The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Process, Process, Process

Authored by Kelly Matthews-Pluta, L.C.S.W.

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?

The act of doing, not just talking, is emotional process at work.  Process is a noun when defined as a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. In Bowen theory, however, process is also a verb, an action orientated move. First, this involves working to define our values and principles as clearly as possible. Next, upon reflection, we may see a gap between what we value and how we behave. Process is deeply involved in this dynamic. Thinking through what may get in the way of our values matching our behavior is process at work.

Emotional process is tricky human business.  It is having who we think we are, i.e., what we value and hold important in our lives, meet up with who we really are, i.e., our day-to-day actions and behaviors. So often people will talk about these as two components of self. The ideas they have about what they think and who they want to be, what they would like to do in a situation and THEN what they actually do and say.  These elements can be very difficult to navigate. The brain power needed to focus one’s attention to sift through the reactivity floating free in one’s mind is substantial. It is no small task.

Those people with a closer link between these two components of self, our ideal self and our actual self, are more satisfied and content with how their lives play out. When questioned, they will say they feel a rhythm, or link, between their values and their behavior.  Getting more curious and interested in the kind of thinking needed to tackle this introspection is paramount.  It needs objectivity, a clearing away of defensiveness, judgement and old scripts to the extent one can do that.

A clinical example of process involves a marriage in which each individual is overly focused on the other.  The reactivity is high.  Each may see the other’s language and behavior as either “uncaring” or “too emotional” i.e., the husband might state “She is always critical of what I do and how I do it”.  Then the wife may state “He never pays me any attention”.  Each is lost in blaming the other and lacks the differentiation to see themselves as separate selves, i.e., responsible for their own thoughts and feelings; capable of teasing out what one thinks from what the other one thinks, and then to act according to one’s own thinking. Seeing one’s part as a component of the emotional process takes time, energy and observation.  Kerr wrote: “…to recognize the difference between pretending to be a more separate person and really being a more separate person, the difference between controlling feelings based on suppression and toning down feelings based on thinking differently about the nature of a problem” (192). He goes on, “Awareness of process helps a person get beyond blaming others or blaming some external force…” (192).

How easy is it for humans to get caught in the content of a situation and miss the Big Picture, as the saying goes?  The Big Picture here would be the process.  We often ruminate over the details of an argument.  We repeat what someone said to us, what we said to them, often without seeing the process of emotionality swirling all around the interaction.  In the example above, the couple may move in and out of discomfort with regard to these complaints, based on stress levels, both internal and environmental.  They may get mired in the details of who said what, i.e., the content, and not be able to see the broad-brush strokes of emotional process at play.  The idea that being more of a self, a differentiated self, a defined self, is possible when we can step back and see the process before us.  Kerr observed, “In fact, if one equates systems thinking with the ability to be aware of the process of nature as opposed to simply the content of nature…”, then thinking in this vast, sweeping way may be as old as time.  Being more differentiated requires many things.  Training one’s mind to watch the process is crucial.


Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen, Family Evaluation. W. W. Norton & Company New York, NY 1988, page 192.

Kelly Matthews-Pluta, MSW

This post was published by

Leave a Reply

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