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Glossary of Terms


Anxiety is usually defined as “the response of the organism to real or imagined threat.”  Clinical experience at different levels of differentiation of self suggests that anxiety is so continuously present in life, so much a fact of the individual’s and family’s patters as to be stimulated in other ways as well.  Anxiety can simply be “caught” from others even though there is no threat or imagined threat situation.

Another definition may therefore be proposed: heightened reactivity. Anxiety may be a reaction to stressors from outside the family system or the person or it may be generated from inside the system or from within the person.  It may be chronic—passed along in a family system for years or even generations.  It may be acute—relatively short-term.  The effects of anxiety in a system are multiple:  generally an increase of togetherness is evidenced by more triangling and other relationship postures.  Physical, mental, emotional or social symptoms of any intensity can occur at any level of differentiation, given enough anxiety.  Anxiety is manifest in quantitative changes in the body that includes cells, organs and organ systems, as well as thought and behavioral expressions and patterns.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

Anxiety (2)

Bowen used the term anxiety to describe emotional process in response to threat. Threats are categorized as “real” (i.e., imminent and highly likely to materialize) or “imaginary” (i.e., not imminent but nonetheless enduring, irrespective of whether they will ever materialize). Response to a real threat is called acute anxiety. Response to an imaginary threat is called chronic anxiety. Bowen theory represents a particular effort to understand how anxiety (a) is present in human relationships systems, beginning with the human family; (b) may be contained within a relationship system and transmitted among other members of the same system; (c) may be transmitted from one relationship systems to another; (d) may be transmitted from one generation to another over many generations; and (e) in the author’s view, may be transmitted from one species to another.

Bringing  Systems Thinking to Life, Expanding the Horizons for Bowen Family Systems Theory. Page 7ff.
Bergman, Ona Cohan and White, Charles M. (Editors)

Anxiety (3)

Bowen Theory views all families as experiencing some degree of chronic anxiety. Chronic anxiety is the amount of reactivity to imagined threats. The theory states that one way the chronic anxiety is managed is focus on a child. In the most common version the primary caregiver, most often the mother, focuses anxiety on one of her offspring, in the form of worry. This child, sensitive to mother’s detection of threat, naturally reacts with increased anxiety. The mother notices the increase in the child’s anxiety, and mistakenly views it as originating within the child, which re-stimulates her sense of threat, and deepens her worried focus. This begins the second cycle of a process that can repeat hundreds of times, with escalating intensity. In the child, the process results in chronic anxiety, and the higher than average reliance on others for self-regulation. The child comes to over-rely on caregivers for managing threats. The process results in a transfer of anxiety from the family to the child. In the parents, the process appears as an energetic protective response.

A Natural Systems View of Self-Injurious Behavior.
Eric Thompson, MA

Anxiety, Chronic

While specific events or issues are often the principal generators of acute anxiety, the principal generators of chronic anxiety are people’s reactions to a disturbance in the balance of a relationship system.” (Kerr & Bowen)

Anxiety is an organism’s response to a real or imagined threat. Dr. Bowen presumed that all living things experience anxiety in some form. He used the term interchangeably with emotional reactivity. Both terms indicate an increase in physical manifestations, such as heart rate and blood pressure changes, gaze aversion, fight or flight responses, and heightened alertness or fear sensations. Though a certain level of anxiety may mobilize necessary responses for human survival, some reactions to threat may not be adaptive.
Chronic anxiety differs from acute anxiety. Acute anxiety is usually a response to a real threat and is of short duration. Chronic anxiety is ordinarily a response to an imagined threat and has a more enduring quality. Various life events may disturb the balance in a family system, but once it is disturbed, family members may react more to the disturbance in the relationship system than to the events themselves. Chronic anxiety often exceeds a person’s or family’s ability to cope with it.

The Vermont Center for Family Studies

Basic Life Forces

“The theory postulates two opposing basic life forces. One is a built-in life growth force toward individuality and the differentiation of a separate self, and the other an equally intense emotional closeness.” (Bowen)

Bowen defined two life forces at work in human relationship systems, togetherness and individuality. The togetherness force entails the pressure and desire to be like others, to agree on beliefs, principles, values, and feelings. The individuality force, also termed the differentiating force, involves the impetus to define a separate self from others. Bowen viewed the differentiating force as responsible for self without making demands on others or blaming others. A person defining self to an emotional system takes action based on well thought out principles. According to Bowen, “The togetherness force assumes responsibility for the happiness, comfort, and well-being of others” while a person differentiating a self “assumes responsibility for one’s own happiness and comfort and well-being.”

The Vermont Center for Family Studies

Basic Self

The differentiated or emotionally mature part of the self. It is guided by carefully thought-out principles that form an inner guidance. Basic self is non negotiable. That is, it is not given up to other selves in relationships nor is it added to by other selves in a relationship. Therefore, its boundaries are “impermeable.” It is distinguished from the pseudo or functional self, which has more permeable boundaries, and can be added to given up in relationships with the pseudoselves of others. The functional self functions better in favorable circumstances and relationships and less well in adverse conditions. Basic self, because of its inner guidance system and less permeable boundaries, is always more reliable for best thinking, decision making and directing behavior. People higher on the scale of differentiation have more basic self, whereas people lower on the scale have less basic self.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

De-triangling (see below: Emotional Neutrality)


Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from the surrounding togetherness pressures, to say “I” when others are demanding “you” and “we.”

It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) non-anxious presence in the midst of an anxious system, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being.

It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one’s repertoire of responses when confronted by a crisis.

Generation to Generation.
Edwin H. Freidman, 1985

Differentiation (2)

Differentiation is the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation. It is a concept that can sometimes be difficult to focus on objectively. For differentiation means the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self, with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others. Differentiation is charting one’s way by mean of one’s own internal guidance system, rather than perpetually eyeing the “scope” to see where others are at. Differentiation refers more to a process than a goal that can ever be achieved.

Differentiation refers to a direction in life rather than a state of being: to the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional systems; to say “I” when others are demanding “we”; to containing one’s reactivity to the reactivity of others (which includes the ability to avoid being polarized); to maintain a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others; to knowing where one ends and another begins; to being able to cease automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes; to being clear abut one’s own person values and goals; and to taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.

It is an emotional concept, not a cerebral one; but it does require clear-headedness. And it has enormous consequence for new ways of thinking about leadership. As Dr. Murray Bowen like to say, it is a lifetime project with no one ever getting more than 70 percent there.

