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This fall I am embarking on two separate professional development (education and training) pursuits, one long planned and the other rather spontaneous. I’ll have more about finally taking the Gottman Institute Levels 1 & 2 training programs later in November, assuming my brain doesn’t explode with drinking from the firehose while on course. Before then, however, I’m unexpectedly but delightedly finding myself down the very deep rabbit hole of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS). One of my partners pointed me in this direction as a result of some of their own personal work, but given my background in systems theory, family systems in specific, it’s kind of a wonder I hadn’t crossed paths with IFS long before now.

In essence a “system” is a bunch of interconnected parts that can and do influence other system components both directly and remotely. Sometimes the influence is harmonious and the affected parts resonate in sync; sometimes the influence is discordant and jarring, and the constituent members of the system create friction, tension, or even breakage. In a healthy system, each part maintains its own discrete spatial and behavioural boundaries when interacting with other parts of the system, though as we see in many types of systems, boundary violations can rapidly become a system-wide problem as parts start to behave erratically or destructively.

“In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level of nesting, and in every field for achieving optimized equifinality.[1]” —Wikipedia

A FAMILY system looks specifically at the interconnected constituent members involved with and influencing a specific individual–usually my client(s). Family of Origin is usually the biggest source of our internalized values and beliefs/expectations about how people work, how parents and parenting work, how intimate relationships work. Even if we’re too young to understand much of the dynamics, we observe and create or invest in stories about both what we observe and what we’re taught, even when there are discrepancies in those models. A lot of my therapeutic work uses family system modelling to uncover some of the background to my clients or their current challenges and dilemmas. I use an analogy from my long years in software development to explain the value of looking backward into our origin stories before we look forward to a change process: before we can change existing pieces of code in a software package, we have to understand why that code is there in the first place. What was it meant to do? Are there any dependencies we need to investigate to loop in or remove with impending code updates? Is this a critical function that must be replaced, or is it old, superfluous functionality that we can afford to dump completely? Is the original functionality relevant or is it interfering with desired functionality?

These questions remain important when we look at how an INTERNAL family system works. Richard Schwartz, the progenitor of IFS, apologizes often for the fact that his descriptions of our internalized parts sometimes sound like he’s describing completely individuated personalities. This is not, he assures his audience repeatedly, about having some kind of dissociative identity disorder. It’s simply a way of recognizing that certain internal behavioural patterns serve distinct and unique purposes, just like human individuals in a relational system likewise inhabit distinct roles and places within that system.

There are three types of parts in IFS:

The exiles are the deeply-internalized (often to the point of compartmentalizing right out of the picture) attachment wounds that have never been adequately identified or addressed, and therefore never really given opportunity to heal. These may be early childhood issues and traumas, or emotional or psychological injuries garnered through other critically damaging experiences as adults. These are the pains we work hardest to bury so that we don’t have to deal with either the root pain, or with the fear of what that pain might cause us to do when it surfaces.

The protectors, sometimes called the firefighters, are the behaviours we adopt over time to suppress or distract the exiled pain, to keep us from looking at it or having to be disrupted by it. This is the level on which we develop our reactive coping stances, including the maladaptive ones like addictions or binge/purge behaviours, or losing ourselves in work, sex, relationships, hobbies–anything that distracts us from the pain.

The managers are the behaviours that we develop in our outward interactions with the world around us in ways that are intended to protect us. Their job is to manage the interface to others in ways that don’t trigger the exiled hurts or the protective coping strategies that mitigate those core hurts. Manager behaviours include everything from outward anger and belligerence meant to keep everyone at a Minimum Safe Distance, to compulsive care-takers who assume that “Keep Everyone Else Happy At All Costs” = “keeping myself safe from their displeasure/disappointment.”

Most of the time, the only parts of another person that those on the outside get to interact with are the manager parts, the behaviours specifically tasked with managing external interactions. For example, in individual with an angry or abusive alcoholic partner generally gets faced with the anger and abusive behaviours; they can probably see the drinking but they can’t call that out or challenge or explore it directly. The angry Manager part gets in the way every time, and drives partners back or away. The alcoholism is the Protector part, trying to self-medicate and suppress an Exiled part buried somewhere deeper in the system (fear or shame, typically).

