un-intelligence is head in the sand thinking


By emotional system

How does intelligence get stupid?

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

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

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

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

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

Emotion impacts intelligence.

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

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

Systems thinking: what, where, when, who.

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

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

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

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

Anxious mind is “losing my mind”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Differentiation makes a difference.

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

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

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

Emotional logic versus intelligence.

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

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

IQ + EQ = DQ?

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

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

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway


Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

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


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.



Humans Dogs and Emotional Systems

By emotional system

What can Parents Learn from Obedience Training?

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

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


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

Be Flexible

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

Parenting Style … for dogs

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

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

Attention and Approval – a common emotional force

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

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

Thank you for your interest in thinking systems.

Dave Galloway


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

To learn more about Bowen Theory click here.

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

Wise Selfishness: a Systems Perspective

By Define self

Can one be selfishly wise?

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

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

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

ChatGPT defines selfishness as:

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

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

Wise selfishness is about balance.

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

When selfishness is out of balance.

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

Defining self is wise selfishness.

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

Choosing to be selfless.

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

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

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

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway


To learn more about Bowen Theory, click here.

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


Hope for Parents

By Uncategorized

A Manualized Process to Give Parents Hope

(This post provides some background for the April 17th conference on the Parent Hope Project).

As a father, I know how hard it can be to raise a child. I have also seen the challenges – far greater than my own – that come up for parents. Can a systems approach provide any hope for parents? I believe it can. Jenny Brown has proven it.

Her Parent Hope program is based on Bowen Family Systems Theory, but you wouldn’t know that as a parent. She uses everyday language to help get key concepts across. For example, a systems approach doesn’t categorize “patients” with “a diagnosis.” It works with how the parents are functioning.  It views a family as a unit that functions along a continuum. All families are somewhere on the continuum, and this approach allows for improvements in functioning. Like wellness, we could all improve our level of wellness, we can all improve our level of functioning as parents. So we start from wherever we are at.

Another aspect of systems is that they adapt to circumstances and function differently depending on the situation. The family is a system, and the parents have adapted the best they can and function in a certain manner. So by focusing on the functioning of the parent – a key driver of the system – the functioning of the system will change. If the parent wants to change themselves, they can do this. The Parent Hope process is manualized and the physical manual is important – it’s a map of the process of how the family members are functioning. A map keeps one on track during the journey. If lost, they can refer to the map and get back on track. A map allows one to explore new areas with more confidence.

Hope based on research

The manual is the outcome of research and subsequent use with many parents. A core principle is that an intense child focus, which can be positive or negative, presents significant development challenges to young persons since they learn to function in reaction to others. This leaves them with little emotional breathing space to grow in thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves.

The process allows a parent, using the manual, with the help of a therapist/coach, to map out and trace what’s called the “worry cycle.” The Bowen theory has language to talk about the worry cycle, but parents don’t need this. What they find useful is the process – the self-discovery – of seeing how their worry drives a process that is not helpful. Once a parent understands this, they can change their functioning and change the patterns in their parent-child relationship.

Of course, this process can be a challenge for both parents and coaches. But the manual guides the process and keeps everyone on track. It helps keep the reactivity of the parents and the therapist lower. This is because the process involves observing and reflecting, which can reduce negative thinking. The process provided by the manual helps to give the brain focus and gets the parent off the worry cycle.

It’s called Parent Hope for a reason

The strength of this program is that it works with the most motivated individuals, the parents. Dr. Bowen and many clinicians after him have found that the parent is often the best individual to work with. The child is actually adapting parent’s functioning, hence the focus on the parents and not on the child. The hopeful part is that if the parents can observe and understand their functioning, then they can make changes that will improve the interactions. It is a process of discovery for the parent versus education about what’s right. The program provides principles so that the parents can find the approach that works for them. (And they do!) Using the principles the parents gain the ability to work on themselves without the need for an “expert” to tell them what to do. There is a shift in perspective to the parents making adjustments to their functioning versus ‘repairing’ a ‘broken’ child.

Step Back and Observe

For example, a parent starts with a more recent vivid memory of an event, and they map out the sequence in detail. This unpacking of the interaction helps one to observe the “emotional process.” The manual supports the parent in thinking about their interactions. This helps a person get more clear about what part they are playing in the interaction.

