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perception of social threats activate social genonmic networks

Perceptions Matter

By Anxiety, emotional system

Perceptions matter – just ask your genes!

A newer field of study in biology is called social genomics. It is the study of how and when different genes are activated based on social interactions. On one level, it is very obvious that relationships affect our physiology. We can get anxious if someone is angry with us, which would show up as an increase in cortisol in our blood. But the study of social genomics goes much, much further and looks at all the genes that get activated. This provides clear evidence for a physiological mechanism of how lower levels of differentiation can negatively impact health. The same mechanism provides for how higher levels of differentiation can promote health and mitigate the effects of stress.

How does Social Genomics work?

Our DNA, our genes, are used for making proteins. We use proteins in chemical processes throughout the body. The process starts with the body making a copy of or transcribing a piece of DNA, and this copy is called RNA. When a gene is “expressed,” the body produces RNA molecules that are a copy of the section of DNA. Each bit of RNA is specific to the DNA or gene it is “expressed” from. Biologists can do analysis to determine which of these RNA molecules are around, and that tells them what genes are being transcribed. (The collection of RNA molecules is called the transcriptome).

So you take a group of individuals and expose them to a social threat, and then you measure all the bits of RNA that get produced. This tells you all the genes that just got activated, or more activated, by the social threat. The results are both amazing and important.

What has Social Genomics found?

This area of research has found two important and broad findings. They are how our inflammation and antiviral systems get turned up and down in response to social interactions, i.e. in relationships. These two systems are evolutionarily important. They are part of our natural defence against a) wounds and bacterial infections and b) viral inflections. Our inflammation system gets activated to promote healing and anti-bacterial defence. For example, when our ancestors were out hunting or fighting and got wounded. Our antiviral system, our immune system, is used to protect us from viruses, which often get transmitted from human to human. For example, in the winter, while in close quarters with our group (and not out hunting as much).

Fast forward to today, and your partner is angry with you. Your body believes this to be a physical threat – you could be wounded (not infected). So it cranks UP the inflammation response system and cranks DOWN the immune response. It turns one up and the other down to conserve bodily resources.

What’s wrong with a bit of inflammation if it helps us?

Inflammation responses and immune responses are “point in time” defence mechanisms. Like fire departments and hospitals, they are very useful when you need them, but you better not need them a lot. You definitely don’t want a fire truck parked outside your house all year! Yet repeated exposure to social threats activates the inflammation system, weakens the immune response, and keeps them chronically like this. This is not good. A house that has repeated fires is not a healthy house.

What is a social threat? It is what you think it is.

Social threats are things like conflicts (arguments), social rejection, social isolation, and loneliness. But it also includes one’s physical environment overall and not just family. For example, if one lives in a dangerous area and is always more vigilant when going out, these systems activate. In fact, just thinking that one is threatened can activate these processes. Analyzing one’s “transcriptome” would tell you if you were “walking on eggshells.” In fact, one doesn’t even have to have the subjective feeling of walking on eggshells, yet the body will react as if it was. The body knows.

Good emotional connections matter

What these social genomic studies have found is that we can do things to minimize the effects of social threats. First, all the things that help combat stress, like sleep, mindfulness, yoga, and exercise, are helpful. But healthy relationships are critical, as these can be the original source of the impact. Any relationship that *regularly* creates tension is not a healthy relationship. No relationships are not healthy, either. Studies have shown that isolation during COVID-19 had negative effects on immune system functioning, for example.

Thus, working on having even a few good emotional connections can counteract the negative effects of social threats. So the ideal goal is to minimize difficult relationships and maximize positive relationships. A measure of a healthy relationship is how much you can discuss meaningful topics with little worry about what the other person might think.

Defining self also matters

There is another very useful antidote to the negative effects of relationships that tie directly to defining self. Researchers have shown that individuals who derive happiness and satisfaction from meaningful, purposeful activities have much healthier systems than those who just pursue fun and pleasure. The effects of eudiamonic happiness (purpose) versus hedonic happiness (pleasure) are profound. So getting clear – defining self more – about what one believes in and has a conviction for and being able to lead a purposeful, meaningful life is very important. This is also the foundation for defining self more in relationships.

We evolved to be in relationships. We evolved to have positive and meaningful social connections, as it was key to our survival. This is why even perceived threats to our social world activate these systems. These systems provide a linkage between healthy relationship systems and healthy individuals. And vice versa. How you think about your relationships makes a difference.

Maybe, in the future, your counsellor will ask about your family diagram and your transcriptome.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on social genomics here.

This article summarizes this excellent review of social genomics and is here.

Expectations and Emotional Demands

By Define self

Emotional demands and expectations go together

For most organisms, including humans, the developmental trajectory involves an individual becoming more and more capable and responsible for taking care of their own needs. Maturation is associated with the ability to function independently. As a social species, humans needed to find a partner and have children in order to survive as an extended family unit. Single families would have had a very hard time surviving on their own. This creates the need and expectation that members of the group would care for each other. A mature understanding of this recognizes the benefits and costs of interdependence so the group can survive. An immature understanding of this has unrealistic expectations of others and makes demands of others. This is pretty clear when one is talking about physical needs like food, shelter and protection that protect our physical self.

