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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

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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


Well Run Company Stands Out

The Well Differentiated Company

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The well-differentiated company

Organizations often have a personality that reflects what the leadership decides is important. But just like with individuals, what a company says it’ll do and what it actually does can be very different. That difference has a lot to do with the level of differentiation of the individual. I believe the same is true for a company. This is not referring to a marketing niche that is “differentiated” from competitors. I’m talking about the ability to be emotionally separate but connected to others or the level of differentiation of self. How might a well-differentiated leader impact the behaviour of their company? In many important ways, and the ways influence each other. The list below is NOT in any order of importance.

Facts versus fiction

One characteristic of well-differentiated individuals is that they recognize subjective, feeling-based thoughts as different from objective, fact-based thoughts. They know when they are ‘making up a story’ about something and that it is just that, a story, an opinion. Understanding all the facts of a situation, whether they are positive or negative, is important to them. These leaders encourage their teams to share good news and bad news.

Conviction versus consensus

A differentiated leader will seek consensus, but they will not go against their principles and convictions. Less differentiated people will go along with others to avoid conflict or rejection. They want everyone to get along, to agree and will do things they don’t want to, rather than fight or flee. This going along to be approved of or accepted, or to avoid discomfort, leads to employees not saying what they really think. Leaders can create a culture where being a bad “team player” or “rocking the boat” is to be avoided. A good leader does not decide based on “feelings” or being liked. Decisions are based on facts and what would be best for the company, even if leads to discomfort. But it can’t just stop there.

Systems thinking versus cause-and-effect thinking

More differentiated leaders will think from a systems perspective in order to solve problems. These leaders understand problems are a symptom of the function of the system. The system is the company and all its stakeholders and society at large. They seek to understand how an issue comes about versus just “why”. This way they can get to the root cause of this issue, the system’s functioning, versus a quick fix. They understand THEY are part of the system, so THEY are part of the problem. Seeking to understand their part of the problem and addressing their part is important to them. They recognize that they, and the company, are a part of a system. This means they and the company are interdependent with stakeholders, society, and the planet.


Differentiated leaders do not impinge on other people. They are clear about what they will or won’t do while allowing others to make a choice. They are then fully responsible for their choices. For example, laying people off with minimum compensation is not being accountable for the full costs of labour. The company is offloading that cost, impinging on individuals, families, and society. There are ways to reduce a workforce that minimizes this kind of impingement.


The impingement of the planet by companies has been going on for decades. This impingement means that a company is not paying the full cost of the resources it uses. This is not responsible nor sustainable. It impinges on individuals as local pollution and on everyone as climate change. Note that these companies are a symptom of the poor functioning of the larger system that we are all a part of. A well-differentiated leader would work to reduce all non-sustainable practices.


A leader’s role is to support the viability of the organization. Profit is part of being viable. The trouble with current profits is the cost of running the business isn’t reflecting the true costs of running the business. There are costs in the form of “impingement benefits” that are paid by employees, vendors, customers, and society. One example is sustainably grown organic food versus food that is produced in the lowest cost manner. Organic foods cost more because more of the full costs are being accounted for. There are fewer “impingement benefits” in organic foods. An organic food producer needs to make a profit and should be able to make a profit. Profits are like insurance and support the continuity of the business.

Differentiation in the culture

Differentiated leaders would promote a culture where individuals are emotionally separate, but connected. Leaders would encourage employees to say what they really think. These leaders know that open communication is important for the success of the company.

A company that has open communication, is fact-based, non-impinging, sustainable, and principle-based, uses a systems perspective and is profitable. That’s a company worth working for.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Read about B Corps here.

Listen to this podcast on family dynamics at work.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

climage change

Managing Climate Anxiety

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Managing Climate Anxiety

How would a Bowen theory perspective help one handle climate anxiety? Does a systems perspective have something special to offer? I believe it does. While climate anxiety provides a timely context, I believe a systems perspective can help with any anxiety.

Humankind’s impact on the planet is real and noticeable. It is affecting millions of people. The impact is also emotional, as it is a threat on many levels. For example, in British Columbia, we have dealt with fires, floods, heat, and air quality. We have had acute events that have had real and lasting effects.

Anxiety is Anxiety

Climate anxiety is like other forms of anxiety. It will elevate our stress response, leading to an increased chronic stress level on the body. But there are also immediate stressors like excess heat and poor air quality. Or worrying about a friend under a fire order evacuation.

Anxiety can be of two kinds. Immediate, actual threats and perceived, imaged threats. Perceived or imagined threats have not occurred, but one thinks they might occur. So, the first thing that systems thinking tells us is to get clear on the facts of the situation. What threats are real? When chance does a threat have of occurring? When might the threat occur? How bad might it be?