The approach focuses on the individual thinking about themselves versus their partner or child. The manual literally has “swim lanes” so that a person can “stay in their lane.” It provides a physical scaffold based on the concepts of Bowen theory. The parents don’t need to know the theory; they just use the scaffold. To support the focus on self, each person gets their own manual. (There are no “WE” swim lanes.)

The process keeps the therapist in their swim lane as well. They act to guide the recording of the sequence and facts of an interaction. There is excellent research to support the value of writing things down. And seeing it written down supports self-reflection. Everyone stays in their swim lane and thinks about their functioning.

Are you promoting Independence or Dependence?

This process supports idea of allowing the child to develop more independence vs. dependence. The parent(s), through writing down interactions, get to a) see the process of dependence vs. independence and b) how they are supporting one or the other.

The manualized process supports the parent to step back and observe how they are functioning and to think about “where is my focus” – on myself, the child, or my partner? When a parent makes a project out of themselves, they have reached a turning point.

“Parents who remained more passive in expecting expert helpers to fix their child experienced reduced hope months after finishing the program. When parents positively changed their interaction with their child they felt a more sustained hopefulness.” Jenny Brown.


Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway


To learn about the Parent Hope Conference, click here.

to listen to Jenny Brown discuss a parent’s focus on a child, click here





Using Triangles

By From the Archives, triangles

Triangles are mechanisms to deal with the tension or discomfort that will inevitably arise in a two-person relationship. This is because the majority of individuals are not highly differentiated. We have a level of immaturity that leads to tension in our relationships. This often shows up as the tension and discomfort that arises when people disagree. We perceive the disagreement as a threat to ourselves and or the relationship (which is also a threat to ourselves).

Triangles transfer tension

Tension arises from the disagreement between the two individuals. It’s natural to seek another person to get some “agreement” from them. But this seeking of a third is happening because the original two couldn’t openly communicate what they wanted and because one or both had expectations of the other. Two fully responsible individuals that recognize a responsible level of interdependence would end up triangling very little because there would be little tension in their relationship. (There could be tension in their lives, but not in their relationship). 

So in therapy (or at work), individuals will seek agreement for their position from the therapist or co-worker and will often want to be told what to do. This is a result of an increased sense of helplessness, another outcome of greater tension and anxiety. The process involves the less mature side of an individual taking over and looking for someone else to be responsible for them. This process of seeking other happens along a continuum from being very reactive and demanding that someone help them to being much less reactive and merely wanting a second opinion or advice.  A key principle of how a triangle works, based on how humans work, is that a calm, objective, thoughtful third person can help the other two find their OWN solution. How, do you ask?

Calmness is the antidote to tension.

One problem humans face is how much subjectivity can come into their thinking. Subjective thinking results from trying to make sense of a situation as quickly as possible. This is a good idea, especially if you live in a predictable environment and your survival depends on it. Our brains work to figure out what we are experiencing as quickly as possible based on past experience. It predicts what is going on in milliseconds, constantly updating our feelings and thoughts. This is subjective and not completely fact-based. The more tension that arises, the more subjective the thinking can (or will) get. This is generally negative because we are wired to give value to negative items, and leads to more tension, creating a negative spiral.

But an individual that doesn’t “catch” the tension, that can remain calmer, helps the other person calm down as well. And calmer people can think more objectively. Very often, just listening calmly to another person allows them to talk about the situation to where they know what they will do. They just needed to “talk it out” with someone.

Use the triangle to ask, not tell.

Questions are powerful. They force a person to use the brain’s more cognitive part, reducing the intensity of the “feeling” circuit.  When people have to think about something, they aren’t feeling it. It can e helpful to ask a person how they think about what they are feeling. The other person has far more information about the situation and how it affects them than they can convey. So they are the one that has to think about the solution! But good questions can help them think about the situation differently and more broadly. For example, asking, “do you have any sense why this made you so upset?” asks the other person to search for something in their world. Telling them, “You should try not to let this bother you.” is almost insulting. However, framing the question as “most people don’t get as upset as you are, this must be important to you – do you know what that importance is about?”

Triangles can trick you.

We are hard-wired and raised to be caring for other people. So when someone presents a problem, it’s easy to get caught up in the discussion and feelings the discussion creates. If someone comes to you with a problem, getting caught up in the feelings is not helpful. You don’t want your doctor to be upset for you – you want their best thinking! They can be kind and caring, but I want their best thinking more than anything. I want to be told what I need to be healthy, even if it’s going to be scary or hard. So the challenge of being that third person is to NOT start feeling sorry for the other person.  They need your best thinking.