We notice what’s expected of us

Being social species, we are wired to want to be “connected” and not be alone. We are wired to seek and notice attention and approval. We also pick up the indications from others when they have expectations of us or are in distress. Remember, evolutionarily, if the group leader was expecting something, you’d better be able to notice that if you didn’t want to get into trouble. And as a species, it just makes sense that those that noticed distress in others and attended to that were more likely to survive, thrive and pass on their genes. So caring for others is part of our evolutionary interdependency.

Learning to soothe discomfort

Emotional wellbeing falls along a continuum of discomfort to comfort. We are wired to notice discomfort so we can remove the source of the discomfort. Even before birth, the fetus is learning that the mother is soothing. Co-regulation of physiology to remove discomfort develops during pregnancy and continues after birth. Infants learn how to get their needs met and their discomfort soothed by their mother, father, and others. Over time children learn how others can do things for them that allow them to feel better physically and emotionally. But at the same time, the child should be learning how to soothe or regulate themselves. The goal is to develop a responsible self that can take care of oneself.

“A reasonably differentiated person is capable of genuine concern for others without expecting something in return, but the togetherness forces treat differentiation as selfish and hostile.”  Dr. Bowen (p. 495).

The responsible self does for self even if it’s hard, thankless, unpleasant, scary, boring, or whatever creates resistance. But the less responsible individuals don’t want to face these challenges, so they want and “expect” others to handle it for them. Most of us are not finished developing our responsible selves.

A responsible emotional self

Human relationships can be very soothing. They can help you feel less anxious and more safe and secure. You can depend on others and worry less about yourself. But it is not actually someone’s responsibility to make you feel better. Unfortunately, too many family systems fail to convey this idea to their children. It’s a multi-generation process of not conveying ideas about individual responsibility. In fact, many families convey the idea that you are expected to help others, no matter what, because “they are family.” There is so much that could be written about this, but I’ll jump to the main point. We have to learn to be responsible for our “emotional self” like we do for our physical self. Just as we learn to live independently physically, we need to develop emotional independence.

It’s a fact that emotional/social pain uses the same brain circuits as physical pain. Much substance use is related to individuals just trying to feel less emotional pain. Emotional discomfort is real. Wanting emotional discomfort soothed is valid. It’s just not others’ responsibility. In fact, it’s not their ability either. The best another might do is “soothe,” but this temporary fix doesn’t resolve the underlying issue – the need to learn how to be more emotionally self-sufficient. The need to be more differentiated.

Expectations are useful. Emotional demands are not.

One good thing about expectations is that they indicate how one thinks about the world and what others “owe” them. They can indicate what an individual really needs to work on in order to mature and become more differentiated. But this takes hard work and time. It would be so much easier if one would just meet our expectations so we could avoid the work. This is where emotional demands can come in – I can either demand, of myself, to work on myself, or I can demand from you to meet my needs for attention, approval, security, self-worth, etc. I’m faced with a choice, either I convince myself to live with the discomfort and work on myself, or I get YOU to solve my problem, i.e., fulfill my expectations for attention, approval, security, etc.

Expect to be differentiated

Expectations are often an impingement on others. They can represent an area where I’m borrowing self from others instead of relying on myself. It’s perfectly fine to make agreements about sharing responsibilities. That does set up an expectation that each will fulfill their part of the agreement. But what if other doesn’t live up to the agreement? What if they don’t live up to your expectations? Then it’s time to work on differentiation.

“A reasonably differentiated person is capable of genuine concern for others without expecting something in return, but the togetherness forces treat differentiation as selfish and hostile.” Dr. Bowen (p. 495).

What’s my part in missed expectations

When I get upset because I’m expecting more than I’m getting from someone, I think it’s time to reflect on where my expectation came from. Maybe I just “expected” that my partner would be more helpful in a certain area. Perhaps early in the relationship, this didn’t come up much, and it seemed to be just fine. But over time, it has become a real issue for me. I want to “blame” my partner because they aren’t “meeting my expectations.” First of all, they are my expectations, not theirs. I should recognize this. Second, have I ever really discussed the issue and gotten an agreement on this topic? Maybe what I want in this area is quite different than what they want – whose issue is that? This is where having clear principles and conviction for those principles is important. This is where defining self can come in. Personally, I believe that I’m allowed to want whatever I want, but nobody owes it to me. I can go for whatever I want, but the consequences are my own.