For example, in North Vancouver, our household has experienced a power outage about once yearly for several years. So that threat is pretty real. They happen most often in the winter because of the snow. But the outage is rarely over eight hours. So, the threat is real, but after looking at the facts, the impact is quite limited. Hmm. It’s not the power going out that is the threat; it’s the impact that it could have on me. No lights, internet, TV, heat, or refrigeration. The event versus the impact is an important distinction. It’s the impact that I’m threatened by. If there’s no impact, there’s no threat. So, how can I mitigate the impact?

Control the impact, not the event.

We often relate anxiety to our sense of control or perceived lack of control. I can’t control if or when a power outage event will occur. However, I can limit the impact by controlling my planning and response. We now have a plan based on experience. For example, we have a bunch of LED lights that will last for hours and know not to use hot water or the refrigerator (much). We have a gas BBQ we can cook on if needed. Having a PLAN is something we can CONTROL. Managing our expectations to limit the scope or degree of the threat is also in our control because we know these events occur, and we know they won’t last long. Now, they are just an inconvenience because we have a plan. There is no value in being upset by it. Nature doesn’t “care”. The tree that fell down just doesn’t care about our power. Nature just is, and events just happen. But there is value in learning from the event and updating our plans.

What is my part?

A systems perspective means that I will look at my part of the situation and take responsibility for my role in the situation. In this example, the actual issue isn’t the power going off; it’s the impact on my life. So, what part do I play in the impact the power outage has? Do I take the time to plan? Do I do anything to mitigate the impact? I can’t control nature, but I have response-ability (an ability to respond) for my actions when something happens. The part I play in this example includes the fact that I live in North Vancouver. I could choose to move to an area with fewer power outages. But would it be worth it? I could get a pretty fancy generator and hook that up for the price of a move! But should I spend that much money? This takes us to another aspect of dealing with climate anxiety.

Define self, based on principles.

Defining oneself is an important aspect of systems thinking. Here, I have to decide what I’m willing to do or not to do regarding climate change. This would be based on my principles and convictions. Developing one’s principles and having conviction for them requires careful thinking over a period of time. I get to decide how I want to show up as a responsible person. But whatever I decide is merely my choice. It’s not “the truth,” but it’s my truth. Based on this, I can then decide how much time, money, and effort I’m willing to invest in climate change-related actions, for example. This is all one can do.

One challenge with this approach is that it won’t fully resolve the issue. Sometimes, we have to choose from a collection of bad choices. But it is all one can do. I don’t have to like it, but I have to accept the fact that I’m doing what I can. This can help me move forward. I’ve done what I believe is appropriate and responsible. There is no point worrying more about it. The “functional” thing to do is move on to other things in my life. Emotional maturity often requires one to accept “what is” and decide how one wants to show up given “what is.” Accepting doesn’t mean approving of it or liking it. It means I’m dealing with it the best I know how.

Beware of the quick fix.

Anxiety can drive a quick-fix mentality. There is a good reason for this. In our not-too-distant past, if we were anxious, there would have been good reason to deal with it. Your brain wants you to do anything to eliminate the discomfort of anxiety, which means you have removed the threat that caused the anxiety. In nature, dealing with threats is a great way to stay alive. But now, this evolutionary trait could lead to quick-fix thinking or maladaptive soothing. Just deciding to ignore anything to do with climate change isn’t the solution, either. For example, an anxiety-driven decision to buy an electric car that you can’t afford isn’t the solution.

Climate Convictions

Like other important issues, a mature individual works to define self in the realm of climate change. This is defining self in one’s relationship with the planet and society. It might cause one to define self in relationships as well. This is where one’s beliefs and convictions will be important. Do you have enough conviction to hold your ground when someone important to you challenges your position? Notice that I said, “Hold your ground, ” not “Change the other person’s thinking.” Can you remain calm enough to listen to someone disagreeing with your thinking? Can you resist trying to change their thinking so you feel less anxious or threatened by them?

I’ve been thinking about climate issues since the 1970s. I think about what is a responsible and sustainable way to live. I recognize my privileged position and work to do what I can. I’m clear about how much I can do and can’t do. I believe systems thinking will help us solve our problems. Thus, one thing I can do is to put more systems thinking out into the world. What will you be willing to do based on your principles and convictions?

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

The Globe and Mail article that inspired this post is here: Climate Change Stress.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.


Approach Orienting

Origins of Emotional Programming.

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The previous post discussed the calming cycle theory by Welch and Ludwig. Welch’s study demonstrated that an adaptive emotional connection could be regained in premature infants and mothers. They could measure this based on an automatic calming effect on both. But how does this happen naturally?

Effect of person: emotional programming?

An insight into how individuals learn came from prior research on dog behaviour. Pavlov and Gantt studied animal behaviour using dogs, and part of this work involved making dogs anxious. However, they noticed that if the dog’s handler petted it, its heart rate would slow. After repeated petting sessions, a dog would become conditioned to have a lower heart rate in the handler’s presence. This calming effect was so distinct that they called it the “effect of person.” This was not a top-down cognitive process, so what was going on? Is this a type of emotional programming?

