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.




Family Projection Process – From the Archive

By family projection, From the Archives

Family Projection Process

The family projection process is one of eight concepts that make up Bowen theory. Dr. Bowen believed that there were enough observations from his research and clinical work that it warranted being a separate concept. It is important to remember that this is just one of eight concepts and other ideas that make up a system’s way of thinking about human behaviour. Dr. Bowen wondered how levels of differentiation get transmitted from one generation to the next. While he didn’t like the term projection, he couldn’t come up with a better one.

What’s actually being projected is the level of differentiation of the parents into the next generation. In day-to-day family life, it shows up as an over-focus on one or more children, driven by the level of anxiety in the parents. Often, the parent’s relationship is not great, and the projection process compensates for that.

Every child belongs to a unique family.

If you think about anxiety levels, stressors, nodal events, and sibling position, every child is born into a different family. One of the benefits of better contact with siblings is that one learns that siblings often have very different beliefs about the family they grew up in. Walter Toman’s work documented the profiles of sibling positions. Dr. Bowen thought it was so significant and accurate that he incorporated it into the theory. All these factors mean that the parents and other family members will experience each child differently. They will see and communicate in some fashion aspects of the differences they perceive. This is part of the process that resulted in a greater focus on one child.

The projection experiment 

Dr. Bowen, with some cohorts, experimented with the idea of projection at a square dance one evening. He would go up to an ordinarily good dancer and make a comment, “are they feeling okay? Your dancing looks different”. The cohorts would do the same kind of thing. By the end of the night, these people would comment on not dancing well. They would do the opposite with “poor” dancers and watch them get more confident. This change in attitude and behaviour happened in one evening. Imagine what can happen over an extended period in a family.

The projection process occurs in different ways.

The family projection process can happen with various family members. But usually, it is the most vulnerable one. It can take the form of a blamer and one who accepts the blame. Or the process of one who is “helpful” and one who “accepts help.” It’s a relationship process. In a set of experiments with rodents, Dr. Calhoun found that any group would produce a “scapegoated” individual. When he put a number of “scapegoats” into one group, that group produced a “super scapegoat.” The super scapegoat allowed the other mice to look more functional than they really were. The idea is that the individual, perceived as the most vulnerable, gets undo attention. This trains that individual to be more helpless, as it were.

Anxiety can fuel family projection.

Two major natural processes can lead to parents “projecting” or transmitting their level of differentiation onto their children. The process can limit the development of autonomy in the child, thus limiting their level of differentiation. Stressors and anxiety will exacerbate the process. This does not happen with one particular event. It happens in all families because it is a natural process. Parents of infants naturally and appropriately focus on their infant’s well-being. It is natural for the bond or relationship between a child and parent to feel very good. So it can be hard not to, in Bowen’s words, “get on their back” to do good for them when the child is older and trying to be more autonomous. Dr. Bowen observed that this “getting on the back” of a child was not helpful because it impeded the child from becoming more responsible for themselves on their own.

Project up and 0ut, not down and in.

Dr. Bowen observed that individuals who had better contact with as many family members as possible would have less intense family projection. Conversely, parents that were cut off from family would have more intense projection processes. A system with more viable connections would diminish the anxiety that usually drives the process. Another way Dr. Bowen discusses this is “get off the child’s back.” It is one’s anxiety that can create an unhelpful focus on how a child is doing. But it’s not our children’s job to take care of our anxiety by trying to be the way we want them to be. The natural process for any species is for offspring to become independent, functional adults. Too much “caring” can interfere with this process. A person doesn’t become a responsible adult unless they truly understand that it is up to them to be a responsible adult. I believe they learn this by making mistakes and realizing that their irresponsibility doesn’t work for them. It’s hard to watch sometimes, but growing up isn’t child’s play.

Can you notice when your anxiousness or discomfort gets you focused on another versus handling yourself? I invite you to experiment by observing what happens with yourself when you get more stressed or anxious.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this video for a full discussion on family projection here.

Defining Self – Always do this

By Define self

Defining a self – always do this.

Defining one’s self is a lot of work and a lifelong process. However, one can improve their functioning at any time. Here are some ideas, from a system’s perspective, that can increase one’s level of differentiation, albeit over time.

Avoid thinking that some simple technique is all it takes.

Blindly following a list of items like this might get you in trouble. These items are ‘guidelines’ that apply in the context of relationships. One can only really define the self in a relationship with other(s). This is because we can only lose self to others when we are in a relationship with them. It’s the emotional process of wanting to avoid discomfort in a relationship that gets one to give up self instead of holding on to self or defining a self with others.

