Bowen Theory

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

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

family system

Systems view of problems

By Define self

Systems view of problems.

A system view of a problem differs from how most people think of a problem. The common way of thinking stems from an individualistic cause-and-effect model. In our current culture, there is a quick-fix desire as well. Thus, the result of the cause and effect, quick fix approach is that the fix can be worse than the problem.

A system way of thinking understands a problem to be some kind of undesired functioning. The so-called “problem” is a sign that something in the system isn’t working the way we want it to. Systems are not a kind of linear sequence where A leads to B, which leads to C, etc. Systems have parts, and the parts are in relationship with each other. For example, in family systems, all the parts are in some kind of relationship with all the parts. These parts have a reciprocal (feedback) relationship with each other. Each relationship involves a process that defines that relationship. In families, we call this emotional process. There are emotional processes that define or influence each relationship that each person has with every other person in the system. Yes, that’s a lot to think about. From this perspective, it’s not useful to think about what caused a problem.

The individual model of cause and effect.

An individual model approach looks for a cause to fix the problem. An individual model often views the individual (“identified patient”) as symptomatic, dysfunctional, or broken and in need of being fixed. The terms symptom or dysfunctional can be used, but I think there is an automatic negative connotation with these terms. This is the framework of most of our medical systems. It works well in some situations but doesn’t address the underlying issue(s). For example, a teenager presents with a broken arm in the emergency room. This is a simple case of a broken individual needing a fix. However, what kind of thinking and behaviour contributed to the arm being broken? A systems perspective would seek to understand the process that led to the accident. (Of course, one always has to start with the immediate issues, e.g. get the arm in a cast).

The problem is there are multiple contributing factors.

With an individual model, one asks why did this problem occur? What caused it? Let’s say a teenager fell down some stairs and broke their arm. There’s the cause and the effect. However, they had been drinking. Maybe that’s the cause that created the effect. The teenager claims the problem was that the stairs didn’t have a proper railing to hold on to. Hmm, call the lawyers! Or maybe it was the friend that bumped into them that was the problem. Cause and effect thinking wants to find one cause to fix the problem. All Done. Move on. Families and relationships aren’t that simple.

Systems thinkers ask questions about processes, not problems.

Systems operate via processes; cause-and-effect doesn’t work with systems. The goal is to understand how the system functions by understanding the processes that define the relationships between the parts. Understanding processes, the contributors, and their contribution is how one understands the functioning of a system. This involves asking when, where, with whom, how often, and what happened before, and not “why” type questions. Natural systems don’t have a why. They have a function, so it makes sense to ask about functioning with “w” type questions.

Substance use – a process or a problem?

With substance use situations, understanding the process(es) that contributed to the substance use is very important to achieving a long-term resolution. A systems approach would understand substance use as an adaptive mechanism to deal with the discomfort in an individual’s life. How did substance use become the outcome of the individual’s functioning as part of the system? Gabor Mate wrote, “A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours.” The individual isn’t ‘broken’ or weak. The undesired functional outcome, substance use, results from all the interactions of the system they are a part of. And those interactions result from all the interactions the system’s individuals were a part of (repeat for several generations).

Lack of self is a system’s way of functioning.

Bowen Theory is about differentiation of self. So undesired functional outcomes result from the process of differentiation being impaired. While the loss of self to the system may reduce discomfort in the short term, it usually does not in the long term. The goal is to define self in order to reduce the discomfort that arises from the loss of self. Each part of the system has contributed to an individual’s loss of self so that each part can contribute to the individual developing self. All parts of the system will have to function better to avoid shifting the dysfunction to another part of the system.

Change a part, change the system.

Bowen wrote: “The family is a system in that a change in one part of the system is followed by a compensatory change in other parts of the system.” I prefer to think of the family as a variety of systems and subsystems. Systems function at all levels of efficiency, from optimum functioning to total dysfunction and failure.” Another aspect of thinking systems is that system’s functioning is the sum of the parts’ functioning, and this functioning can change. Parts of the system can function as if they were broken. Substance use is an “as if” type of functioning. The individual is functioning “as if” they were “addicted,” but this is their way of adapting to the system that they are a part of and the discomfort they feel. Change the system AND their way of adapting, and the substance use goes away. It’s simple, but not easy.

