emotional system

How emotionally mature are you?

By emotional system

Emotional Maturity – What is it?

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

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

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

Mature Responsibility for Self

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

Dr. Bowen wrote the following about emotional maturity.

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

Emotional Maturity Checklist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Maturity for Valentine’s Day!

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

Watch this thirty-minute video on Bowen Theory in everyday life here.

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



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