bowen theory

Are You Directing or Reflecting?

When you’re close with someone, it’s easy to treat them like they’re an extension of yourself. You might act as if your family, friend group, or workplace is one giant blob of humanity. Because if the blob is anxious, you feel anxious. If the blob thinks that Bob from accounting is a mess, then yeah, maybe you do too.

The fancy word for this stuck-togetherness is emotional fusion. When fusion is strong in relationships, more of our decisions are influenced by how other people might react (or have reacted). It becomes difficult to know your own mind, what you believe and value. Your choices quickly become about stabilizing the blob instead of following your best thinking.   

The more fusion there is in relationships, the more we tend to treat people like they are ambassadors representing us. You might worry more about your boyfriend’s fashion choices, how your parents act in public, or how well your kid performs in school, because these variables have become a direct measure of your own worth.  

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How We Water Down Our Relationships

This week I’m thinking about all the ways we abandon ourselves to keep our relationships predictable and steady.

In her book Alone Together, psychologist Sherry Turkle wrote, “As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves.”

Turkle is referring to the danger of our online personas, but I’d argue that self-abandonment is hardly a modern phenomenon. People have been changing themselves to please the group since the dawn of time. Most of us can say we’ve changed beliefs to please our families, changed our fashion to match our friends’, or changed a conversation topic to avoid potential conflict.

When our goal is to please others or to avoid upsetting others, our relationships become watered-down versions of themselves.  

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The Quick and Convenient Ways We Abandon Ourselves

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we use quick social comparisons to temporarily boost our mood and functioning. Because in the absence of our own measures, we grasp for the most convenient ones.

I caught myself doing this just last night. Minutes after we had put our daughter to bed, I remembered a story I’d heard about another child’s bizarre sleep schedule. I started to tell husband this story, but then I stopped and thought.

What am I trying to accomplish here? I was trying to boost my mood by comparing my parenting choices to another’s.

Psychologists have studied how upward social comparison can motivate you to achieve more, and downward social comparison can help you feel better about yourself. This is how many people end up mommy-shaming, Internet bullying, and worshipping celebrities. But what gets lost when these strategies become our automatic way of managing our distress or uncertainty?  

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What if your love language. . . is your anxiety language?

Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages has been a constant bestseller for years. People seem to like the idea that the root of marriage problems is a disconnect in how we express love (i.e. one person speaks “words of affirmation” while the other speaks “acts of service”).

Perhaps this is true, but when people come to therapy, I tell them that I’m very interested in learning about their anxiety language. In other words, the automatic ways that relationship systems manage anxiety.

How do you keep things calm in your relationships? How do you expect others to keep you calm? Because you might find there isn’t a disconnect at all—both parties are actively participating in a predictable pattern.

These patterns could look like:

  • One person does too much, and the other lets them.  
  • One person withdraws, and the other anxiously pursues them.
  • Both people insist that it’s the other one who needs to change.
  • Both people worry about/complain about another person (often a child).
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Let People Be in Charge of Themselves

Energy is a precious resource in pandemic life. Most people are worn down, worried, and struggling to do the bare minimum. Yet somehow I still find myself using this scant energy to try and manage the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. This is not surprising, considering it’s what humans do when we get stirred up.    

Recently I was having a conversation with a therapy client who poked fun at his very human desire to have everyone like him. “If I pick a restaurant,” he admitted (referring to pre-pandemic times), “Then I will ask people five times whether they like the food.”

“What a wonderful life goal that would be,” I said. “To be able to enjoy a meal even if other people weren’t completely happy with it. And to let people be in charge of telling you if they didn’t like something.”

We both laughed at this idea, but I think it reflects the challenge of being in relationship with others. We want people to like what we like, think what we think, and do what we do, so we can avoid any discomfort or rejection.

I’ve decided that how much I let people be in charge of themselves is going to be one of the ways I evaluate my functioning this year. Because the more connected you are to someone, the easier it is to treat them like an extension of yourself. When we’re stressed, it’s easy to back away, or to overstep and overfunction. But to be in contact, and to treat that person like a capable individual. . .well that’s a true test of maturity.

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How managing other people’s emotions can make you less capable.