Systems: How one thinks about a problem can be the problem.

A system way of thinking about a situation removes the concepts of blame, victim, and perpetrator. It does NOT remove the consequences of individuals’ behaviours. Substance use has consequences, which is why it is problematic. But if one is not a victim, the implication is that they have played a part in the process, so they have to play a part in changing how they respond. This approach puts the ability to effect change back into the hands of the individual. They can learn to adapt to what the system presents to them in a different, more functional manner. This involves defining oneself to their system in a manner that doesn’t impose on others. It involves the individual getting very clear about what is important and acting on that conviction.

The system’s functioning is the problem.

I believe that how one thinks about a “problem” can be part of the problem. A system way of thinking is very different and opens up alternative approaches for resolving undesired functional outcomes, aka problems. In short, there are dysfunctional ways and functional ways to adapt or respond to a system. Defining a self to the system, which can be hard in the short run, is likely to be the most functional and long-lasting approach. The sooner one starts, the better!

Bowen’s definition of a family can be found in Family Therapy in Clinical Practice pp. 154-155.

Read more about Bowen Theory here:

Gabor Mate’s book is called Hungry Ghosts. Listen to this Youtube with Gabor Mate:

Biology of Desire is an excellent book on substance use.  This is a good interview:

Interdependency and Elders

Elders and Interdependency

By Uncategorized

Elders and Interdependency

To understand human nature, it’s useful to think in terms of evolution. Why would a species need elders or have an interdependency with them? For example, what is the benefit to a species of having the females live a long time after being able to have children? Or for males to live a long time after their peak fitness levels? Fitness in nature is a tradeoff between costs and benefits. Maybe fitness isn’t just about physical fitness, but also about non-physical fitness. 

Elephant matriarchs – elders make a difference.

More than once, while growing up, I heard the phrase “respect your elders.” As a child, I thought of this as “do as you are told.” But the real value of interdependence between elders and their group is clear in elephant herds. Elephants have remarkable memories. For example, they remember faces for decades. This allows the herd to recognize individuals that might have been troublemakers in years past. Herds with matriarchs over 38 years old have done better in periods of drought because they remember the location of alternate watering holes. Interdependency with elders and the group is a natural trait not specific to humans.

Humans have evolved to live in small groups of extended families. Many cultures have had some aspect of “respect your elders” as part of proper behaviour. The value of parents is they keep their offspring alive. The value of elders is the experience and knowledge they can transmit to the next generation. This type of transmission can preserve the knowledge of events that happen once every 500 years. As we have seen recently, these types of events could wipe out the group. 

The fitness value of elders and interdependency 

Evolution selects those features that enable a species to survive and thrive. If elders didn’t add value to the survival of humans, our average age would be much, much less. This is the case in other species where there is no learning to pass on (in general). The transmission of learning and experience, cultural values, and how the group thinks and reacts to various situations are all part of what makes a human being. This supports and nurtures the physical and non-physical self. Dr. Bowen captured this idea in the concept of the Multigenerational Transmission Process. 

Elders, interdependency, and functioning 

The multi-generational transmission process is the process through which one learns how to function appropriately in one’s family. This is the transmission of emotional functioning from one generation to the next. Because we are interdependent, children automatically learn how to be or how to function in their family of origin. Concepts of right and wrong, morals, beliefs, ethics, what emotions to display or not, and how to think about “self” are all transmitted. Bowen posited that the level of differentiation of the parents is transmitted as well. He wrote that “parents transmit varying levels of their immaturity to their children.” (p.167) There is some variation in the level of differentiation across each child because of the life circumstances of the family being different for each child. 

Elders make us who we are. Blame nature, not your parents.

Through this transmission process, our primary caregivers played an enormous part in making us who we are emotionally and setting our level of differentiation. They have a generation, or more, of experience to share about what shaped one’s development. They are an available resource to help one understand the environment that one developed in. The transmission of the level of differentiation is non-conscious and automatic. These processes evolved because they helped the group survive. By default, that is, by evolution, our parents always did the best, or at least all they could, given their situation. I believe this is an important concept because it helps individuals stop blaming their parents and take more responsibility for themselves. One can blame Mother Nature, but she’d probably say, “stop complaining and take advantage of being a human.” She once told me, “you think you humans have it bad. Name one other species you’d rather be.” She makes a good point.

