The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Family-of-Origin Work: The Road to Maturity

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

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.

Following the Family Research Conference, Dr. Bowen wrote a longer paper that explained the theoretical framework that had guided his effort in his own family, later published as “On the Differentiation of Self” in his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice.  Knowledge gained from his years of work toward differentiation in his own family carried over automatically to his teaching of psychiatric residents and mental health professionals at Georgetown University School of Medicine.  Trainees began to use this new learning in visits to their own parental families.  Bowen’s next discovery was that those residents who had done best in the effort with their parental families who were also doing best in their clinical work. It soon became clear that the same residents were also doing better in their relationships with spouse and children.

Working toward increased maturity or “differentiation of self” in direct contact with one’s parental and extended family, now referred to as “family-of-origin work,” has become an essential avenue for learning family systems theory. This theory can be learned on an intellectual level, but it becomes far more than ivory tower when it is learned on a personal level through one’s own experience.

Family psychotherapy entails moving from a subjective view toward a deeper multigenerational knowledge of the family, bringing the emotional system in the family into awareness, and, most importantly, gaining a clear view of one’s own part in the system and one’s options for change.  Family emotional process is universal, yet each family has its own unique version.  A coach is most useful for guiding one through the intricate process, yet in the end it is one’s own adventure, motivated by oneself and for oneself.

Family-of-origin work will be the topic at the Center for Family Consultation Summer Conference on Friday, July 19th, 2019.  We invite you to join us.  See our website for details.

*Reference: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice by Murray Bowen, MD. 

Stephanie Ferrera


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