I thought I’d write the first few posts telling you about a few of the more important influences in how I approach my work as a psychologist. While I (like most therapists) describe my style as “eclectic”, there are several layers of theory that I primarily rely on.
The theory that I think of as the foundation of how I view human behavior and relationships is Murray Bowen’s Structural Family Systems Theory.
According to Bowen, the family, not the individual, is the basic emotional unit. Each family system tends to have its’ own baseline of anxiety.
Anxiety is seen as being triggered by external events or internal states. One example of an external trigger might be the job loss of a family member. The anxiety of the person that lost the job gets added to the collective emotional field. In addition, each family member reacts to this news in some way, adding their own anxiety to the mix.
For the internal state, almost like a set point of anxiety, each person and the entire family system can be influenced by temperament, genetic or biological influences or from events that happened in past generations.
Intense emotions, like anxiety, are highly contagious within the family unit and are also passed down through the generations. The more anxious the system, the more individual family members rely on ineffective ways to manage anxiety, e.g., conflict, cutoffs and triangulating.
What to do?
The general approach from Bowen’s theory is to step back and cultivate objectivity from the system before you plan your action.
The first step is to observe what’s going on, what you’ve gotten tangled up in, therefore gaining objectivity from the emotional field, stepping just enough outside the intensity to allow thoughtfulness to mesh with the emotions to take a more measured position while maintaining the connection to the family unit. This process can be done by any individual in the family system on their own.
The goal is to learn to manage your own anxiety by stepping back a bit from the anxiety field, all the while maintaining the vibrant connection to the rest of the family system.
If you’re interested in reading more about systems theory, check out wikipedia’s entry on Murray Bowen. I would also highly recommend anything written by Harriet Lerner. She starts with Bowen’s framework and, writing in an accepting, nonjudgmental (and female) voice, makes it easy to see how these ideas can work in real relationships.
And stay tuned! I’ll write more in future posts about how I apply this way of thinking to systems in general, not just family systems, but other systems you are a part of, such as your relationship with your partner, your workplace, and other groups you belong to.
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