Observe my body (level 1)

I can’t change if I don’t know what I want to change or when I want to change. So being a good observer is a critical first step. The first thing to notice is how reactive you are. This would include noticing your speech (words, volume, tone, pace), body language, and physical sensations. How worked up are you, or how “shut down” are you? These are both levels of reactivity. Get really curious about how you react in relationships and observe what creates different reactions in you.

Observe my feelings (level 2)

The next thing to notice, which might only happen after level 1, is what feelings are coming up. Feelings are things like mad, sad, glad, and frustrated. Thinking “that’s not right” isn’t a feeling; it’s a thought (an opinion), but it will have some kind of feeling associated with it. “That’s not fair” is a very common opinion, but the feelings can be quite varied – threatened, afraid, frustrated, sad, angry, and confused, for example.

Bonus Points – Observe my emotional process (level 3)

Often the reason we feel threatened and then get angry is that we believe something is threatening us. This frequently is NOT in our conscious awareness. This involves feelings such as not being liked, not being loved, being rejected, feeling isolated or thinking I’ll always be a failure, alone, etc. Everyone gets emotionally programmed in their family of origin. The brain is incredibly fast at processing incoming information. Thus, the tone in my partner’s voice gets instantly translated as ” a threat,” and I get reactive. Only by observing can I unpack the sequence to see and understand what’s going on. First, I notice the reactivity, then the feelings, and then the underlying threat. But usually a story that we make up can get in the way.

Check subjectivity – what’s my story?

When we get more reactive, we can easily get more subjective in our thinking. We create stories about what is going on and why it’s going on. Suppose my partner used a tone of voice that sounded, to me, like she was upset with me. But maybe that is just because of “my story.” Maybe my partner is upset with something else, and they have that in their tone of voice. Or maybe I did do something I shouldn’t have, and now I’m getting defensive because I don’t want to be wrong. The idea here is to check out my story about the situation and try to clarify the facts.

Understand my part in the situation.

Having a system perspective means that I understand how I contribute to whatever is going on in the system. This is both historical and in the moment. This is a very important idea in my opinion. Why? Because we can’t actually change how another person thinks or behaves. We each decide for ourselves how we are going to think and behave. (Granted, some individuals don’t seem to think consciously about this.) Thus, I can really only change myself. So knowing the part I play by being a better observer reveals the part that only I can change in the situation. This puts the responsibility to change on me, but only for my part and only if I choose. It also means that the other person is free to choose what they want to do. The benefit of systems is that if I really do change, then the system has to change as well in response.

Ask how I can function up.

Once I understand what I contribute to the system’s functioning, I can then decide what, how much, and how often I want to change my contribution. This is where defining a self starts. Each time I change my behaviour because I want to function better, I’m changing how I habitually behave. This is called functional differentiation. This can happen quickly if a person has the conviction to do so. If the change persists over time and across many situations involving different levels of intensity or significance, this might reflect an increase in the level of differentiation. But the main point I that I can change my part and I can improve my functioning should I choose.

Remember: “This is what is, so how do I want to show up?”

Part of defining a self is the development of more fact-based, objective thinking. This involves recognizing those things I can’t change (others) and those things I can change (my behaviour). So if I can’t change others, and this is what is, then I need to ask myself, “how do I want to show up?” What would my more mature self do in this situation? What’s the responsible thing to do in this situation? This isn’t about what I like or what’s fair. It’s about what my principles are and whether I have enough conviction to act on my principles.

Think for yourself.

The above requires that I do a lot of thinking for and about myself. In any situation, I have to decide, for myself, what I will and won’t do. Each person has to do their thinking and decide for themselves what they want to work on. Working on defining a self results in many improvements in one’s functioning. Overall, there is a shift in one’s life trajectory, affecting one’s family’s trajectory. I’ve decided the work is worth the effort.

I invite you to experiment and decide for yourself.

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.

From the archive

Workplace Systems – From the Archive

By From the Archives, workplace systems

Workplace systems and family systems theory.

In 1978, Dr. Bowen gave a thirty-minute presentation entitled “Overview of Bowen Theory and Organizational Systems.” By then, he had years of experience in leadership roles from his time in the military and at several medical and psychiatric institutions. He was also working to apply the principles in the Georgetown Family Center, where he was the director.

Why systems theory?