Autonomic nervous system – the non-conscious self.

We have two major parts of our nervous system – the “central” and “autonomic” nervous systems. The central includes our brain and spinal cord, which includes our “thinking” cognitive parts. The autonomic is more “autonomous”; it includes the sympathetic, fight-or-flight system and the parasympathetic, rest-and-repair nervous systems. The effect-of-person behaviour is an example of autonomic nervous system learning based on conditioning. It’s a “when that happens, automatically do this” non-conscious kind of learning.

Dual track perception

We operate with a two-track stimulus-response system. One track is at the autonomic level. It’s the fast track, allowing us to react quickly without conscious or thinking. A good example of this is our orienting response. You automatically turn your head toward a noise you weren’t expecting. THEN, you will think about it. This thinking part is the second, slower track. This is where you would recognize the noise or not and decide whether to ignore it. But even this orienting response can be “conditioned.” Once you learn that a noise is safe to ignore, you will not orient to it; you won’t even register it. It will be a stimulus, but you have learned to ignore it and have a different orienting response. Researchers understood the importance of this. Humans could “learn” behaviours at this level. Is this part of our emotional programming?

Pregnancy: the start of emotional programming?

Infant development is a highly interactive process. The fetus is in a reciprocal process with the mother, not just passively growing. The researchers believe that mothers and infants condition each other during pregnancy to co-regulate and co-calm. The infant becomes conditioned to the sound and smell of the mother. Importantly, it sets up an automatic “approach” orienting response to the smell, sound, and touch (warmth) of the mother. The mother and infant have both learned to approach each other automatically, which is the best way to ensure the survival of the newborn.

The premature experiment

With all the advances in medicine, we have been in a period where premature babies survive. What Dr. Welch noticed, however, is that some premies and moms do well, and others don’t. She wanted to understand what was happening, as not doing well had negative consequences for both mother and child. What could explain this difference in neonatal intensive care units where all infants and moms had access to tremendous care? As it turns out, it was the quality of the mother-infant emotional connection.

Disrupting the normal attachment process

Mothers and infants naturally “attach” to each other during a normal healthy, full-term pregnancy and post-natal mothering period. This is a natural process seen in other animals. This comes from the mother and infant’s adaptive “approach-orienting” behaviour. Disrupting this process can cause an “avoidance” maladaptive pattern. This can cause a “difficult” infant and a stressed, upset mother. The “attachment” becomes “non-attachment.” Welch developed the Family Nurture Intervention program to re-condition the mother’s and infant’s autonomic nervous systems. (It works – see the previous post.) This intervention conditions an approach-type attachment, restoring the adaptive approach-orienting learning. This is what the Calming Cycle Theory is about.

Autonomic socioemotional reflex ASR – emotional programming?

The researchers propose that a specific type of conditioning occurs in this situation. They have named this the Autonomic Socioemotional Reflex (ASR). It is conditional co-learning and co-regulation that take place at the level of the autonomic nervous system. It’s “socio” because it’s social; it involves relationships, starting with the mother and infant. It is emotional because it involves behavioural responses. (Emotion in nature is about behaviours, not feelings.) It’s a reflex as the response happens automatically, without conscious intervention.

The developmental process leads to greater autonomy.

The ASR leaves little room for autonomous behaviour. It starts in the womb and continues after birth. I believe it is an aspect of our emotional programming: the programming that influences how we behave in relationships. Over time, it supports the infant to be more self-regulating and more autonomous at a physiological level. As the child grows up, this foundation helps them control their emotions and behaviour more. The calming “effect of person” is one of the first things we learn; it is always with us. The challenge is learning not to be dependent on others but to be able to calm ourselves. Enjoying the calming “effect of person” is a good thing. Being governed by it is not.

The development path of humans goes from fused and dependent to autonomous and interdependent. We see this on the physical level first. Our emotional and psychological levels follow. We become more separate but, ideally, connected. It’s good that we can calm each other. But we need to also be able to calm ourselves. We can enjoy our contact with others, but without being governed by it. This is the process of becoming more differentiated.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

You can find out more about the Family Nurture Intervention here.

You can learn more about the autonomic socioemotional reflex here

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Calming Cycle Theory

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Calming Cycle Theory and Emotional Programming

New research has found important linkages between mothers at the autonomic nervous system level. This is part of our nervous system that is outside of our awareness. The linkage process starts in the womb and continues after birth. This process affects the mother’s well-being and the infant’s development. It’s also systems theory in action.
The medical process has had increasing success in helping premature infants survive and develop. This has also created a natural experiment to study what happens when the normal gestation period is interrupted. Some mothers and infants do well, and others do not. Dr. Welch and others have wanted to understand what leads to different outcomes. Welch and Ludwig propose two ideas to explain the difference in outcomes. These are a) the Calming Cycle Theory and b) the Autonomic Socioenotional Reflex (ASR). I’ll discuss the ASR in the next blog post.

