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Polyvagal Theory – An Introduction

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When the Anxiety Increases: An Introduction to Polyvagal Theory


I was never very athletic growing up. Often I came in last or second to last in school races. I was usually picked last for teams unless I made persuasive, pleading eyes at a team captain. People knew I was smart and so they sometimes assumed that translated to sports. It did not. Except for dodgeball. I was very good at dodgeball. The one time I was glad to be last.

Have you ever stopped to think about what is going on in the body in dodgeball or other sports? The brain becomes alert to the rules of the game, to the ball(s) in play, and the body automatically moves. For my level of athleticism, dodgeball was the sweet spot because I didn’t have to outrun the ball, just avoid it.

Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory describes how the autonomic nervous system functions using the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Dr. Stephen Porges changed the understanding of the parasympathetic nervous system when he discovered two different functions of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from our brain down to all of our internal organs and is part of the body’s threat detection system. It constantly tracks and orients to dangers in the environment and changes human physiology to respond in the most effective way to real or perceived threats. It is called our “autonomic nervous system” because it is automatic and operates outside of conscious awareness. We wouldn’t have much luck crossing a busy street (or playing dodgeball) if our autonomic nervous system did not operate without us having to think about it.

The Traffic Light Analogy

There are three states that the autonomic nervous system shifts between to allow humans to adapt to the environment. The simplest explanation for these three states is a traffic light analogy.

Green Light

When we are in a safe environment, meaning there is no real or perceived threat, we enter into the “ventral vagal” state. In this state, the body shifts to a slower heart rate, the middle ears attune to the human voice, facial features, and voice changes to more expression and prosody. One is more positively socially engaged and can feel calm.

Imagine sitting down with your favourite hot drink at the end of the day. You see the sun setting out the window and you take a deep breath with a long exhale because work for the day is done. This is a green light moment. Now imagine your pet jumps up and joins you. The tone of voice you use with your pet is the expressive, prosodic tone of someone in the green zone.

Yellow Light

When we perceive a threat, our bodies become mobilized and activated to manage the threat through our sympathetic nervous system. The “fight or flight” response is what most of us are familiar with here. Our body shifts to support defence through increased heart rate and blood flow to extremities for limb movement. Even hearing focuses on “danger” sounds of high and low frequencies. It is important to note that the body shifts into defence whether a threat is real or perceived. Sometimes the nervous system makes mistakes about what is going on.

Several years ago our family moved to a new house and in the middle of the first night, my husband and I sat up in panic. We were convinced that someone was breaking into the house. After 20 seconds of investigation, we realized that the threat was a refrigerator with an ice machine, something we had never lived with before. Our bodies sensed a threat and responded. Even after we knew we were safe, the cortisol and adrenalin were already rushing through our bodies. It took some time to get back to sleep and for our bodies to catch up to the knowledge that the ice machine posed no threat.

Red Light

When a danger is seen as inescapable, the autonomic nervous system has one other response: to shutdown, immobilize, disconnect, or “play dead”. This red light or dorsal vagal response is the oldest evolutionary response to threat and is easily observed in other species, especially reptiles. Here the body conserves energy through low heart rate and muscle tension, raising pain thresholds as less oxygen flows to the brain.

Understanding that this immobilized state is automatic and instinctual is important. For those who have experienced particular types of trauma, blame and shame may be felt for not “fighting back”.

Polyvagal Theory in Everyday Life

Throughout our day, all three autonomic states show up in varying levels of intensity, whether crossing a busy street, preparing to speak in public, or hearing the irritated tone of voice of a partner. Beyond these stressful moments, the autonomic nervous system is also active in shifting our body in mundane moments like getting out of bed in the morning to more pleasurable moments like play, meditation, and curiosity. Hybrid states where two autonomic states are active at the same time also exist, as shown in this infographic.

Flexibility is Key

Flexibility between states is more important than always being calm or in the green zone. This is self-evident when we stop and think about just how helpful it is to have a heart rate that increases when we are wanting to engage in movement. Yet, because stress and threat can be quite uncomfortable, the yellow and red states often get a bad rap. All three autonomic states are evolutionarily adaptive and help us survive, thrive, and respond to challenges in our world.

In Relationship

Dr. Stephen Porges said, “physiological state [is] an intervening variable influencing behavior and our ability to interact with others.” As we go about our lives we experience our own green, yellow, and red states, but we also engage with others’ green, yellow, and red states. One doesn’t have to go very far in a day to have another person’s yellow state ruin a lovely green moment! It is in those moments when knowledge of human physiology and Bowen family systems theory can be so helpful!

This April, Living Systems will have a conversation with Dr. Porges on his understanding of how these three autonomic states impact how people live in relationships. We will also hear from Victoria Harrison who has spent decades researching physiology in relationships from a Bowen theory perspective. The day will end with a project I have been working on that allows people to track the specifics of their own green, yellow, and red states in daily life and relationships.


Dixie Vandersluys, M.A., C.C.C., is a counsellor based in Manitoba. She is a third-year trainee with Living Systems and recently completed the Polyvagal Institute’s first-ever certificate course.

Thank you for your interest in Bowen Family Systems Theory.

You can read more about Bowen Theory here

Read more about Polyvagal theory here


Stress and the Shower Curtain

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A Story of Stress and a Shower Curtain

A few years ago I got very sick after an incredibly stressful series of weeks in my life (a common response to stress for me). After being sick for an entire weekend, my teenage daughter commented to me, “I knew you were really sick because the shower curtain was open all weekend!” I asked, “What do you mean?!” She replied, “Mom, my room is next to the bathroom. I hear everything. You close the shower curtain every time you go into the bathroom! Even if it’s already closed, you adjust it a little more.”