Somewhere at the centre of all of these parts, Schwartz posits, is the core Self. Within the Self are the roots of our sense of being, which Schwartz identifies as calm, connection, compassion, and curiosity. When we can get the Managers and Protectors out of the way more effectively, we have an opportunity to heal the old wounds by bringing them into this space within the Self. IFS provides a framework to become first aware of, then acquainted with, all of the parts in systemic orbit around this core identity, working eventually towards discovering ways of more effectively smoothing out the discordance into a more-balanced, whole self.

–from Don Mangus’ “It Only Hurts When I Smirk” (click image to link)

One of the reasons why IFS resonates with me as strongly as it does is, I suspect, how it echoes many of the precepts set out by Chogyam Trungpa in his work, “Uncovering the Sanity We Are Born With.” The intersection of Eastern Buddhism and Western psychology is largely concerned with uncovering and freeing “the authentic Self” by exploring and gently uprooting the collective neuroses throttling our authentic Self over the course of our lifelong interactions with others’ expectations and projected values. IFS as a framework also provides externalizing language that gives clients some distanced perspectives on their own behaviours. Sometimes this shift is subtle, a nuanced change. Sometimes it’s earth-shattering for the client to move from, “I am an angry person” to “There’s a PART of me that is angry all the time”, a shift that represents meeting a Manager part and recognizing there’s almost certainly more going on there than just the anger. And THAT’s a shift that opens up considerable opportunities for curiosity, and maybe even a little bit of peace: if only PART of me is angry all the time, I wonder what the rest of my parts are doing? Can I connect with any of those other parts and explore them for a while, or invite them to take over for a bit?

Working within the IFS framework therefore involves sitting in a multi-way exploration of these parts; this is where it feels a little more like multiple personalities at the table, as we get curious about the purpose and function of each part in its process. We acknowledge it and ask it to step aside so that we can glimpse or interact with whatever’s buried under under that layer. I liken it to the layers of an onion, something that becomes VERY important when I confront people on their communications challenges: we’re only as good at communicating as we are at knowing WHAT it is we’re trying to communicate. And if we only know ourselves to the level of our outward Manager behaviours, that’s all we know to communicate. That’s the barest tip of a very large and complicated iceberg, and what’s BELOW the waterline is the stuff that’s probably complicating or making us miserable in relationships. But we don’t (yet) know what’s going on down there, behind the Managers and Protectors, so there’s no effective way *TO* communicate all of that.

When we lose our authentic Self like that, it’s very hard to be in healthy relationship. Rediscovering our core, exploring and learning about it, then developing the skills to communicate that understanding to others, is something IFS therapy can certainly help navigate. There is nothing more vulnerable than exploring our authentic Selves, and vulnerability is the heart of intimacy. This is as true for our relationships with ourselves as it is within our relationships with others.

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I like it when the universe provides me a thematically-associated set of triggers to point me at a blog topic. This time around we’re looking at the concept of the “locus of control”, the aspect of ourselves that enables us to either internalize and trust our personal agency, or leads us to believe we have little to no control over ourselves and we’re simply reactive agents to external forces operating upon us.

In psychology, the locus of control is often tied to the individual experience of success or failure. In relationships, however, the locus of control issue manifests a variety of ways, from the learned helplessness of a victim stance, to a common but insidious relinquishing of response agency in favour of reactivity.

This latter issue is one that has been cropping up recently in multiple conversations in and out of the therapy office. My observations of its simplest form look like this:

“I’m waiting for X to decide what to do, and the not-knowing is driving me crazy.”
“I can’t be happy/calm/less anxious until my partner is happy/calm/less anxious, but whenever I try to fix things, it seems to make everything worse.”
“I walk on eggshells whenever I don’t know what’s happening.”
“I don’t know where I end and you begin.”