Differentiation is not to be equated, however, with similar sounding ideas such as individuation, autonomy or independence. First of all, it has less to do with a person’s behavior than with his or her emotional being. Second, there is a sense of connectedness to the concept that prevents the mere gaining of distance, leaving, or cutting-off as ways to achieve it. Third, as stated above, it has to do with the fabric of ones existence, one’s integrity.

Obviously, differentiation has its origin in the biological notion that cells can have no identity, purpose, or distinctiveness until they have separated from (that is, left) their progenitors. Differentiation is a prerequisite to specialization, even if one is ultimately going to fuse to accomplish one’s purpose.

But also implicit in this biological metaphor or homology is the idea that such self has little meaning if the cell cannot connect. In its simplest terms, therefore, differentiation is the capacity to be one’s own integrated aggregate-of-cells person while still belonging to, or being able to relate to, a larger colony. As already indicated, such a biological metaphor also has ramifications for thinking and the conduct of therapy, since the incapacity to achieve some balance in the self/togetherness struggle will tend to create a style of thinking that shows up in either/or, all-or-nothing, black-and-white conceptualizations and, eventually, family cutoffs. Conversely, the capacity to think systemically and avoid the polarizations characteristic of reactivity seems to go along with the emotional growth associated with differentiation….

The concept of differentiation is a focus on strength rather than pathology. It comes up fully on the side of personal responsibility rather than faulting the stars, society, the environment, or one’s parents. Despite the tinge of predestination associated with multigenerational transmission, differentiation is inherently an anti-victim, anti-blaming focus. Just as it is a variable that prevents systemic concepts from “blowing away” individual dignity, so too, when it comes to change, precisely because differentiation is a focus on the individual’s response it refuses to allow the system to take all the responsibility.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, The Edwin Friedman Estate, Page 236-237, 238-239

Differentiation (3)

…self-differentiation, by which I mean (a leader’s) capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being a coercive presence, a manipulative presence, a reactive presence, a pursing presence, or an invasive presence. It is an emphasis on the leader’s own self rather than on that of his or her followers. It is in no way an autocratic, narcissistic, or selfish presence, even though it may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own being.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, Page 286, The Edwin Friedman Estate

Differentiation (4)

Of the various constructs that compose Bowen theory, differentiation of self is the personality variable most critical to mature development and the attainment of psychological health. Differentiation of self is defined as the degree to which one is able to balance (a) emotional and intellectual functioning and (b) intimacy and autonomy in relationships (Bowen, 1978). On an intrapsychic level, differentiation refers to the ability to distinguish thoughts from feelings and to choose between being guided by one’s intellect or one’s emotions (Bowen, 1976, 1978). Greater differentiation allows one to experience strong affect or shift to calm, logical reasoning when circumstances dictate. Flexible, adaptable, and better able to cope with stress, more differentiated individuals operate equally well on both emotionally and rational levels while maintain gin a measure of autonomy within intimate relationships.

In contrast, poorly differentiated persons tend to be more emotionally reactive (Kerry & Bowen, 1988, p. 320), finding it difficult to remain calm in response to the emotionality of others. With intellect and emotions fused, they tend to make decisions on the basis of what “feels right”; in short, they are trapped in an emotional world (Bowen, 1976; Kerr, 1985).

On an interpersonal level, differentiation of self refers to the ability to experience intimacy with an independence from others. More differentiated persons are capable of taking an I Position in relationships: maintaining a clearly defined sense of self and thoughtfully adhering to personal convictions when pressured by others to do otherwise (Bowen, 1978, p. 252). Differentiation allows for flexible boundaries that permit emotional intimacy and physical union with another without fear of merger (Bowen, 1978; Kerr, 1988).

When overwhelmed by emotionality in their family relationships, poorly differentiated individuals tend to engage in fusion or emotional cutoff (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). According to Bowen theory, highly fused individuals remain emotionally “stuck” in the position they occupied in their families of origin, have few firmly held convictions and beliefs, are either dogmatic or compliant, and seek acceptance and approval above all other goals (Bowen, 1976, 1978). Emotional cutoff is personified by the reactive emotional distance, who appears aloof and isolated from others, tends to deny the importance of family, often boasts of his or her emancipation from parents, and displays an exaggerated façade of independence (Nichols & Schwartz, 1998). Whereas the fused person tends to experience separation as overwhelming, the emotionally cutoff person finds intimacy profoundly threatening. Yet both individuals are poorly differentiated, basing self-esteem largely on the approval of others and generally conforming to those around them.

Theoretically, one’s level of differentiation has a number of important consequences for an individual. Foremost, Bowen (1978) proposed that less differentiated individuals experience greater chronic anxiety: “The average level of chronic anxiety of a person and of a . . . family parallels the basic level of differentiation of that individual and family [and] the lower the level of basic differentiation, the higher the average level of chronic anxiety” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 115). According to Bowen (1976, 1978; Kerr & Bowen, 1988), less differentiated individuals also become dysfunctional under stress more easily and thus suffer more psychological and physical symptoms (e.g., anxiety, somatization, depression, alcoholism, and psychoticism).

Conversely, highly differentiated individuals are thought to demonstrate better psychological adjustment. Some evidence has emerged in support of these notions. Greene, Hamilton, and Rolling (1986) discovered that inpatient and outpatient participants, regardless of diagnosis, reported significantly lower levels of differentiation than did those in a nonclinical control group. Likewise, adults who report less fusion in their significant relationships have been shown to experience fewer self-reported health problems (Bray, Harvey, & Williamson, 1986).

More highly differentiated individuals are also expected to remain in satisfying contact with their families of origin, establish more satisfying marriages, and be effective problem solvers (Bowen, 1976, 1978). At present, only indirect support exists for the theoretical link between differentiation and marital satisfaction. Jacobson and his colleagues (Jacobson, Follette, & McDonald, 1982; Jacobson, Waldron, & Moore, 1980) found that behavioral reactivity, defined as the tendency for spouses to react at the affective level to some immediate stimulus from the partner, was associated with marital distress. Couples who reported greater marital satisfaction showed less emotional reactivity in their exchanges, whereas interactions of distressed couples were characterized by heightened emotional reactivity to immediate positive and negative events in their relationships (Jacobson, Follette, & McDonald, 1982; Jacobson, Waldron, & Moore, 1980). Harvey, Curry, and Bray (1991) observed that greater fusion and less intimacy with one’s parents predicted deficits in intimacy and greater emotional reactivity with one’s spouse.

The Differentiation of Self Inventory: Development and Initial Validation.
Elizabeth A. Skowron and Myrna L. Friedlander, University at Albany, State University of New York, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1998, Vol. 45, No. 3, 235-246

Differentiation (5)

Differentiation is a natural, automatic process through which the human individual develops from being symbiotically attached to the mother, in the context of the parental unit, to being an emotionally separate self in relation to family and others. Differentiation of self also describes a process whereby an individual intentionally seeks to define a self, become more of a separate self in relation to his or her family, usually with a coach grounded in Bowen theory who has an understanding of the process.