Dr. Bowen believed that a systems perspective provides a more scientific way to think about human behaviour. This is because it is based on what human “animals” have in common with other animals. His believed that the understanding of human behaviour at that time went from very simplistic to pseudo-scientific. This ranged from things like “the gold rule” to “how to win friends and influence people” (the title of a very popular book back then). If humans were “basically good,” then they would always be good, so why did humans behave badly? For him, something was missing in the understanding of human behaviour.

Most things work in calm systems.

One thing Dr. Bowen observed with families and organizations is that when the system is calm, many approaches to adjust performance can work. In organizations, techniques like town hall meetings, incentive plans, delegation, and profit sharing only work appropriately in calm systems. And they don’t actually do anything to really “calm” a system under stress. In fact, under stress, these techniques can have negative effects.

Dispassionate Observer

The ability to remain objective in the face of uncertainty and challenge was the key to helping to maintain a higher level of functioning in families and organizations. Dr. Bowen referred to this as being a “dispassionate observer.” It’s the ability not to get caught up in the emotions of others in the system. The ability to observe, if only for short periods of time, allows a person to be more separate or differentiated from a situation. This supports families and organizations to be “healthier and more productive” because it fosters making better decisions.

Workplace systems are like family systems.

Dr. Bowen observed patterns of functioning in families that also show up in any relationship system. Activation of triangles, the impact of anxiety, the projection process, and the impact of defining oneself in particular. A system like the military, which is very well “defined” based on its structure and regulations, can allow a “no-self” to function well. The environment provides a functional self to the person. In fact, it can insist on it. Most organizations aren’t like this. In fact, to the degree that an organization is NOT well-defined, it will need well-defined individuals if it is to function well.

Projection happens in the workplace.

In family systems, the projection process is when individuals “scapegoat the one(s) in the minority position,” to quote Dr. Bowen from this lecture. In the workplace nowadays, the term could be “throw one under the bus.” When individuals in a system get more anxious, the tendency is to look for “a solution” to solve “the problem.” This cause-and-effect type of thinking often leads to applying a quick fix or a “quit fix.” Blaming or micro-managing those in a more junior position is an outcome of the projection process in the workplace. Leaders are parents, and employees are the kids. When the parents get anxious, they can get over-focused on the kids, and this “projection” can lead to all kinds of issues. The problem with the projection process is that it doesn’t address the root issue. It merely soothes the leader’s anxiety by fooling them into thinking they are solving the problem. A good leader would have addressed any real performance issues long before any problems arose. A poor, anxious leader will find problems that don’t exist to feel better at the expense of others. Just like in a family.

Manage down, connect up.

One insight Dr. Bowen shared was that a leader could define themselves to those that report to them, but they can’t do that to those they report to. One can’t really tell their boss, “this is what I’m not willing to do,” without expecting to get fired or demoted. But they can stay well-connected with their boss. This would include regular meetings and clarity about what one’s boss expects. A manager that knows how their boss thinks about a topic has a good connection.

Principled leadership, calm leadership

A leader that is clear about their leadership principles and acts consistently based on their principles will create a calmer and better functioning team. Provided these principles do not impinge on others. Elon Musk is both inconsistent and impinging with his leadership style at Twitter, in my opinion. This is not the style of a more differentiated leader! This gets back to the idea of being a “dispassionate observer” that can be more emotionally objective and fact-based in their decision-making.

I believe that decision-making defines a leader. What are your leadership principles, and do they support you in being a better-defined leader?

Thank you for your interest in systems thinking.

Dave Galloway

The audio record that this post is based on is available on request.

To learn more about Bowen family systems theory, click here.

Watch this video on Mature Organization Culture. 



Value of Family History

Value of Family History

By Uncategorized

The value of family history

There are multiple reasons for the value of understanding the facts of one’s family history. It supports one’s development of more objective thinking on family matters. The process of gathering family history facts expands one’s contact with extended family. It helps one understand the role they play in their family.

Opportunity for connection

When I got serious about finding out more about my family, over 15 years ago, it opened up a new world of contacts. Aunts and cousins that I hadn’t contacted for years became part of my world. One older aunt and I went on a “road trip” that included a cousin who has become a good friend. It laid the foundation for family zoom calls during the last three years. These folks became resources, and I’ve been a resource to them. These connections establish linkages between the next generations as well. I was part of two family reunions and connected with family members that I had never met.