Assuming we’re not dealing with any known trauma-based reactivity in the situation (hyper-vigilance as a trauma/abuse response, for example, is a whole different kettle of fish), these kinds of statements can indicate the presence of what we consider to be an externalized locus of control.

Externalizing the locus is another way of describing what Murray Bowen’s Family Systems theory describes as enmeshment or “emotional fusion”:

“Emotional fusion is emotional togetherness without the freedom of individuality. It is an unseen, unhealthy, emotional attachment where people lose their sense of self and […] unique identity […]. Emotionally fused people are needy. They look to others to mirror to them their sense of identity. Because their identity is defined by others, they require constant validation, becoming what they think others want them to be. When that occurs, relationships are not as fulfilling as they could be and there can be a sense of emptiness and feelings of “I’m not enough,” or “what’s wrong with me.” Emotional fusion can also lead to feelings of detachment and even rebellion in families as those who are hurting try to gain a sense of self.” — Kathryn Manley, MS, LPC, CST, “Be Yourself: Don’t Become Emotionally Fused,” April 16, 2015 for www.agapechristiancounselingservices.org

When we create healthy bonds in intimate relationships, we achieve in effect a kind of emotional co-regulation that includes all kinds of good things, like validation, secure attachment, supportive and reciprocal emotional labour. When we don’t have a healthy bond, when we have unhealthy or ineffective (or completely absent) boundaries within our intimate relationships, then all kinds of issues arise. We feel we can’t act independently, but must tie our emotional options reactively to other people’s choices–prioritizing their behaviours, choices, needs above our own without balance. We absorb a need to control partners, or at least their emotional states, so that we can mitigate our own, rather than maintaining clearer boundaries around “what’s your reactivity” and “what’s my reactivity” to focus on more effectively regulating our own experiences internally.

There’s a fine line between effective collaboration–choosing or creating plans with a partner that effectively reflect multiple sets of needs, values, and perspectives–and an externally projected or fused locus of control, in which we feel like we CANNOT function except as a reaction to someone else’s behaviours. If a client expresses frustration and helplessness, we almost always come back to explore where the control in the situation seems (to the client’s perspective) to reside.

Image courtesy Sally Butler
www.fish4development.co.uk

In my observations, there are some common indicators signalling potential externalized locus issues:

  • constantly waiting for someone else to say or do something so we know how to react, rather than creating initial responses that address our own needs
  • waiting or allowing other people to define what is right for us
  • requiring or responding ONLY to (or even primarily to) external validation, and feeling anxious or out of sorts when that external validation is absent (see also, broken mirrors)
  • increasing sense of responsibility and self-blame about things that go wrong in other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (in some cases, internalizing responsibility for other people’s actions is actually more about hanging our sense of self-worth on other people; it’s both a complicated self-esteem issue, AND a case of putting our self-identity in the hands of other people–a definite externalization of our locus of control)
  • feeling like we have to accept whatever comes our way from our partners, that we have no control and/or no right to ask for anything different
  • attributing even the good things that happen in our relationships to outside factors, rather than to anything we have done or factors intrinsic to ourselves

(There are some other indicators for emotional fusion in relationship listed in this article here.)

“Locus of control is often viewed as an inborn personality component. However, there is also evidence that it is shaped by childhood experiences—including children’s interactions with their parents. Children who were raised by parents who encouraged their independence and helped them to learn the connection between actions and their consequences tended to have a more well developed internal locus of control.” Richard B. Joelson DSW, LCSW, “Locus of Control: How do we determine our successes and failures?” Aug 02, 2017 for www.psychologytoday.com

There isn’t a lot of significant study yet into the family of origin impact on internal versus external locus development, though some research suggests that “Warmth, supportiveness and parental encouragement seem to be essential for development of an internal locus”. How we form and view our connections to the world around us is often informed by family models, however, often in tandem with experiences that reinforce those inherited perspectives. Ergo, it makes a certain amount of sense that we carry into our intimate adult relationships a degree of conditioning about where our personal source of agency lies. We learn through a variety of mechanisms that our success or safety or happiness is intrinsically tied to making other people successful or safe or happy, be it parents, partners, employers, children, or any other external force. This is a common underlying theme for caretakers and self-sacrificing nurturers in particular. Nurturance isn’t in and of itself a negative thing, but when we feel we cannot function unless it be in reaction to Other People’s Needs, to the point of forgetting or denying or downgrading our own repetitively, THEN there’s an externalized locus of control issue.

