Define self

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.




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.

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:

Emotional Suffering can be reduced

Emotional Pain and Suffering are Different

By Define self

Emotional pain does “hurt”.

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

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

Emotional Suffering is a subjective experience.

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

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

Emotional pain happens. Then stories are created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More differentiation, less emotional pain, less emotional suffering

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

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

Fact versus Fiction. Differentiation in the Brain.

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

Chose to reduce emotional suffering.

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

For an excellent review of pain circuits, see:

Read more about differentiation here:

Can defining self overcome languishing?

By Anxiety, Define self

Can defining self help with languishing?

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

What is languishing?

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

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

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

Defining self can help against languishing.

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

Defining self understands this is what is.

It asks what do you want to do?

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

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

Manage Anxiety, Work on Goals, Connect with family

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

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

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

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

Thinking systems and defining self to overcome languishing

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

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

Dave Galloway

You can find the New York Times article here:

A search on the term languishing will provide other resources.

You can find a video on defining self here:

Read more about differentiation here:

Don’t miss any posts. 

What 3 + 8

Can systems thinking impact society?

By Define self

How does systems thinking impact society?

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

Bowen theory is systems thinking.

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

Anxiety in society. It’s contagious.

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

Anxiety antidote: focus on facts.

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

Managing anxiety in society.

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

Systems thinking says problems are symptoms of a dysfunctional system

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

Define self – something we can all do individually.

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

What would my most mature self do?

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

The power of one. I can impact society.

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

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

Dave Galloway

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

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

Read more about differentiation here:

Don’t miss any posts.

What is 7+4?

What is chronic anxiety

By Anxiety, Define self

Chronic Anxiety: something for everyone.

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

What’s in your programming? 

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

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

Covid programming and chronic anxiety.

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

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

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

Defining Self to reduce chronic anxiety.

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

Learning to change our response.

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

Learning takes time and effort.

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

Dave Galloway

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

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