Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Jenny Brown interviews Linda MacKay on her recently published Article


Linda I read your article with interest from the ANZ Journal of Family Therapy :Trauma and Bowen Family Systems Theory: Working with Adults Who were Abused as Children. I really liked the clarity about how issues of power are not ignored in Bowen theory but they sit alongside inviting people to define themselves more clearly and rise up out of the fusion that can be abusive relationships. This isn’t an easy path to take in our field with so many potential misunderstandings– What did you think was most important to clarify in your paper?


I think that’s a really important question you raise Jenny, in terms of the place of gender and power in Bowen theory and in relation to the thinking in my paper. Fifty years ago, there was very little theorising about these concepts so theorists of his time didn’t go there. As far as I am aware early attachment theorists were similar. However, whilst the concept was something Bowen didn’t refer to directly, I noted recently when rereading Chapter 7 of Family Evaluation (1988), Kerr and Bowen wrote how a “bulldozed” spouse can no longer function and “flees to survive” (p. 180), and I think how a less differentiated person must  impose their will on another to achieve some level of self-regulation. For me, any  abuse of power speaks to more  primitive processes that  humans share with other organisms who have no or much less developed pre-frontal cortices.   Being thoughtful as to what principles and values should guide behaviour is a top-down function and is fundamental to Bowen theory!

I left out a whole section on my own struggle to deal with dissociative behaviours including self-harm post an extensive trauma history in the editing process. I think it is really difficult within the therapy field to talk about one’s own family emotional processes without somehow being perceived as unprofessional or because it doesn’t fit ideas about empirically grounded scholarly work. Dr Bowen modelled for all of us how we could use our own families and our own functioning as case studies – and this actually predates feminist post-structuralist theorising that allows a place of the “I” of the researcher in any examination of discourse or data.  Poststructuralists work to dissolve the artificial barrier between the binaries of “us” and “them”, the “sane” and the “insane”, and “therapist” and “client”. Dr Bowen saw all of us as existing on a continuum with the most mature of us being at one end and severely disturbed people such as those suffering schizophrenia, at the other, so I think he was very poststructuralist!


I found it interesting that you mentioned the importance of self soothing/regulation techniques in the early stages of work. What do you draw on to lend a hand to those who are struggling to bring the overwhelming emotions of distress and panic to a level that enables some thoughtful reflection? And how do you see this fit with Bowen theory?


Being thoughtful in the face of distress and panic, now there’s a challenge!

Dr Walter Smith, the FSI’s keynote speaker at the 2011 Conference stressed the importance of practicing self-regulation techniques, saying that to get good at anything takes 10,000 hours of committed practice!

So I stress the importance of exercise, regular and committed exercise 2-3 times per week. I also stress and teach breathing and mindfulness exercises to be practiced daily in a habit forming way, even when a person doesn’t necessarily feel triggered, so that the exercises can be more easily accessed when under stress.

Probably the most useful tool I personally have found is Neurofeedback. Even though I go to the gym 3 times a week for a minimum of 45 minutes each time, Neurofeedback has reduced my own pervasive anxious and panicky symptoms in a way exercise hasn’t.In all of this, the ability to self-regulate better, that is, manage anxious states and to act more thoughtfully are core tenets of Bowen theory. Any tool or practice that can facilitate a “circuit breaker” between more primitive and regressive behaviours and more thoughtful, principle driven “top-down” activities, enhances emotional growth and wellbeing!


You finish with some thinking about the impact of your undifferentiation and how it can get you into over functioning for the traumatised client. What do you think are the biggest challenges for the professionals who are counselling people who have experienced substantial childhood trauma/abuse?


The biggest challenge for professionals who are counselling clients who have suffered trauma, is to manage the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that arise within the therapist in the face of the client’s struggles. Many therapists have learned to manage our own feelings of distress at another’s distress by being helpful.  A desire to help driven by the therapist’s reactive response, that is by over-functioning for the client can actually encourage the client to behave (and this is largely out or awareness)  in more helpless ways.  It is not possible to rescue clients from a very traumatic history – nor is it possible to sustain a demand “to be always there for them”. More often then not, therapists burn out in the face of a client’s needs for them to be more and more available to them. Predictably, clients are referred on when the weight of being over responsible for their sense of wellbeing becomes too much for the therapist. One of the most useful things ever said to me by my own Bowen coach was that if I wanted them to rescue me, they would run a mile! I was shocked and humoured, but appreciated their honesty and focus towards assisting me to rescue myself.

Click her to read Dr Linda Mackay’s article:  Trauma and Bowen Family System Theory: Working with adults who were abused as children

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