Part of the struggle to correct externalized loci once we’ve identified them, however, is that there is often a comorbid self-esteem issue. After a lifetime of externalizing one’s sense of validation and self-worth, it becomes difficult to trust that we even have our own needs, or have the right to ask them be met in relationships defined up to this point by our caretaking others. We have to confront anxiety issues around separating our choices from other people’s reactions; emotional initiative seems risky, if not selfish, and hard to find a balance between “you do you and I’ll do me” and feeling like we’re somehow abandoning our emotionally enmeshed posts.

What Harriet Lerner calls the “distancer-pursuer” dynamic becomes another key indicator of externalized loci in intimate relationships:

“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.” — Steve Horsmon, “How to Avoid the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern in Your Relationship”, March 6, 2017 for www.gottman.com

When we project our locus of control onto another, and that other person moves emotionally away from us somehow, OF COURSE we’re going to feel destabilized: anxious, upset, fearful, even threatened. It’s like an important part of us is being taken away, though in truth it’s more like we’re giving it away. The lack of autonomy that we feel binds or traps us, the zero tolerance for a partner’s differing perspective or opinion that threatens us–these are indicators that we have tied ourselves to someone else, that we have given our agency and control of our own emotional selves over to them… whether they have asked for and consented to that control or not. Re-developing in INTERNAL locus of control, therefore, involves a multipronged approach:

  • rebuilding self-esteem
  • developing self-trust in our choices and actions
  • internally validating our own thoughts and feelings
  • creating boundaries around our emotional experiences and those of others
  • recognizing the potential impact of our behaviours without over-assuming ownership of other people’s reactions to them (which can tie back to learning how and when to apologize effectively when we’ve transgressed)

Seems like a lot of work when we break it down like that, right? None of these steps, in and of itself, will be a small piece of work. We know that. Bringing home an individual’s locus of control is pretty much “core definition” work, for people who have never had, or never been allowed to have, a strong sense of differentiated self in their lives. As a therapist, I can’t sugar-coat what kind of challenge this sort of work will be for many. But consider the alternative…

Two weeks ago, in response to my post about differentiating between “selfish” and “self-centric”, a friend commented about “the aspect of trusting our feelings in determining our own needs and wants […] in a world that constantly tells [us] we’re “over-reacting” or “imagining it,” etc.”. Internalizing our individual locus of control is ALL about differentiating the “I” from the “we” or the “you”, in a world that tries to teach us that “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” Yes, it’s potentially some significant amounts of personal development to establish healthy differentiation in a relational system, especially for those raised in cultures, communities, families, or relationships where good boundaries are a foreign concept, or systemically destroyed from the outset. At the end of the day, however, the more we know and strengthen in ourselves, the more we have to build on when we get into relationships with others.

It’s not about jettisoning the “we”, but it IS about establishing boundaries that break the fusion, that provide us with tools to self-regulate when we don’t actually know what’s going on with or inside our partners, to break off the clinging pursuit, to work on settling our selves BEFORE we wade in to do something to or for someone else. There is a huge difference between “I want to be happy with you and be happy with myself”, and “I can’t be happy UNLESS you’re happy” (or “I need to fix your unhappiness before I can be happy myself”). The problems lie when we make our own state conditional upon, and therefore subordinate to, the state of another.

We have to do this work in a way that doesn’t keep reinforcing the enmeshment ideal of, “I contribute or affect to the success of this relationship by FIXING THE OTHER PERSON”, a tangent that comes up periodically in relational work; that still supports an externalized locus of control by hanging the idea of success on said Other Person accepting our efforts to fix them/us/the relationship. That’s not how this process is meant to be interpreted. It’s more along the lines of, “How do I become the best Me that I can? What do I bring to benefit the relationship by being confident and secure in myself?”