I don’t expect me to choose

The real issue is this: meeting expectations often makes somebody compromise to avoid conflict. I have to choose: work on myself, just give up the expectation, or risk conflict in the relationship. Without working on oneself, giving up is often pretending and results in some level of frustration or resentment. Often we don’t want to have to choose. We want our other *to* *fulfill* our expectations so we can avoid doing the work (just like our parents did actually). The child expects the parent to make things better, to make things okay, without any risk to the relationship. In fact, the child learned that this was the case. But most of us haven’t finished maturing in this area.

Interdependence not expectations

Interdependence recognizes the need for thoughtful cooperation and being responsible *to* each other but not *for* each other. Your success is not my responsibility. My success is not your responsibility. But we *can* agree to support each other on our separate journeys to be successful. I can be all for your success without having to compromise on my success.

I think this is best summed up by Dr. Bowen:

The differentiating force places emphasis on “I” in defining the foregoing characteristics. The “I position” defines principle and action in terms of “This is what I think or believe” and “This is what I will do or will not do,” without impinging one’s own values or beliefs on others. It is the “responsible I” which assumes responsibility for one’s own happiness and comfort, and it avoids thinking that tends to blame and hold others responsible for one’s own unhappiness or failures. The “responsible I” avoids the “irresponsible I” which makes demands on others with, “I want, or I deserve, or this is my right, my privilege”(p. 495).

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.

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



Systems thinking to move beyond blame

Change Your Paradigm and Move Beyond Blame

By Uncategorized

Blame is about cause and effect

When one is in pain or discomfort, it’s useful to understand what caused it. That’s how we can stop the cause and get back to normal. The body has lots of processes that identify a “cause” and puts it into action to get back into our normal state. If a bee stings us, we associate the bee with the sting and learn to avoid bees. We might even learn to associate bees with flowers and learn to be extra careful around flowers. This way of thinking, this paradigm, is cause and effect thinking. It can be very useful. But families are different.

Families are systems. Emotional systems.

There is a different way to think about families. That way is to think about a family as an emotional system. It’s a system because all the family members act and react to each other and influence each with their actions. It’s an emotional system because each family member’s emotions influence each other family member. The feedback loop, the influencing, is constantly operating. It’s what makes us a social species. For example, clients have spoken of “walking on eggshells” around the home. This is an example that the emotions of one or more individuals are influencing, and governing the behaviour of, the other family members.

Substance use is another example where the distress of one individual, the one using a substance, can lead to distress in other family members. The family members want the problem to go away. They want to find a cause to blame and then find a fix. So everyone can feel less distressed. And resolve the “problem”. This is natural and cause and effect thinking does work in other areas. But systems are different.

Problems are actually UFOs – unwanted functional outcomes in systems

IF, a system has parts that influence each other, THEN how the system functions, and its functional outcomes, are just a result of how the parts are working together. It takes years, perhaps generations, to produce outcomes in biological systems. If one part of a system isn’t functioning as we expected it to, then you look at how the parts are working together. If a tire’s tread is worn low on the outside edge, it’s not the tire’s fault. It could be a fault in the tire. It could be the alignment or the route taken every day. Maybe it’s the driver. If fact, ALL of these are contributing different amounts to the functioning of the car that produces the “problem” with the tire. The tire is just a symptom of the process of how the car functioning

Move beyond blame with systems thinking.

In systems, it can take a long time to produce a level of functioning that surfaces a problem. For example, relationships don’t really end with one event, nor does Substance use “just happen”. It takes the process of two teams playing a game to produce an MVP at the end of a game, and it takes an entire sports industry to create the game itself. Thinking about something from a systems perspective leads one to ask questions like how, where, when, how often, with whom, and how much in order to understand the process resulting in an outcome. The opioid crisis is a system-level issue. What kinds of things have to be in place, and what is the process that ends up with thousands of opioid deaths? It is complex and doesn’t have one quick fix. In fact, some quick fixes make things worse, especially over time.

I’m not to blame, but what is my part?

With a shift to systems thinking, family members can get curious about what part they might have played in any issue. They don’t blame themselves, because no one person is at fault. The premise with systems, especially emotional systems, is that everyone contributes something. So each individual can get curious about the part they have played because that is the ONLY part they can change.

Move beyond blame, not responsibility.

Because of the discomfort many “problems” cause, it can be very easy to want to blame something so it’s not one’s fault.   This often includes wanting a quick fix, to reduce one’s distress. But quick fixes can easily do more harm than good. And blaming just says “It’s not my problem, I’m not at fault”. It’s not responsible behaviour to go for a quick fix just to soothe one’s anxiety. This is where the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” comes into play. It’s certainly not effective behaviour to just go “it ain’t me”. A systems perspective holds that each family member is responsible for acting as maturely as they can. Each family member is responsible to others, but not for others.

It’s hard to think of issues in terms of systems. But it can bring down the reactivity and increase the level of productive thinking.

I’m not to blame. You’re not to blame. No one is to blame. But poor functioning does have consequences. We all have a part to play, apart we can address. We all have room to improve our own level of differentiation.