Our elders are our best source of emotional growth. 

Elders support individuals’ physical growth by providing food, shelter, and safety. This is a secure environment from which individuals can mature and become responsible for their own food, shelter, and safety. It allows one to become functionally and financially independent. This also occurs on an emotional level as we learn to be more responsible for our emotional selves. Our most significant emotional relationships are with our principal caregivers (our parents). Learning to be differentiated in these relationships is very valuable for one’s own growth in the ability to be differentiated in any relationship. This growth makes us better partners and parents. Respecting my elders doesn’t mean that I blindly agree with everything they say. In fact, respect and differentiation support the development of each other. The beauty of working on differentiation is that it is my work. It doesn’t actually depend on how differentiated another person is. It appears that nature has provided a way for each generation to get better by allowing each generation to work on improving their level of differentiation. 

Interdependency and Differentiation 

Differentiation is about being emotionally separate while staying connected. As a social species, separate does not mean alone or isolated. It means being fully responsible for self while recognizing our mutual interdependence. As a social species, we evolved to depend on our elders for their memories, experience, and help. And those younger in the group, over time, supported the elders. Each was better off because of the other. I think that’s a useful way to think about interdependence – each party is better off because of the other party.

Elders and interdependency are based on evolution.

The value of emotionally depending on our caregivers is that we would be more likely to listen to their experiences and learn from them. It also means we would be more likely to support our elders in order to preserve that knowledge. The fact that humans evolved to be like this is evidence that it was of value to the species. What Bowen Theory reveals is that evolution also provided a way to allow individuals to develop their level of differentiation in any generation. After all, if you don’t get some level of differentiation developed, how would you put up with your kids for such a long time? Or how would they put up with you? So if you want to work on your level of differentiation, your elders are a great place to start. Respect them for that. 


Dave Galloway

To read more about elephants, see

Dr. Bowen writes about the multigenerational process on p 167 of Family Therapy in Clinical Practice.   

You can read more about this here:

You can learn more about Bowen Theory here: 

Great decisions

3 Steps to Great Decisions

By Anxiety

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

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

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

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

Step 2 – Watch your assumptions.

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

Step 3 – Trust people you trust.

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

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

Subjectivity is part of decision-making.

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

Level of differentiation and great decisions.

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

Comfort is not the basis of a great decision.

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

Better decision-making is possible.

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

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

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

Dave Galloway

This post was inspired by the following article:

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

Use regret to go forward

Use Regrets to Grow

By Uncategorized

Use the power of regrets to grow.

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

Don’t let regret keep you in the past.

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

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

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

Reframe regrets with a systems perspective.

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

I wasn’t the only one involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t regret regrets. 

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

Dave Galloway

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

Learn more about Bowen Theory here.

Check out the Bowen Center YouTube channel here.

Distress signals others to help.

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Distress behaviour is a signal for help

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

The stress of being caught in the middle 

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

Distress is a sign of weakness. The weak make friends 

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

Reading distress improves with social network size

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

Distress is one of the “top four” social signals

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

Signal your distress. Make new friends! 

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

Dave Galloway 

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

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

Read more about Bowen Theory here:

I feel your pain. Literally.

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“I feel your pain” is rooted in biology

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

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

Rats understand “I feel your pain”

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

I act on your pain as well.

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

I do feel your pain: it’s contagious.

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

Contagious feelings or empathy?

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

You feel me?

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

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

Dave Galloway

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

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

Systems thinking to move beyond blame

Change Your Paradigm and Move Beyond Blame

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Blame is about cause and effect

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

Families are systems. Emotional systems.

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

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

Problems are actually UFOs – unwanted functional outcomes in systems

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

Move beyond blame with systems thinking

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

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

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

Move beyond blame, not responsibility.

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

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

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

That’s a paradigm-level shift in thinking.

Dave Galloway

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

Read more about Bowen Theory here