Whence I came

My maternal grandfather’s ancestors date back to 1704 in Boston, Massachusetts. My paternal line goes back to Scotland and Ireland. We had a family farm in Maine for 170 years. I knew none of this. The farm is still there, and I visited it a few years ago. My grandfather was the youngest of five and the only male. His first wife died in the influenza pandemic in 1918, and they lost a young girl prior to that. A second female was stillborn. My grandfather remarried. They had a son and then had my mother. So my mother was the first female after three previous female deaths. She was the youngest for seven years until my aunt was born. Knowing all this has helped me understand things about my family of origin.

My father’s father died in his 50s, and my father was quite separate from him. My father’s family migrated to the United States when he was very young. I don’t believe he had much of a role model, as my grandfather travelled a lot for work. These facts provided a new perspective on my father for me.

Perspective on my family history

This background gives me a different perspective on my parents and their parenting. There are always consequences to actions. But I believe my parents did the best they could, given the hand life dealt them.

There is a long history of moving, challenges, untimely deaths, and distance in my family’s history. This would have affected each generation’s stress level, which would have been passed on to the next generation. We moved to be near my mother’s brothers after my parents divorced. My mom remarried a year later, and we moved again. My stepfather had been a prisoner of war in WWII. His grandparents were from Germany, and his baptism certificate was in German (from Ohi0). He basically bombed areas where his ancestors lived and lived with the deprivations of the POW camp. This left its mark. We ALWAYS ate all the food on our plates. “You don’t know what it’s like to be hungry,” he would say.

He developed alcoholism, but I learned to see it in a different light. His strength was that he quickly stopped drinking once he realized what was at stake. Again, I truly believe he did the best he could.

The family norms

I inherited some norms from my family. I understood them better after I put them in the context of my family’s history. As was normal for the time, several uncles and my stepfather served during WWII. Our family was not religious. But I remember an ethic of being good neighbours and helping others. My uncles really helped us when my mom was first divorced. They were kind to me. There were family stories about my mom marrying “a man that drank too much.” I think this created more isolation for us as a family from the rest of the family. I have no memories of overt racism in our family. But “commies” were another matter! “Better Dead than Red” was the motto. Anything left-of-center was communism and to be feared at all costs. Long hair was for commies. My stepdad had a military “brush cut” his whole life. He believed that serving his country was the right thing to do. My parents weren’t perfect, but they certainly weren’t bad. They did the best they could.

We aren’t “wrong,” but we are different

So my attitudes, based on growing up in the 60s and 70s, differed from those of my parents. To them, growing my hair long and wearing bell-bottom jeans, I was going down the wrong path. So we had big arguments. Looking back, I totally understand their perspective. They truly believed “pot” was the gateway to heroin and a life of ruin. At the same time my sisters and I couldn’t understand our parents smoking and drinking. None of us kids smoked and drank very little, which continues to today.

Which family did you grow up in?

Over the last 15 years, I have had many conversations with my sisters about our childhood. What’s very clear is that each of us experienced a unique family. We are the eldest, the middle, and the youngest, with each having different amounts of time with our father, mother, and stepfather. And completely different relationships with each. Each of us had our own way of functioning in the family. I learned to be a pleaser, and I over-functioned. I think I was the lucky one. Understanding all my history has brought my sisters and I closer. I can be more objective and less reactive about how they think and feel about issues.

A new perspective – No fault, no blame.

The “systems” perspective really hit me one summer afternoon years ago. I had been doing a lot of fact-gathering about my mom and dad. I realized that “wow,” they had a lot of stuff to deal with! No wonder our family was the way it was. I could either blame everyone going back several generations or blame no one. Yes, there were consequences to my parent’s actions, but I don’t “blame” them. I am not a victim. This new non-blaming perspective was good for me. But it did come with the understanding that I needed to make the best of my “hand” and work on myself. I had/have my way of functioning in relationships that I needed to work on.

It’s one thing to learn facts about the family. But this work should involve developing relationships with more family members. And those relationships should be more significant. Ideally, one develops a network of useful resources across the family. People one can talk to about various topics – work, health, finances, raising kids, old age, etc. When the families lived together, this would be an automatic thing.

Family History, Family Anxiety

If you don’t have a good understanding of your family history and aren’t well connected already, it’s because there are some “reasons” for this. I would say emotional reasons. Contacting family members and learning about history can stir things up for an individual and other family members. For many people, there is anxiety that comes up when doing this work. But that’s why this work is so useful. It’s a way to reduce the anxiety that is embedded in the system. We might think we can ignore it, but it’s there.