Breaking enmeshment or fusion and (re-)establishing an internal locus of control puts us back in control of our own lives, in charge of our own emotional well-being. It decreases our dependency on someone else’s emotional condition, and decreases the amount of emotional labour we need to do just to maintain status quo, because we’re primarily addressing our own needs and state and building faith in *that*, which can overall decrease our reactive tension in relationship and also leave us open for healthier ways of approaching intimacy.

Book Recommendations, Family Issues

When therapists introduce ourselves to potential new clients on intake, we should talk a bit about how we operate, not just in terms of our focus modalities (“I do EMDR,” “I do CBT,” “I do short-term, solution-focused therapy,” etc.), but also the larger-scale perspectives or foundational theories that direct our work. For me, this involves talking about Systems Theory, a frame of reference in which the client(s) in the room are viewed as being the therapeutic focal point of a number of “interrelated and interdependent parts” that all manage, for better or for worse, to have an impact on each other — perhaps in the present or immediate sense, perhaps in a long-fingered reach from the past.

Wikipedia has a very sciency description of Systems Theory:

A system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts that is either natural or man-made. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose or nature and expressed in its functioning. In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level[…].

I’ve written in the past in reference to Murray Bowen as the grandfather of Family Systems Theory, the cornerstone of the AAMFT approach to individual and interrelational psychotherapy. He effectively synthesized a number of slow shifts in psychoanalysis away from a purely medical model of “patient-focused” attention that left the family or broader social factors “outside the immediate field of theoretical and therapeutic interest”:

Individual theory was built on a medical model with its concepts of etiology, the diagnosis of pathology in the patient, and the treatment of sickness in the individual. Also inherent in the model are the subtle implications that the patient is the helpless victim of a disease or malevolent forces outside his control.” — Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Jason Aronson Inc., 1985; pg. 148

In his own practice, Bowen explored with his clients the sense of their own agency within the family system, and while there is certainly a sense of powerlessness for many in the face of ancient and traditional family dynamics and power struggles, Bowen noticed some interesting processes in operation for the individuals within the system. These distill to eight core concepts of Bowen’s Systems Theory, as it applies to psychotherapy within a family or broader social network:

  1. core emotional system
  2. differentiation (or not) of the individual (in most cases, specifically the client)
  3. triangulation
  4. cut-offs
  5. projections
  6. multigenerational transmission of values and expectations
  7. child/sibling positions
  8. general emotional processing beyond the core system

When I get a chance to do the quick family of origin snapshot with new clients, I’m essentially looking for information on some combination of these points. In family systems theory, even though there may only be one client in the room, to some extent we treat the family as the core emotional system — not that we’re trying to treat or fix the family as a unit, but we are trying to understand the client in front of us from the perspective of the system in which they developed. Every one of us carries from our earliest relational models a set of implicit understandings about “how people work,” “how relationships work,” what SHOULD be important or valuable to us — these invisible values, and the expectations or entitlements we attach to them, are often instilled in us by our families, starting well before we have language; we see this kind of multigenerational transmission process starting in parents with new babies who might be highly anxious about their parenting, especially when that anxiety is something learned from or triggered by THEIR OWN PARENTS’ influence on the new family.

We use system theory to look at system harmonics and cacophony, those places where the individual elements in the system are synchronized and resonate well together, or the places where something has disrupted one or more members of the system and there is discord or disruption, often felt throughout the system in a ripple effect (if we mix Systems Theory with a little Chaos Theory, we can have a really interesting conversation about “the butterfly effect“, in which small triggering events can have huge, often not-entirely-predictable impacts elsewhere in the system… something that can definitely occur when we talk about making changes to a complex relational system).