That’s a paradigm-level shift in thinking.

Dave Galloway

To understand more about family systems, check out Family Ties That Bind

Read more about Bowen Theory here

Emotional Suffering can be reduced

Emotional Pain and Suffering are Different

By Define self

Emotional pain does “hurt”.

There is a difference between pain and suffering, and sometimes individuals create more suffering than the initial pain warrants. Emotion pain literally hurts because it can fire the same brain areas that are activated for physical pain. This brain functioning shows the reality of emotional pain. This makes sense evolutionarily because physical pain came first, so the emotional parallel evolved to just use the same brain circuits.

Physical pain is a biological signal that something is damaging our physical wellbeing, the integrity of our physical self. Physical pain is real. It triggers nerve pain circuits and physiological responses and behaviours. The withdrawal from something hot or perceived to be dangerous is an example of the objective behavioural response. Likewise, emotional pain is a signal that something is damaged in our emotional wellbeing. How one feels about this after it occurs is where suffering comes in. It’s interesting to note that “withdrawal” is also a type of emotional response to emotional pain.

Emotional Suffering is a subjective experience.

Individuals define suffering in different ways, but they include the subjective feeling of pain or discomfort. People suffer from colds, disease, breakups, and hardships of all kinds. But suffering is different and separate from hardship. It’s secondary to an original discomfort, and it’s the result of how one perceives the discomfort. Muscle pain can result from an intense workout and a person could feel good about that. A relationship breakup could be a relief that something very challenging is over. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t any discomfort or challenge. Emotional pain is real, but it differs from the suffering that might follow.

Imagine being forced against your will to do physical labour for 6 hours a day for four years. Most people would “suffer” through this hardship. Now imagine that you are an Olympic athlete who loves the workouts, even if they are hard, and is excited about the challenge and the goal of winning a medal. What’s the difference? Perception.

Emotional pain happens. Then stories are created.

Emotional pain is the experience of some perceived threat or damage to our emotional self, the “sense” of who we are, and our psychological self. But then, like physical pain, we want to understand it, because want the pain to go away.

This is where suffering can start. We create a story about the meaning of the emotional pain. The story is inherently subjective. This story can easily be based on misunderstandings or misinformation. Suppose Chris insults Pat. Pat could make up a story about why this happened and create “meaning” about the event. For example, “Chris insulted me because I’m stupid, I’m different”. Now that story becomes the source of the suffering for Pat.

Don’t add insult to injury. Don’t add emotional suffering to emotional pain.

The insult above can’t create a true feeling of pain. Only the perception and the meaning we give it can. Unless you are up against a supervillain, the sound waves from speech can’t actually cause a pain sensation! A brain scan would show one’s pain circuits activating to the degree that they perceived it to be painful. Notice the word perceived.

Let’s say Jan stubbed their toe. It hurts a bit. Jan almost fell. But they don’t make up any stories about it. Maybe the fear of falling startled them. They have a fleeting thought to “watch my step” and maybe they cursed the uneven sidewalk. Then they forget about it. They have some pain, but not suffering. There was no story. One could make up the story that they are clumsy, need to be more careful and pay more attention. And why doesn’t “someone” fix the sidewalk? And get frustrated about the lack of concern people have. This subjective thinking, this story making, just adds suffering to the experience.

Emotional Pain happens. Emotional Suffering doesn’t have to.

How much do we get our emotional toes stubbed but then make up a story about what it means and add suffering to the pain? We subjectively perceive emotional pain, unlike physical pain, because there are no emotional pain nerve receptors. In our earlier example, Pat could easily make up the story that Chris is rude and forget about the insult and experience no suffering. A close friend of Chris could say, “Ouch! What’s up with you grouchy?” because they just made up a different story (something is going wrong with Chris). Again, no suffering, because of different perceptions about the event.

More differentiation, less emotional pain, less emotional suffering

One aspect of being more differentiated is the ability to recognize and differentiate subjective thinking from objective thinking. Stories from facts. Objective thinking is experienced as reporting on what one observed. For example, “Chris moved their lips into an arc shape” would be the objective observation of a smile. So, Pat, a co-worker, subjectively interprets Chris’ facial expression as a “smile”. We experience subjective thinking as “stories” with judgements, interpretations, and assignments of fault. In this example, Pat’s story could be “Chris is laughing at my mistake. I’m such an idiot.” This is a story, an interpretation and a judgement. But is there any objective truth in this story? Pat and Chris would have to discuss in order to find out. But the more Pat can recognize their own subjective thinking versus objective observations, the less likely they are to add suffering to pain.

I know a person who had constant headaches in their seventies. They lived fully and ignored the headaches. The headaches were an ongoing pain, but they chose to suffer less.

Fact versus Fiction. Differentiation in the Brain.