Don’t go with the flow.

Dr. Bowen’s early research revealed how clever patients were at getting others involved in their relationship issues. He had to train the staff members on how to be supportive without trying to solve the patient’s issue. He knew that individuals grow in maturity by working on defining themselves in relationships and being more responsible for themselves.

So don’t go with the flow next time someone comes to you to be on their side. It’s not easy, but the more calm, thoughtful thinking you can bring, the better. Trust that the other person can think about their problem and decide what they want to do about it. They are more likely to follow through on decisions they made for themselves.  And they won’t blame you if it doesn’t work!

Oh, yeah,  and now you can think about what you have read and decide for yourself what you want to do with it.

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 in everyday life here.


How emotionally mature are you?

By emotional system

Emotional Maturity – What is it?

A challenge with discussing Bowen Theory is that the terms emotion and emotional system mean something different from the usual understanding that equates them to feelings. Dr. Bowen believed emotions to be more like instinctive biological processes. Food digestion is an instinctive process. Our body’s circadian system is instinctual because it develops automatically and operates outside our awareness. Our reactivity to others is instinctual – it is a natural process of our development, and it operates automatically. My reactions to differences in my family members’ facial expressions, word choice, tone and volume of voice, and body language are automatic. And their reaction to my reaction is automatic. This automatic reaction and reaction to reaction makes this a “system.”

The development of the emotional system and emotions is very complex. As infants, we respond to comfort and discomfort. Very basic stuff. As we develop, we learn to be (feel) comfortable or uncomfortable with various situations. We also learn how to regulate our emotions. We learn how to tolerate discomfort and delay gratification. In essence, we learn how to be more self-responsible for our level of comfort and discomfort.

Emotional maturation involves the ability of an individual to regulate their emotional reactivity appropriately. One learns to recognize emotions and the feelings they foster. Over time, they learn to regulate their display of how they are feeling. They learn how to regulate facial expressions, tone of voice, volume of voice and choice of words. While a child may scream out, “Chris made me do it,” not taking any responsibility for their own actions, an emotionally mature person takes responsibility for themself.

Mature Responsibility for Self

This development includes the increasing awareness that I am responsible for my sense of comfort and discomfort. This development also includes the understanding that since I’m part of the system, I need to observe, understand, and be responsible for my actions and their impact on the system. In a system, everyone is to blame, and no ONE person is to blame. Thus, blame is not a useful concept. How I am functioning and how I can change my functioning is the only thing I can (effectively) work on. An emotionally mature person recognizes this aspect of emotional systems and takes responsibility for their functioning.

Dr. Bowen wrote the following about emotional maturity.

  • “I have put the entire range of human functioning on a single scale with the highest possible level of differentiation of self (theoretical complete maturity) at the top of the scale “(p. 109).
  • “In broad terms, [a scale of differentiation] would be similar to an emotional maturity scale, but it deals with factors that are different from “maturity” concepts. (p. 472).
  • “Theoretically, a mature person can objectively evaluate both the internal and external factors and be responsible for the part self plays. The more immature the people, the more intense the blaming and self-blaming” (p. 128).
  • “There is an infantile self in the most mature of us” (p. 128).

Emotional Maturity Checklist

Here is a checklist you can use for years to come. After all, who would claim to be fully emotionally mature? This is a work-on-these-things kind of checklist taken from Dr. Bowen’s writings.

I can listen to the attacks of others without responding (p. 178).

I can live with “what is” without trying to change it (p. 178).

I can define my own beliefs and convictions without attacking those of others (p. 178).

I can observe the part that self plays in a situation (p. 178).

I can relate personally to another individual without talking about others (triangling) and without talking about impersonal “things.” (p. 540).

I take responsibility for my own comfort and discomfort and don’t expect others to do for me what I can do for myself.

I hope you notice I didn’t put a rating scale on this list. That’s because it will vary depending on the relationship, the situation and how much stress an individual is dealing with.

Emotional Maturity for Valentine’s Day!

An indicator of emotional maturity would be the ability to talk to your valentine about this topic without getting anxious about your or their response. And without modifying your response to “please” them. And without trying to change their response, especially if it makes you uncomfortable. (The valentine’s reference is because I published this post just after Valentine’s day.)