Dr. Bowen said, “You have inherited a lifetime of tribulation. Everybody has inherited it. Take it over, make the most of it and when you have decided you know the right way, do the best you can with it.” He also said, “which one of you dogs is gonna jump this fence?”

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on family history here.

Family as Systems

By Uncategorized

Families act as a system for a reason.

Our desire to be calm drives more behaviour than we realize. This is a significant factor in families acting as systems.

This month’s previous post pointed out that emotions, like being anxious, are contagious. For example, when a predator comes near a crow’s nest in our backyard, all the crows in the area get very noisy. I’ve seen multiple crows chasing birds away. Individuals get anxious when they are threatened, as this is part of the natural threat response system. If you live in a group, then a threat to one is really a threat to all. My survival rate will increase if I get anxious (energized, alert, vigilant) when I notice someone near me getting anxious. Part of the reason we have dark-on-white eyes is to tell where someone is looking and when they are looking away from us. Me seeing what is threatening you is useful in a dangerous world.

Anxiety and danger are siblings.

Given that we get anxious around threats and danger, eliminating these so one can get calm again would be wise. Returning to “calm” and seeing calmness in others signals things are safe. The unpleasant feeling of anxiety is part of the process of energizing and focusing one’s body to deal with the threat. Since it’s not a good state for the body to be in, it should NOT feel good. Thus, threats create anxiety, which is a feeling we notice as the result of our body chemically changing to respond to the threat.

You make me anxious; I want you to calm down.

When others get anxious, we (naturally) automatically pick that up and can feel uncomfortable because of the physiological change in us. Now, this gets more involved because many individuals feel they are supposed to make the other person feel okay. So then an individual can also become anxious about needing to make the other person less anxious. But the main point is that I want your anxiety to go down so that I will feel less anxious. I want to feel better, so you NEED to feel better. Evolution made us this way because, in a hunter-gather society, your threat and thus your anxiety is my problem as well. But that is not the case anymore, especially when one’s anxious about things that are not life-and-death level issues. 

The function of the family as a system: survival.

Dr. Papero has talked about the primary functions of a family as being a) economic, b) defensive, c) reproductive, and d) maintenance. Individual humans can’t really survive outside of a family or extended family group. As a species, we must live in a group. We evolved from an extended family (group) of hunter-gatherer species. We were hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. In this context, economic functions are those that provide food, clothing, and shelter. In some societies, it also involved having items that could be traded, such as furs or artifacts. The group’s defence would have been very important given the existing predators and potential attacks from other groups. Successfully raising offspring would have required enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources. Caring for each other, maintaining shelter, providing food and clothing, and preparing for group activities at different times of the year would also be required just to survive.

Just surviving was a pretty top bar. The environment we evolved in didn’t care about feelings. One either survived or didn’t. No favours, no favourites. Nature doesn’t over-function for anyone. Individuals had to deal with the world from a “this is what is, so what shall I do” perspective. Work cooperatively, as a system, or die.

Social cues support the family system.

So what would it take to create individuals who survive and succeed under these conditions? I believe it would be a system of automatically sensing how you and your family members are doing and responding to that automatically. What are they looking at? How are they feeling? Do I have their attention? Do they want my attention? What do they expect from me? Are they in distress or anxious? Are we in agreement? Any misreading of these items could be life-threatening.

Dr. Kerr has written about the four primary social cues of attention, approval, expectation, and distress. These are important cues to sense if I and others agree, thus avoiding conflict. Remember, our evolutionary context is that a minor cut, because of infections, could be fatal. There would be no such thing as a small fight. Sensing disagreement would be vital to one’s survival and the group’s success.

Systems: all for one and one for all.

In our evolutionary history, which would have been pre-verbal, behaviours would have needed to be more automatic. Anxiety and tension, signals of threats, would have been automatically passed among the group, and the group would have collectively responded. Collectively, the desired state would be one of lowered anxiety and greater calmness, since that equates to no threats. In this sense, anxiety and calmness are adaptive signals that something is a threat or not. The group would work to remove the threat and reduce anxiety. This process developed because it helped families/groups adapt and survive.

Good for relationships: good for survival.

The implication of the above is that healthy relationships would have been as important as healthy bodies for the group’s survival. If the parts don’t function well as a system, the value of the parts is at risk. An extreme example of this is our body. As elements (atoms), we are worth about $1.00. But get those elements working as a system, and you have a human being. The difference is in the relationships between all the parts of the body. Thus, we needed to evolve to sense if we were personally unwell in our bodies and in our relationships. Symptoms in our body would have required treatment. Symptoms in relationships would have as well.