There are no perfect parents, partners, or children. There are no perfect families. Events happen. What stories do you make up, have you made up about your family? How objective are those stories? Working to differentiate the facts of an event separate from the stories about the event and the meaning created (the feelings, judgements, interpretations) trains the brain to be more differentiated. (This is one value of getting family history from multiple people. It can help to separate fact from fiction.) Thus, a more differentiated person works to understand the part they played in any situation. They learn from that. So then they can recognize how to not have it happen again. This does not negate feelings of regret about the past or anxiousness about the future. However, they don’t need to suffer based on subjective stories involving interpretation, judgement, and blame.

Chose to reduce emotional suffering.

Events happen. We create stories. Emotional pain happens, and we create feelings, judgements and interpretations. Work to separate the objective facts from the subjective opinions and stories. This can help one understand the difference between emotional pain and emotional suffering. And work to reduce emotional suffering. This is a benefit of working on being more differentiated in one’s thinking.

For an excellent review of pain circuits, see:

Read more about differentiation here:

Can defining self overcome languishing?

By Anxiety, Define self

Can defining self help with languishing?

What is languishing and how could defining self help overcome it? A 2021 New York Times article discussed the concept of languishing and suggested that it could be the dominant emotion of 2021. If Bowen Theory is accurate and if languishing is real, then understanding how systems thinking and defining self apply to languishing should be useful.

What is languishing?

Languishing differs from burnout or depression. It can be a feeling of being stuck and unmotivated. A kind of “there’s no point right now” versus “there’s no point at all, ever”. One has goals but can’t seem to get enough motivation to work on them. Languishing comes from having to deal with chronic stressors versus acute stressors. Early in the pandemic, there was heightened anxiety. But there were specific things to watch for and actions one could take to increase one’s safety. As we learned more about COVID-19, the understanding of what to monitor changed. And this has continued for two years. So there has been a changing and ongoing anxious vigilance without a logical end in sight. The drain of responding to this chronic stressor can lead to languishing. Energy is down, motivation is down, focus is down, and a sense of delight is down.

Languishing: low-grade discomfort seeks low-grade comfort.

Low levels of discomfort and motivation can lead to low-grade soothing behaviour. “Doom scrolling”, binge-watching TV, more drinking, and eating more comfort food are soothing behaviours. One important soother of anxiety is social interaction, but during the pandemic that’s been reduced, increasing the need for other soothing behaviours. In addition, the inability to get out has put more pressure on couples and families. Overall, there is a greater pressure to go along in order to prevent conflict and tension at home. There’s the pressure to behave in specific ways to combat the risk of getting and spreading the virus. All this can result in a lot of “giving up of self” in order to avoid the discomfort of the anxiety about getting sick or disapproval from others.

Defining self can help against languishing.

Defining self is getting clear about what one is willing to do and not willing to do in order to be a responsible individual. It shifts one’s focus and energy to self-directed goals and behaviours. It is the thinking that asks “how does this relationship work for me” versus “I need this relationship, what must I give to it”. During the pandemic, there have been more other focus and other-directed goals. Individuals have adapted whether or not they wanted to. This is because of anxiety from real and perceived threats. Individuals tried short-term, anxiety-reducing goals, like soda bread baking, but these don’t work after a while. This is because these were actually other-directed and or soothing type goals versus meaningful self-directed goals. Lowering anxiety is good, but it is not defining self. Systems thinking and defining self provides an individual with a different way to think about stressors.

Defining self understands this is what is.

It asks what do you want to do?

We have a bit of joke phrase in our house that is: “Whhaaat… do yyoooouuu want to do”. Meaning, that just decide and ask for what you want already!

Systems thinking suggests that languishing results from not managing chronic anxiousness and not being self-directed. Languishing is one outcome of a loss of self to others, combined with a chronic level of anxiety. So the antidote to this is to a) not lose self and b) work on managing anxiety. Losing self and defining self occurs in relationships. Managing anxiety is an individual effort, but is often related to relationships and stressors.

Manage Anxiety, Work on Goals, Connect with family

Anxiety affects how objectively one thinks about any situation. Thus, managing one’s anxiety is a great first step. Sleep, exercise and a balanced diet are the base to build on. Junk food and staying up late binge-watching are not! Setting goals for yourself that are important to you, no matter how small, is important. Do something that you want to do. This includes your goals for managing anxiety, which could include sleep hygiene, more exercise, meditation, and changes in diet.

Family members can be a great resource. Social interaction can be a great antidote to anxiety. More brains can help one think more clearly about an issue. How are other family members, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and cousins doing? What are they doing to not let the pandemic sidetrack their whole life? An open conversation about this can be very helpful. Any person who you can have meaningful conversations with is an important resource – use them.

Languishing doesn’t happen overnight. Defining self takes time.

Start with smaller, very achievable goals and some level of increased contact with family and friends. Something that you have some level of motivation to achieve. At the same time, work to say no to the things you feel pressured to go along with, but that you really don’t want to. Talk to friends and family about what might work for them. For example, there may be pressure to “get back to normal” and you might not be ready yet because of considerations for your health. Work to stick to what you believe is best for you. Goals for well-being are always good to have, but they should work for you and your situation. These shifts can take time. Consistency is very important – small achievements, consistently over time, really add up.