Emotionally mature individuals can be closer to others because they are not putting expectations on others. They can listen without judgment and without trying to change the other’s point of view. They can be fine with disagreement because they know their point of view is just their opinion on whatever the topic is.

Ironically, emotionally mature individuals can be very independent and interdependent at the same time.

Like other aspects of improved functioning, increasing my emotional maturity takes conviction, commitment, time, and effort. Given the alternative of lower functioning borne out of my immaturity, I keep on keepin’ on. After all, isn’t this choice recognizing “what is”?

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 in everyday life here.

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



Chronic Anxiety and balancing self in relationships

Chronic Anxiety in Physical Illness

By chronic anxiety, From the Archives

From the Archives – Chronic Anxiety in Physical Illness

Dr. Bowen spoke at a conference on cancer in 1978 about his thinking of how a disease like cancer could develop. It was quite different thinking at the time. He started by making the point that most psychiatrists (which he was) talked about families as systems or the family as a unit, but didn’t really operate from a systems perspective. “I seriously doubt if even the most experienced family researcher, therapist, can think and act systems more than a fraction of the time.”

Your Stress is my Reactivity

He was clear that stress is a stimulus (a stressor stresses the organism) and anxiety is the response. Anxiety is the emotional reactivity to real or imagined stress or threat. But more importantly, he observed that person B would respond to a threat to person A. This is a key finding for understanding the family as a unit: stress on one creates responses in others. He also observed that anxiety is infectious. Your response (anxiety) to stress (a stimulus) to me ends up creating my response of … anxiety!

Reactions to Illness

Dr. Bowen also noticed that individuals react more to the real or perceived degree of threat that an illness poses than to the type of illness itself. This makes sense from the perspective of “emotional reactiveness to a real or imagined threat.” The implication of this is that how individuals think about an illness can be part of the problem a disease presents. Dr. Bowen grew to see disease as a dysfunction of the family unit based on how anxiety spread and grew in a family. The other aspect of seeing illnesses as dysfunction is that we can view things along a continuum which allows for different levels of reactions to what might appear to be similar stressors.

“An automatic reaction of the organism is to get free of the pain of anxiety. We avoid the things that make us anxious.”

Dr. Bowen 

Chronic Anxiety

“It is sustained or chronic anxiety that is most useful in determining the level of differentiation of self. If anxiety is sufficiently low, almost any organism can appear normal in the sense that it is symptom-free. When anxiety increases and remains chronic for a certain period, the organism develops tension, either within itself or in the relationship system, and the tension results in symptoms or dysfunction or sickness. The tension may result in physiological symptoms or physical illness, in emotional dysfunction, in social illness characterized by impulsiveness or withdrawal, or by social misbehaviour.” (1)

“Leaves anxiety high enough and long enough, and a symptom will emerge from the weakest area of the individual.”

Dr. Bowen

Level of Differentiation of Self

One’s level of differentiation and level of chronic anxiety are closely related. Lower levels of differentiation will generally result in greater levels of perceived threats, which generate anxiety. This will be more chronic, depending on one’s level of differentiation. For example, this sensitivity operates in relationships and can also result in a chronic level of vigilance toward others. Since it’s normal not to want to feel discomfort, one will do things to adapt and have the discomfort reduced. But since one’s level of differentiation isn’t changing, the source of the tension doesn’t go away. The individual can only work at constantly trying to ‘adapt.’ Bring in more stress, and the adapting can become dysfunctional or manifest as a physical symptom emerging “from the weakest area of the individual.”

Emotion Programming and Genetics

Almost 50 years ago, Dr. Bowen believed genes would not be the obvious source of illnesses. For one reason, we have too many genes, and they work as a system. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have vulnerabilities from our genetic makeup. He also talked about “emotional programming” that comes out of our multi-generational past. Here’s an analogy. If the body is a car, and the self is the driver, then drivers that are overreactive will tend to have more accidents, and the weakest part of their car will break down first. The more “functional” the driver, the longer, on average, the car will last.

So chronic anxiety, the chronic response to perceived threats, is related to one’s level of differentiation. Combine this with how I can pick up on others’ chronic stress, and they can pick up on mine. Then add that chronic stress is a factor in almost any illness and how one responds to illness. Thus, working to define myself in my relationships is not only good for my health, but it’s also good for the health of the system.

I invite you to observe how stressors and anxiety operate in your systems.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway


A transcript of the recording is here.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Dr. Kerr’s article in the Atlantic on Chronic Anxiety is here.