Differentiation is often a significant disruptor to the family system. An individual decides to step away from the invisible “value mass” of family behaviours and expectations, to “become their own person”, and in doing so, relinquishes their responsibility to fulfill whatever role the system has implicitly imposed on them, sometimes to the disappointment or outrage of other members of the system. From a counselling perspective, we often find our clients struggling against a system-wide reaction to their change process, hearing little more than a “change back!” hue and cry that is all about the other members of the system confronting their own personal and herd-level anxieties. Differentiation is often the most disruptive systemic process for the simple reason that it illustrates to other members of the system that it can be done. In basic terms, differentiation is the process by which an individual reprioritizes the individual as at least equal to, if not above, the larger systemic unit. Psychoanalysis, and later other modalities like Gestalt therapy, elevated the focus on the individual above all else, encouraging distinction or separation from the broader family unit if the system was felt to be infringing on the individual to be themselves in a healthy way.

Family systems being the complex herd mentalities they are, however, many individuals who felt fused into their systems could only achieve the break by effecting a complete cut-off from the family system. Bowen and his fellow clinicians noted, however, that cut-off often created as much anxiety in the individual (and in the family system) as it seemingly addressed for being IN the system. He discussed this in therms of fusion: being emotionally bound up in the system’s values didn’t necessarily change with cut-off, because the emotional fusion is still present, even if interactions with other family members is not. Differentiation as a distinct process allows the individual to remain present within the system but with an ability to hold themselves at a safe distance from engaging in the normal family politics and dynamics; they hold more of an observational capacity, not necessarily strictly neutral but certainly with a very different form of engaging in ways that don;’t leave them feeling compelled or emotionally hooked into the system in the usual ways. Often when I’m working with clients who have emotional boundary issues with family or intimate partners, this winds up being an area of considerable focus: how do we find ways of remaining SAFELY engaged but not so severely fused into the machinations of that invisible family value mass?

One of the most important tools we introduce up front to clients struggling with systemic issues is observation. We invite and assist the clients in learning to take a step back and simply watch what goes on in the family in both crisis moments and in the smooth-sailing ones. We help them discern when triangulation occurs, often taking the form of two sides in a dispute or power struggle trying to get a third party “on side” with their perspective, or having one member of an unstable partnership introducing focus on or input from, a third person/factor (child, external adult, work, therapist…) as a way of distracting from tension in the troubled dyadic connection. It’s a truism that a two-legged stool is inherently unstable; it needs at least three legs to bear weight effectively. Tension between a partnership will run high as long as the participants have only the relationship to focus on, but as soon as there is a third target for focus by at least one partner, tension will decrease at least in the short-term (even if that third-party focus takes the form of new babies or pets, workaholism, addiction, or infidelity, until those triangulated factors start to introduce their own disruptive problems into the system).

By encouraging clients to observe and witness the systemic dynamics in action, we allow for a differentiated analysis of those observed behaviours. Rather than simply engaging by unthinking default in them as a form of self-protective “herd camouflage”, we challenge the client to consider the guiding compass question, “What kind of person do I CHOOSE to be here?”, and consider what other behavioural options might be open to them in the moment. They may continue to choose the traditional engagement, but to do so now by CHOICE rather than habit returns a sense of agency to the individual, a small kind of power that allows them to stay within the system but with a subtle shift in their engagement with that system. This is the key to Bowen’s family system: the power and agency of choice is within the CLIENT’s purview, unlike within the older psychoanalytic model that pitched the client as a helpless victim of the family’s effect on them. IN the systemic view, we acknowledge and clarify the family’s impact on the client in the room, AND we also work to shift the client’s own sense of differentiated SELF within the system.

There are many different ways we can also approach helping the client discern what is valuable within the family system to retain and honour, while also allowing them to retain some emotional distance from the weight of the projections of those values. Many clients struggle with the family’s projected expectations based on traditional gender roles, or the position of birth order in families with multiple children (the eldest son, the mother’s helper, the baby of the family, the archetypal “rebellious middle child”, to name a few of the still-common sibling position factors we encounter). Immigrant families often bring cultural factors into the system that can be difficult to process when growing up in a new context. Ongoing shifts in gendered role modelling mean “traditional” relationship roles of “bread-winner” or “home-maker” are being disrupted in some generations but not in others, creating tensions in a multigenerational family model. Different education or employment opportunities have shifted considerably between generations as well. Trying to walk a fine line between “becoming one’s own person” and “remaining a part of the family” is a struggle faced by many people (perhaps nowhere so poignantly, even brutally, by our transgender clients) as they come of age, or face challenges and transitions their own families may not have faced before.

From a systemic view, our job as therapists is to hold space in our process for all these known and impactful factors in our clients’ complex lives. A systems therapist will often tell you, there may only be one person in the room with us, but there is an invisible presence of many more, evidenced in the clients’ own behaviour models and value systems. Our work becomes rooting out the effects of those systemic dynamics, helping the client observe them when they are in operation, and creating space within the client to choose who and how they wish to be within those systems. We also implicitly create permission for the client to honour what they value in the system, and find ways to shift, unhook, or outright jettison those aspects or values that no longer work for them effectively.

For more information on the core concepts of Bowen’s Family Systems Theory (in much easier language than Wikipedia’s version manages), I recommend Roberta Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory: A New Way of Thinking About the Individual and the Group.

Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Relationships, self-perception, Uncategorized

I’m not saying Freud was right to blame everything on our mothers (his misogynistic views on women are well documented), but he did have the root of an idea that Murray Bowen leveraged decades later into Family Systems Theory. Sometimes it’s easy to trace our personal challenges as adults to specific events or traumas tied to our personal histories, but other times it’s a far more subtle, potentially insidious thing to trace the nuanced impact of internalized behavioural models and “invisible values” inherited from our family systems.

Even clients who have no notable red-flag-raising events in their loving, textbook-perfect families can be surprised at just how much of their behaviour *can* be tied directly back to how they were raised, or what they experienced in the home where they grew up. One of the most common examples of this that we see in relationship counselling with individuals, couples, or poly groups, comes from people who present as happy, seemingly-well-adjusted people from families where the parents never fought, who come into counselling because they have issues connecting with their partners, or because they are anxious in their attachments, and they can’t figure out why. “My parents never argued” is probably the single most common indicator that this was likely to be a family with unhealthy coping strategies for tension and conflict, up to and including outright avoidance of contention. Given that kids inherently use their family of origin as models for behavioural development in most things inter-relational and (once they are adults) and intimacy-building, it’s unsurprising that otherwise “happy home” kids grow into adults who don’t do well with emotional intensity or all-out conflict.

I use the family of origin “snapshot” fairly extensively with many of my clients. It helps me create a picture of the client in terms of where they come from, what kinds of models they grew up with, what kinds of default responses might have been programmed in for emotional self- or co-regulation within the family system from a potentially early age. Within the first session or two, we don a verbal sketch of the principle members of the system: mom and dad, siblings, step-parents and blended family members. If there are interesting things in parental histories that seem impactful on the client’s development, we often look at the relationship between parents and grandparents as well. This tells us what family values might have been passed (or shoved) down from that generation onto the parents that potentially informed how the parents raised their own kids, at least one of whom is now sitting in my office in crisis. It’s this part of the process that’s more about the art of reconstruction, interpreting what we can discern about the family behaviours through the lens of Bowen’s System Theory into a narrative that sheds a little light on why my otherwise-happy client can’t now seem to tolerate any kind of disagreement in the relationship, and falls into an anxious fugue at anything even remotely suggesting that conflict is present.

The family of origin snapshot also sheds some light on intersibling dynamics that may impact personal development into adulthood. Looking at where the client falls in a multi-child birth order, for example, might tell us something about issues like “middle child syndrome” (perhaps the client IS the middle child, or was heavily impacted by a middle child’s behaviours), or parentification of an eldest child. Unconscious parental favouritism can have a huge impact on how kids in such a family develop into adults, as can being the “normal” child in a family that also includes a differently-abled, ill, or developmentally-handicapped child.

Sometimes the family of origin snapshot can pinpoint exact historical incidents that manifest as seemingly-disconnected physical trauma much later in life. Sometimes the group portrait makes it very clear up front that there is a systemic behavioural pattern that has produced challenging or toxic patterns in the client’s own adult life and relationships; toxic parenting or corrosive sibling rivalries will also have a profound effect on how the adult client has come to view relationships.