Calming Cycle as Co-Regulation

The authors believe that a process of co-regulation begins in the womb, which forms an emotional connection between mother and infant. It is a co-regulation connection that promotes behaviours that have been thought to be innate mothering and infant behaviours. If the normal process occurs, as with full-term births, the mother and infant have learned to orient and approach each other automatically. This “innate” behaviour fosters caring, feeding, and a calming response in both the mother and infant.
Over the years, Welch has observed that premature birth can disrupt this approach-orienting behaviour. This can create an avoidance non-orienting behaviour, leading to distress in both the mother and infant. It then becomes a negative cycle for both the mother and child. However, Welch observed the approach-orienting behaviours of mothers and infants and developed an intervention to help correct avoidance-orienting situations. This is based on what she calls the Calming Cycle Theory and Family Nurture Intervention.

Calming Cycle Re-Programmed – Family Nurture Intervention

The Family Nurture Intervention comprises sessions where the mother and infant ( as soon as possible ) have skin-to-skin contact, soothing talk, eye contact, and odour contact. Over a period of repeated one-hour sessions, the mother and child’s physiology calms down. Over time, the calming effect is automatic for both. This strengthens the approach-orienting behaviour and creates an adaptive emotional connection between the two. It also sets up the infant for socialization with others.
In 2016, Welch proposed that “this early introduction of repeated mother-infant sensory interactions is expected to alleviate maternal depression, anxiety, and guilt as well as lessen infant aversion to contact that stems from both separation/isolation and the many stressful medical procedures performed as life-saving interventions.”
Follow-up research based on this approach has found:
  • significantly improved FNI maternal caregiving behaviors at 36 weeks (Hane et al., 2015)
  •  decreased maternal depressive and anxiety symptoms in infants assessed at 4 months of age (Welch, Hal- perin et al., 2016).
  •  FNI infants showed highly significant increases in EEG power and decreases in EEG coherence at term age in frontal areas associated with socio-emotional outcomes that predict improved out- comes (Hane et al., 2015; Myers et al., 2015; Welch, Myers et al., 2014).
  •  FNI infants also showed significantly improved social relatedness, attention, neurodevelopment, and decreased risk for autism spectrum disorder at 18 months corrected age (Welch et al., 2015, from Welch 2017)

Emotional Connection – the start of Emotional Programming?

Welch and Ludwig propose a new construct, called emotional connection, to help explain their observations and results. Dr. Bowen used the term “emotional contact” when he wrote about relationships. He wrote that when two individuals could freely share their thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams, they had good emotional contact. Fear of rejection and criticism often prevents people from experiencing emotional contact.  Welch wrote the following about establishing a good emotional connection:
“When the mother keeps this wide array of feelings to herself, there is an emotional barrier between her and her infant. Many mothers are reluctant to allow open expression of their emotions for fear the strong negative content will negatively impact the infant. However, when the prosody of strong emotion is conveyed by the mother in her native language (i.e. the language spoken to her by her mother as a baby), we often observe a positive response; most commonly, the infants become alert and make eye contact..”
By keeping a “wide array of feelings to” oneself, individuals, like the mothers in Welch’s interventions, prevent the experience of good emotional contact. This is an aspect of not being able to define oneself in relationships, which can lead to negative outcomes. I think a healthy development process establishes good emotional connections, which lay the foundation for good emotional contact later in life.
Calming Cycle Theory is based on the concept of co-conditioning at the level of the autonomic nervous system.  The authors propose the idea of an Autonomic Socioemotional Reflex to explain this.  This is the topic of the next post.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

You can find out more about the Family Nurture Intervention here.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

(1) I took the above quotes from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.


The three body problem

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How does a Bowen theory perspective inform the “terror of threes?”

Three major nuclear powers instead of two. Apparently, this is a big problem. Why? According to physics, “the three-body problem” is almost impossible to solve. Thus the title of the New York Times article “The Terror of Threes.” But people aren’t planets, so could a human systems model provide some insight? I think it can.

The idea presented in the article is that if two people know they can obliterate each other, then they both know they absolutely can’t win a fight. In fact, they both know they will lose completely. So they work things out; it’s better than the obliteration option. But if a third party joins, what might happen? Could two obliterate one? Could one survive if the other two go at it? That’s what folks are worried about. Why do they think this is such a difficult problem? What does system thinking offer?

The three-body problem.

In many areas of nature, physics in particular, going from two to three creates great complexity because of the nature of systems. Predicting the final configuration when adding a third body is the “problem” because there is no formula to predict the outcome. For example, will three planets collapse into two, and the resulting two collapse into one? Will all three separate, resulting in no system? Or will the three develop into a stable configuration? The “problem” in going from two to three is that three *reciprocal* processes must be optimized simultaneously while constantly influencing each other. This three-body problem idea is being applied to nuclear powers. It concerns individuals since they can’t predict any outcomes. But that doesn’t mean one (or more) doesn’t exist.

