Can we use the present to resolve the past? Many individuals often want to know why they behave the way they do. (Or why their partner behaves the way they do!) Many individuals think that their past “made them,” and that created a level of “brokenness.” This is cause-and-effect thinking. Cause and effect thinking requires that you find the cause and then address the cause in order not to have the effect. Cause-and-effect thinking results from wanting to know why something happened. This is useful for solving certain types of problems that are cause and effect based. But human development embeds them in systems that are not cause-and-effect based. Systems are process and relationship based. The new James Webb telescope can serve as a “systems” example.
James Webb’s system
The James Webb telescope has travelled to a position called an L2 orbit. This position, in the solar system, is one where all the gravitational forces are in near-perfect balance, such that the position of the telescope will be stationary and stable. This is because multiple forces from the system are in balance at this position. Once it is in its functional position, staying there has to do with how the system is functioning (the mass, velocities and orbits of the planets, sun, and moons) as well as how the telescope is functioning (its mass and velocity) in the present. In short, the telescope’s past is only partly responsible for its current functional position. How it functioned all along the way to the present determines how much any of the past defines its present functioning. NASA can’t go “back” and fix anything. They can only resolve the past by adjusting the telescope’s current functioning in the present.
Families are systems too
NASA is always dealing with “this is what is, what are we going to do about it?” Since NASA can’t get the system forces to stop, it has to decide what it can and can’t do and make choices. It’s vital that they validate any assumptions to ensure they are dealing with facts. Feelings don’t matter to the solar system. Families are no different, except they have emotional forces at work instead of gravity. It’s interesting how the origin of gravity is from the Latin word “grave,” with the meaning of heavy, important, or painful.
The past doesn’t cause the present, but the present can resolve the past
Carl Jung stated, “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become”. How much do you believe you have a choice in what you become?
Dr. Kerr, who worked closely with Dr. Bowen, has written: “The past does not cause the problem in the present. [Individuals] re-create the problem in the present. Correspondingly, changing the process that unfolds in the present is the high road to resolving issues from the past” pg 8.
How do we change “the process that unfolds in the present”? This is the work of becoming a more defined self. The focus is on observing and learning about how I am responding (or reacting!) in my relationships.
Take the high road to resolving the past
The members of a family system exert emotional forces on each other. Thus, observing what I am reactive to and how that reactivity arose in my interactions is the start of the high road. By unpacking the process of an interaction, I can see what my part is in that reactivity. How much my past gets activated in the present influences my part. This is how we recreate issues in the present. I believe there is ALWAYS a “my part”. The story I make up about an interaction is an aspect of my part. How I respond is another aspect of my part. I don’t believe that others “push my buttons.” It’s as if my past created a program or an “app” that gets run in certain situations. Once I understand which “app” is running and when it runs, I can change what runs and when it runs in the present. In this way, the past may contribute, but it doesn’t cause my reactivity in the present.
The “Go Along” App – has over 7 billion downloads!
For example, it is very common for individuals to “go along” with another in order to avoid conflict or discomfort that might arise by not going along. This is like having a “go-along-with” app. Whenever certain situations arise – boom – the go-along-with app runs. Noticing how, when, how much, and with whom this happens is important. Humans all need a go-along-with app, so the challenge is when to run it or not. A person needs to decide for themselves what they will go along with and won’t go along with. We have a choice that allows us to control the app versus having it automatically run and recreate past issues in the present.
Use the present to take control of your “apps”
Our family of origin moulded our version of the go-along-with app. But when, how, and how often it runs in response to things in the present is for each of us to decide. I work to take responsibility for my apps, when they run and how they run. Blaming the past will not change the app. But getting clear about when it runs and what it does allows me to take control of the app and be thoughtful about when and how much it runs. We can literally reprogram our “apps” or stop running them. We can all be Chief Self Officers and design the self we want to become.
Yes, my family of origin is like the “app store” where I get my apps. My apps loaded without me noticing. I’m happy with a lot of the apps I have. For example, I’m glad I found the systems thinking app. It’s a big app, but I’ve found it quite useful. I use it regularly!
Check out the James Webb Telescope here.
Dr. Kerr’s book is a great resource: Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families. Please visit the Bowen Theory Academy
Check out these resources for more information on Bowen Theory.