Way, way back when I was in college, I spent some time studying family systems therapy, which was developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen beginning in the mid-1950s. In a nutshell, family systems therapy, or the Bowen Theory as it came to be called, is a theory of human behavior that views the family rather than the individual as the primary emotional unit. So when an individual “acts out” or manifests some sort of psychological or emotional disorder, rather than treat the individual in isolation, family systems therapists first seek to understand the individual’s role within his or her family-of-origin and then treat the system as a whole. A bit of justifying logic from the Bowen Center’s web site:
Family members so profoundly affect each other’s thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.” People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and distress. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree.
Of course, a client’s entire family isn’t always available for treatment, so when working with an individual, family therapists begin by mapping out the client’s family-of-origin and then tracking how emotional energy moves through (or moved through) the family. Roles played by various family members, including the client, are also mapped out, as illustrated by the diagram of dysfunctional family roles below.
Once you understand the roles people play and the way they either facilitate or disrupt the flow of emotional energy through the family, you can begin exploring ways to improve energy flow and heal the system. From a family systems point of view, if you can heal the system, you can heal the individual and vice versa. It all comes down to understanding how the two fit together.
Speaking from experience, I can say that this form of therapy is tremendously helpful, because not only do we tend to blame individuals for what are often societal or systemic problems, more often than not, we also blame ourselves. In truth, however, the problems we are experiencing are more likely due to stresses within the system. We’ve acted out or manifested something like depression or hyperactivity because we just happen to be the most susceptible or the least able to cope with the systemic dysfunction. Ending the blame game is the first step toward healing. As long as we continue to blame individuals or rail against systems, we will merely perpetuate the dysfunction. Only when we are honest about the part we play in contributing to the whole can we hope to find improved ways of coping.
While the Bowen Theory focuses exclusively on families, I’ve often reflected upon how it applies to society as a whole. This is particularly pertinent to me lately in light of a documentary I’m filming about 5 and 2 Ministries and their efforts to work with some of the most marginalized people in the city of Abbotsford, where I live.
Abbotsford’s homeless situation came to a national attention recently when some city workers decided the best way to deal with a homeless camp was to show up early one morning without warning and dump a truckload of chicken manure on the site in order to make it uninhabitable. The move prompted cries of outrage and swift apologies from City Hall. But less than two weeks later the nearby city of Port Coquitlam did exactly the same thing.
One can only imagine how citizens would have reacted if the city workers had dumped the manure in a public space frequented by more well-to-do folks (and there are plenty of them in Abbotsford). But setting aside the glaring injustice for a moment, the tactic displays a high level of frustration on all sides, a sense that all other avenues of dealing with the issue of homelessness have been tried–and failed.
If you listen to voices on both sides, as I have, you’ll find some who blame the homeless for creating the problem and others who blame the system for letting the homeless people down. In both cases, those who scapegoat are also claiming victim status. Of course, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. But as long as the two sides are united in seeking someone other than themselves to blame, the situation will remain at a stalemate. Everyone agrees that chicken manure is not the answer, but how do we decide who makes the next move–and, more importantly, what that move should be?
Perhaps it’s time to put a call in to Dr. Bowen…