People aren’t planets, and planets don’t have emotions.

What perspective does emotional systems thinking provide on this issue? Dr. Bowen posited that any two-person system is inherently unstable (e.g. person A and B), in that it is human nature to bring in a third person. For example, should tension arise between A and B, either could bring in C.  The third person, C, can help lower the tension, which is why A, B, or both will automatically seek C. Usually, this involves getting C to be an ally so that A or B feels less anxious. It is a natural process because the body knows it feels better. It occurs with other species as well. This A – B – C configuration is called a triangle in Bowen theory.

*One of the important concepts in this theoretical system has to do with “triangles.” I did not include it with the other concepts because it has more to do with therapy than the basic theory. The basic building block of any emotional system is the “triangle.” When emotional tension in a two-person system exceeds a certain level, it “triangles” a third person, permitting the tension to shift about within the triangle. (1)

Triangles are everywhere

In the realm of politics, triangles are going on all the time. Diplomats are experts at navigating multiple interlocking triangles. Triangles allow stress and reactivity to be managed better if the “third parties” can stay more neutral and less reactive (like a good diplomat). This can open up the lines of communication. It can help the two in disagreement to work things out.

Bowen wrote:  Any two in the original triangle can add a new triangle. An emotional system is composed of a series of interlocking triangles. The emotional tension system can shift to any of the old pre-established circuits. It is a clinical fact that the original two-person tension system will resolve itself automatically when contained within a three-person system, one of whom remains emotionally detached. This will be discussed under “detriangling the triangle.”

The NY Times article references this process as well:

‘Separately, each expert argued that keeping an uneasy peace among nuclear foes required them to talk, share concerns and take modest steps at confidence-building. “We have to keep the lines of communication open and interacting,” Dr. Deaile said.’

Differentiated leadership makes a difference.

Besides open communication, the other systems ideas to consider are a) leaders’ level of differentiation, b) their level of stressors, and c) influential triangles.

We can think of the level of differentiation in two ways. One is how well I can stick to my principles despite pressure from others to change while not impinging on others. Non-impingement is a key factor. Impinging or forcing my will on others is a sign of lower levels of differentiation and/or higher stress levels.

The second way to think about differentiation is how well I can distinguish feelings and subjective thinking from rational, objective thinking. Facts from fiction, opinions from the truth. A leader surrounded by “yes” individuals will have difficulty getting facts and thinking objectively.

A more differentiated leader recognizes subjectivity and reactivity, has less of it, and manages it better. It is easier to speak truth to power and to provide accurate feedback to a more differentiated leader. Less differentiated leaders don’t want to hear bad news and create a team of less differentiated people that will be afraid to express bad news. This can create a harmful and dysfunctional feedback system.

It’s already an N-body problem.

All leaders are susceptible to criticism and praise from other parties. Most leaders seek allies so they aren’t going it alone, so their power is secure. Triangles are everywhere. Depending on the level of differentiation, important triangles would have a greater influence on these leaders. For example, China’s influence on North Korea.

A less differentiated leader will make decisions influenced by anxiety and reactivity rather than by thoughtful, principled conviction. They will be far more likely to impinge on others to get their own way. This behaviour is predictable.

Level of differentiation is key.

So the problem with arms proliferation is also a problem of the leaders’ level of differentiation. The least differentiated are the most impinging and reactive. People don’t change unless they have to. While this can come from wanting to change, usually, the pain of continuing has to be greater than the pain of change. This applies to leaders. It’s the basis of nuclear deterrence.

Individuals can get better at thinking systems. Engaging in open dialogue, managing reactivity, defining self in a non-impinging manner, working to think less subjectively, and recognizing our interdependence are things anyone can work on. We could even elect leaders that exhibit these qualities. Now there’s an idea!

Predicting the configuration of a three-body system of leaders is challenging; however, a higher level of differentiation in leaders improves the chances of achieving a stable configuration.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

You can find the New York Times article here.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

(1) I took the above quotes from Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.


un-intelligence is head in the sand thinking


By emotional system

How does intelligence get stupid?

How is it that politicians can get involved with affairs, misuse funds, and promote false information? Many politicians have degrees from prestigious universities, so they clearly are NOT unintelligent or uneducated. In today’s world of conspiracy theories, alternate facts, and outright lies, how can one think about this process from a systems perspective?

Level of differentiation and anxiety are two key concepts in Bowen theory. One quality of the level of differentiation is how well an individual can distinguish feelings and subjective thinking from facts and objective thinking. For example, let’s say that I get home late from work. I walk in and say, “Hi, I’m home!” and my partner says, “Well, it’s about time, your late.”

My “intelligence” will cognitively process the sounds I hear and allow me to recognize the words and the tone of voice.

