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

Riding the wave of emotional sensitivities: lessons from my father and surfing

By Lily Mailler

I have been studying and applying Dr Bowen’s theory for the past 13 years and it took me a while to understand the idea of emotional sensitivity that is so central to the theory.

Seeing emotional sensitivity in action in me was a big step in beginning to understand the impact it has had and continues to have in my life through the way it connects me to others and others to me. Understanding that it is part and parcel of nature, allows me to be more patient with myself and more humble about the challenges involved in managing it.

My father, who celebrated his 90 birthday this year, has a fantastic sense of humour, he is very clever and witty and one of his best qualities is his ability to laugh at himself. I believe this has stood him on good ground to face the many challenges life has dished out to him. This great sense of humour is one of the ways in which we connect, especially when he and I use it to express our own vulnerabilities. On the other hand there is another way in which my father and I connect through humour; it is a way of connecting which in the long term engenders a sense of disconnect. My “old man” has a peculiar way of laughing to himself that often precedes a sarcastic comment. I am particularly sensitive to this laugh and my stomach churns as I prepare to receive one of his clever, sarcastic digs. When this happens I am more intensely connected to him than I care to or want to be, evidence of this is that he has more control over my physiology than I do and that I have less control over how I choose to respond to his comments. My responses are mostly automatic rather than thoughtful resulting in more tension and more sensitivity between us. I have also observed that when my mother is present her emotional sensitivity to him and to me results in her own set of postures and reactions that further increase the tension between my father and me and amongst us.

Learning about my father’s relationship with his parents and the place he had in his family of origin has helped me to take his comments less personally. On a good day, when I have more awareness of myself, following his peculiar laugh I am able to take over the functioning of my stomach and calm myself enough to receive his comments in a different way and to respond rather than react. For example, after hearing what he has to say I have thanked him, tongue in cheek, for not giving up in his efforts set me on the right path.

In my experience managing emotional sensitivity is a “work out”, dealing with the challenges of natural systems and instinct requires patience and discipline. Three years ago I took up board riding at my local beach. I have been thinking that the process of managing myself in the waves is not unlike managing myself in the face of an intense interaction, such as the one I described with my father. When I am on a wave I want to make sure I manage myself versus allowing the wave to manage me. If my fear of the wave is too much, I lose the focus on myself and I am more likely to fall or get dumped. It is important to stay reasonably calm to find the right position on the board and at the same time keep an eye on what the wave is doing. It all happens very quickly, the key is to observe, breathe, practice and more practice. I believe the same applies when in the midst of intense interaction. If I want to be able to ride the wave of emotional intensity in a manner that holds me in relationship, it is important that I keep good focus on me and at the same time not lose contact with another. Sensitivity travels quickly, the key for my efforts is to observe, soothe, practice and more practice.

1 Comment

  • Dan Auerbach
    on June 16, 2014

    I did your workshop on the ‘therapists own family of origin’ a few months ago and found the ideas presented there about emotional sensitivity of lasting benefit.

    Thank you and all the best,

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