Once we have created the word picture of the family and the set players on the stage, we use that construct to look at how the client perceives both their role in relational drama, and how they are likely to interpret the behaviours of others around them based on what their families taught them. This runs the gamut from uncovering anxious narrative of imperfection to ego-invested narratives of “Of course I’m always right”, to “Love mean we never fight, doesn’t it? So if we’re fighting all the time, why does my partner hate me??” Because this is an interpretation, I make it clear to the clients when we do this work that just because we construct a narrative explanation that resonates with the information as we perceive it, that doesn’t mean it’s the truth, or that it’s the only truth. We put all the pieces on the board: what the client can relay about their own lived experience, what the therapist can bring in terms of clinical education and observational perspective, and we move the pieces of information around on the board until we have a storyline that explains what is known in a way that fits with both shared and unshared information (clients *ALWAYS* have more information in their heads than they share verbally in therapy; that’s just a truism of the work). Theories that don’t fit get tossed and we start again; the therapist’s own flexibility and refusal to get stuck on their own perspectives becomes a key component here, just as the client’s own willingness to see their long-held historical snapshot explained in a new perspective is important.

This part of shifting perspective is part of the narrative reframing process in which we challenge the client’s understanding of “how things work” on which they have quite likely based their adult values and decision-making models. And if they are coming into therapy because their internal models don’t seem to be influencing or sustaining the kinds of connections they say they want to have in their lives and relationships, the family of origin snapshots will go a long way towards potential roots of the problem. When we change the historical perspective, we also open the opportunity to change how the client relates to both their own history and, perhaps more importantly, the future of their own relationships. For example, a client coming from what they described on intake as, “really close and super-happy home” was struggling with the surprise dissolution of the parental marriage at the same time as the client was facing a power struggle in their own marriage. Because they feel they “turned out just fine” from this “super-happy home”, to the client it was apparent that the parenting strategies that raised them “are obviously the right ones, so if I’m using them to raise *MY* child, I’m obviously right, aren’t I?” But when we circled back around to the dissolution of the parental marriage and all the conflict that was engendering in the family, we had cause to wonder about how it was that the parents were so unhappy for so long that dissolution finally seemed the only option. That led to a conversation about emotional suppression and what that taught my client about emotional suppression and emotional validation, and we began to see how the parental choices had informed my client’s development… and how if we began to see the parental model as potentially deeply flawed in new or still-unseen ways, what did that mean for how my client had internalized that “perfect parenting model” that was at the heart of their own relationship power struggle? Suddenly, simply by looking at the family of origin snapshot from a new angle, we had a whole new perspective on what was happening for the *CLIENT* in terms of attempting to implement a flawed model, or a flawed understanding of an imperfect model.

It’s common for clients to wonder why their families become important to me as a therapist when we’re talking about what they perceive as disconnected issues. I explain about my Systems Theory background, and how it’s part of my job to hold in mid the potential impact these other factors might have on our work. It’s a lot like radio astronomy, I tell them; there are a lot of important objects out in deep space, like black holes, that we can’t see directly, but we can see and measure the effect they have on the things we *CAN* see. Family impacts on client issues work the same way; we can only determine the impact those factors have when we observe the client’s behaviours as an adult. And I freely admit, the times when my clients are most likely to perceive what therapists do as Pure Magictm is when we can put the pieces of their intake story through the Family System Theory filter and feed back to them an enhanced reflection that suddenly “explains so much”. Being able to see light bulbs or couch bombs go off in client’s heads is, I also admit, a big secret part of why we therapists Do What We Do. We love those moments when the revised narrative gains a toehold, and the new vista opens up for the client; it’s one of the things that makes it easier for clients to go forward into the work they’ve come to do. It’s like we’re the mountain sherpas who, by showing them a new understanding of the past, have opened up an unexpected path to go forward from there… and simply catching a glimpse of the path, that new understanding, gives the client tremendous hope that they’re in the right place to do the right work.

Some days, what we do really does seem like a kind of magic 🙂