Differentiation can be describes as the way an individual manages the interplay of the individuality and togetherness forces within a relationship system (Kerr and Bowen, 1988, p. 95). Differentiation of self can also be describes as the ability to act for oneself without being selfish and the ability to act for others without being selfless. Differentiation involves the ability to be an individual while simultaneously functioning as a part of a team (Kerr and Bowen, 1988, p. 63).

Emotional Cutoff, Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives.
Peter Titelman, Ed., Page 20

Differentiation (6)

The…well-differentiated person knows herself, knows what she believes and what she stands for, knows what principles she will never abandon….(She) is not afraid to be flexible about and negotiate the rest, and is emotionally secure enough to take risks. The (well-differentiated) person (is someone) who primarily “stays connected” to the people and systems around her; (she) is a good listener (and) can interpret the mood of a group and shape her own behavior to that mood in a way that makes her effective. (She)…cares deeply about what others think, is always taking the “temperature” of the room, and is always looking for ways to minimize conflict and promote consensually decided actions.

The reason Friedman described (differentiation) as a dance between these two poles is that in order to be effective, one needs to be adept at using both of these poles. The person/leader stuck on the one side of “standing apart” cares little about what others are thinking, is resistant to hearing feedback, and exhibits a “my way or the highway” style, almost always to his detriment. At its extreme, this person is a tyrant. The person/leader stuck on the other side of “staying connected” stands for little, leads only by polling and sticking a wet finger in the wind, and cares way too much about what other people are thinking. At its extreme, this person is always saying “I feel your pain,” changing his mind according to the latest poll, and standing for little or nothing.

The trick, or the “dance” as Friedman would have said, is to be both – clear about who I am and what I stand for, but always connected to those around me and willing, within certain boundaries, to be flexible, vulnerable, and willing to negotiate for the good of the community. The art of leadership is the ability to move between the two poles at the appropriate times.

Fixing A Dysfunctional Family: Congress
The Dailey Beast / 11.09.14
Bishop Gene Robinson

Differentiated, Well

…by well-differentiated I do not mean someone who autocratically tells others what to do or coercively orders them around, although any leader who defines him/herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his/her own life goals; and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, on-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing. It is not as though some leaders can do this and some cannot. No one does this easily, and most leaders, I have learned, can improve their capacity.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, The Edwin Friedman Estate, Page 13

Differentiation, Level of

“Level of differentiation” describes varying levels of human adaptability. Basically it refers to the degree to which a person defines self from within self versus the degree to which self is dictated by the emotional forces surrounding him. It is the degree to which an individual is defined by the floods of anxiety that float around his systems versus the degree to which he finds himself in a thoughtful, carefully determined way. It is the degree to which the system permits people to be themselves or to what degree the system puts pressure on people to conform to its view of how they should be. At lower levels of differentiation, people require large inputs form the environment in order to function. Their own functioning is more likely to fluctuate depending on the system at the time. Such people have more of all life’s problems and are likely to be focused on as a liability to society.

Understanding Organizations, Applications of Bowen Family Systems Theory.
Edited by Ruth Riley Sagar and Kathleen Klaus Wiseman
Chapter 1: An Overview of Bowen Theory and Organizations
Kathleen B. Kerr, MSN, MA

Differentiation of Self

As a noun, a way of thinking about the variation in functioning of humans and higher mammals. People all have different abilities to adapt—that is, to deal with the exigencies of life, live in a goal directed life or achievement. The word “differential” derives from the science of embryology. In the developing fetus groups of cells that are identical in the beginning, “differentiate” from each other in order to form the different organs of the body. People fall along a theoretical spectrum of differentiation—“the scale of differential of self”—according to their unresolved emotional attachments to their parents (and to some degree, their siblings). Indices of differentiation include physical health and abilities, relationship success, intelligence, vocational success, social skills and emotional maturity. People range from very high levels of differential (theoretical “100” on the scale) of self to very levels, (theoretical “0” on the scale) depending on how much basic self is present. People at high levels, those with more basic self, tend toward more overall success in life, both vocationally and in their relationships. They also tend towards less physical, mental/emotional and social symptoms. The more basic self a person attains, the more inner direction he or she has and the more choice at any given time regarding whether to operate out of emotions or intellect. People at higher levels function more often out of their principles (these are well thought-out) than do people at lower levels.

People at lower levels have less choice between thinking and emotions; their behavior patterns are more emotion-based and automatic. Emotion-based patterns include compliance, rebelliousness and fear of rejection. Lower level individuals also have more attachment needs than do those at higher levels. Differentiation of self has a rough equivalence with emotional maturity, though it has nothing to do with chronological age. It is a broader concept, taking in all the areas of functioning of an individual, including the physical health.

The concept contains a set of rather detailed principles which, when implemented, lead not only to improved emotional and relationship functioning, but also in all other spheres. There is a direct correlation between level of differentiation and amount of basic self. At higher levels of differential, a greater amount of basic self exists and at lower levels, a smaller amount.

As an action word, a verb, differentiation of self is the continued project of people who work with family systems theory.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

Differentiation-of-self From Family Of Origin

Bowen family systems theory postulates that the basic emotional functioning of each human individual is defined in the crucible of the relationship of an individual and his primary caretakers and is an outcome of a multigenerational family emotional process. Out of these crucibles come individuals imbued with the precepts and patterned responses to life’s challenges they have absorbed from those persons most important to them, in particular, the primary caretakers, who are usually the parents. These precepts and responses define the range of flexibility to make choices in response to life’s challenges, particularly when the individual or social systems of which he is a part are under stress.

Families and individuals within families vary in the degree of flexibility they have to make choices in response to life’s challenges. Through the process of “defining a self,” individuals over time an with continuing effort may increase their range of flexibility to make choices. In the process of defining a self, individuals make systematic efforts n the context of significant relationships to come to know what they stand for and to act accordingly, while remaining in contact with those more significant to them around the issues presented. They take responsibility for their thoughts and actions; in sum, they take responsibility for themselves.

“Defining A Self Within Social Systems”
Introduction (page 81)
The Emotional Side of Organizations, Application of Bowen Theory
Editor: Patricia A. Comella et al.


An emotion is the automatic response of an organism to its environment, including others with whom the organism is in relationship. A natural, living systems is one that is shaped by the selective forces of nature which affect whether and how the system survives from generation to generation. Each member of a natural living systems responds to these selective forces in basic, fundamental ways; that is, in emotional ways. Emotions may be transmitted between and among individuals who are members of the system and it is through this emotional process that each member of a natural living system may affect the functioning of other members of the system.

