Great decisions

3 Steps to Great Decisions

By Anxiety, Bowen Theory

Great decision-making always involves emotional processes and some level of value judgement.

After all, decision-making is about choosing, and what we choose is based on subjective values of what’s better or worse for the situation. Decisions are binary (A or B) because our brains basically have circuits firing for either choice, and the circuit that fires more wins. So you ask, what impacts the firing of these circuits so I can make a good decision? It involves the three steps in making great decisions.

Step 1 – Choose your inputs. Get all the facts.

A decision can only be as good as the information it’s based on. Seem obvious, right? Let’s say you are trying to decide where to go for dinner. What kinds of inputs are there? First, do you want to go out at all? Then there are things like what time, what type of food, what places are available, how much to spend, and how to get there. Most individuals do not have a full set of factual information when deciding. Our brains give priority to recent and common ‘facts,’ and we aren’t aware that this is happening. But we think we have enough facts. This is like your common set of favourite places to eat, instead of every place within thirty minutes. This fact-limiting approach is often because of the second rule.

Step 2 – Watch your assumptions.

Even with our simple example, we make assumptions. Our emotional state influences the assumptions we make. For example, how hungry is everyone? Are you or others working to please someone or impress someone? Our emotions influence the assumptions we make about availability, service, quality of food, cost, and getting there and back. What complicates this is that each person is sensing and making assumptions about the emotions of others in real time. How much one person prefers a type of food, is worried about cost, or “imagines” how nice it would be at a certain place. Nobody wants to seem pushy, so everyone defers to everyone else, and the group can’t decide! Emotions influence the significance of different facts such that some facts override other facts. The cost will often override quality. Avoiding disagreement and wanting to please will override one’s preferred choice. Each person involved makes assumptions about their facts and what others think. The key is to be aware of the assumptions being made. Ideally, one reviews and validates any assumptions. This is part of getting the facts.

Step 3 – Trust people you trust.

Let’s say a friend told you to avoid Sloppy Pete’s Pizza. But you LOVE pizza, and it’s close by and not expensive. And you are hungry!  What might happen? You “discount” the advice of your friend. And you might not even bother to check out what other pizza places are available. Your friend is actually very reliable. They have given you good advice before. But you decide not to “trust” their advice and go with your gut feeling. The “let’s get pizza now” circuit was firing stronger than the “find another place” circuit, so you ordered the pizza. 

After waiting over an hour, paying extra for the delivery, and eating cold pizza with cheap crust and skippy toppings, you feel pretty unsatisfied. How did this happen? Simple, your emotional, subjective thinking circuits fired stronger than your objective, rational thinking circuits. You did not make a great decision!

Subjectivity is part of decision-making.

While decision-making is a complex biological process, it is not a purely cognitive one. Deciding the answer for two plus two or if one cookie is bigger than another are cognitive decisions. Is the bigger cookie better is a subjective choice and depends on an individual’s values and objectives. The stories or opinions you have about cookies, which are subjective, will influence your decision. Deciding which cookie to eat is subjective. Deciding to eat it now or later is subjective. The subjectivity is valid. When deciding, the challenge is to be aware of one’s subjective, feeling-based thinking.

Level of differentiation and great decisions.

One aspect of differentiation is the ability to recognize subjective feeling-based thinking versus objective, rational thinking. Feelings are useful information. Feeling hungry is useful, but that shouldn’t be the sole factor in deciding when, what, and how much to eat. Feeling anxious about food that has made you sick in the past is valid but shouldn’t automatically drive your decision-making. The point is to recognize the feeling but be objective about it. For example, it might be a fact that some food upset you in the past, but it’s an assumption that this will happen again. The goal is to recognize the fact and the assumption so one can validate the assumption. Don’t just assume and don’t just discount feelings.

Comfort is not the basis of a great decision.

Our anxiety (I’m nervous about this) can often interfere with decision-making. We can want to choose the “comfortable” option versus the “better” option. Putting off medical tests or deciding what to eat or when to exercise can be like this. Even trying something new versus what’s familiar. Making choices for your children can REALLY be like this. A child asks – “can I stay out until 11 pm? I’ll take the bus home?” The parent (anxiety rising) replies: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, no.” Now the parent feels better. But they have conveyed a lack of confidence and level of “the world is scary” to their child. The parent isn’t really aware of the assumptions they are making, it’s just the discomfort they are reacting to. The parent could have gotten more facts: where will you be, who will you be with, what’s the bus situation like, how about 10:30 instead. They could have also said, “Well, this gets me nervous, so let’s talk about it so aren’t making any assumptions.” This example could have also been, “Yes, go ahead” because the parent didn’t want to experience the discomfort of a big argument.