I laughed and realized she was right. Every time I am in the bathroom, I do notice the shower curtain. In fact, I almost didn’t believe her when she suggested I had not touched it for three whole days. But, as she says, she hears it all. And I really was very sick that weekend. I guess I hadn’t had the capacity to notice much of anything.

All in the Family

I come from a family of “noticers”. The family I grew up in has an amazing eye for detail and an ability to notice and fix things others may not even be aware of. If you go to a thesaurus, what I am talking about could be described as: thorough, meticulous, nit-picky, fastidious, precise, careful, fussy, particular, perfectionist, etc. Each of those words have different connotations and highlight the spectrum of helpful to less helpful that any behaviour can have. In my life, noticing has been useful in lots of ways. I am a great proof-reader and can catch the smallest of errors. However, the less useful side shows up when I do 30 drafts of a paper before handing it in and still don’t think it is good enough. The line from attentive awareness to fussing and being overly critical can become quite narrow in my world.

Observing Myself

Because of my daughter’s comment that weekend, I started thinking about what my “noticing” of the shower curtain can look like. Most days I go into the bathroom and close the curtain calmly if someone has left it open. Some days I go into the bathroom and grumble under my breath, “Why doesn’t anyone else ever shut the curtain?! I’m the only person in this house who does a damn thing!” And now I had new information: there were times, like that weekend, when I was so sick I didn’t even notice the shower curtain at all.

When Stress Picks Up

Dr. Papero wrote, “Rising and falling levels of anxiety and tension in individuals and in their relationships significantly influence the particular manifestations of family emotional process displayed by a given family. Said another way, the family unit behaves much differently psychologically and behaviourally when it is calm than when it is tense and anxious.”

My shower curtain is an inanimate object. It does not do anything. It is open or closed. But the way I interact with it and the story I tell myself about it (and the people who use it), can clearly be very different. The shower curtain is just the shower curtain. But I engage with it in different ways depending on what levels of stress are going on in my life outside of the bathroom.

Can you think of your own examples? Such as where your stress levels impact how you behave? Or the story you tell yourself about an otherwise benign area of life?

Stress – Widening the Lens

In April, Living Systems is hosting a day-long conference called, “Reactivity and Relationships: Widening the Lens with Bowen Theory and Polyvagal Theory”. In anticipation of the conference, there will be a series of blog posts introducing the science of Polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory describes the physiology of the body and brain when humans feel safe or in danger.

Dr. Stephen Porges, the originator of Polyvagal theory and one of our conference presenters, wrote that our physiological state is an “intervening variable influencing behaviour and our ability to interact with others.” His research on the vagus nerve led to a new understanding of the parasympathetic nervous system. He also believes how humans have three basic physiological responses to the world. We will dig into those three states in a March blog post. For now, the spoiler is that they are related to the three ways I interact with my shower curtain: calm, worked up, and overwhelmed.

Thank you for your interest in systems.

Dixie Vandersluys

For more information on the April conference, head to: April Conference

If you’d like to do a little digging into Polyvagal Theory, go to the Polyvagal Institute:  What is polyvagal theory?

Here is a useful talk by Dr. Porges’ son, Seth Porges. who c0-authored “Our Polyvagal World”:  Seth Porges Talk

Dixie Vandersluys, M.A., C.C.C., is a counsellor based in Manitoba. She is a third year trainee with Living Systems and recently completed the Polyvagal Institute’s first-ever certificate course.

Functioning up thinking

Functioning UP in 2024

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Get serious, sensible and self-ish

You’ve had time to get going on your resolutions. Resolutions are about what I call “functioning up”. For one to function up, you need to get serious, sensible, and self-ish.

What do I mean by function up? Dr. Bowen believed individuals weren’t actually broken, but that they functioned “as is” they were broken. After all, individuals don’t start out as dysfunctional. What Dr. Bowen observed was over time, some individuals would lower their functioning and or develop symptoms. This resulted from the emotional forces of the family and the multigenerational process amount other things. This could eventually lead to a serious impairment like schizophrenia. The entire family system could become “functionally” helpless, thinking that only doctors and experts could help them. Bowen observed that families could help themselves, given the proper support, and begin to function up.

Individuals function along a continuum

We all function better or worse in many areas of life. The overall goal is to work on functioning better. Especially in relationships, since that affects so many areas of life. A resolution is really a declaration that I want to function better, or “function up” in a particular area. I believe the systems concept of functioning is a useful way to think about resolutions.

How I function implies that I have a range of functioning from worse to better. So I have should have room to improve! I’m not stuck where I am. This is where being sensible comes in. Am I being objective about my current level of functioning? How realistic am I about where I want my functioning to be? Is this an important area of my overall functioning? Do understand how I can improve my functioning?

(It’s beyond this post, but I encourage you to read about SMART goals and leading indicators. These concepts are very useful when setting goals.)

Self-ish functioning is the only functioning

A direct idea from systems thinking is that I can only change the part I play in my systems. I can only work on my functioning. If I change my functioning the system can change, but that is NOT the point. It is very important to remember to NOT work my functioning so somebody else changes. People don’t change unless they want to or decide, for themselves, to change. I can’t fool the system by pretending to change myself while trying to manipulate the system.

So the focus is on SELF. My resolution is to change MY functioning because I want to be different for ME. It’s self-ish. A good kind, an effective kind, of self-ish. When I work on myself, because I want to be a different me, I’m much more likely to stick with the effort it’s going to take to follow through on my resolution.

This is serious work

When I say serious, I really mean that one needs conviction. This is also an idea from systems thinking. If one is really working to be different, then the system will notice. Often the system will push back. One has to make choices about where to spend their time and efforts in order to affect change in themself. The system may challenge this. If I don’t have conviction, if I’m not serious, about what how I want to change, then I’ll give up. With resolutions, less is more, but it has to be a “determined” less. One resolution that you really have conviction for gives you the best chance for success. You can always add more later!

Resolutions are a way of defining self in an area that one wants to improve in. Defining self is something to do all the time, but January is better than never! 🙂

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this video on Bowen Theory in Everyday Life



You say you want a resolution!

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You say you want a resolution

Forgive the takeoff on the Beatles song. You now have had a couple of weeks with your 2024 resolutions.

How is it going? Are you changing your world?

I’m going to suggest that a systems perspective could help with making and sticking with your resolutions. The reason for this is that I believe emotion process is the foundation of most behaviour. And emotional process has a lot to do with level of differentiation and defining self. Using the principles of defining self could help with achieving one’s resolutions.

Resolutions should be about defining self

Defining self starts with how I think about something – how factual and objective am I? How realistic am I? Am I pretending or hoping to be something I’m not? What do I believe about a topic? Where did I get those beliefs from? Do I truly believe them?

In order to accomplish something, you might have to give something else up. How much conviction do you have on this? Who or what could persuade you to change your mind?

One does not change a genuine conviction just to avoid conflict or rejection. It’s not changed to get approval from others. It’s not MADE to get approval from others either. So who are you doing this resolution for? Yourself alone.

You don’t have to justify this resolution to anyone. A principle of defining self is that you just DO what you have conviction for. It’s not about convincing anyone that you are right or justified in doing it. You don’t need a reason that works for others, only one for yourself. You are doing the resolution for yourself based on a thoughtful process that depends a conviction for what you want to do.

Your conviction superpower

Conviction is very important in this process. You are going to come up against emotional pressure to forgo your resolution. You will have to decide which option to choose – stay the course or divert. The brain works on a simple principle of the circuits that fire the most, win the decision. Your conviction circuits have to fire more than the give-up circuits for you to stick by your resolution. You need the emotional “umph” behind the rational thinking to counter the emotional force pushing you to divert from the resolution. It’s a battle of emotions.

If a resolution represents a significant change in your behavior, then you will most likely get push-back from some folks. They will want you to change back or lighten up and not to be too resolute about it all. Especially if others see your change as creating a difference or change in your relationship with them. Others can perceive a change in the time together, what you do together, or how you think about things as a threat to the relationship which they won’t like. Your conviction to stay the course is important. You don’t have to convince them of anything. Let them think what they will. You just stay the course.

Connection is as important as conviction

Defining self is not about doing your own thing and ignoring others. Being differentiated means I can stay connected to others while also holding on to self. It’s not one or the other. Staying connected means one is able to be to present and accounted for in another person’s life. You both know what is going with each other. You can and you are talking about things you are interested in and that are meaningful to you.

For example, let’s say that Pat wants to cut back on his drinking. After reading some of the latest research and talking with people he respects, he’s going to limit himself to two drinks per month. Pat watches sports with friends at a pub several times a month. Drinking has been a regular part of the evening. While Pat is nervous about his friends’ reactions, he has decided not to make a big deal about his resolution. He just has to live his conviction. So he goes to the sports night and has soda and lime. At first, his buddies really tease him about it. They try to get him to drink by buying him drinks. During the second outing, after a few drinks, one guy tells Pat that “you’re not better than us, just because you’re a tee-totaller”. Pat responds “I could agree more”. He doesn’t make any remarks that could come across of trying to change their minds. But he also doesn’t have a drink or two just to appease his friends.

Don’t tell, just do

His partner, Chirs, is another matter. Chris, at first, pushed back quite a bit. Chris thought that if Pat didn’t drink, then Chris couldn’t either. Pat offered maybe Chris should drink a bit more to make up the difference. And that Pat could be the designated driver. Pat was thoughtful about making any comments that could be perceived as “I’m better, or more responsible than you”. He explained to Chris that this was a choice that Pat came to after some research and much thought. And who knows, maybe he will change back at some point. “Think of this as an experiment for now,” said Pat.

Support the conviction with facts

The time Pat spent doing some research and thinking about this helped him build the fact base to support his conviction. This is important. Ideas that come from an impulse that aren’t thought through most likely won’t lead to a conviction that will hold up. Impulse convictions, an oxymoron, will evaporate under the emotional pressure to change back. Reflecting on objective information that supports your resolution helps you stay motivated during challenges.

It’s interesting that resolute and resolution have the same root. Defining self is about becoming more resolute in a belief such that it becomes a conviction that one wants to live by. One does it for themselves, by themselves. It becomes part of how they want to be in the world.

How much conviction have you put into any resolutions you might have?

Instead of good luck, I’ll wish you clear thinking and good effort!

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.



Giving Tree

The Giving Tree Revisited

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The Giving Tree revisited

For those of us that celebrate Christmas, there is a tradition of giving gifts. A children’s book about giving called The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein has been a popular gift over the years. But it has a mixed message about giving.

The story begins with a young boy who enjoys spending time with the tree, climbing its branches, and eating its apples. As the boy grows older, he asks the tree for various things – apples to sell, branches to build a house, and eventually the trunk to make a boat. The tree, out of love for the boy, selflessly gives until it is reduced to a stump. In the end, the boy returns to the tree as an old man, and the tree, now just a stump, offers itself as a place for the old man to sit and rest.

To give or not to give, that is the question

The story explores themes of selflessness, love, and the nature of giving. But it could also be a story about fusion, under and over functioning and immaturity.
From a systems point of view, what is an appropriate level of “giving”? When is doing for other what they could do for themself appropriate? When does overfunctioning become dysfunctional for both parties?

In the story, the time together seems to be one of mutual enjoyment. The boy climbing in branches and spending time with the Tree is an enjoyable time for both.
And taking an apple or two is a natural level of sharing. When someone comes to visit, it’s appropriate to offer them some food. But would it be appropriate for someone to come to your house to take most of your food so they could save themselves money? Giving your kids a “care package” can be appropriate. It depends on what is called “reality needs.”

Reality or anxiety

Reality needs are those situations when someone, based on specific circumstances, really needs some extra help. Somebody getting sick, for example. Or having an unexpected event, like an accident. In these situations, helping is not inappropriate. But like other situations, follow the anxiety. If one is helping out of higher anxiety or feeling sorry for the other person, then this could be less appropriate. Supose your quits their job because “the boss is a jerk” and now is out of money and needs some help. How much do you bail them out. How do you trust the adult child is capable and will get things figured out? The greater the anxiety, the greater the chances that one is “over” helpful in order to soothe their own anxiety. This help could rob the other person of the opportunity to master their own situation.

I believe parents need to provide, protect, prepare, and partner for their children at different stages of their lives. Infants and toddlers need to be provided for. As kids get older, protection is key, as they can provide more for themselves. At an older age, parents need to education and prepare children for being adult. Eventually, children should be self-sufficient and a parent can be a partner or peer in an adult to adult relationship.

But our multi-generation processes set us up with a level of chronic anxiety that can lead to an anxious over envolvement with a child. The parent impedes the child’s mastery of life skills. The parent does for the child what they could do for themselves. They give too much time, money, and life focus to the child, preventing the child from becoming more independent. It sends a message to the child that the parent doesn’t think the child is capable of handling things.

Money doesn’t grow on trees or parents

The Giving Tree has the Tree appear to have unconditional love and selfless giving for the child. This allows the child to be selfish. The child harvests all the apples for their own profit. The child cuts down branches to get free wood to build a house. Eventually, just for pleasure, the child builds a boat from the trunk of the tree, leaving only a stump.

How does this child learn to be self sufficient with the tree just giving and giving? The apples are gone and won’t come back with the branches cut off. And the branches won’t regrow with the trunk cut down. There is no sustainability in the relationship. There is only impingement. And the Tree played an active part in the process.

A healthy relationship doesn’t impinge (unwillingly) on either party, especially unsustainably. Helping a person who has the flu or covid might impinge on another but it is sustainable – it’s a short while and it’s based on reality needs. Housing, feeding, and taking care of someone indefinitely is very different. Repeatedly giving money to someone because you feel sorry for them and don’t know what else they’ll do could be dysfunctional. The specific circumstances need to be considered.

Who’s giving to whom

Unconditional helping can just be an expression of unconditional chronic anxiety. It could be an expression of getting rid of the discomfort one has when someone else is having a hard time. In these situations, the giving is for the giver more than the receiver. Within reason, hard times help a person grow. Hard times happen and each of us needs to learn how to adapt and cope. Unconditional love in the form of rescuing impedes that learning. Giving out of anxiety can be a selfish act.

I think a better ending to the Giving Tree would have the boy and the Tree in a more differentiated relationship. They could always listen to the other without judging them or trying to change the other. They would always enjoy the other’s company. The tree would shelter the boy under its branches if needed sometimes. It would share some apples. The boy could prune a diseased or broken branch when needed. They could share their hopes, dreams, and fears with other. And by sharing their thinking, be a resource to each other.

Give for the right reasons

This time of year lets one examine the emotions that driving their impulse to give. Is giving a thoughtful process of what one can afford and what the other might like. Have you even gotten a gift that the other person liked, so they assumed you would too?  Giving can be driven by guilt, the desire to be appreciated ,or to look good. Or it can be based on principles and thoughtfulness. Being more differentiated in any relationship can be a gift that keeps on giving.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Comments are welcome:

This post was inspired by this article:  The Giving Tree

Read more about Bowen Theory here




Radical Acceptance and Bowen Theory

Radical Acceptance and Bowen Theory

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Radical acceptance and Bowen theory

A family system perspective can make all the difference in adopting radical acceptance of a situation. For many people, the shift from an individual model perspective to a family emotional systems perspective is a radical thing to accept. But the core of radical acceptance theory is understanding and acknowledging “what is”. What Dr. Bowen observed, understood and acknowledged was that families operate as an emotional unit.  The system is “what is”.

Radical acceptance works

To the degree that Bowen theory and radical acceptance work for clients means they are describing similar processes. I think radical acceptance sees the individual mountain tops while Bowen Theory sees the mountain range. The mountains are connected.

Non-judgemental acceptance of reality

Accepting reality in a non-judgmental way can be hard. Especially if one’s perspective is cause and effect, blame and victim. A system perspective removes cause and effect, blaming, and the idea of victim and perpetrator. There are “symptoms” that emerge in the functioning of a system. But to see substance use as a multi-generation process that emerged with this level of functioning is radically different. It is also easy to be less judgemental and more accepting (understanding) of the situation us a system perspective.

Accept emotions as information

Accepting one’s feelings is part of radical acceptance. Emotions just are. A feeling is information. Accepting that one is feeling a particular emotion can be useful. Asking system-oriented questions can be helpful. How it came about, what increases or decreases the intensity, and when and with whom it arises are all ways to usefully “accept” the emotion and “deal” with it.

Radical control

Letting go of trying to control is another component of radical acceptance. There is good news and bad news for control and systems. The bad news is that it’s impossible to control an emotional system unless one uses force. This is not recommended! The good news is that I am a part of the system and I can work on controlling myself. This will affect the system, mostly in predictable ways. But the radical thing to accept here is that I am controlling myself for myself and NOT to change others. You can’t cheat a system. It will radically push back! Focus on self is a key system idea.

Radical acceptance isn’t radical approval

As I have written in other posts, acceptance isn’t approval or agreement. Accepting that it is raining doesn’t mean you have to approve of the rain or agree with any aspect of the rain. But if one doesn’t accept that it is rainy, then they will get wet. It’s no one’s fault, really. It’s just what happens with rain if you try to deny its existence. Getting mad isn’t hard on the rain, it’s only hard on you. You don’t have to like the rain, just don’t get mad and blame it for anything.

Radical acceptance of defining self

Let’s continue with the rain analogy. I accept that it’s raining. I don’t like it. But rain “happens”. So the question is, how do I want to show up? My immature self would pout and whine about the weather. My mature self says: “Your call – what do you want to do?” So I decide what I’m willing to do and not willing to do and get on with my day.

Defining self is similar. I have to develop my beliefs and convictions about how I want to be in specific situations. This can take time. Then I have to lean into living those beliefs with conviction. I’m not “right” and I don’t have “the truth”. I simply, radically, have what I believe and how I want to live by that belief.

It’s a radical idea to believe that I’m the product of a multigenerational process that creates a level of sensitivity, in me, to what others think of me. It’s a radical shift to accept that rather than operate based on what others think I should feel, think and do, I can operate based on what I believe is right for me.

It is a lot to accept that I play a part in my system and that my part is the only part I can change. It’s a lot to accept that cause and effect is a less useful way to think about how we function. Or to think about how one functions instead of how one is broken or sick.

Maybe the most radical acceptance is accepting a system perspective on human functioning. And the personal freedom and responsibility that comes with that.

Thanks you for your interest in family systems.

send comments to

For a good summary of radical acceptance theory, just ask ChatGPT: “describe the key aspects of radical acceptance theory”

For a good read on Radical Acceptance Theory, see Radical Acceptance Theory


Emotional relief of forgiveness

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The emotional relief of forgiveness

It’s hard to forgive a wrongdoing. But there is a way to approach forgiveness that can be helpful to your well-being.

Research and interventions show the benefits of forgiving for the individual doing the forgiving. This makes sense, since forgiving help to reduce negative emotions. One approach is based on a REACH model that involves completing a workbook over several hours.

The workbook asks the individual to describe the event and the associated feelings. Then they answer many questions to qualify the level of negative feelings related to events. The workbook has the following sections.

  • Section one uses literary quotes to explore the individual’s motivation to forgive.
  • Section two defines what forgiveness is and explores the benefits of forgiving and the impact of rumination and worry about the event.
  • Section three has the individual recall the hurt but then look at the situation more objectively and from the other person’s perspective.
  • The fourth section has the individual work on being empathetic and or sympathetic towards the other person.
  • Section five guides the individual to develop a sense of gratitude for forgiveness and an altruistic attitude towards others.
  • The last section strives to help the individual maintain the emotional peace that comes with forgiveness.

The research is clear that holding a grudge and holding on to and experiencing the negative emotions related to not forgiving are hard on an individual. Being angry at a person after they have “wronged” you is like twisting the arrow after it has hit you. It only hurts YOU more. This helps the other person hurt you more, ironically.

A systems approach to forgiveness

There are several ideas in the steps above that are consistent with a systems approach to forgiveness. Trying to be more objective about any situation is always helpful. Dr. Bowen defined differentiation as the ability to distinguish subjective, feeling-type thinking from more objective, rational-type thinking. The cognitive effort to think and write about a sequence of events, as if one were a reporter, can help an individual be more objective.

Exercises throughout the workbook support the person to be thoughtful. The reading and writing involved can reduce the emotionality involved. By writing about their feelings versus feeling the feelings, one can be more objective about the situation. Talking about feelings and emotions can be useful to gaining a better understanding of the event. For example, asking where, when, with whom, what, and how feelings arose are good questions to explore. Why questions are not. These can lead to a more narrow cause-and-effect type of thinking. Instead of why, one can explore how things came to be such that the event in question took place.

Trying to think about the situation from the other person’s perspective can help one be more understanding and thus forgiving. But this can be hard unless one has a different, more neutral perspective. This is where a systems approach can make a difference.

A systems perspective is more understanding

One thing that the REACH method doesn’t appear to do is use a system’s perspective. Moving from a cause and effect, perpetrator – victim perspective, to a systems perspective is a dramatic shift. A systems perspective can provide a more objective, more complete understanding of the situation. Most things don’t just happen without a series of events involving multiple players, leading up to the event. Each person has their entire family system and multi-generational processes as part of how they came to be. Most of us are NOT fully differentiated, so we are reactive to our emotional systems. We all experience stressors and have perceived threats that make us more reactive. These contribute to one behaving poorly.

Forgiveness is for you

Forgiving someone could be called “forgo-ness”. I think forgiving means one will decide to let go of blaming and seeking revenge. Getting even is a reactive response that can do one more harm. This is because it is NOT an objective rational response. So if forgiving someone means you will let go of this negative emotional energy, and the time and resources involved, then you are doing yourself good. The forgiveness is for you.

Forgiveness is good for you in another way. By definition, a systems perspective means I play some part in any situation. But, I do not think of this as finding fault or blaming the victim. It’s just how a systems perspective works, and it usually makes complete sense. For example, let’s say an individual didn’t get snow tires put on early enough and they hit my car. There was an unexpected inch of snow on the roads that day. And, I left work later than usual and because of something with my partner, I was in a hurry. Because of the other driver’s tires, they slide through a stop sign and hit me. There are a lot of things involve with the accident. My part was I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Forgiving myself for my part is useful for me.

What Forgiveness is NOT

Let’s continue with the example. There were consequences in the form of damages to both cars. So whatever the other driver’s reasons are, they have to pay the consequences. But consequences is not about “getting even”. I can understand how it happened. I should see the part I played – my timing and my driving speed put me in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result I put myself exactly where the other drive could hit me. A couple of seconds either way and I wouldn’t have gotten hit. I went above the speed limit as well, which affected when I got there.

An impartial observer watching all this via a drone in the sky could conclude that both drivers contributed to this. Everyone might understand how it happened. But no one has to agree that either driver was right or wrong. No one has to be happy that it happened, or okay with it. They could have many emotions at the moment and afterwards. They should have some emotions, because this is how individual learn to change their behaviour.

What Acceptance is not

So “accepting” that an accident happened, and understanding my part doesn’t mean that I’m okay with what the other driver did, or what I did, or with what happened. There were consequences that have to be dealt with. Accepting helps me focus on how do I want to show up in the moment and afterwards. How can I get through this with the least negative impact on me? How can I get on with what is really important to me?

Acceptance would help me learn about what I might do differently next time. (I am not trying to blame the victim here!) For example, the biggest lesson could be that I need to drive slower in bad weather so I can stop faster. I need to be extra alert at intersections. It might even mean that I should avoid driving in the first snowstorm of the season. Without the radical acceptance that asks what part might I have played, I might not learn important lessons. Including the lesson that forgiveness is for me.

Working on my level differentiation by trying to hold on to a systems perspective has helped me be less blaming and more understanding. By managing myself better, I am better able to forgive myself and others. I forgive myself for not being more differentiated than I am. However, I also understand the consequences that come with not acting as maturely as I can.


Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

This post was inspired by The Well

The REACH workbook can be found here: REACH

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Listen to this video on Marital Conflict

cutoff or estrangement is a key concept in Bowen Theory

Why bridge cutoff?

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Why bridge cutoff?

Very difficult relationships can lead one to ask why bridge cutoff. Karl Pillemer discusses this in-depth in his book Fault Lines. This post borrows ideas from that book. His work is based on extensive interviews and research. In my opinion, he adds a lot of practical thinking to the theory of cutoff.

In Bowen theory, emotional cutoff is a process that occurs between generations. It is a particular type of emotional distance and was so significant that Dr. Bowen made it one of the eight concepts in the theory. It would be impossible to talk about cutoff without discussing other concepts of the theory. Differentiation of self is another core concept and is fundamental to bridging cutoff.

Cutoff has a cost

It is important to remember that cutoff has personal and system-level impacts. One could think of it as a loss of a limb. No matter how one recovers, the body is always compensating for the loss. I think emotional cutoff is worse because it’s not as final. There is constant uncertainty about the relationship. But the cost isn’t just for the individuals involved in the relationship. Often all the other family members, for generations, get caught up in the cutoff as well.

However, sometimes efforts to bridge cutoff are just not worth it. If the relationship puts a person at risk, for example. Bridging cutoff with someone who has a severe substance use issue, is doing illegal activity, or is physically violent would be examples. Each person has to decide for themselves how much effort they want to make.

Bridging can bring benefits

It is very important to remember that an individual bridging cutoff is doing it for themselves. This is part of one defining self. How do they want to be in the relationship? How important is this to them? Are they really ready to make the effort? A half-hearted effort, being done based on what others think and say, could backfire.

The idea of “accepting” the other person, or “accepting what is” comes up in this work. Accepting does not mean agreement. One can accept (it’s more than understand) that the other person is different, but they don’t have to agree that the other is right or that what they are doing is okay. Acceptance means that one doesn’t try to change the other or expect the other to change. This approach might limit the circumstances for when the two might meet. For example, I won’t engage with you if you are intoxicated. But I could meet for a coffee if you are sober.

Acceptance doesn’t mean I’m okay with the situation or that I like it. When it is raining, I don’t have to like it. I’m certainly not going to change the weather. So I accept it is raining and I decide how I’m going to be. Am I going to go out, and if I do, what will I wear?

Avoiding Regrets

Many cutoffs result from arguments and individuals just not making some effort to connect again. Maybe one’s thinking has an aspect of “I would like to” or “maybe I should” around the relationship. If so, then it would seem that there will be regret later on if the cutoff isn’t bridged. One can ask themselves if the other person died today would they regret not having figured out how to connect?i

Get a family, get resources

When one isolates from their family, they have lost “a family”. Family get-togethers and holidays are lost to the individual. One can end up losing shared, meaningful experiences like births, graduations, weddings, and funerals.

Family members can be great resources. From cooking advice, to vacation ideas, to how to deal with kids, and so many other aspects of life. And it’s not just the individual that loses out. Their whole family could lose out. I’ve shared ideas with my nephews about careers, for example. If I had stayed cut off from my sisters, this would have never happened.

Get a lifetime of experiences

Staying connected with family over decades creates a lifetime of shared experiences. Experience enriches one’s life. It enriches the lives of everyone in the system, possibly for generations. I think of experiences that I would never have had if I hadn’t worked at connecting with and staying connected with family. My family members definitely enriched my life.

Defining self is key

The most important long-term benefit to bridging cut-off is that one gets to work on defining self in a challenging relationship. I learned a lot about myself as I worked through the cut-off I had with my family. This was about me looking at my part in the relationship and working on my part. As I did that, the relationships became more enjoyable. I stopped trying to change others. I got better at just listening and simply sharing my thoughts. My sisters’ IQ has increased over the years :-). In fact, I came to appreciate how intelligent and thoughtful they really always had been.

My situation was more of a drifting apart and not as challenging as it might be for others. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether they want to do the work for themselves. The effort was more than worth it for me.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Please send comments or questions to

Here is a longer video by the author Karl Pillemer: Fault Lines video.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Listen to this video from Family Matters:  handling cutoff

Calming relationships

Calming Effect of Relationships

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The calming effect of relationships

During COVID, my wife and I, like many people, went for a daily walk in our neighbourhood. Over time, we would see the same people and say hi to them. It was a pleasant experience to have even a stranger smile and say hello. Of course, I wondered what the biological significance of this reaction could be. I decided that my body was getting “it’s safe here” signals from other bodies.

It’s not a giant evolutionary leap to come to that conclusion. We can instantly (within milliseconds) assess whether the incoming sights and sounds are a threat. Smiling faces would signal “non-threat” and even “more safety,” depending on the situation.

Calming touch signals safety

In a recent paper, researchers described the calming effect of touch on humans. The authors propose that a soothing, gentle touch is calming because it signals social safety. Two pathways in the brain support the effect. One is a bottom-up “no threat here,” and the other is a top-down reward “this is nice” pathway. (I am simplifying this.). But as any pet owner would know, this touching process can also occur with pets.

Almost 100 years ago, Pavlov and Gantt noticed the soothing effects of a dog handler petting their dogs. It was so pronounced they called it the “effect of person.” This same thing goes on with adults soothing children. When parents soothe children, they send a powerful message: “You are safe now.”

Triangles can be calming

This is more evidence that families operate as emotional units. My emotional system is picking up safe (or not safe) signals from others in my family. This has a direct effect on my physiology and emotional regulation. Triangles operate on this principle. For example, Pat and Chris disagree on something. The tension rises, and the “it’s safe here” signals go down. Later, Chris reaches out to Tony and Tony calmly listens and offers support. Tony signals, “It’s safe here.” Unfortunately, only Chris might calm down, while Tony gets less calm. Tony’s experience is that Chris is upset and gets a not-so-safe signal from Chris.  Tony will often then work to reassure Chris so they can BOTH be calm. Notice, however, that the relationship between Pat and Chris hasn’t been made safe again. This is part of the problem with triangles.

What signals are you sending

It would seem that learning how to radiate “it’s safe here” could be very useful. I think a well-differentiated person would do that automatically. Differences in opinions do not threaten a well-differentiated person. They don’t think (or feel) that they must make everything okay for others. Nor do they expect others to make everything okay for them. They can be calm and neutral. This signals “safety” to those around them.

Having a partner or good friend with whom I have good emotional contact is like having a “safe space” to go to. It’s calming. It’s healthy. And not having this means one doesn’t get that calming influence, which isn’t healthy.

The simple act of smiling and saying hello, or please and thank you, is one way to send out safety signals. You are more likely to get safety signals back, which can have a calming effect on you as well.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Send comments to:

Read the research article referenced above Calming Effects of Touch

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Handling conflict

Handling Conflict

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What does systems thinking say about handling conflict?

(Handling conflict is a big topic, but hopefully, there is an idea or two here that you, the reader, find useful.)

Most of us avoid conflict for the wrong reasons. We perceive or “feel” that it’s going to be bad for us. A situation feels uncomfortable often because of what think may happen versus what is actually happening at the moment. Conflict threatens us, not because of the conflict itself, but because of what it might represent. The idea of conflict can mean different things to different people. We have different stories or beliefs about what conflict means, what we should or shouldn’t do around conflict, and how much we should avoid it. I think it’s useful to unpack some thinking about conflict, as this can help one handle conflict better.

Conflict is disagreement. Disagreement is not conflict.

At one end of the continuum, conflict can mean any kind of disagreement. A couple’s beliefs might “conflict” leading to arguments, for example. At the other end of this continuum, there is physical or emotional abuse that can signal genuine danger. Having an argument or “fighting” (non-physical) is often thought of as conflict. The simplest idea about conflict is that two people disagree. But not all disagreements represent conflict!

