The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Reactivity Paused: Took a Breath and a Stand

Authored by Scott Hoecker, M.Div.

Editor’s Note: Scott Hoecker is a second-year student in the Center for Family Consultation Post Graduate Training program. He is studying Bowen Theory to effectively use it to understand emotional process in organizations. He has been a pastor for the past four years, and his recent paper on the concept of differentiation of self is an example of how using Bowen Theory to manage oneself extends beyond the family to important non-family systems, such as the workplace. 

My understanding of differentiation of self after listening to Murray Bowen and reading the materials is that each person emerges from the multi-generational family organism with a certain amount of undifferentiation (or fusion) that needs to be handled using various mechanisms such as distance, conflict, over/under-functioning, and/or projection to the next generation. The more self that one has, the less intense these mechanisms will appear given a certain level of anxiety. With that same level of anxiety, a person with less self than the previous person, the mechanisms will be more intense.

While both folks above may function well at work, it’s in their more intimate relationships that these mechanisms are likely to show up on the radar. And yet, there can be a cross over from one’s work system to the nuclear family emotional system and vice versa.

For instance, a few weeks ago, the council president, Tom, approached me about confirmation after worship. I was emotionally reactive to a few of the comments such as, “You can’t use videos in confirmation anymore because using videos means you’re not teaching.” When I tried to explain my pedagogy that it’s a learner centered model with all watching the same material and answering questions collectively to learn from each other and co-create meaning, I watched him walk out the front door while at the same time telling me to bring my confirmation expectations to the next council meeting.

As I ruminated over this conversation on the drive home and in the living room in my chair (at home), Jacey, my spouse, asked what was up? I said, “I think I’ve had enough of this and am considering leaving the ministry.”

I then told her my side of the story. To which she was on my side and following my request – she was willing to come to the council meeting with me to tell them what she thought (as she’s been assisting with confirmation for the past two years).

By the next day, I had calmed down a bit, but still was uncertain on what I was going to do. During this time, Jacey had called her cousin who is a retired minister (though still working) and vented to him. At which point, he offered to drive up to our house (which is a couple hours away). When told of this, I told Jacey that that was not necessary.

The next day, I was listening to a video tape of a lecture by the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman, (May 17, 1932 – October 31, 1996), who was an early student of Dr. Bowen’s and an ordained rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant.  He described his experience with coaching pastors. My paraphrase of his comments is that initially he would listen to their stories (dare I say sad stories or victim stories) for too long. Then, as time went on, he’d ignore the “nature of their problem” or “where it was located,” (Leadership Through Self Differentiation, accessed Sept 29, 2022). Instead, he’d dole out the same advice to everybody, “you have to . . . tell them what you believe and where you stand.” (Ibid.). Those individuals that could do this would in effect define themselves amid the forces designed to get someone back in line.

Friedman also said, that in his experience, anytime a person is trying to define themselves, and there’s pushback or criticism, it’s usually because there’s a “peace-monger” at the top – who is, “more interested in stability than progress . . . that person just wants to keep things stable” (ibid.). This rang true to me and my general experience with the council president. In most cases, the attempt is to appease the person complaining rather than refer the complainant to me.

So, I spent an entire day defining my “hopes” for confirmation. In total, I came up with nine different hopes that put flesh on the bones of my guiding principle which is, “faith is a way of life . . . that is caught more than taught.”

An example of one such hope is, “My hope is to facilitate the cultivation of trusted relationships with mentors so that planted seeds are nurtured through deep listening where it’s safe to explore one’s beliefs, questions, and even doubts with a trusted adult who’ll join the confirmand on the journey.”

In the end, this statement of my hopes for confirmation was received well. Plus, I asked my spouse not to attend the meeting because I needed to handle this myself. At the meeting, I didn’t hear anything about not using videos or about using videos was equivalent to not teaching. What I did hear, was that Tom wanted me to make attendance at worship (or at least a portion of Sundays) mandatory for the confirmands.

The underlying concern appeared to be twofold. One, attendance numbers would be higher if I did this. And two, there would be more people available to light the candles during worship services.

In the end, I said I would think about this but did not commit one way or the other.

To wrap up, what I learned here was that my reactivity to disapproval (especially in an area I thought I was doing well in) moved to my spouse when I triangled her in and then her reactivity moved to her cousin when she triangled him in.

By reading and thinking through this myself, my reactivity came down prior to the meeting. And by sharing my thoughts or vision for confirmation, I was able to be clear on where I stood.

Last, I wrote out a few dozen questions prior to the meeting, such as:

  1. Do you know what other confirmation teachers do in terms of pedagogy, hopes, and expectations for confirmation?
  2. Who is responsible for the confirmation program at other churches?
  3. What is council’s role at other churches when it comes to confirmation?
  4. Do the confirmands enjoy confirmation?
  5. Is there a relationship between enjoying the class and learning (or engagement)?
  6. Is there research on confirmation that you are aware of?
  7. Should research be used to guide the development of a confirmation program?
  8. If not, how should a program be developed?
  9. What is the goal of confirmation from your perspective?
  10. What should the goal be?


While I did not end up asking any of them, I found this to be useful for keeping my anxiety at bay.

In sum, this example highlights my reactivity to disapproval and the ways I automatically triangle in others in order to handle my undifferentiation. With time and perspective and some coaching (through reading), I was able to be clear on where I stood when it came to confirmation and my hopes for the confirmands.

Going forward, I’m curious about my reactivity to disapproval and how that came to be in the context of my nuclear and multi-generation family organisms. And how I might notice this going forward and pause long-enough to respond thoughtfully vs. react. And hopefully be a bit less reactive in this area and a bit more mature in all the systems I’m a part of and vice versa.

Scott Hoecker, M.Div.

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