My “emotion” will process the sounds as well, and I will actually pick the emotion that goes best with this situation. This is where the “stupid” can start. I can start to make up a story that my partner is mad and that this is unfair. But we’ll come back to this.

Chat GPT defines intelligence as “intelligence encompasses a wide range of cognitive abilities, including logical reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, memory, perception, and learning.”

Emotion impacts intelligence.

Intelligence is not independent of emotions. Part of processing information is evaluating whether something is a threat, an opportunity, or to be ignored. This requires value judgements related to fear and desire, bad and good, which becomes the behaviour of avoiding or approaching.  Even fruit flies will “decide” to forego reproductive opportunities for food opportunities if they are hungry enough. Otherwise, reproductive opportunities are always their first choice.

Our emotional state does impact our cognitive processing. For example, we can forget what we want to say when we get angry or scared. Or we get very frustrated and then blurt out something we later regret. Stress can degrade one’s ability to make decisions. In terms of human behavior, it makes no sense to speak about intelligence as independent from emotions. Based on observing interactions between parents and schizophrenic children, Dr. Bowen realized how much one’s thinking can be impacted by one’s emotional state. He noticed the impact of anxiety specifically.

Systems thinking: what, where, when, who.

Another aspect of thinking from a systems perspective is that it is more useful to ask what, when, where, who and how something comes about instead of asking why it came about. Asking why implies a direct cause-and-effect relationship, and systems don’t work like this.

When someone starts to believe ideas that many would define as false or incorrect, it can be useful to seek to understand the process of how this came about. Asking how, when, with what information, and with whom does this happen and be useful. How is it that a person doesn’t recognize false information? Or maybe how is it that a person doesn’t seem to care that the information is false? Perhaps there is something else going on.

Sometimes it’s just getting bad information. It appears to be factual, and it’s very hard to determine if it’s false or not. For example, reading something in a major newspaper that was misreported. How would one know?

But often, it’s just an impaired ability to process information in a neutral manner. The information is accessed as something threatening, and our fear circuits light up. In addition, we have built-in biases that can distort our information processing. Recency bias leads one (non-consciously) to favour information that is more recent in our experience. Loss aversion has us overcompensate for the risk of losing something. Frequency bias is when we start to believe something is a fact because we have heard it so often.  All of these have good evolutionary roots, which is why we evolved to have these processes. But anxiety, in particular, has a bigger impact on our thinking processes.

Anxious mind is “losing my mind”

When a person experiences anxiety, their thoughts and mental processes may be affected in the following ways:

1. Distorted thinking: Anxiety can lead to distorted thinking patterns, such as catastrophizing (exaggerating the likelihood and severity of negative outcomes), overgeneralizing (making broad negative assumptions based on limited experiences), or engaging in black-and-white thinking (seeing situations as all good or all bad). These distorted thoughts can contribute to increased worry and difficulty in problem-solving.

2. Selective attention: Anxiety can lead to a heightened focus on potential threats or negative stimuli. This selective attention may cause individuals to overlook positive or neutral information, leading to a biased perception of reality. They may have difficulty concentrating on tasks or absorbing new information due to their preoccupation with anxious thoughts.

3. Impaired decision-making: Anxiety can interfere with decision-making processes. Anxious individuals may become overly cautious or avoidant, fearing negative outcomes or making mistakes. They may struggle to weigh the pros and cons objectively, as their anxiety can magnify potential risks and uncertainties.

4. Memory problems: Anxiety can impact memory functioning. High anxiety levels can impair working memory, which is responsible for holding and manipulating information in the short term. It can also lead to difficulty recalling information accurately or remembering details due to heightened arousal and distraction.

5. Reduced cognitive flexibility: Anxiety can limit cognitive flexibility, making it challenging to shift attention, perspectives, or strategies. Anxious individuals may become stuck in rigid thinking patterns, finding it difficult to generate alternative solutions or adapt to changing circumstances.

6. Negative self-talk: Anxiety often involves negative self-talk, self-doubt, and self-criticism. This negative internal dialogue can further exacerbate anxious thoughts and hinder confidence and problem-solving abilities.

Differentiation makes a difference.

A person with a higher level of differentiation can differentiate factual information from feelings and subjective thoughts. Dr. Bowen defined being differentiated as having this type of thinking ability. He observed how much emotions negatively impacted an individual’s rational, objective thinking. This tended to increase their reactivity while impairing their ability to think about alternative solutions and different perspectives. Non-factual things can become more believable when anxiety is increased.

If we run this process backwards, irrational thinking in society results from rational thinking impaired by emotions, usually from some perceived threat. For example, the threat can be that an individual might have to change their beliefs, perspective, and behaviour if they think more objectively about a situation. Loss of employment, the world as they see it, status, and financial opportunity can be the underlying threat. It’s easier to blame something (cause and effect thinking) than to think systems about societal issues. An individual has to choose one of two paths. One is to blame other events or people for the situation and take on a helpless position. This avoids the other path, the often unpleasant reality of having to change, work hard, and accept one’s part in an unwanted situation.

