The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Multi-generational Transmission Process

Authored by Alana C. Smith, L.C.S.W., L.C.D.C.

Editor’s Note: Alana Smith, LCSW, LCDC is a second-year student in the Center for Family Consultation Post Graduate Training program. She has been a practicing clinical social worker and family therapist since 2004. This blog post is based on her recent paper on the Bowen theory concept of multi-generational transmissions process, showing how learning facts about one’s past generations opens up new areas for an individual’s exploration into the origins of the patterns of emotional response that have evolved into unexplained chronic anxiety in future generations of the family.

Dr. Murray Bowen’s research on the science of family interactions observed that humans have a non-genetic heritability as well as a genetic heritability in regards to their personhood; mentally, emotionally, and relationally. This is to say that over a human’s lifespan there is a process of evolution and adaptation transpiring, as opposed to merely a predestined and limitedly determined existence (stasis). Dr. Bowen’s research established conceptually a parallel theory to biology’s concepts of heritability (genetics) and epigenetics in his description of the multigenerational transmission process. This process encapsulates many of the core tenants of Bowen’s research and clinical observations. The multigenerational transmission process describes the reality that as humans in family systems we are reflexively (automatically and unconsciously) feeling, emulating, and responding with each other. There is an inherited nature to our personhood and ways of being that is passed down through the generations in our families. Bowen highlighted that the multigenerational transmission process involves first, the emotional system, which is felt and experienced, and then the relationship system wherein it is expressed.

Dr. Bowen distinguished himself from his psycho-analytic training in seeing attainment of mental health resulting from persons learning to think and act differently about themselves in context to their families, rather than from exploring their unconscious and complexes. In this way, Bowen was declaring his theoretical orientation of mental health treatment as an expansive clinical endeavor, rather than a reductionistic one. Bowen Family Systems Theory demonstrated that healing is the result of seeing oneself in the context of their family system. It is also one that is evolutionary (active, ongoing, and changeable). In other words, Bowen observed that healing, rather than management of a static symptom presentation, was a clinical necessity.

In the exploration of the efficacy of approaches to mental health treatment, it is important to consider the potentials for different outcomes when applying Bowen Systems Theory. Perhaps empowering clients with a more systematic and comprehensive approach to understanding the origins of themselves, their thoughts, feelings, and interactions, allows for less shame and self-blame. In more traditional psychodynamic forms of therapy, a client is led to believe that their mental health symptoms are deficiencies to be managed. From a Bowen Theory standpoint, mental health symptoms are seen as adaptations that an individual reflexively employs as learned in their family of origin.

For example, a child growing up in a family system with high anxiety and perhaps violence, will employ adaptive strategies such as self-denial, learning to be amenable to others, and developing perhaps an anxious temperament. Without sufficient exploration into her understanding of her thinking and emotional world in the context of her family system, this client could be led to believe that her mental health symptoms were a fixed condition originating in her, to be managed, rather than adaptions learned in context. Client’s learning how to think about the origin of their symptoms differently is a precursor to their being able to think about the healing of those symptoms differently. Further, the emotional experiences one has in their family did not begin just in their family of origin. Rather, the emotional experiences (emotional process) are the result of inheriting emotional ways of being from both sides of the family

Dr. Bowen named the transmission of this inheritance through the generations the multigenerational transmission process. To see one’s symptoms as adaptations learned in an environment, rather than as a static condition to be managed, markedly increases in the client a sense of hopefulness for healing. This hope is born chiefly out of new ways of thinking about one’s emotional and relational experiences. One can then become aware of alternative ways of thinking, feeling and being in their lives. Through this process, which Bowen termed differentiation of self, healing happens as an individual learns how to be both a part of their family and relationships, as well as to be their own distinct person in the world, i.e., having their own thoughts, feelings, and preferences.

There is much talk in our world today about “taking one’s power back” and “owning your truth”. There are few things more empowering to one’s mental health than making sense of one’s inherited emotional world and learning the origin of one’s mental models. With less shame and blame, one is able to grow in their ability to learn to think more discernibly about their relationships and what retaining a sense of self truly means. With awareness, one can learn to be present in the emotional force field of their relationships in ways that are not merely enduring, struggling, or reacting.

This post was published by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *