Societal Emotional Processes

Societal Emotional Processes

How does Bowen Family Systems Theory
translate to the larger societal system?

 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead (1902-1978)

Societal Emotional Processes, on the face of it, a self-evident oxymoron. What kinds of emotions can a society be said to possess? How does Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) translate to the larger societal system? What insight and guidance might thinking systemically provide for treatment interventions, problem solving and conflict resolution?

In his 1973 paper, “Society, Crisis, and Systems Theory,” Murray Bowen proposed a theory to incorporate the interactions between (1) individual “acting-out” or oppositional behavior, (2) multigenerational family dysregulation, and (3) more complex societal issues, involving:

  • Educational institutions
  • Social service agencies
  • Law enforcement and criminal justice proceedings
  • Religious establishments governmental regulation

Vulnerability to emotional alliances in lieu of goal-directed interests leads to the creation of triangles, an organizational threesome of interlocking relationships that can reduce anxiety and stabilize a system but almost always guarantees that the core issues never get resolved. When we get anxious and flooded and overwhelmed, we stop thinking and react inappropriately. We project and we stigmatize and we discriminate and we scapegoat.

In many businesses and institutions the basic problems that exist on the highest administrative level are triangled and re-triangled again and again until the conflict surfaces between two employees low in the administrative hierarchy, or is shifted onto clients and customers. Listening to “the language of triangle,” Bowen noted the following signs of increasing tension and emotional issues in administrative, legal, social and political systems;

  • People withdrew or became silent,
  • Formed cliques and alliances, or
  • Would talk and gossip about others.

People with better levels of differentiation keep the emotional “needs” of family members sufficiently contained within the family, so that there is little need to shift emotional needs to relationships outside the family. People who cut-off from their own parental families are the most vigorous in their efforts to create “substitute” families from social relationships.

Ronald B. Cohen of Family Focused Solutions LLC discusses Bowen Family Systems Theory in the context of the society.Bowen wrote “The process of seeking work relationships, in lieu of family relationships, for the fulfillment of emotional needs, is further intensified by administrative policy and by bosses who encourage a ‘happy family’ attitude in the work situation.” “Less well-differentiated bosses are more inclined to make decisions based on the feeling of the moment rather than on principle and reality.”

Increased social anxiety, and a resulting decrease in the functional level of the society as a whole, can result in a gradual lowering of the functional level of its families. Conversely Jenny Brown wrote, “Think about the benefits to society at large if more people took on the growing-up challenge and saw their efforts to manage their anxiety and be principle-driven as a way of bringing more maturity to their society!”

Working on the process of differentiation of self offers us all a way out of this dilemma. Bowen noted, “Any time one key member of an organization can be responsibly responsible for self, the problem in the organization will resolve.” The effort is most productive if focused on the process and not the content of issues. “It is accurate to say that if:

(1) self can do a reasonable job in defining the problem, and

(2) self is able to make some progress in modifying self, then

(3) the problems within his sphere of responsibility will work toward automatic resolution.”

In conclusion,

Think globally/systemically; Act locally/individually.

Now go and study.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning family ties that bind in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information or contact me directly for any reason, please click here. If you found this post helpful, please don’t keep it a secret. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page and share this article with your own networks. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Constance Mentzer on March 7, 2015 at 11:29 am said:

    We’ve seen this dynamic play out through the tragic circumstances surrounding the Ferguson, Missouri. Three systems are in a state of emotional cut-off: local law enforcement, Ferguson’s African American community, and the media, which feeds on perpetuating anxiety and immaturity. The public further perpetuates the dysfunction by entrenching in groups, which are long on opinion and fear, and short on self-differentiation. Each faction is highly fused and there is no real attempt to step back from all of the broad characterizations.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on March 11, 2015 at 6:09 pm said:

      Hi Constance,

      The connection between family emotional process and societal regression is amount of chronic anxiety and level of self-differentiation. In a paper on “Stress, Society, and The Individual, Daniel Papero noted that emotionally reactive behaviors in a societal context follow the same attack – defend, pursue – withdraw, interactions as do familial relationships. Coalitions and group conflict are analogous to fusion and cut-off. The better-differentiated person has goal directed interests to motivate his/her life work. Such an individual can become a leader for positive change by working to develop a more solid self and a higher functional level of differentiation. “One emotionally reactive and upset person can be aided by another who does nothing more than stay in contact and remain calmer than the upset other”. Sometimes it’s best to just stand there and witness.


      — Ron

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