For example, suppose a student is worried a lot about their friendships and their future. They don’t prioritize school work like they should to get good markets. So they start doing poorly in school, and they blame the teacher because all teachers are out to “get” them. They never get the “breaks” other students get. This approach, in the short term, is much less work than accepting that the student may need to work hard and face up to their fears, including that of not doing as well as others, in order to get decent grades.

Emotional logic versus intelligence.

Anxious, frustrated individuals want their discomfort to go away. They want a quick fix. They want to blame something so they are not at fault. This allows them to avoid the hard work of change that one is often faced with. One’s rational logic gets overridden by emotional logic. Emotionally, if I can blame something else so I don’t have to do a lot of work and face the risk of failure, I save a lot of time and energy. Emotional logic explains this. But rationally, it doesn’t hold up most of the time. The person has no ability to move forward from this perspective.

A systems perspective would work to understand the facts of the situation and what part I might be playing in the situation. My part might be that I happen to be in a certain place at a certain time. So if “this is what is,” a systems perspective asks, “How do I want to be? How am I going to show up,” given this situation? The answer may be very challenging. Like, stop using substances forever, find a job, and face my insecurities. Or, I have cancer; how will I lean into this and do the best I can? ( Note: It’s not about fairness. There is no checkbox on my birth certificate for “Life will be fair.”)

IQ + EQ = DQ?

I believe the level of differentiation, for fun, let’s call it DQ for Differentiation Quotient, would be a better measure of overall intelligence than emotional or IQ intelligence. DQ would indicate a person’s ability to function in a rational, objective manner, even in a highly emotional situation. They would fully utilize emotions as information without having them distort their ability to think objectively. They would act according to their principles and not cave in and go along with or reactively go against the group’s desires.

The good thing is that we can all work on our level of “DQ” and get smarter at being in relationships. And whatever level of IQ we do have will hold up under emotional pressure. I think this is pretty smart!

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on Bowen Theory on selflessness here.


Humans Dogs and Emotional Systems

By emotional system

What can Parents Learn from Obedience Training?

Humans domesticated dogs around 15,000 years ago. More recently, we have trained dogs to recognize the emotional state of individuals with PTSD in order to help those individuals cope with aspects of PTSD. Researchers have also shown dogs to recognize human facial expressions, especially those involving the area around the eyes. Dogs also show signs of grieving because of the loss of their owner. They have been known to lose their appetite, get lethargic, or become more “clingy” by seeking more attention. It seems clear to me that an emotional level connection can exist between humans and dogs. Like other humans, they provide attention and acceptance, and they have a calming influence.

A recent article in the Washington Post about training dogs caught my attention. It asked an important question. What kind of owners make for better trainers? The answer to this is directly useful for thinking about training children. Yes, children go through obedience training, whether or not we want to call it that. What is also similar is that one can’t solely rely on intellectual ability in both situations.


Trainees agreed that listening to their dogs is a key skill in being a talented trainer. But of course, dogs don’t actually talk, so you have to observe and pay attention to your dog. This means you can’t be reactive. Calmness, paying attention, and observing helps one get the other’s attention and pick up on what’s going on with the other, be it a dog or a child.

Be Flexible

Suppose you want to get your dog to be comfortable moving through a tunnel. One approach would be to go first and hope they follow. You could try to pull them through, or you could try to push them through. Or you could toss a favourite toy through and have them simply chase it. Notice that you would have had to first pay attention to your dog to learn what its favourite toy was. The seeking behaviour of following the toy “actually inhibits anxiety circuits in the brain. So leading with “carrots” to engage in seeking is a good approach.

Parenting Style … for dogs

Dogs appear to respond best to what is called an authoritative parenting style. This style, adaptive from Attachment studies, is firm but warm and adaptive. What’s important is that the expectations are clear and are expected to be achieved. I think it is interesting that, like a good parent, a good owner has to define self in their relationship with their pet.

Another skill for an owner to build on is being attentive. It’s about noticing what might work better for the dog or not. Is the dog tired? Have you been training too long or too intensely? Are you pushing too hard to get a result because you want to feel better about your dog? Anxious-driven training will not be effective with dogs. And it’s not with kids, either.

Attention and Approval – a common emotional force

I think dogs (and cats even) and kids enjoy their owners’ attention and approval. Lack of this can underlie certain behavioural issues. What obedience lessons have taught us is that OWNERS have a lot to learn in order to be effective. It starts with paying calm attention and requires firmness and clear expectations. Sound a lot like “defining self.”

Perhaps we would all be better parents and partners with some obedience training.

Thank you for your interest in thinking systems.

Dave Galloway

If you want to learn about effective parenting, check out our conference on Parent Hope.

To learn more about Bowen Theory click here.

Ideas for this post were taken from this Washington Post article: How to train dogs better.