Defining self involves taking responsibility for my physical self and my relationship self. How do I want to be? What am I willing to do, and not willing to do, for my physical wellbeing and my relationship well-being? These two influence each other through our stress-response system’s influence on our physical health. Maybe we’ll get to a point where we have annual relationship checkups!

Thank you for your interest in learning more about systems.

Dave Galloway

To learn more about Bowen Theory, click here.

For a video series by Dr. Bowen: Bowen Basic Series


family system

Emotional Contagion

By emotional system

Emotional contagion is real

Emotional contagion is a field of study that validates much of what Dr. Bowen conceptualized in the 1960s. Dr. Bowen, who read widely across scientific disciplines, believed that we inherited the basis for the human emotional system from other species. It involves all the automatic physiological responses to external and internal stimuli. For example, you don’t have to “think” about backing away from a cliff. Or being attracted to another person. Or shivering if you get cold enough. I’ll use the word emotion to mean a non-conscious, physiological response to stimuli.

“Operationally, I regard an emotional system as something deep that is in contact with cellular and somatic processes, and a feeling system as a bridge that is in contact with parts of the emotional system on one side and with the intellectual system on the other.” (Dr. Bowen)

The scientific literature isn’t as clear as Dr. Bowen’s on the distinction between emotion and feeling. I think of feelings as the conscious awareness of some change in the emotional system. For example, if my blood sugar levels drop enough, I’m likely to become aware of that via the feeling called hunger.

What is emotional contagion?

Researchers define emotional contagion as the transmission of some emotion (aka feeling) via non-cognitive processes between individuals. It involves a transfer of physiology as measured by specific physiological markers. We find an example of contagion in mimicry. Mimicry is often used to describe how humans automatically mimic the facial expressions and body posture of the person they are interacting with. Gaze, pupil size, sweat production, and blushing can also be involved in this process. These items become an emotion or feeling because we interpret how the body is feeling (interoception) and what we are seeing and hearing. Researchers separate emotional contagion from feelings like empathy and sympathy.

Empathy and sympathy involve cognitive processes because these feelings involve the awareness of “us” and “them. “Cold” empathy is a mental process of understanding another person’s feelings. “Hot” empathy or emotional contagion is the process of one’s affective and physiological state becoming like others. One person is mimicking the other. Researchers believe that mimicry is the biological foundation that supports empathy and sympathy.

Mimicry runs deep

We can observe mimicry in infants long before they have any ability to be empathetic. Very young infants exhibit “crying contagion,” with the highest level of contagion being in response to cries of pain (in carefully controlled studies). Skin-to-skin contact between mothers and neonatal infants can reduce mortality because of the positive effects mimicry has on neonatal physiology. This mimicry, or emotional contagion, is at the physiological level of heart and breathing rates. Adults also exhibit the automaticity of mimicry. Adults subliminally presented with emotional faces responded with involuntary facial muscle movements, just as they would if they were consciously aware of the faces. This automaticity in infants and adults shows how deeply ingrained our emotional systems are. Also, it shows how important this kind of contagion is since evolution doesn’t keep features that aren’t useful.

We can transmit stress

In a 2014 study, researchers found that a father’s, mother’s, and adolescent’s cortisol levels were positively correlated. Various studies show that the mother’s profile affects the physiological profile of the child. The field of study called “autonomic mimicry” looks at the mimicry of heart rate, breathing, pupil diameter, and hormone levels. The foundation for how anxiety can move through a family is in the biological processes of mimicry. We automatically mimic the emotional state of those we interact with. A 2017 study found that individual cardiac activity changed in response to watching others in a stressful situation. It also showed that individuals with higher dispositional empathy responded more quickly.

Emotional contagion is for survival

Joseph LeDoux, a leading neuroscientist, proposes that all organisms evolved to detect threats. The individuals that were best at detecting (and overcoming) threats were the ones that survived, resulting in threat detection being naturally selected. Even bacteria can detect phages, a class of bacteria infecting viruses. Because of this, we have automatic physiological processes that respond to whatever we deem a threat. However, the conscious interpretation of the threat and the labelling of the threat with a feeling is a separate process and came much later in human evolution. Dr. Bowen preceded LeDoux by thirty-six years, but both distinguished between emotion and feeling, between the non-conscious physiological states and the consciously aware states of feelings.