Emotions organize an individual’s biology. Once class of emotions is captured by the term anxiety. Anxiety is the response of an organism to a threat.

“A Brief Summary of Bowen Family Systems Theory”
Patricia A. Comella, JD
The Emotional Side of Organizations, Applications of Bowen Theory
Edited by Patricia Comella et al.

Emotional Maturity

The ability of the individual to manage the emotional part of the self in an adaptive way. In a more mature person, long-term goals and benefits will be given priority over short-term ones when they conflict. A similar concept to differentiation of self, it is not as inclusive. (See also differentiation of self.)

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

Emotional Cutoff

Late in the development of his theory, Bowen (1978) added the concept of emotional cutoff. He described it as the “process of separation, isolation, withdrawal, running away, or denying the importance of the parental family” (382). Emotional cutoff differs from the mechanism of emotional distance…(in as much as) emotional cutoff is about distance between generations. When people cutoff, they often deny the importance of the part of the family from which they distance, or that it has any continuing impact on the way they now live their lives. The problem is that cutoff guarantees the negative patterns of emotional process in their current relationships will be ongoing. It creates a solidification and stagnation in a person’s emotional life. Those who cut off usually see the others in the family as the problem and fail to see their own participation in that family emotional process in their adult relationships. This is when history repeats itself in their current life and relationships.

Bowen (1978) said cutoff refers to “the way people handle their unresolved emotional attachments to their parents” (382). It is reflective of their level of differentiation. Unresolved emotional attachment does not mean the “unfinished business” that therapists often refer to. It is not about unfinished arguments or particular problems or issues with particular family members that remain unchanged. It is more about the nature of peoples’ emotional connection with family members and the patterns of interaction they had. Even though people can cut off from family, they cannot cut off from the unresolved emotional attachments and the automatic, anxiety-driven emotional processes that are connected with them. Bowen’s cautionary note that “time and distance do not fool and emotional systems” clearly applies here.

Polarization and the Healthier Church.
Ronald W. Richardson. Page 128-129.

Emotional Neutrality or De-triangling

Emotional neutrality was defined by Murray Bowen as the ability to be in contact with disharmony without taking a side. Bowen’s concept of emotional neutrality, as defined in theory and practiced in psychotherapy and in life, is significantly different from the conventional understanding of neutrality. Webster offers several definitions of neutrality: not taking part in either side of a dispute or war; without strongly marked characteristics; indefinite, indifferent; middling. Emotional maturity is not of these things. Rather it is a way of functioning in an emotional field of tension. Such functioning requires that one stay outside the tension while actively relating to those who are in it, and that one understands the problem with a systems perspective that goes beyond blame.

Bowen noted that the stances of “That’s not my problem” or “I’m not getting into it” were indicators of emotional reactivity, not emotional neutrality. The connotation of passiveness or indifference is especially antithetical to Bowen’s concept of emotional neutrality. Michael Kerr notes: “Neutrality does not mean fence-straddling or a wish-washy posture toward life problems.” (Kerr and Bowen, 1988, 111) One can have clear positions on the issue in a family or society and still be emotionally neutral.

A basic principle in this theoretical-therapeutic system is that the emotional problems between two people will resolve automatically if they can remain in contact with a third person who can remain free of the emotional field between them, while actively relating to each (Bowen 1978, 251).

In this carefully crafted statement, Dr. Bowen defines emotional neutrality or de-triangling as they key to therapeutic change. “Actively relating to each” means keeping the right degree of emotional distance and emotional contact, knowing what to say and balancing seriousness with humor. What the third person brings is not an answer to the problem between the two, but a way of relating that improves their chances to calm down, think, and find their own answers. The neutral one, being non-reactive or at least less reactive than the involved persons, is freer and more flexible, more able to see both sides, and more able to engage others on a thinking level. Lowering reactively and enhancing thinking is what makes the resolution of the problem possible, or even, as Bowen asserted, “automatic.”

From a systems perspective, conflict is defined as reactivity to differences. Difference per se do not create conflict. Under calm conditions, people live with differences and much of the time handle disagreements with good will and good humor. Kerr notes:

People do not have trouble getting along because of issues. These issues tend to bring out the emotional immaturity of people, and it is that immaturity, not the issues, that creates the conflict. (Kerr and Bowen, 1988, 188)

On a continuum, conflict ranges from mild to moderate to intense, based less on the issues in play than on the level of maturity of the people involved. Relatively minor issues can generate intense conflict while more serious issues may be managed with only mild conflict.

At the mild level of conflict, people are somewhat reactive but still calm enough to hear one another, exchange information, and access thinking. As ideas and information are exchanged, creative thinking allows for problem solving. Jokes and endearments are possible. The engagement reduces tension, and the ability to see solutions brings a sense of success, underscoring thrust and confidence in the relationship. Mild-level conflict is an anxiety-binding mechanism that actually works to reduce anxiety.

At the moderate level, reactivity is higher and thinking is more difficult. More energy goes into attaching and defending; there is more right-wrong polarization, over seriousness and over personalization. Without a strong effort to manage reactivity, people can easily move into escalation or will end their contact with reactive distancing and triangling.

At the intense level, reactivity is near or at the point of people losing control over their behavior. Emotion dominates thinking so that the intellectual system is more geared to winning than to finding an accord with the opponent. Polarization is intense and people see little room to move. There is a sense of stalemate, discouragement, and loss of confidence in the relationship, as well as increasing danger that the conflict will spread.

Emotional Neutrality and the Quest for Peace: Northern Ireland as a Case Study
Stephanie J. Ferrera, MSW
Family Systems, A Journal of Natural Systems Thinking in Psychiatry and the Sciences
Fall 2011
Volume 8, Number 2

Emotional System

The emotional unit, a group of individuals who, by virtue of time spent together are involved in meaningful relations. This might include groupings of other species, the human family (nuclear or extended) or workplace system. Emotions circulate from individual to individual by means of patterned emotional reactions—distance, conflict, over- and underfunctioning, and triangling.