Better decision-making is possible.

Differentiated thinking would recognize that not getting facts, not recognizing assumptions, wishful thinking, not trusting advice, and not recognizing anxiety can all lead to poor decisions with poor outcomes. Differentiated thinking understands that feelings aren’t bad but that subjective thinking is not fact-based rational thinking. Decisions based on feeling comfortable aren’t wrong but should be very conscious choices. That comfortable “feeling” will be based on assumptions that could be inaccurate. The key is being thoughtful and aware of subjective versus object thinking and how it’s influencing your decision-making process.

Years ago decided to work on differentiation and being more thoughtful. I gathered facts about the concept, I discussed and thought about my assumptions. I listened to others that I considered advisors. Maybe that’s why it’s been a great decision!

Now it’s your turn to think about how you can be more thoughtful in making great decisions.

Dave Galloway

This post was inspired by the following article:

Listen to Dr. Papero on Anxiety and Decision Making: Anxiety and Decisions.

Use regret to go forward

Use Regrets to Grow

By Bowen Theory

Use the power of regrets to grow.

Regret, like other emotions, can be a useful source of information to help one grow. It is defined as a feeling of sadness or disappointment over some past event. We can use regrets to grow because it can foster reflection on what not to do again and what one could do in the future. 

Don’t let regret keep you in the past.

The emotion of regret can foster a lot of “if only I had” thinking, which can leave one in a more helpless frame of mind. One’s level of differentiation influences this type of thinking. My level of differentiation, my current level of stress, and the significance of the past event can lead to a lot of unproductive story-making. It’s easy to get stuck with stories about “if only I had.” That’s all about the past. This subjective thinking takes me away from future possibilities since it focuses on the “what if I had” of the past.

I’m not perfect – I better have some regrets.

I’m not perfect (as my family will declare), so I should have some regrets. One way to think about regret is as an outcome of one trying to do the best they could, given what they knew at that time. Parenting, for example, can definitely be like this. Unfortunately, many people get stuck in stories about how they should have or could have known better. But they didn’t. Thus, they couldn’t have done better at that time. Or they didn’t believe they needed to at that time. As I learn new information now, in the present, I can recognize what I could now do better next time. Regret is about the past, which I can’t change. The learning it allows is about the present and the future and what I can do differently. 

Reframe regrets with a systems perspective.

Our emotions and our emotional systems influence us more than we recognize. This is an outcome of our level of differentiation of self (and of those around us) and the stressors we are experiencing. These factors influence our thinking to be less fact-based and more subjective (aka stories). This subjectivity allows one to ignore information they shouldn’t, putting too much value on the wrong information. And it fosters a tendency to take the option of least effort, often hoping for a quick solution. It’s as if these emotional forces influence us to function as if we deliberately wanted to do something we would regret. This is one aspect of a systems perspective. 

I wasn’t the only one involved.

Another aspect of a systems perspective is that, as a product of my emotional system, the functioning of the whole emotional system influences my behaviour. I think it’s important to remember that emotional forces involved in wanting attention and approval and meeting others’ expectations can lead someone to act in a less mature manner. Drinking and driving, for example. A person doesn’t decide, “I’m going to drink enough to make sure I have an accident.” What they might decide is “I won’t drink that much, and I’ll drive carefully” because they want attention, approval and to meet the expectations of others. And once they drink, their objectivity gets weaker. They may get the attention and approval they wanted, so they don’t want to stop. A more differentiated individual might decide “I’m driving, so no drinking” based on a conviction that is the best for them. They will accept rejection and disapproval from others to act on their conviction. And they are much less likely to have regrets.

Regret results from an emotional process. Look at the process.

Regret is the outcome of an emotional process. I did or didn’t do something that I now regret. So work to understand the process that led to the “something.” How are things different between then and now? What was the process that lead to doing what I now regret? How was my thinking influenced? Who was I sensitive to for getting attention, approval, and meeting their expectations? Where was I not objective or not realistic in my thinking? What assumptions did I make? How might I have been ignoring things I should have paid attention to? Reflecting calmly on the process leading to the outcome might even show that there was nothing one could have done differently given the situation and information at that time. But often, this reflection reveals important information. 

