Changing Self Within Family of Origin
The following checklist is based on the work of Murray Bowen, an American family therapist. His work is different to Hellinger’s, but it can be complementary. Whereas Hellinger works with the family soul Bowen works with the family ego. Both practitioners recognize how issues can be transmitted from one generation to the next.
Hellinger’s work involves working directly with the family system/soul. After a constellation is done no special effort is required by the client. In fact the client really needs to surrender to the healing movement of the soul. So in this method there is a reliance on the greater wisdom of the soul, much like Jungian therapists rely on the greater wisdom of the “Self”.
In contrast Bowen’s work requires the client’s ongoing effort to differentiate themselves from the family system. In this system the client makes their own decision in regard to what aspects of the family life they consider healthy and which aspects they do not. Of course there are guiding principles available from the theory of family therapy. The client then adopts principles such as those outlined below to help them move toward health within their family. This then allows the client and other family members to move more freely within the family system. For more about Bowen’s theory go to: http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/theory.php Among other things it gives a very good explanation of triangles and of emotional cutoff.
Rather than thinking of the two approaches as being contradictory, it may be more useful to think of them as operating at different levels of the system. Hellinger’s approach works directly with the system, for the benefit of everyone within the system. Bowen’s approach works with the client to help them differentiate themselves from their family’s dysfunctional patterns. This in turn allows other members of the family to make healthy differentiating moves.
The following is a checklist of strategies for changing oneself in one’s family of origin. They should not be regarded as hard and fast rules, but rather as guidelines.
I. Right Motivation is Crucial – “Enlightened Self Interest”
The right motivation is one of “enlightened self interest”. Interestingly the Dalai Lama once said that true compassion is the ultimate act of self-interest. Bowen also discovered this attitude to be much more effective than trying to fix the family. There are several reasons for this:
1) If we act trying to fix others in the family for their own sakes we encounter much more resistance and rightly so as this is a patronizing attitude.
2) Moreover this attitude leads to less skilful actions as it leads to spending a lot of energy trying to analyzing other family member’s internal processes, and avoidance of being clear about our own internal processes. This is very wasteful as we can be much surer about our own thoughts, feelings and motivations than we can be about someone else’s. Nonetheless clarity about our own thoughts feelings and motivations takes mental effort, as it is easy to delude ourselves about these things.
3) Finally the right motivation leads to better resilience when things don’t work out. When we operate from the basis of enlightened self-interest we are less likely to be so deflated and resentful when other family members don’t appreciate our efforts. We are then more able to learn and find more effective ways to act.
II. Become an astute observer of your family:
A. Learn all the facts you can
1) Emphasise who,what, when, where, and HOW, not why.
2) Ask yourself questions, such as:
a. Do you know and relate to all members in all branches of your family?
b. Are you equally fair to all, including self?
c. Do you accept all members, although not necessarily approving what those members do?
B. Become aware of:
1) Your family process: the traumas, myths, patterns, rules and binds.
2) The part you play in the process – the myths you believe and the rules you follow – and decide, of those rules you follow, which ones you like and want to continue following and which ones you want to change.
III. Make a plan which can be implemented slowly in an ongoing campaign:
A. Contacting members
1) Contact family members on a one-to-one basis.
When you spend time with your family in a group in its usual setting, there is a patterned way of relating which keeps a homeostatic balance. When you meet with each member alone, you are less likely to become stuck in the patterns.
It is most important, to develop a person-to-person relationship with each parent and sibling
2) It is often easier to contact peripheral members first,
to gather more information, gain a richer perspective on your origins, before making contact with central figures, especially if there are long-term cutoffs.
3) Any cutoff member in the extended family is very important, well worth getting to know and forming your own opinion about.
A cutoff member is often one who broke the family rules, and knowing this person gives you important information. Also, it shakes up the rest of the system when you contact a cutoff member.
B. Letters, phone calls, visits
1) Writing letters can open up emotional issues from a distance. If you predict the response you expect in a letter, it may diffuse some of the intensity.
2) Writing to one parent at a time about one emotional issue can focus your effort. Then you can follow up in a visit.