I disagree with someone simply because I have a different opinion. You like chocolate ice cream, I like vanilla. But I could also disagree with you because I misunderstood you. Or I have the wrong information; I thought you liked chocolate but in fact you like vanilla. The chocolate versus vanilla disagreement is what I call the “content” of the disagreement. It’s not actually important. What matters is the emotional process related to how one perceives the implications of the content. What assumptions or stories does one have about the content?

The two levels of disagreement

Disagreements can have two levels or components. One is the “content”, or the topic of the conversation. The other is the emotional process based on the perceptions one has about the content. These perceptions are often what we think disagreement means to the relationship. For example, spending money on eating out. In this example, one partner might be worried about money but doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s a source of worry for both of them and they have argued intensely about it before. One partner might think that “going out” is important to the relationship. Not going out can mean that the relationship could be in trouble. Or, one might be exhausted from work but feel guilty about not wanting to go.

In all these cases, someone wants to avoid “conflict”, they want to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing with the other, so they go along with what the other wants. Notice that it’s not about the dinner, it’s about what the dinner represents. It’s a perceived threat of being rejected or not approved of, or a weakening of the relationship. So one or both “go along” even though they don’t really want to, to avoid having an argument, fighting, or “being in conflict.” The trouble with this approach to handling conflict is that it does not resolve the underlying issue. In addition, it can mislead the other person, or it can get in the way of having good emotional contact.

Holding onto self allows one to agree to disagree

How do you resolve a disagreement? You get agreement! Therefore most arguments are about trying to change others or others trying to change me. It’s about trying to “agree” on one thing when there are two things. Somebody has to give up their “thing”. People do this in families to avoid disagreements and have “good relationships”. Don’t rock the boat, learn to get along, and keep the peace are all about being in agreement and avoiding the discomfort of a disturbed relationship.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s okay to agree to disagree. Partners do NOT have to agree on everything. But each person should be very clear on what is important to them. Going back to the example, I might be tired and just want to order takeout. But I feel guilty about how much I’ve been working. I have to own both. I have to decide what I’m willing to do and not willing to do. If I’m less reactive, I might offer alternatives. I might suggest we go out next week, and I’ll take it easier on work. Or let’s go out, but not too late or too far away. Perhaps I really have an issue with working too much and my partner and I need to discuss this. Can I “own” this? Can I be willing to discuss it and work on it?

It’s about the self, not the content.

In this example, maybe my partner has emotional process creating some reactivity in them. They think spending time together, getting attention, and being appreciated means the relationship and they as a person are “safe” and “good”. It means, to them, that I care about them more than I care about work and my career. Or maybe they are just bored because they are missing something in their life. They want me to fix this by taking them out. These are things that need to be discussed and worked out. But again, it’s not about the dinner, it’s about what it represents on an emotional level.

Follow the reactivity. Your reactivity.

Not everything has to have all kinds of emotions linked to it. But if reactivity is rising, then you can be sure that there is some emotional process operating. Reactivity is information. It’s a signal. It’s useful! Take a moment to notice and observe what’s coming up for you. What is the feeling? Can you notice what’s going on in your body? Is there a “story” you are telling yourself at the moment? (There is.) This is an opportunity to get more clear about how you are operating in the relationship. This is an opportunity to learn how to avoid conflict.

You aren’t right. But you can be different.

I don’t have to be right. Most things that we disagree on are opinions and not truths. Chocolate is not better than vanilla. There are opinions about this, but they are just opinions using a certain perspective. Most things are just as simple as ice cream. I can have my opinion, but I’m not right. It’s just my opinion. If I’m thoughtful, I’ll be open to new information and might even change my opinion. But I can’t do this if I’m too worried about being wrong, or what others will think. My level of reactivity will be an indicator of how much I am threatened, thus it’s my job to figure out what the threat is. Because it’s my threat and it’s for me to manage. (I’m not talking about real physical or emotional threats of harm.)

A New York Times article on handling conflict inspired this post. But I think the shortcoming of the article is that it misses the emotional process in relationships. It’s the emotional process that usually creates conflict, especially in relationships. This is because the emotional process creates the reactivity, which creates the conflict. The article has techniques for how to ask questions and how to listen. These are useful, if the reactivity is manageable, and they might help one manage reactivity. But if the reactivity from the emotional process is too high, the techniques fall away.

Managing conflict is about managing self.

The other component to managing conflict is about holding on to self. Individuals will often get reactivity if they feel they are being forced to go along with the other. So one way to avoid conflict is to just always go along with others! Sometimes this is fine. But it will lead to longer-term issues. So one has to recognize their tendency to go along (or push others to go along with them) and then work on defining self better. The techniques of how to have a conversation are useful, but only if one is clear about “self” and what they are willing to do or not willing to do.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you feel a “conflict” is starting to happen.

1. Am I getting reactive?  This is an important part of handling conflict.
2. What perceived threats or issues are coming up for me?
3. What does this perceived threat mean to me? To the relationship?
4. What is my pattern of behaviour? Fight, Flight, Agree?
5. Am I going along just to keep the peace?
6. Am I trying to be right? What happens if I’m not right?
7. Am I afraid of being wrong? What does it mean if I’m “wrong”
8. Do I think something is unfair? What does it mean if things aren’t “fair”
9. How is my reactivity contributing to the situation?

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

The Globe and Mail article that inspired this post is here: Handling Conflict.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Listen to this video with Dan Papero on marital conflict