Archives for Bowen Family Systems Theory
Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like an outsider. Like you don’t quite fit in. Maybe you’re carrying a certain sadness that sets you apart from the places that other people seem to inhabit right now. Or maybe you doubt your worth or your ability to contribute sometimes. Maybe you just feel “different.” Or even “weird.” Or that your values or the way you want to live your life aren’t quite what society currently sees as “normal.” Feeling a bit out of step with the people around you – your family or work colleagues or friends – is often tough. One theory suggests there are two opposing "life forces" we balance inside ourselves: the “force of individuality” and the “force of togetherness.” Individuality is about our uniqueness, while togetherness is thought to heighten our sense of safety and survival in a group. So it can be tempting trade self for safety sometimes. To hide your points of difference and gloss over them. To keep the surface calm so that no-one else’s boat is rocked. To muffle the parts of you that would sing a different tune. To shrink yourself to make the anxiety smaller, too. (All of which usually just means that you get to keep all the dissonance inside you, instead of sharing it around). What if there was another way?
"No problems." That's what this sticker on an alleyway wall in my local neighbourhood is on about (in the photo, above). It sounds like a pretty good proposition... No emotional meltdowns, no relationship dramas, no self-sabotage, no "failure." But is it too optimistic? A bit utopian, even? Something to strive for, maybe, but not completely attainable? Well, a branch of family systems therapy thinks not. In fact, from it's perspective: "the problem is the solution" So what does this actually mean?
It was after a couple of posts on the ‘black sheep’ of the family that Mary (a reader) posed a great question: What about the ‘white’ sheep? What about those of us who wrestle with a role that seems to almost shine or shimmer in the light (a bit mirage-like)? Who might feel the pressures to keep surpassing family expectations. Or the need to be the constant peacemakers, the bridge-builders, the hatchet-buriers. The ‘good girl.’ The ‘golden boy.’ The ‘chosen child.’ Can you relate to this sort of stuff? Did you fall into the habit of fulfilling this family myth when you were growing up? (And does it follow you around, now, in your adult relationships? In your work? In your life? In your loves?) If you’ve ever been the ‘white sheep’ in your family, chances are, it’s also impacted how you are with other people in your life. And Bowen Family Systems Theory might have some interesting clues about what it all means for you, and how you can re-define this role for yourself, if you’d like to.
“Mental health.” They sound like pretty dull words. And it seems we know best what they mean when things go wrong with them. We hear general statements about what mental health ‘should’ (or ‘shouldn’t’) look like for everyone. So it often seems like a kind of one-size-fits-all expression. But if you dig a little deeper beneath their surface, buried within these two words lie all manner of riches. And there’s meaning to be found here that’s for you alone. So grab your shovel and come dig with me for a moment.
In Part 1 of this post, in an effort to understand more about how black sheep and scapegoats are created, we looked into some of the theory behind “triangles” in families. We explored how Murray Bowen, the founder of family systems theory, thought that families fall into these key triangular patterns of relating to try to reduce tension. That by focusing on a “problem child” or black sheep or scapegoat, other family members can avoid looking too deeply into their own problems, or the tensions in their other relationships. For all of us, black sheep included, Bowen felt it was vital to try to “detriangle” and gradually extract yourself from these habitual roles. To stop reacting automatically, and to start seeing the patterns themselves. He believed that with “emotional neutrality” and the ability to spot these family patterns, you can keep yourself from slipping into your previous role, no matter how strongly you might be ‘invited’ into it by others. And that’s another key: the ‘invited’ bit. For even though family scapegoating can start up when you’re a child, many systems theorists suggest that if it’s continuing in your adulthood, then at some level you might be a part of perpetuating the process, too. Even if you don't realize it. Even if you don't want to. So how can you start to undo some of that?
Do you have a black sheep in your family? Someone who’s considered the odd one out or a bit weird or not quite living up to the family ideal somehow. A misfit. An outsider. Maybe a ‘failure’. Maybe you’re it… Black sheep seem a fairly common phenomenon. Many families have one. Someone who the others might fret about or devote a lot of energy discussing when they’re not in earshot. Someone they’re generally worried about or furious with. Someone the family is united in their difference from. And maybe that sense of unity is key. For at the risk of getting too many farm animals involved here, scapegoating the black sheep can be a uniting force in families. It’s a pastime that brings everyone else closer together. Something that swings attention away from other, potentially deeper, tensions in the family and builds allegiances instead. And it’s also thought to be a great soother of anxiety in groups. So the black sheep can actually perform a very important role in families. It’s just a shame that it usually doesn’t feel that way… So what can you do if you’ve ended up filling this spot in your family? The ‘father’ of family systems theory had some ideas… In this post we’ll look at some of the background to how he saw families working (or not working so well…), and in Part 2, we’ll explore some potential solutions to this black sheep effect.
If you’re into gardening at all, you’ll probably know that although plants like to grow alongside one another and create a supportive ‘microclimate’ together, they still need their own space. Even at the time of seed planting, if you want to give them an optimum chance to flourish, you’ll need to include a certain distance between them. Planted too close, and they can start to rob each other’s nourishment (like the trees in these photos; one almost enveloping the other). So can the same be said of human relationships? And if so, how close is too close? Murray Bowen, the ‘father of family systems theory’, noted this tension between the desire to be close and the desire to stand apart in order to give our individuality – our sense of self – a chance to breathe. He saw both these drives as vital “life forces.” And he envisioned the struggle between them as an evolutionary paradox that we all must wrestle with. To know that there’s a certain safety in togetherness, but that it often comes at a cost of self… So how do you balance those opposing needs in your life?