This term may also refer to the emotional system within an individual; that is, the part of the nervous system and organs involved in emotional responses. For instance, a perception of danger may involve sense organs, such eyes and ears, reptilian or limbic brain centers, the hypothalamus alerting the adrenals, the adrenal glands secreting adrenalin, raising blood pressure and increasing cardiac output, as well as many other physiologic responses that make a fight or flight response possible.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary


The instinctual, automatic forces that operate in animals and thus, in human beings. Examples of these forces are territoriality and procreation, found in reptiles as well as complex species, or nurturance of the young and play, found only in high mammals. These reactions have an insistent quality. they originate in the various parts of the midbrain associated with these functions and are carried out by the individual’s “emotional system,” the brain-nervous system-end organs complex involved in the emotion. Emotions also include fight-or-flight reactions and patterned reactions, which get set in the developing organism with repetition.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

Emotions and Feelings

Much of the confusion about the emotional nature of the process being described (in this article) may stem from a failure to distinguish between emotions and feeling. Bowen intended the terms emotion to represent something that existed throughout the phylogenic tree. Ant colonies, baboon troops, and elephant families are all governed by an emotional system. The complexity and sophistication of emotional systems increased as the evolutionary process wound its way to Homo Sapiens. The results is that the human is as regulated by an emotional system as all the other forms of life on earth. Humans, and perhaps a few other animals, can be distinguished by the recent evolutionary acquisition of a feeling system. This feeling systems can be thought of as a capacity to be aware of the more superficial aspects of the human emotional system. While Homo sapiens can clearly be motivated by feelings, human activity is rooted in a much older and deeper process.


The word emotional…is not to be equated with feelings, which are a later evolutionary development. While it includes feelings, emotional refers primarily to the instinctual side of our species that we share in common with all other life forms.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, The Edwin Friedman Estate, Page 3

Emotional Field

Bowen has at times uses the phrase emotional field rather tan emotional system. So used, a field may be defined as an environment of influence that is not material in itself (magnetic or gravitation field, for example) but which comes into existence because of the proximity of matter to matter. However, once the field does come into being, it has more power to influence the discrete particles with it than any of those pieces of mater can influence the field they have, by their presence, “caused” to exist.

Bowen’s emphasis on emotional rather than environmental or cultural factors can be understood as an effort to stay focused on the field. And differentiation within this context becomes making oneself aware of the encompassing fiends, as well as one’s position in them, so that one can make choices.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, The Edwin Friedman Estate, Page 169

Emotional Process

Emotional process occurs automatically in a relationship context and involves the reciprocal responding of living organisms to each other and to the conditions of life to which they must adapt to survive or enjoy an acceptable level of well-being. Emotional process includes appraisals of those relationships and the conditions of life and the internal states generated by such appraisals; it is seen in nonhuman species as well as in human species. It appears to be a defining characteristic of life on Earth and essential to survival and well-being at both the individual and group levels. Without the capability to receive information from the environment, appraise threats as to the risks they pose to survival or well-being, and take appropriate action based on such appraisals, an organism’s life would be short. Emotional process is essential to adapt to the conditions of life, to survive long enough to reproduce and rear the next generation, and to achieve an acceptable level of well-being in the relationship systems to which an organism belongs.

Emotional process regulates, and at times may govern, behavior and functioning, especially during times of imminent or potential threat to survival or well-being. Striking parallels are seen among species in patterns of emotional functioning, particularly under threat conditions.

Bringing Systems Thinking to Life, Expanding the Horizons for Bowen Family Systems Theory. Page 7.
Bergman, Ona Cohan and White, Charles M. (Editors)

Emotional Process in an Organization

Emotional process is how the organization, it functional units and individuals behave in response to anxiety-provoking factors in the environment….Higher anxiety results in more emotionally driven behavior in an organization. Excessive gossiping, cliques, absenteeism, tardiness, blaming, scapegoating, over/under-functioning, bickering, and conflicts are examples of anxiety-driven behaviors we can observe in the workplace.

“Bowen Family Systems Theory As A Framework For Consultants”
Leslie Ann Fox, MA, RRA

The Emotional Side of Organizations, Application of Bowen Theory
Editors: Patricia A. Comella et al.

Emotional System

The term emotional system refers to any group of people, or other colonized form of protoplasm (herds, flocks, troops, schools, swarms and aggregates), that have developed emotional interdependencies t the point where the resulting system through which they are connected (administratively, physically, or emotionally) has evolved it own principles of organization. The structure, or resulting field, therefore tends to influence the functioning of the various members more than any of the components tends to influence the functioning of the system. A family emotional system includes the members’ thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies, and associations, their past connections individually and together. It includes their physical make up, genetic heritage, sibling positions and their parents’ sibling positions. It rotates on the axes of their respective paths within the multigenerational processes transmitted from their own families of origin, including the fusion and cut-offs. It includes the emotional history of the system itself, particularly the conditions under which it originally took shape, the effect upon it of larger emotional and physical forces, how it has dealt with transitions, particularly loss, and the quality of differentiation in the system both now and in the past, particularly of those at the top. (In effect, all the information that can be put on a genogram). An emotional system is not to be equated, however, with a “relationship system” or a “communication system,” though it includes them.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, The Edwin Friedman Estate, Page 171

Emotional System (2)

The emotional system is a product of several billion years of evolution. It is the driving force of the family and other relationship systems. The concept of the relationship system is a description of what happens among family members, their communications and interaction, whereas the concept of the emotional system is an explanation of what happens. The emotional system refers to what “energizes” the family system, and includes those aspects that humans have in common with other forms of life. It includes automatic, instinctual mechanisms such as finding food, fleeing from enemies, reproducing, rearing young, and other aspects of social relationships. Bowen (1978) postulated that the emotional system is governed by the interplay of two counterbalancing “life forces,” individuality and togetherness, which are rooted in biology. The individual force propels an organism to follow its own directives, to be an independent and distinct entity. The togetherness force propels an organism to follow the directives of others, to be dependent, connected and indistinct entity.

Emotional Cutoff, Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives.
Peter Titelman, Ed., Page 19-20

Emotional System (3)

“The emotional system is composed of genes, mitochondria, cell membranes, intercellular connections, extracellular fluids, organs, tissues, physiological systems, and all the emotional reactions supported by these components.” (Kerr & Bowen)

While Darwin theorized a physical link between the human and other life forms, Bowen theorized an emotional link between the two. “The human, by virtue of possessing an emotional system akin to what exists in all life, has major portions of his behavior governed by processes that predate the development of his complex cerebral cortex” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). The emotional system in the context of Bowen theory includes instinctual drives, reproduction, and responses controlled by the autonomic nervous system.
Bowen distinguished between emotions and feelings. This made it possible to apply the term emotional to all living things. Feelings can be felt while emotions operate outside of awareness. Feelings like joy, despair, anger, or guilt, may be a surface awareness of emotions (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). The intellectual system separates humans from other animals. Bowen made a distinction between thinking that is overly influenced by the feeling and emotional system, and thinking that is independent of it. A person who distorts reality fuses thinking with feeling and emotional states. On the other hand, objective thinking is more independent of the emotional and feeling systems (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

The Vermont Center for Family Studies

Emotional Triangles

Emotional triangles are the building blocks of any relationship system. They are its molecules. They follow their own universal laws, totally transcending the social science construction of reality, and they seem to be rooted in the nature of protoplasm itself. For they function predictably, irrespective of the gender, class, race, culture, background, or psychological profile of the people involved, and also irrespective of the relational context, family or business, the kind of business, or the nature or severity of the problem. They require a different level of inquiry, and they provide different criteria for what information is important.

