and my first career included doing research in molecular biology in the field that helped develop the statins for circulatory high cholesterol. Because Bowen theory is rooted in the natural sciences, I understood the language and ideas perhaps a tad better than others with no science background.

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Why Make the Study of Bowen Theory a Life-long Learning Project?

Bowen theory is different from traditional theories of human behavior, and the practice that emerges from understanding and using the concepts in your personal and professional life are sometimes counter-intuitive. Michael Kerr, MD makes the important point in his most recent book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets, Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, that Bowen theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. The theory describes what people actually do, not what they should do. According to Kerr, “The theory is an attempt to move toward a science of human behavior, a theory based on verifiable functional facts about human behavior that can make predictions” (Page 166).

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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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