Use the power of regret to grow. Make your future different.

While it may be hard, an honest review of what happened (a good friend can help) can provide clues for how to prevent it from happening again. Reframe the regret from “if only I had” to “now I will.” For example, I have regrets about not being in better contact with my siblings and extended family. Looking at my family history from a systems perspective helped me understand how this came about (it didn’t just happen). I don’t blame myself, but I do hold myself accountable for making my future different. So I made the effort to have regular contact with family members. My past does not have to define my future, and my regrets can help me change my future. A goal-oriented future is a better place to put my energy. 

Don’t regret your level of differentiation; work on it!

If my level of differentiation is an indicator of my level of mature behaviour and objectivity in my thinking, then clearly, I should regret it not being greater! Alas, one’s level of basic level differentiation changes slowly. But I can work on improving my functional level of differentiation. I do this by getting more clear about how I want to “be.” Spending time to define my principles and developing conviction for them is part of the process. So is learning about emotional systems. Defining and executing self-directed goals is another part of the process. Being a more differentiated and responsible self is the goal. This is part of deciding and acting on the conviction that I am responsible for myself and my actions while I’m also interdependent with others and society.

Don’t regret regrets. 

I don’t believe in the concept of no regrets. The attending doctor didn’t check the “is perfect” box on my birth certificate. So I was born to have some regrets. What’s important is what I learn from my regrets and how I act on those lessons. This is the path to fewer regrets and reducing the negative effects of regrets. Working on my level of differentiation has been valuable to me on this journey. And my regret of not starting sooner motivates me to keep working. I don’t regret the effort!

Dave Galloway

Dan Pink’s book “The Power of Regret” inspired this post.

Learn more about Bowen Theory here.

Check out the Bowen Center YouTube channel here.

Distress signals others to help.

By Bowen Theory No Comments

Distress behaviour is a signal for help

Why would anyone like me more if they think I’m stressed? I certainly don’t have big puppy dog eyes. Recent research suggests that evolutionarily, signalling distress to others would be an adaptive trait. But before we look at that, let’s understand a few aspects of human behaviour and stress. Humans and other species, when stressed, show typical behaviours. Scratching, for example (aka self-grooming). It’s referred to as displacement behaviour because of the energy it is displacing. Rats have regular stress behaviours which allow us to learn about stress and behaviour. Wringing one’s hands is another example. The sources of this “displacement” behaviour are also interesting. 

The stress of being caught in the middle 

One aspect of stress behaviours is that they are thought to arise from being frustrated by a situation that could be conflictual and affiliative at the same time. That’s the scientific wording for “maybe having a fight with your partner”. It sounds like a moment for defining self. I have a choice to be affiliative, i.e. submissive, or to define self and maybe have a conflict. Sound familiar? The study suggests that displaying distress is useful. Why? It invokes more like-ability! 

Distress is a sign of weakness. The weak make friends 

Remember, we are thinking about evolution. What would be the value of developing signals that showed one’s stress and weakened state? If you want to be the alpha-one, you need to look strong! Well, if you are living with extended family, like early humans and other social species did, then stress behaviours communicate you are not a threat and that you could use some help. Others, knowing that the group does better when its members are less stressed, would benefit in helping you. There is also research on primates supporting the idea that the stressed individual will reciprocate helping behaviour in the future. 

Reading distress improves with social network size

Another interesting finding suggests that the larger one’s social network, the better one is at reading stress signals. This makes complete sense as well. As one gets older, they meet more individuals, in more situations, thus building up the experience of understanding stressful behaviours. Importantly, noticing these behaviours is part of our wiring and is another example (see the previous post) of our embedded emotional sensitivity to others. 

Distress is one of the “top four” social signals

Dr. Kerr has proposed that humans are very sensitive to four social cues. These are attention, approval, distress and expectation. This research supports his idea. We exhibit distress and get attention. If it makes us more likeable, then we are going to get more approval and attention. So once again, our biology is automatically running more of our behaviour than we might realize in the moment. 

Signal your distress. Make new friends! 

In relationships, not hiding distress, but communicating it was the solution mother nature came up with. This must have an adaptive function, which it does: the stressed individual gets help and the group does better. Notice that distress signals to not blame anyone. They merely signal one’s distress. One aspect of being more differentiated is being able to share things that are important to oneself, like a situation that is creating stress. This aspect of being more differentiated fosters fewer secrets, leverages resources of the group, and helps lower the system’s level of stress, without blaming or making demands on others. For our non-verbal social ancestors, this “vulnerability” of simply communicating “I’m distressed” was useful. I’m glad we have this trait as well.

