Don’t be a chickensh*t(ter)!

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…

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • runnadaroad

    I cannot agree that, “…the truth lies somewhere in the middle…” You cannot heap responsibility on the powerless, and the homeless folks are the powerless ones in this (and almost every other) situation. The fact that they ‘choose’ to exist in a public park exists only because the powerful have exterminated their right to exist anywhere else, and physics dictates they must exist somewhere.

    • Kevin Miller

      I agree that the homeless have to exist somewhere. I’m definitely on their side in this situation. However, to be fair, their camp was a mess (and their new camp just down the road is just as bad), so I understand why some people would be upset. I have also spent time interviewing several folks who are living outside right now, and I think virtually all of them would resent being called powerless. Many of them want to take responsibility for their lives but their efforts keep getting frustrated by the authorities or other members of the homeless population. So it’s tempting to give up, to blame the system, and self-medicate. But they are struggling to rise above that sort of thing.

      • runnadaroad

        “…Many of them want to take responsibility for their lives but their efforts keep getting frustrated by the authorities or other members of the homeless population…” Doesn’t that sound to you, Kevin, like the very definition of powerless?

        • Kevin Miller

          Powerlessness means hopelessness. These folks aren’t without hope. They’ve failed in the past but there’s always tomorrow. And they’re planning for it.

          • runnadaroad

            I guess we define powerless differently. My definition does not exclude the possibility that some more powerful person-either out of pity or because they find some way to use them might end their frustration, and that they might see that as possible. But that potential power I don’t include in their actual power–as demonstrated in their efforts which have thus far been frustrated–and for which holding them responsible is just wrong-headed.

          • Kevin Miller

            To me, powerlessness means to be without hope. I think it’s more of a continuum than a category. We all have varying degrees of power and powerlessness.

  • Susan Gerard

    I like your idea of applying a system analogous to family therapy to homelessness. I disagree with runnadaroad that homeless people have had homelessness forced on them. The homeless are not a homogenous group; there are the mentally ill who cannot be forced to take their meds (these were in institutions 60 years ago) but who could be functional if they did. There are those whose every penny goes to drugs. There are some who are forced into it by the decrease of affordable housing and increased poverty. Many are an illness, accident, or paycheck away from the street. Some are there for abuse.

    The last two groups could help themselves, would welcome the opportunity to help themselves by working if jobs were available. There are free programs for drug addicts, many of whom, if they turned themselves around, would be welcomed off the street. There is little that I know of to do for the mentally ill who are on the street because of medication problems. No one in any position of power can do much for this group, or drug addicts who don’t want to participate in their own treatment.

    • runnadaroad

      I don’t quarrel with the notion that therapy has some utility in addressing the problem. Nor that many factors are involved (mentally ill, drug users, lack of affordable housing and jobs etc.). But you can’t (at least not morally or in good conscience) act as though they can easily be divided into groups and treated as though only one factor is involved. And let’s face it, the ‘solutions’ dominating public discussion are not leading to a solution, they argue that because of your last sentence nothing should be done for any of them (and the resources then returned to the ‘job creators’ to buy more private jets or to send to the Caymans). The truth is that if we could make substantial progress in ONE of the ’causes’ you cite we would see improvement in all of them because one factor causes/influences the others. Do you really think that ‘free programs for drug addicts’ are available to all (or substantially all) of the addicts as you suggest?

      • Susan Gerard

        yes, I do, as a member of SAMHSA who has run a free clinic for addicts.

        You have somehow misinterpreted my words. you say, “But you can’t (at least not morally or in good conscience) act as though
        they can easily be divided into groups and treated as though only one factor is involved.” I never implied such a thing. It is a multifactorial problem, and needs a multifactorial approach.