Wise Selfishness: a Systems Perspective

By Define self

Can one be selfishly wise?

Dr. Kerr has a phrase that is familiar to those in the Bowen community: “How does one be for self without being selfish and be for others without being selfless? ”

Most of us do not see selfishness as good behaviour. On the contrary, for a social species, it can threaten the group’s cohesion. Cooperative behaviour was required for groups of humans to survive, so being selfish could threaten the entire group.

We can misunderstand the concept of being more differentiated as being more selfish in the negative sense of the word selfish. However, we can also understand differentiation and selfISHness as being for self without being against or impinging on others.

ChatGPT defines selfishness as:

“Selfishness is the act of putting one’s interests, needs, and desires above those of others, without regard for their feelings or well-being. It often involves a lack of consideration or empathy for others and a focus on personal gain or achievement at the expense of others. Selfish behaviour can manifest in various ways, including hoarding resources, refusing to share or cooperate, manipulating others for personal gain, and disregarding the needs and feelings of others. Ultimately, selfishness can lead to conflicts and damage relationships with others.”

Notice that selfishness is based on emotion and relationships. Therefore, it is part of our relationship processes. The above definition also describes a lot of impinging on others as a quality of selfishness.

Wise selfishness is about balance.

I like to test ideas by going from one extreme to another along a continuum. For example, at one end of the continuum, I would do everything for others and nothing for myself. If this included eating, I would not be eating or eating poorly because I would be trying to feed everyone else. I would soon be so weak that I couldn’t help anyone. I would now be a burden on others. So let’s say I eat just enough to keep going, but otherwise, I ignore my needs. Eventually, I’ll wear out from tiredness or get sick, again becoming a burden on others. On the other end of the continuum, I would be completely selfish, putting my needs before others, sharing nothing, and always asking for or demanding things from others. Hmm… I wonder how long I would last in that group. So somewhere along this continuum, there is an appropriate balance of being for others and being for self.

When selfishness is out of balance.

How do things get out of balance and become unwise? From a family systems perspective, there are several influences to consider. These would include the number and intensity of stressors in one’s life, one’s and others’ level of differentiation, the situation’s significance, and the relationship’s significance. These things combine, and one can then believe they have to make a hard choice – be for others and go along or face potential conflict, rejection, and disapproval for being selfish. The other individual(s) could be acting in a more selfish manner, which pressures you to give up “self ” and comply with their requests or demands. The brain can work overtime to resolve the internal conflict of “I don’t want to go along” versus “I don’t want the consequences of not going along.” This is the fundamental dilemma – what I want versus what others want. The tendency to go along is high for a person who wants to avoid conflict, tension, or disapproval, especially in significant relationships. This is how things get out of balance. One person(s) is not fully mature and pressures others to follow their wishes. But the person who goes along is also acting less mature by complying and going along. This is where the concept of defining self comes in.

Defining self is wise selfishness.

Differentiation is too big of a topic to discuss in this post fully. But one way to think about defining self is being able to share what one will do and not do in a situation. It’s not about what is right or wrong or fair because these are too subjective. Each person has to decide how their responsible, mature self wants to be in any situation. They can ask themself, what would my non-anxious, confident, responsible self do? There are several key elements in defining the self. First, it is about self and not about others. In one sense, it is about what I will or won’t do from a mature perspective. For example, if my partner wants to go out for dinner, I could say I’m willing as long as I can get vegetarian. Otherwise, I’m not interested. This isn’t impinging on my partner – they have a choice where we go or even if we go. When defining self, I am making a personal choice based on my convictions and principles. I am not saying I’m right or better. I’m certainly not saying that the other(s) are wrong or less than me. My choice isn’t about fairness. It is simply my choice, period. In addition, I will bear the consequences of my choice. In this example, we might go to a steak house with limited vegetarian options. If I decide to go, I’ve made my choice of my own free will.

Choosing to be selfless.

Defining self is about making a choice based on my principles and convictions. It’s not about going along based on anxiety or some perceived threat. My principles can include being helpful to my family members or my community. I could make a choice to “go along” with helping a family member because it aligns with my principles. Thus, even though I’d rather not, I’m choosing to go along with a request. The key is that it was my choice based on my principles. It was NOT driven by anxiety and fear of what others would think or say. A good test can be whether I regret my decision. Or if I have any expectation that others will return the favour. No regret means no strings attached. After all, I freely chose to go along based on my principles.

Wise selfishness requires serious thinking about how one wants to show up in the world. It requires conviction about one’s beliefs and principles in order to overcome the perceived threats of conflict or rejection. It places no expectations on others. And it requires calm humbleness that arises from knowing one isn’t right or wrong; they are just defining self for themselves and willing to bear the consequences.

It’s difficult. But at least we get lots of opportunities to practice. And it is worth the effort.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

To learn more about Bowen Theory, click here.

To watch an interview on balancing care for self and others, click here