We’ve come by this honestly

All the above shows that we are a) more connected with others than we might realize because b) this connectivity is automatic and non-conscious and c) this is an outcome of our evolutionary past. So we have come by this honestly. But it’s because the automaticity of our emotional contagion with others is so deeply embedded that I must be willing to keep working on being more differentiated. The environment I now live in differs completely from that of 10,000 years ago, let alone 200,000 years ago. My smartphone battery running low is not a threat. A child not wanting to eat kale isn’t a threat, either. But I am wired the way I’m wired. Luckily our wiring is plastic, so we can change it over time if we work on it. I think that the effort is worth it.

Thank you for your interest in learning more about systems.

Dave Galloway

To learn more about Bowen Theory, click here.

For a video series by Dr. Bowen: Bowen Basic Series

Read more about emotional contagion: Emotional Contagion

Immune System

Immune System’s Defining of Self

By Define self

The Immune System defines self

Nature has a way of defining the physical self for all organisms via the immune system. Evolution built our immune system to recognize non-self from self. Accordingly, mechanisms like the immune system are the root of the physical self defining itself to other organisms. What can we learn about defining self from our immune system?

Dr. Bowen borrowed the term “differentiation” from biology because he believed it represented what individuals need to do at an emotional and psychological level. The immune system’s function is to recognize behaviours of another organism that impinge upon the self. For this to occur, the “self” has to recognize what behaviour it considers impinging or not. It follows a model of “no bad actors in our house.”

Defining Self versus Other

The immune system has a process of recognizing self parts and non-self parts throughout the body. Basically, the immune system recognizes and destroys non-self items, like viruses and bacteria that impinge on self. This is where autoimmune diseases come into play – the stop-harm-to-self gets impaired. The normal level of functioning becomes dysfunctional. One could say that the body is under-functioning because it doesn’t stop the self-harming mechanism.

It is truly an under-functioning process whereby the body cannot exercise the normal process of recognizing self-harming elements and then destroy them. By not being able to recognize self from non-self, by not having clear boundaries, it works against itself.

Learning to Define a Self

The design of the immune system is to learn and remember what belongs in the house and what doesn’t. It can recognize strangers (and self-harming behaviour). Nature is often pretty brutal, and the immune system functions in a quite reactive manner. Anything in the house that doesn’t belong gets destroyed and eliminated. To be fair, these “guests” are basically trying to move in and take over everything, which will destroy the house. Like invasive plant species, they grow and destroy what’s there. Or an irresponsible friend that moves in and eats all your food, never cleans up and sells your stuff on eBay to buy stuff for themself. Eventually, it’s all them and none of you.

Defining a self at the immune system level is something that evolved. The better at defining a self the body is, the more healthy its host will remain. This optimizes the body’s function. If the immune system under functions, this could lead to chronic impairment or a shorter lifespan. But as we have learned, the immune can over-function and attack the body where it shouldn’t. It overreacts and loses sight of self versus non-self.

When the body gets a new virus, it can’t define itself at first, and the virus moves in and replicates by using your body’s molecules. Once the immune system recognizes what’s going on, it defines self by creating an antibody response and which allows the body to recognize self from non-self and act accordingly.

Defining a Self is an Active Process

Defining a self is an active process. A healthy body, a well-functioning immune system, only gets as reactive as it needs to. As we have seen with Covid, the body can overreact, which has led to serious aspects of Covid as a disease.

I believe that nature conserves effective processes and adapts them for new purposes. Even bacteria have an immune system to ward off infections from bacteria infecting phages. Nature has conserved this process across the tree of life over hundreds of millions of years. What are the principles to be learned from how the immune system defines self?

1. Self has to have a clear definition of what self is. A conviction for what it will tolerate and won’t tolerate.

2. Self has to recognize things it won’t tolerate from things it will tolerate.

3. Self has to have a consistent, effective response to things it won’t tolerate

4. Self might temporarily impair itself while dealing with non-self

5. Self can’t avoid the investment and effort required to maintain self.

What’s Good for the Self is Good for the Body

Finally, if defining self at a physical level is good for us, isn’t defining self at a nonphysical (aka psychological self) level also good for us? Don’t the two support each other? Do your immune system a favour – work on defining self!

Thank you for your interest in learning more about systems.

Dave Galloway

To learn more about Bowen Theory, click here.