Thinking systems and defining self to overcome languishing

A systems understanding of languishing provides a way to think about both avoiding it and overcoming it. A systems perspective would say that a chronic state of anxiety, loss of self, and blocking of goal-directed behaviour will lead to languishing in any area. Personal relationships and work can be a source of languishing anytime. It doesn’t need a pandemic. A systems perspective would also say that managing anxiety, defining self better and having the conviction to pursue self-directed goals are how to mitigate languishing. It’s not always easy, but these kinds of shifts change the trajectory from negative to positive and over time, that makes all the difference.

(Please seek professional help if you feel you are suffering from languishing or depression. It is not the intention to provide medical advice with this post.)

Dave Galloway

You can find the New York Times article here:

A search on the term languishing will provide other resources.

You can find a video on defining self here:

Read more about differentiation here:

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What 3 + 8

Can systems thinking impact society?

By Define self

How does systems thinking impact society?

In Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems,” there is a list of things one can do to affect a system. It counts downwards from less impactful, possibly harmful actions, to the most impactful actions. One of the most impactful is “change your paradigm”. This is because how one thinks about a problem can often be the problem. It always allows one to think completely differently about the original problem. This different thinking leads to different approaches to solving the problem. Or maybe the problem just goes away. This is definitely true with a shift to systems thinking away from a cause-and-effect type of thinking.

Bowen theory is systems thinking.

Bowen theory is a natural systems theory. It developed from many observations about how families (versus individuals) functioned. Not how they said they function, but from observations of behaviour and interactions. What he observed was that changes in the functioning of one person affected the functioning of others, which then affected the functioning of the one person. If one person in a group is anxious about something, that usually affects others. The others can try to “solve the problem” or “calm the person down” or “pull back”. These behaviours are usually related to “your anxiety is making me uncomfortable, so I’m going to try and lower your anxiety so I feel less discomfort”. This happens because the family members (or system members) are connected via the emotional system of the family.

Anxiety in society. It’s contagious.

Because of the impact of emotional systems, levels of anxiety can rise and fall in societies or groups. This is because societies are systems of individuals and each individual is influencing other individuals. Leaders, in particular, can have an enormous influence on the level of anxiety in society and the world. Anxiety is contagious for a good reason. Historically, if a member of my group was anxious, that usually meant there was a threat of some kind. Historically, a threat to one member of a group is a threat to all members of a group. While one can get away with ignoring positive events (hey, I found berries) they best not ignore negative events (I found poison berries).

Anxiety antidote: focus on facts.

Bowen theory, as a natural systems theory, puts an emphasis on facts and objective thinking because this is the only way to understand how a system functions. Systems behave how they behave, regardless of how one thinks or feels. Emotionality can lead to more subjective thinking and ignoring facts. Not being fact-based can lead to poor decisions and poor outcomes, especially with systems. So working to be as objective as possible when thinking about an issue is useful in a family or society. Disinformation campaigns work on the principle that fear will make individuals think less objectively, so they will be easier to mislead.

Managing anxiety in society.

An important factor in family functioning is the level of anxiety in its members. One challenge with anxiety is that it can contribute to greater levels of reactive, subjective, and non-fact-based thinking. For valid reasons, individuals want anxiety to go away as quickly. But quick fixes to “just make it go away” can do more harm than good. Quick fixes can easily make a problem worse or allow it to persist. For example, the discomfort that comes up around Canada’s history with indigenous peoples is something that many people want to go away, by applying a quick fix or by ignoring the history. Neither is a solution. Collectively, individuals have to manage their anxiety in order to stay engaged with finding a solution. Managing and tolerating anxiety in order to stay engaged and solution-focused applies at the level of families and societies.

Systems thinking says problems are symptoms of a dysfunctional system

Another paradigm level shift that systems thinking provides is the understanding that a problem is actually a symptom of an underlying dysfunction in the system. In families, this manifests in the patterns of how individuals function in relationships. Changing the functioning of individuals will change the functioning of the system and reduce the “problem”. Systems thinking supports the idea that an improvement of any member’s individual functioning will reduce symptoms in the system. This is the paradigm-level shift systems thinking provides. It calls on each family member to think about how they are contributing to the family’s functioning which leads to the expression of the symptom. From this perspective, no one person is to blame and everyone can contribute to improvement by changing their part. Each changes their part by defining self (to others) in the system.

Define self – something we can all do individually.

The past six years have provided me with the opportunity to observe my process of dealing with societal issues. I realized I needed to stop just being reactive – getting frustrated, angry, complaining and feeling helpless – about issues and think about what I could do. What was I willing to do and not willing to do? For example, with the Ukrainian situation, there is a range of options. One could choose to volunteer to join the military effort or the NGO efforts. Or one could choose to ignore it. And there are many choices in between. It’s important to remember that defining self does NOT impinge on others. It allows others to make choices and doesn’t force change on them. The task is to think about what one is willing to do and not willing to do and then DO IT. Then get back to one’s life.