…No matter who the people are or what the context, it can be said universally that emotional triangles follow the following rules: they form out of the discomfort of people with one another. They function to preserve themselves and perversely move opposite to the intention to change them. They interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner. They make it difficult for people to modify their thinking and behavior. They transmit a system’s stress to the most responsible or most focused member.

Observing how emotional triangles function is a way of objectifying relationship processes. The triangles make emotional process directly observable. They concretize the field. They demonstrate how relationship systems are self-organizing. And they support the major principle of systems thinking that it is position rather than nature that is the key to understanding a given individual’s functioning in any family or work system.

For leaders, the capacity to understand and think in terms of emotional triangles can be the key to their stress, their health, their effectiveness, and their relational binds. Almost every issue of leadership and the difficulties that accompany it can be framed in terms of the emotional triangles, including motivation, clarity, decision-making, resistance to change, imaginative gridlock, and a failure of nerve.

Emotional triangles thus have both negative and positive effects on leaders. Their negative aspect is that they perpetuate treadmills, they reduce clarity in thinking processes, they distort perceptions, they inhibit decisiveness, and they transmit stress. But their positive aspect it that when a leader can begin to think in terms of emotional triangles and map out his or her mind (or even better, on paper) the diagrams of his or her family or organization, then this analysis can help explain alliances and the difficulties being encountered in motivation or learning. This in turn can help the leader get unstuck by changing emotional process and generally help them become more objective about what is happening. It can also be an aid in evaluation the maturity of various family members or co-workers.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, The Edwin Friedman Estate, Pages 262-263

Emotional Unit

The concept of an emotional unit means that any change in the emotional functioning of one family member is predictably and automatically compensated for by changes in the emotional functioning of other family members. This has two important implications: 1) The emotional functioning of every family member plays a part in the occurrence of a medical, psychiatric, or social illness in one family member, and 2) treatment need not be directed at the symptomatic person. Not having to direct treatment at the symptomatic person brings new flexibility to many difficult clinical situations – for example, ones where the symptomatic person either refuses therapy or goes only under pressure from others.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions.
Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D., page viii

Emotional Unit, The Family as an

“The emotional functioning of individual members was so interdependent that the family could be more accurately conceptualized as an emotional unit.” (Kerr & Bowen)

Bowen’s view of the family as an emotional unit represents a significant paradigm shift. The concept of the family as an emotional unit implies a deep, multi-generational connection between family members that significantly influences the behaviors of its members outside of their conscious awareness. It conceptualizes the family as one organism. Pathology in an individual member of the family is seen as a symptom of imbalance in the family emotional system. Individuals may be more vulnerable to developing symptoms in the context of an emotional system that is out of balance.

Symptoms can fall into three categories: physical, emotional, and social dysfunction (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). For example, developing cancer, getting depressed, or committing a crime, would each be conceptualized as symptoms of emotional process in the family. This does not mean that families cause symptoms, only that they can get caught in unconscious ways of regulating anxiety that can have unanticipated consequences. This way of thinking about symptoms reduces the stigma associated with certain human problems and increases objectivity for creatively addressing them.

The Vermont Center for Family Studies


As far as I’m (Bowen) concerned, each reporduciton is that living things reproduce themselves almost exactly, but not quite. And the difference between one generation and the next and the next…is what I call evolution.

Bringing Systems Thinking to Life, Expanding the Horizons for Bowen Family Systems Theory. Page 36.
Bergman, Ona Cohn and White, Charles M. (Editors)


The family emotional unit consists of living person related through marriage, birth, adoption and strong continuous attachment. In this view of family, there are no generational boundaries. The family emotional unit functions and adapts as a single interlocking set of relationships, guided by relationship forces which have automatic responses to threats and stresses. (Smith, 2001) Some share a household, while others live thousands of miles away. Some members are dying and others are just born. Some have strong affiliation and constant contact, and others are distant and isolated. Some are functioning well, and others are not. Yet, all of these behaviors fit together into a single functioning emotional unit that is continuous over centuries. The family unit shifts and changes as it adapts to stress, threats and challenges, but from a broad perspective, these fluctuations do not alter the course of its functioning.

“Change and the Development of the Family Emotional Unit”
Walter H. Smith, Jr., Ph.D., Pittsburgh Family Systems Conference and Symposium
September 23 – 24, 2005

Family Projection Process

The concept of the family projection process is the same triangling process, but especially between parents and children. Parents focus their anxiety on their children rather than deal with the anxiety in their own relationship.

Understanding Organizations, Applications of Bowen Family Systems Theory.
Edited by Ruth Riley Sagar and Kathleen Klaus Wiseman
Chapter 1: An Overview of Bowen Theory and Organizations
Kathleen B. Kerr, MSN, MA

Family Systems Theory

Family systems theory is grounded in the assumptions that the development of a science of human behavior is possible. The human species, despite its unique qualities, is part of all life. The human emotional systems are a product of evolution and is assumed to be orchestrated by principles that are fundamental to all living systems. Much of what we do, feel, and say is anchored in the instinctual nature of man. The concept of emotional systems describes these more automatic aspects of human functioning. Feelings and subjectivity can both reflect and reinforce these automatic processes. Emotions, feeling and subjectivity are not “good” or “bad.” They are simply basic elements in human functioning and behavior. The automatic or more instinctual nature of man need not be “tamed” lest it causes havoc in human civilization. Man’s evolutionary heritage, his more automatic nature, is in part responsible for many aspect of human behavior that we revere.