(1) Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pp. 361-362). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Define your self directed goals

Function UP in 2023

By Define self

Function UP in 2023

It’s that time of year when I think about my intentions for functioning up in the coming year. A systems perspective has me thinking about how I’m functioning in my family and workplace systems. The concept of functioning is an important one in Bowen family systems theory. It came from Dr. Bowen’s goal to understand human behaviour by recording what he called functional facts. Function facts are what independent observers might record about an interaction between two or more people. For example, a parent, after having an argument with a child, then complaining to their partner is a function fact regarding triangles. The content of what they said might be a fact, but we can observe their behaviour of talking to a third person objectively. Dr. Bowen and his team did this over a period of five years during his NIMH research project with families.

Dr. Bowen wrote:

“Systems theory attempts to focus on the functional facts of relationships. It focuses on what happened, how it happened, and when and where it happened insofar as these observations are based on fact. It carefully avoids man’s automatic preoccupation with why it happened. This is one of the main differences between conventional and systems theory.” (1)

Another aspect of “functioning” is that problems are understood as a way of functioning in response to the system. A person’s functioning adapts to fit with the system’s overall functioning. In turn, this influences how the system functions. Several critical points follow from this. One is that my behaviour, how I’m functioning, is an adaptation in response to the systems and allows the system to function the way it is. Two, this is MY functioning. The system didn’t make me do it, even though it might not feel like that in certain situations. Thus, I can change my functioning. Three, my functioning is really the only thing I can change. Four, if I change my functioning by definition of how systems work, the system will change.

In whatever manner you want to function up, start with the premise that currently, you are merely functioning “as if” you are functioning down. You are not broken. Functioning can change. A person can function differently. But it takes reality-based conviction for the person that wants to change. For example, if an individual wants to have a more open connection with another family member, they must be prepared to be open themselves and attempt to connect consistently. They have to have the conviction that they want to behave differently (regardless of what the other person does).

Function Up Goals

To function up one’s goals must have two important qualities. As mentioned above, they must focus on the part I’m playing and how I want to be different. Goals are about MY functioning, my behavior, and no one else’s. I’m not trying to be different in order to change another person. My goals should not impinge on others. For example, one might want to reduce their drinking as a response to stressors in their life. That doesn’t mean there is no alcohol in the household. It SOLELY means the individual is going to cut down on THEIR drinking. They don’t get to impinge their goal on everyone else. If other’s agree, of their own free will, then fine. But my goals to change should not be contingent on others changing as well.

The concept is that I’m working to be a more responsible self. So functioning up is about how do I want to BE in the world. How do I want to show up each day or in certain situations? Regardless of how others show up. Functioning isn’t a ‘deal’ you make with the system. I function up because I want to be different.

Conviction is the Key.

One generally functions at a particular level because of the emotional forces at play in the system. So one needs emotional force to function differently. I believe this emotional force, this “umph!” comes from objective thinking about what I want to change and developing the conviction to do that. I believe people don’t change unless they really want to, which comes from conviction. One must be convinced (for themselves) that one needs to change to develop conviction. That conviction provides the emotional umph to continue despite how the system reacts.

Focus is on Self.

Function-up goals have a focus on self and not on others. They are “how to be for self without being selfish,” as Dr. Kerr would say. A responsible self doesn’t let others do for them what they can do for themselves. They also don’t do for others what others can do for themselves. The other half of Dr. Kerr’s quote is “how to be for other without being selfLESS.” A responsible, mature self recognizes the interdependence one has with others but isn’t selfish nor selfless. Yes, that takes some thoughtful conviction.

Self-oriented goals are not guilt-driven, and they aren’t about pleasing others. That involves an “other” focus. If I have guilt or regrets, I should use that to develop the conviction to be a different person because that’s how I want to be, not because of others want me to be. For example, would you steal something if you went into a store with no one around and clearly no cameras operating? No, because you, for yourself, don’t want to be that type of person. Even though no one else would know, YOU would know.

I believe we can all function up. Nothing is 100% fixed, even though systems function “as if” things are fixed. I always have a choice about how I will function in any situation. I have the response-ability to function in a more responsible manner. For example, there is always room to be less reactive and more thoughtful in my relationships.

It’s a new year; I invite you to think and decide for yourself how you can “be for self without being selfish” in 2023.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway


Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on variation to reacting to stressful events here.


  1. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 261). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.