What would my most mature self do?

In business, there is the idea of scalability. Something might work on a small scale, but it won’t ‘scale up’ by 100 or 1000 times. Vaccine production is designed to be scaled up, but getting enough ventilators is hard to scale up. Individuals thinking and acting on the question “what would my most mature self do” is a very scalable idea. The more people that do this, using facts to support objective thinking while managing their own anxiety, the more society will function up. This is how systems work, change the functioning of the parts, and the functioning of the system changes. The pandemic has shown this.

The power of one. I can impact society.

One family member deciding, for themselves, to act in a more mature manner can start the process of other family members improving their functioning. This is the magic of systems. I change because I want to be different for me. It’s about me, not others. It’s about defining myself and not trying to define the self of others. The side benefit is that defining myself can be helpful to others because of the nature of systems.

Systems thinking supports the idea that one can only do their part. They can’t do someone else’s part. The challenge is to take the time to be clear on what one is willing to do and not willing to do and then execute on that. To live one’s conviction without impinging on others. This is how systems thinking can impact society.

Dave Galloway

You can find the Thinking in Systems here: Thinking in Systems

You can find videos on emotional processes in society here: Kerr Interview #10 Emotional Process in Society and here: How does Bowen theory speak to today’s challenges?

Read more about differentiation here:

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What 3 + 8

What is chronic anxiety

By Anxiety, Define self

Chronic Anxiety: something for everyone.

Chronic anxiety is the outcome of the emotional programming that occurs for everyone, mostly from their family of origin. Learning how to be and what to pay attention to early in life programs our type and level of vigilance. Like a shadow, it’s always there. For example, there is a large body of research that supports the finding that early childhood adversity affects the programming of the stress response system. To put it another way, our family programmed our level of sensitivity into our physiology. And they taught us what to be sensitive to.

What’s in your programming? 

Another aspect of programming results in learning how to feel, think, and act in relationships. We learn what achieves the highest level of comfort or the lowest level of discomfort. In addition, the more important the relationship is, and the more sensitive one is, the more this occurs. How to get attention and approval, how to stay out of trouble, and how to avoid punishment are examples of this vigilance. This occurs at a very young age and it “wires” the nervous system with habitual automatic ways of feeling, thinking, and acting. For example, at five, I remember feeling good because I “made” some older boys happy. I traded my smaller dimes for “bigger” nickels. Bigger is better, right?  

The result was my orientation to “please others” and “make peace” became habitual and normal. As I got older, I started working on myself. I came to recognize a level of vigilance towards others that was oriented to “what does other want.” Thus, I had a chronic level of low-level anxiousness. I think of it as vigilance towards pleasing others. It felt normal.

Covid programming and chronic anxiety.

I believe we can see an example of this process with one’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. What we have learned, combined with our level of sensitivity, has created a level of anxious vigilance about Covid-19? For example, our default behaviours change: maintaining the right distance from others, automatically putting on a mask, paying more attention to how we are feeling for example. Your “family” including peers has taught you how to be with Covid-19 and in relationships regarding Covid-19. The anxiousness in one family member can and had infected the other family members. Entire family members behave according to the most vulnerable member (for good reason in my opinion). Overall, there is a range of responses based on the average level of anxiousness in the group.

Dr. Kerr writes about this (see reference) as learning “ranging from the seemingly osmotic absorption of parental anxieties to the incorporation of subjectively determined attitudes that create anxiety” (p.115). Children do their very best to adapt and cope with the environment that they are raised in. As an adult, these coping mechanisms, the emotional programming, may not be as adaptive. The result is that the constant vigilance of how to be in a relationship creates its own chronic anxiety. 

Kerr also wrote: “So while moderately differentiated people can have a relationship in calm balance, their sensitivity to words and actions that appear to threaten that balance results, over time, in the relationship’s spawning an average level of chronic anxiety that is higher than that of a better differentiated relationship” (p. 76).

Defining Self to reduce chronic anxiety.

If not addressed, chronic anxiety can strain the relationship creating more tension. However, chronic anxiety originates from learned processes, which can be unlearned. Individuals are sensitive to the “state” of their relationships. This means we have a strong sense of knowing when there is a lack of agreement or approval, or some level of expectation or distress, especially in important relationships. It is our reactivity to the state of the relationship, because of our “learning”, level of vigilance, and level of resulting chronic anxiety, that is the challenge (p. 113). 

Learning to change our response.