Family Evaluation.
Bowen & Kerr, 1988, pg. 334

Family Therapy

Family therapy is not just a new technique for addressing family problems, but a different way of conceptualizing the human phenomenon. What the family systems model did was to shift the unity of observation from a person to a network, and to focus on the network principles that were universal rather than specific to culture….The family model turns out to be about more than families. Thus when a church, an organization, or a sports team says, “We are like a family,” more is involved here than closeness, togetherness, or emotional distance. Similarly, when efforts are made to distinguish how families are different from other institutions, the difference is one of intensity or degree rather than of kind.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, The Edwin Friedman Estate, Page 249


Emotional attachment of two or more selves or which the mother/child symbiosis is a paradigm. It can be seen in any intense important relationship, however. Both selves in a fusion are intensely emotionally reactive to each other and experience a loss or gain of self in the relationship.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

General Systems Theory

Family systems theory’s heritage emerged from the work of Ludwig Von Bertalanffy’s work on general systems theory which offered the world of the mid-twentieth century a different way of viewing science. Instead of the mechanistic models of the time, von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory argued that organisms are complex, organized, and interactive. Such an approach shifted from a linear causal model to models that required a broader, holistic orientation in order to understand fully the dynamics involved. Von Bertalanffy’s work on general systems theory found wide applicability in such fields as community planning, computer science and programming, and the social sciences. By the close of the twentieth century family systems theory had become one of the major theoretical foundations guiding empirical investigations into the study of families and from which clinical interventions and programmatic work with families were being developed.

A general systems perspective examines the way components of a system interact with one another to form a whole. Rather than just focusing on each of the separate parts, a systems perspective focuses on the connectedness and the interrelation and interdependence of all the parts. A systems perspective permits one to see how a change in one component of the system affects the other components of the system, which in turns affects the initial component. The application of the systems perspective has particular relevance to the study of the family as families are comprised of individual members who share a history, have some degree of emotional bonding, and develop strategies for meeting the needs of individual members and the family as a group (Anderson and Sabatelli 1999). Family systems theory allows one to understand the organizational complexity of families, as well as the interactive patterns that guide family interactions.

Health and Wellness, Illness and Disease

This program embodies the philosophy of Wright and Leahey who state “…nursing had come of age with its recognition of the significance of the family to health and wellness of individual family members. Equally important, nursing has recognized the influence of the family on illness. (Wright, Lorraine, and Maureen Leahey. 1994. Nurses and Families: A Guide to Family Assessment and Intervention. Philadelphia.)

“A Graduate Nursing Course Using Bowen Theory”
Gail Hilbert, NNSC, RN

The Emotional Side of Organizations, Application of Bowen Theory
Editor: Patricia A. Comella et al

Individuality and Togetherness

(Bowen) described individuality as a universal, biological life force that propels organisms toward separateness, uniqueness, and distinctiveness. He saw all life form expressing this drive toward becoming distinct entities. Bowen explained togetherness as the complementary, universal, biological life force that propels organisms toward relationship, attachment, and connectedness. For Bowen, it was the relationship between these dialectic life forces that determined an organism’s level of differentiation, this is, its capacity to function as a distinctly separate organism, while remaining in intimate connection with others and its environment.

Applying Family Systems Theory to Mediation
Wayne F. Regina, Psy.D.
Page 9

Immune response

…the immune response has been defined as the capacity to distinguish self from non-self. While that might not seem hard to do intellectually, it is not always easy to do emotionally, as any mother knows. Know where one begins and another ends is a fundamental problem. We no only need immune systems in order to survive the hostile onslaughts of pathogens, we also need them in order to love. For, when members of a species that do not possess immune systems touch, they glob together and become one new organism.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999. The Edwin Friedman Estate. Pages 235-236


Cf.: One-to-one Relationships


A leader is one who directs, commands or guides a group, one who goes first and shows the way. Leaders are thought of as individuals who stand apart from the crowd, possess a greater vision or sense of direction than others, and have strong influence on others. From an individual perspective, central questions about leadership are: What qualities make a good leader? What does an effective leader do? What is his or her leadership style?

From a systems perspective, the focus is less on the person of the leader and more on the functional state of the systems and the functional position of the leader within the system. Looking at an organization as an emotional system, we can describe its functional states, past and present, on a continua ranging from calm to anxious, from orderly to chaotic, from stable to unstable. The central questions are: What kind of leadership is the organization producing? How is it selecting it leaders? How is it supporting or undermining its leaders? The quality of leadership and the way the organization selects and responds to leaders are measure of emotional process in the organization and indicators of whether it is headed in a positive or regressive direction.

“Lesson From Nature On Leadership”
Stephanie J. Ferrera, MSW
The Emotional Side of Organizations, Applications of Bowen Theory
Editor: Patricia A. Comella et al.

Observational Blindness

It is common to think that particular individuals or groups cause problems in a community. This kind of thinking is automatic….We tend not to see the interconnections between people and the mutual influence that takes place. Murray Bowen (1978) called this “observational blindness;” that is, we have difficulty evaluating our own observations of others and their influence on us in a systemic way. We “can fail to see what is in front of us unless it fits into our theoretical frame of reference.”

Polarization and the Healthier Church
Ronald W. Richardson, Page 27.

One-to-one Relationships

A major goal in implementing Bowen theory is to achieve one-to-one relationships with everyone involved in the system, whether it is your family, or your work system, or your faith group. Of course that ideal is not always achievable, but the better we can move toward that goal the better it will be for the system as a whole.

Again, a good one-to-one relationship means I am open with you about whatever I think, feel, and want to do, or have done and I do not worry about your reaction to that openness. I do not let concern about your reactions keep me from doing something, no do I think, “You must accept me before I can do this.” Equally, I can hear your openness about these things and not have the need to condemn or judge you, or agree with you. Agreement is not the goal.

This is what I mean by intimacy. Not everyone thinks of intimacy in the same way. What some people mean is that, “We are intimate if I can tell you everything I think about other people in my life.” This is not intimacy’ it is just continuing the triangle as the chose twosome. This is the major problem with secrets. They distort relationships.

In term of preventive measures, building a one-to-one relationship with as many people as possible is one of the most important things a pastor can do for the congregation and the church community. The better you know people in your church and the more you have improved your connection with them, the better the church and its members will be able to deal with any crisis that arises. The tendency toward polarization automatically reduces.

Polarization and the Healthier Church
Ronald W. Richardson. Page 57-58.


In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true 100 percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that the “disability” seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if they had been filleted of their backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas – one whiff, and on goes the emotional gas mask and they flit. As such leaders are often “nice,” if not charming.

A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Edwin H. Friedman, 1999, The Edwin Friedman Estate, Page 254.


Polarization requires two sides that are willing to line up in opposition to each other and fight it out. If just one side continues to relate to the other, not going into opposition mode, then things can change – eventually. It is that word, “eventually,” that instigates our struggle with what I have been saying here. Our impatience is a sign of our own fusion, and our continued participation in the polarizing process. On the other hand, it isn’t patience that we need because patience means waiting for someone else to act – waiting for them to change. If this is the case, then we are not out of the polarizing stance no matter how clever we are. If we are being patient with others, we could be in a triangle. We are neither neutral nor differentiated.