For a video series by Dr. Bowen: Bowen Basic Series

The articles that inspired this post:




Personal Growth: Six Key Learnings

By Define self

Personal growth: Individual Effort in Social Systems

Does an individual’s anxiety level vary when embarking on a journey of personal and spiritual growth? How would the existing social system react to the change? Would the level of anxiety vary over a long period? What sustains the individual on their journey? With these questions, I did a research project including in-depth interviews of ten family systems from different cultural backgrounds and localities. Here are some key lessons.

1. Personal growth is an individual effort.

As one grew and changed, the existing social system, such as one’s family system, would make a difference in the experience. The more calm and more supportive the family was, the lower the individual’s anxiety was. And vice versa. However, as the individual learned to proactively and independently grow and change, the individual embarks on a journey that is their own. S/he needs to find a new emotional, functional position with updated beliefs, moving towards differentiation from one’s old way of thinking and values. With this new functional position, no former family support would support or deter their progress in facing new challenges.

2. The level of anxiety could skyrocket when one progresses on the journey.

In the process, an individual confronts multiple pseudo selves, with the system testing their beliefs. One’s belief system is highly personal, so the process can trigger many emotional reactions. “Stress exposes the underlying emotional vulnerability. If one responds by addressing this vulnerability rather than attempting to avoid stress, one can learn to be more adaptive to stress.” The stress can be from 1) the conflicts between one’s new beliefs and one’s previous beliefs; 2) the conflicting thoughts, opinions, and behaviours of other individuals on the new journey; 3) the individual’s getting lost in the learning process of the new social environments. For example, the level of anxiety can skyrocket for one who has a hard time reconciling a high spiritual standard and their own flaws and imperfections. Here, the high standard is a stressor for the individual because of a self-judgmental attitude, a chronic pattern.

3. This lonely journey must happen within social systems.

One does not grow in isolation. Becoming a more mature and well-differentiated individual requires connecting with people. A common tendency is to seek support from other individuals with similar experiences. It may ease the anxiety in the short run before the individual finally finds a relatively stable new functional position in the system with updated beliefs. Sometimes, other individuals may further increase one’s level of anxiety. These people give the individual a place to work on differentiation!

To stay engaged in the learning process means maintaining one’s function despite anxiety in order to function as a more differentiated self, both in one’s newly founded journey and with one’s existing social systems. If the individual stayed engaged with both the learning process and their family as an integral part of their learning, with endurance, they would reflect on their experiences and solidify their own beliefs. This is a gradual process. In parallel, by staying in contact with the new community, individuals better define themselves. And staying in contact with their families of origin decreases the level of distance in the family system.

4. The social systems would gradually catch up.

If the individual maintains their level of functioning and stays in good contact, the system will “catch up” over a long period.  The emotional changes started by the individual’s journey do impact the family system. The family members, rather than projecting their anxiety onto the individual, adapt to the change of the individual. Paradoxically, the level of supportiveness from all families interviewed moved slightly toward the positive end of the spectrum. One’s effort in personal growth has a positive effect on the next generation.

5. Lower anxiety resulted from personal growth.

When individuals learned to adopt a new way of living and generate knowledge in a self-sufficient way, the level of anxiety goes down. The system establishes a new equilibrium after the first decade. From the cycle of doing-reflecting-doing, the individual gains a more comprehensive understanding of the learning process and achieves a balance between inward growth (e.g. prayer, meditation, reading) and outward growth (community building, teaching, services). At this stage, one no longer blames oneself or is overly anxious about one’s imperfection.

One is less affected by pressures from the family or the pressure from the individuals of the Community. Their own principles and convictions are supportive, and one can be open to friendships and consultation with others. One has the flexibility to listen, consult and adjust while adhering to a set of personal principles in line with one’s understanding of the Teachings. One takes ownership to change self to enhance one’s emotional connection with the surroundings, rather than relying on the community to change and provide support. A more mature person contributes to unity rather than consuming unity.

6. Having a research attitude helps.

Last but not least, the research project itself taught me about the healing effect of the research attitude. It helped me to see one’s challenges and difficulties with compassion and understanding. Struggles and tests in life are not an indicator of one’s level of differentiation and certainly not for self-blaming, but they form from a family projection process over many generations. This natural process sets the stage for us before our birth. But as actors on this natural stage, we have choices of how to play the role. To play it well is a lifelong effort that no one else can do for us.


Eve is a coach and a graduate of the Living Systems Clinical Training Program.

Read more about BOWEN THEORY

You may find this book by Ron W Richardson interesting: Polarization and the Healthier Church