The chronic nature of chronic anxiety makes it more of a process about how one responds to imagined threats to the relationship. The eldest child may have learned to be over-responsible for others. They learned that adhering to rules, “being good”, not asking for much, and getting others to do the same was the way to get positive attention and approval. This turns into over-functioning in relationships. Importantly, the constant vigilance towards others puts a strain on any relationship. But if the eldest child can begin to focus on how they want to be and let their partner be responsible for themselves, they can unlearn the orientation and behaviour that leads to chronic anxiety. 

Learning takes time and effort.

The processes involved with chronic anxiety are hard-wired habitual behaviours. And like other habitual behaviour changes, changing them takes time and effort. Significantly, the changes involve defining self, and this is the path to reducing chronic anxiety. Given the benefits of doing this makes me believe that the effort is worthwhile. What do you think?

Dave Galloway

The phrase “chronic anxiety” only occurs four times in Dr. Bowen’s book. Dr. Kerr has a chapter on chronic anxiety in his book Family Evaluation.  His chapter 5 was the reference for this post.   Find out more here.

Watch a video with Dr. Kerr on Chronic Anxiety here.

Our emotional inflammatory system

By Uncategorized

Do we have an emotional inflammatory system?

Did evolution create emotional inflammation systems by leveraging our physical inflammation system? Evolution designed our inflammatory system to help the body defend our physical self and not lose this “self” to our environment. What might be parallels for our emotional or psychological self? A recent review in Science provides some interesting ideas. Is being reactive our emotional immune system’s response to defend self? Try not to get too inflamed by my line of thinking in this post; stay curious.

Like inflammation, emotional reactivity is both a process and a state. The process is one of activating defence mechanisms. The defence responses of the inflammation system go from imperceptible processes involved in maintaining homeostasis to the painful, swollen, red, inflamed areas around a wound. Most people understand inflammation and reactivity as this more visible acute level response. I find it interesting that we will use inflamed to describe an extreme emotional state. (The written English origin of this usage goes back to the 1400s in Europe).

Reactivity and homeostasis

Inflammation processes help keep the body in homeostasis. Think “maintaining the status quo” or our “resting state” as being in homeostasis. Anything that disturbs this homeostasis can induce an inflammatory response. Because of this, obesity, lack of sleep, illnesses, or getting old can promote inflammation because the homeostasis has been upset. Similarly, we have a “reaction” when our psychological homeostasis gets upset. Thus, a reaction signals that something has disturbed our psychological homeostasis (aka self). The reaction is part of the process of getting the self back to the status quo.

Reactivity can be adaptive

Reactivity is an adaptive process to help one maintain psychological homeostasis. But, like inflammation, which can become chronic, reactivity can become chronic. This happens when our psychological homeostasis gets perturbed often and doesn’t get back to “normal”. That someone is “always on edge” or is “walking on eggshells” indicates a chronic disruption to the normal relationship homeostasis.

Proactive reactivity

Our body’s inflammation response can be reactive or proactive. It’s reactive for things like a physical injury. But the body can recognize things that will cause damage (like bacteria) and respond to neutralize their impact. This requires a less intense response than the response to a full-blown bacterial infection or physical wound. The body holds on to self “prospectively by detecting characteristic activities associated with their damaging effects on the host” (See the reference below). This quote is not about your partner, but it sounds like it could be!

Preemptive defence processes, an outcome of evolution, work to maintain homeostasis and keep us healthy. These include behaviours (e.g., feeding) and physiological processes (e.g., blood sugar levels). A disturbance in these processes results in aspects of the inflammation response being used to correct the disturbance. For example, diabetes is a disturbance in a process that maintains blood sugar homeostasis and can lead to greater inflammation.

Self and the immune system

I summarize this as follows. When a disturbance in our homeostasis occurs, aspects of our inflammation response are used to restore our homeostasis. Too much disturbance of my homeostasis will cause a greater and longer-lasting inflammation response, which is unhealthy. This is how a short-term, adaptive, and useful response becomes unhealthy. In addition, a disturbance to the self’s homeostasis can promote reactivity. If this happens too often, for too long, it’s not healthy either. I believe that my threats perception and my reactive responses are from my emotional inflammatory system that has a corresponding inflammatory response as I work to get back to homeostasis. One more reason to learn how to regulate my reactivity!

Define Self, reduce inflammation

We are more biologically based (or influenced by feelings) than we understand. The Science article mentioned everything but the family as an influence on the inflammatory system. Yet from the perspective of evolution, the family was the single biggest influence on survival. It thinks our inflammatory system is one more piece of the puzzle to help us understand human functioning. Defining self is the emotional inflammatory system parallel to the inflammatory system defining what it will do and not do to keep your physical body healthy. In fact, the two support each other. So defining a self could help you maintain a lower level of inflammation and gain the corresponding benefits.


Dave Galloway

The inspiration for this post came from this Science article: The Spectrum of Inflammatory Responses.

You can find more information on Bowen Theory here.

For an excellent introduction to human social genomics, see this article: “Human Social Genomics“.

Better yet, check out this past conference: Chronic Illness in the Family.