It takes a strong sense of self, a higher level of differentiation, to connect to others with whom we deeply disagree and resist an investment in changing them. This means that the primary challenge we face is the one Jesus proposed. How do we define ourselves? Are we neighbor to those who differ from us? In order to be the self we want to be, do we have to have others agrees with us and support us? Or can we be with them, be interested in their welfare, and not have to have them be different?

Polarization and the Healthier Church
Ronald W. Richardson. Page 153.

Polarization (2)

C.f.: Tribalism

Pseudo self

The part of self that is negotiated in a relationship. It is more reactive, less prone to think before acting and less guided by principle. It is also determined more by the environment, especially relationships, than by the self.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

Pseudo self (2)

Bowen’s term “pseudo self” refers to that part of us that participates in fusion with others. The pseudo self is pliable. It is not solid. It is the part of self that is reactive to emotional pressure from others (to change thinking, feeling, or behavior) and gives in to the pressure to conform, or, conversely, expects others to conform, or rebel against them. It is composed of the beliefs, opinions, and principles that have been adopted from important others.

Everyone in a system has a certain degree of pseudo self, depending on their level of differentiation. As part of the fusion process, they can trade self back and forth; they can give up self to others, or they can expect others to give up self to them. We defer to others or expect them to defer to us. We change self to make them happy with us, to gain their approval, or to avoid their criticism. Most of us want to have more pseudo self than we are willing to admit or, more likely, are aware of.

Polarization and the Healthier Church
Ronald W. Richardson. Page 66.


The tendency of the organism to respond to perceived threat or the anxiety of others. It is more pronounced at lower levels of differentiation.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

Scale of Differentiation of Self

An imaginary continuum (from theoretical “9” to theoretical “100”) upon which all human beings fall, from the most differentiated to the least. A person may appear to function at a high level but if those in his or her emotional unit are not, he or she is probably gaining pseudoself from them, (gaining self at the expense of the functioning of others in the system) and so cannot be considered to actually possess the high level that is apparent.

Level of differentiation can be properly assessed only by of observation of an entire lifetime and by taking into consideration the levels of important others. The effect of circumstances shows itself on the pseudoself, not the basic self (See also Differentiation).

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary


C.f. One-to-one Relationships


Bowen theory teaches that each of us consists of an immature (undifferentiated, togetherness-oriented) side called the “pseudoself” as well as a more mature) differentiated, individuality-oriented) basic self. The pseudoself, the part of us that gives up or take on self in relationships, is guided by what it has been taught by the family, the culture, the educational system, but has never examined. The “basic self,” the differentiated self, does not “trade selfs” in relationships and is guided only by principles that it has carefully thought through. These principles or beliefs, guide the best (the mature, differentiated part) of the self.

Societal Regression and the Clergy
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD
written for: The Review and Expositor Journal

Solid Self

Bowen (1978) said the solid self is composed of the “clearly defined beliefs, opinions, convictions and life principles on which self will take action even in situations of high anxiety and duress.” The solid self refers to “who I am; what I believe; what I stand for; and what I will do or not do in a given situation.” These beliefs and stances are the result of a process of thinking over time. This more solid self reveals itself in our actions, especially in critical times when others around us are highly anxious.

Polarization and the Healthier Church
Ronald W. Richardson. Page 66-67.


A mutually dependent emotional attachment between two people. The concept comes from biology where two organisms are dependent upon each other for survival. (The human, for example, lives in symbiosis with certain bacteria present in the gastrointestinal tract. The bacteria, being fed by the human’s food, produce vitamin K, essential for the clotting of blood.) In the family, individuals who fuse selves into relationships emotionally can be thought of as being in an emotional symbiosis. To the degree that the symbiosis is resolved, or grown away from, during maturation, the individual is said to have differentiated a self. To the degree that the original tendency toward symbiosis remains, differentiation of self is incomplete and the self is vulnerable to forming other emotional dependent relationships.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary


The emotional relationships between or among individual human beings or individuals of other species. Usually all that is needed for individuals to become emotionally significant, or important to each other is for them to spend a significant amount of time together, they will begin, sooner or later, to trigger each other emotionally and the phenomenon of “passing” anxiety from one another, in patters, can be observed. These phenomena are more pronounced, the lower on the scale of differentiation the group and less so, the higher on the scale.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary

Societal Regression (cf. Emotional Process in Society)

The concept of societal regression, which Bowen also added to his theory in 1975, enlarges the concept of emotional cutoff and extends its application from the level of the family to the level of society (Bowen, 1978 pages 273-276). This concept describes the erosion of emotional function that happens to a family subjected to sustained chronic stresses beyond the capacity of the family to manage and contain the emotional process within the family relationship systems. The concepts postulates that a parallel process can occur in relationship systems other than the family when they are subjected to unrelieved stress exceeding the carrying capacity of those systems emotionally….the societal regression concept further postulates the existence of unknown, unrecognized or unacknowledged underlying conditions which promote the erosion of functioning which is characteristic of regression.

A Case Study of Observational Blindness.
Patricia A. Comella, JD
Family Systems, A Journal of Natural Systems Thinking in Psychiatry and the Sciences 2006:Volume 7, Number 2

Societal Regression

C.f. Tribalism


Three individuals emotionally related to each other start to pass their anxiety to each other, or “triangle.” Triangles are the building blocks of emotional systems. Emotional intensity takes place alternately among the different pairs forming the triangle, anxiety travels around it. In each family system there are many triangles, some of which reach out to society at large by way of friendship systems or agencies of society. In this way, society itself is built of interlocking triangles.

Extraordinary Relationships, A New Way of Thinking About Human Interaction.
Roberta M. Gilbert, MD, Glossary


There is a kind of tribal warfare between the polarized groups. Tribalism is pandemic in most of the world conflicts today, as in the Middle East. People’s loyalty or commitment is more to the group, or the tribe (the political party), than it is to a nation or a government of laws. Winning honor and recognition for “our side,” and retribution for any shaming or dishonor done to us by the other side are the primary goals of the tribe.

Polarization and the Healthier Church
Ronald W. Richardson. Page 66.


People have a biological need for each other. We are not comfortable with isolation. Some type of connectedness with another is essential and we are constantly monitoring the interactedness of that connectedness. Threats to our links with others create anxiety. Bowen has called this binding force between people, this interdependence, a force for togetherness. A varying amount of peoples’ energy is devoted to establishing and maintaining this connectedness or feeling of togetherness.

Conceptualizing Change in Relationship Systems.
Michael E. Kerr, MD

Von Bertalanffy, Ludwig

C.f. General Systems Theory (above)