Do you ever become less capable when you can sense that someone is upset with you? If I worry about an editor being disappointed with me, I’m a less productive writer. If I know that a therapy client is unhappy with our work, I tend to become a less effective counselor. Sometimes it takes me months to send a thank you card, because I imagine how disappointed a person might be with its delay.

It is nearly impossible to manage one’s self when you become over-responsible for other people’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

We are all sensitive to the emotional reactions of others, but we vary in that sensitivity. Often our experiences in our family teach us how much disagreement, disapproval, or rejection are to be feared and avoided. When agreement, approval, and praise are valued above living out one’s own best thinking, then we need these things to stay calm and motivated.

To upset as few people as possible, you become an expert at deciphering their emotions. You dedicate an enormous amount of time and energy guessing what they’re thinking or feeling, or trying to pry that information out of others.

What does it look like to be more responsible for yourself, and less responsible for everyone else’s emotions? To embody your own definition of being your best self, instead of solely preventing upsetness in others?

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50 Questions to Help You Grow Up

People often come to therapy for answers. But answers have very little to do with growing up. Answers are often attempts to direct or control others. They’re more about relieving the anxiety of the moment than teaching one’s self how to navigate challenges.

I find that questions are more useful than answers when working on my own maturity. Questions engage the front of the brain, the part that can set goals and solve problems. Questions breed curiosity, and curiosity is an antidote to anxiety. It’s very hard to change what you’re not curious about.

But when you’re anxious, it can be hard to generate questions to guide you in relationships, work, and the larger world. So I’m giving you 50 examples of questions that I’ve asked myself and/or my clients about their functioning. These questions are not meant to be a quiz. Instead, I suggest you use them to spur your own thinking and develop your own questions for measuring maturity.

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How Anxiety Influences Politics (and keeps us from solving problems)

Perhaps the simplest definition of anxiety is fear. And when we perceive a threat, our thinking, behaviors, and relationships are transformed. A good chunk of politics is focused on telling us what we should be terrified about. It’s no secret that fear-based messages get higher ratings and are more likely to be shared on social media.  

There are plenty of real problems that people should fear. And some people have to fear problems that others have the privilege of not worrying about. But if we’re not careful, fear can distort and disconnect anyone from reality. This is exactly why I worry more about dying in plane crash than dying of heart disease.

It can be useful to think about how political anxiety impacts our functioning, and keeps us from helping with complex societal problems. And it’s no surprise that the politics of an anxious society resembles the functioning in an anxious family.

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What if every day was the first day of school?

My toddler started school last week. A few days before, her school sent an email encouraging parents to make the drop off quick and light to minimize anxiety. One sentence in the email stood out to me:

The energy of the person dropping off, and his/her thoughts, tone, body language, and confidence will set the tone for how a child feels about being dropped off.

There’s so much wisdom in such an obvious sentence. If a parent is anxious and clingy, a kid will believe there’s something to fear. But if a parent can act like school is manageable, then that calmness is equally contagious.  

After a successful drop off, I had a simple question for myself. What if I treated every day like it was the first day of school?

In other words, what could happen if brought that same level of observation and intention to all of my relationships?

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How Changing Yourself Changes the Game

My uncle was the youngest in his family. Growing up, I heard many tales of him terrorizing his sisters and getting away with it. He’d chop the arms off their dolls, or trap someone’s head in the car window. By the time I was born, he had abandoned his childish antics but was still an avid teaser. Since I had no siblings and wasn’t used to verbal sparring, I would cry and complain to my grandmother, who’d basically tell me to lighten up.

As I got older, my response to the teasing didn’t really mature. I would continue to rant to other family members, who merely brushed it off. The intensity of my response didn’t seem to help my cause or motivate my uncle to behave better.

When I began to learn about Bowen theory, I saw my relationship with my uncle as an opportunity for me to grow up a little. I began to play around with my responses to his teasing. He’d make a joke about a TV show I loved, and instead of playing the wounded child, I’d smile and chirp, “Well, I think it’s great!” I was amazed to see that this kind of response seemed to neutralize the situation. I had stopped stomping my feet, and this seemed to shut down his immaturity. He teased me less frequently, and I felt less provoked by it. I had changed the nature of the dance.   

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