From the Archives

Using Triangles

By From the Archives, triangles

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

Triangles transfer tension

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

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

Calmness is the antidote to tension.

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

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

Use the triangle to ask, not tell.

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

Triangles can trick you.

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

Don’t go with the flow.

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

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

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

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

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


Chronic Anxiety and balancing self in relationships

Chronic Anxiety in Physical Illness

By chronic anxiety, From the Archives

From the Archives – Chronic Anxiety in Physical Illness

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

Your Stress is my Reactivity

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

Reactions to Illness

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

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

Dr. Bowen 

Chronic Anxiety

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

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

Dr. Bowen

Level of Differentiation of Self

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

Emotion Programming and Genetics

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

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

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

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

A transcript of the recording is here.

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

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

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

Family Projection Process – From the Archive

By family projection, From the Archives

Family Projection Process

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

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

Every child belongs to a unique family.

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

The projection experiment 

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

The projection process occurs in different ways.

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

Anxiety can fuel family projection.

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

Project up and 0ut, not down and in.

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

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

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway

Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.

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

From the archive

Workplace Systems – From the Archive

By From the Archives, workplace systems

Workplace systems and family systems theory.

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

Why systems theory?

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

Most things work in calm systems.

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

Dispassionate Observer

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

Workplace systems are like family systems.

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

Projection happens in the workplace.

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

Manage down, connect up.

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

Principled leadership, calm leadership

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

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

Thank you for your interest in systems thinking.

Dave Galloway

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

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

Watch this video on Mature Organization Culture.