3) Take responsibility for writing or calling, asking yourself if you are following dysfunctional patterns or stating your thoughts and feelings in a skilful and helpful way.
4) Initiate both the beginning and ending of phone calls.
5) Plan each visit, determining how long you will be able to relate without getting sucked back into destructive patterns.
IV. Beginning of change:
A. Take an “I” position in the family
1) Take responsibility for and make clear statements about your own feelings, thoughts, and actions without blaming the other for the way you are.
2) Control your own emotional reactiveness. Stay between serious and humorous so that you can move either way, like the zoom lens on a video camera moves in to a close-up and out to observe the whole group.
3) Humour, fantasy, and the recognition of the absurd can be valuable allies in detoxifying tense situations.
4) Keep yourself detriangled in the family
a. Insist on one-to-one communication.
b. Avoid taking sides.
c. Avoid listening to negatives about a third person.
5) If you become locked into an emotional triangle with your parents:
a. Move laterally and focus on others who are emotionally important to your parents in their generation – aunts and uncles.
b. Move vertically and focus on those in the generation above and below your parents (i.e., your grandparents, great uncles and aunts, or your siblings or cousins.)
c. Connect with someone cut off from the family.
6) Find ways to communicate clearly and openly about matters which are barely or never referred to, making the covert overt. Secrets are often withheld or differently shared, forming a boundary between the secret holder and the unaware family member which can perpetuate mystification and foster cutoffs.
7) Use your feelings as signals to yourself that you are getting sucked in when old feelings, such as anxiety, hurt and anger, surface.
8) Take advantage of birth, marriage, divorce, illness and death as prime times for family contact. It is easier to change one’s actions in the family when the family is in crisis or transition.
9) Be aware of the realignment of emotional forces following death, and how the family balance shifts to fill the void. This is a time when new emotional alliances can form or members may cut off, or those who have cut off can rejoin the family.
B. Differentiation is a three-step process:
1) You make a differentiating move.
2) You expect opposition from the family togetherness forces.
3) You know what you will do in response to the opposition forces in the family so you are not taken by surprise.
If you keep on your own calm course, eventually the family members will give up their struggle and accept that “that’s the way you are.” At that point, another family member, following your example, may make a differentiating move.
C. Bowen’s three rules for communication with family of origin:
1) Avoid counterattacking when provoked
2) Do not become defensive
3) Maintain an active relationship with other key members without withdrawing or becoming silent.
More About Murray Bowen
Bowen grew up in Waverly, Tennessee, the oldest child of a large cohesive family. After graduating from medical school and serving five years in the military, Bowen pursued a career in psychiatry. He began studying schizophrenia and his strong background in psychoanalytic training led him to expand his studies from individual patients to the relationship patterns between mother and child. From 1946 to 1954, Bowen studied the symbiotic relationships of mothers and their schizophrenic children at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Here he developed the concepts of anxious and functional attachment to describe interactional patterns in the mother-child relationship.
In 1954, Bowen became the first director of the Family Division at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He further broadened his attachment research to include fathers and developed the concept o triangulation as the central building block of relationship systems (Nichols & Schwartz, 1998. Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. 4th ed. Allyn & Bacon). In his first year at NIMH, Bowen provided separate therapists for each individual member of a family, but soon discovered that this approach fractionated families instead of bringing them together. As a result, Bowen decided to treat the entire family as a unit, and became one of the founders of family therapy.
In 1959, Bowen began a thirty-one year career at Georgetown University’s Department of Psychiatry where he refined his model of family therapy and trained numerous students, including Phil Guerin, Michael Kerr, Betty Carter, and Monica McGoldrick, and gained international recognition for his leadership in the field of family therapy. He died in October 1990 following a lengthy illness.
Bowen’s therapy is an outgrowth of psychoanalytic theory and offers the most comprehensive view of human behavior and problems of any approach to family therapy. The core goal underlying the Bowenian model is differentiation of self, namely, the ability to remain oneself in the face of group influences, especially the intense influence of family life.
Bowen M, 1978 Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, NY, Aronson