Dave Galloway 

This post was inspired by this research  Jamie Whitehouse, Evolution and Human Behavior, 

Find Michael Kerr’s book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families here:  see p. 5 for primary social cues.

Read more about Bowen Theory here:

I feel your pain. Literally.

By Bowen Theory No Comments

“I feel your pain” is rooted in biology

Seeing an individual in emotional pain can activate our own emotional pain circuits. This provides an interesting link to what Dr. Bowen proposed as the togetherness force. We experience this when we recognize that someone else wants us to feel, think, or act in a certain way. It’s the force to get individuals to be oriented to “for others”. Bowen wrote this about the togetherness force. It is: “assigning positive values to thinking about the other before self, being for the other, sacrificing for others, considering others, feeling responsible for the comfort and well-being of others, and showing love and devotion and compassion for others. The togetherness force assumes responsibility for the happiness, comfort, and well-being of others.” (p. 218)

Individuals experience the togetherness force subjectively, and knowingly or not, frequently. We experience it as a social cue while we are interacting with others. Dr. Kerr has talked about “the primary social cues that mediate interactions between people are sensitivities to approval, attention, expectations, and distress.” (pp. 5)

Rats understand “I feel your pain”

Recent research describes how this can be objectively observed in our biology. A recent research study has shown that rats literally feel another rat’s pain. If one rat observes another rat in pain, the observing rat has mirror neurons that selectively activate the observing rat’s brain pain circuits. These are the same pain circuits that activate normal pain in a rat. Nature is great at reusing what already works.

I act on your pain as well.

Not only do the pain circuits activate, but other circuits activate, which start the behaviours that automatically follow a pain experience. Behaviours like freezing and orienting to the source of pain. Pretty efficient if you want to live long and prosper as a rat! The researchers could even isolate observing pain specific responses versus observing fear (or what humans call fear).

I do feel your pain: it’s contagious.

This all happens in a brain region that all mammals have in common (the ACC). So, sorry, but this “ratty” behaviour is part of us. Unless you are a sociopath with an impaired ACC. So, for normal humans, this is an obvious example of how we can automatically react, non-consciously, to what’s going on with another person. It makes complete sense from an evolutionary perspective. We are a social species that traditionally lived in smaller groups, like an extended family. So, if I see you in pain, I should automatically react so I can deal with that source of pain.

Contagious feelings or empathy?

The other interesting idea here is that this kind of response may have led to the development of empathy. The automatic response to another in pain is not empathy, it’ is contagious behaviour. Empathy requires thinking because empathy is the ability to understand another’s feelings. It is much easier to understand another’s pain if you are literally feeling it. So feel first, understand second.

You feel me?

Bowen theory posits that our emotional state is so influenced by others that we exist in an emotional system versus a group of individuals. The togetherness force is that “force” that works for us to be aware of, and automatically respond to, emotions in others. This automaticity of the emotional reactions and feedback of individuals creates an emotional system.

So next time you wince at someone’s pain, remember your rat ancestors. And then work to be more mindful in the moment. As you’ll read in the next blog post, our biology orients us to help others we see in distress. This biology links us to those important to us and is more established than one might imagine! Even more reason to be working on defining self.

Dave Galloway

You can find Dr. Bowen’s book of collected papers: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice here: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

Fin Michael Kerr’s book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families here: Bowen Theory’s Secrets
Read more about Bowen Theory here:
You can find the Open Access rat study here: Emotional Mirror Neurons in Rats  Current Biology – Emotional Mirror Neurons in the Rat’s Anterior Cingulate Cortex by Maria Carrillo et al.

Systems thinking to move beyond blame

Change Your Paradigm and Move Beyond Blame

By Bowen Theory No Comments

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 contributed something. So each individual can get curious about the part they have played because that is the ONLY part they can really 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, in order to reduce one’s own 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 Bowen Theory, Define self No Comments

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, Bowen Theory, 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:

Don’t miss any posts. 

What 3 + 8

Can systems thinking impact society?

By Bowen Theory, 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:

Don’t miss any posts.

What 3 + 8

What is chronic anxiety

By Anxiety, Bowen Theory, 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.