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

“Be your own scientist; spend time working things out for yourself.”

Blog post by Martina Palombi
Member of FSI Certificate program. Psychotherapist in private practice.


I recently attended the Family System Institute’s Annual Conference 2014 on Leadership in the Family, Community and at Work with keynote speaker Walter Howard Smith, Ph.D.The first day focused on Leadership in the Family whilst the second day focused on Leadership in Social Groups. It raised big topics. And left me with big questions. Big un-answered questions. I think deep down that was Dr Smith’s intention. At least that’s what I took from the conference: be your own scientist, spend time working things out for yourself.

What I loved about Dr Smith was how he embodied Dr Murray Bowen’s theoretical approach. This was evident to me especially in how Dr Smith taught and presented and in how he asked people to think for themselves. Dr Smith took the how of Bowen’s approach in his teaching and presentation, rather than asking people to introject the theory’s content. His encouragement was rather not to project Bowen’s theory onto one’s own experience or try and fit one’s experience into Bowen’s theory but simply do some research by way of observation which is how Bowen got to his thinking/ hypothesising and theorising in the first place. Bowen’s theory derives from research not from ideas. We are reminded of this in how Dr Smith lives out the process of research and challenges others to do the same. He is not saying, believe what I say or what Bowen says, he is saying, see for yourself. What I took from this in practice is that it might be helpful to set up an experiment, be systematic, follow it through, watch it, track it and then assess its outcome. And what might be more useful is to be engaged in the process of the experiment, the emphasis here again is on process.

In deciding why I might bother to go ahead with the challenging prospect and self discipline of being the experiment and the scientist at the same time, I currently see one motivating factor: to find out whether self regulation effects the overall functioning of my family emotional system in a way that the whole system functions more effectively. This was my big un-answered question at the conference; one that Dr Smith challenged me to research for myself. To be honest, I wanted him to answer the question. And I wanted him to say, “Yes, you self regulating will help the overall functioning of your family system”. You see, there was a subtext to my question, embedded in my (chronic) anxiety, “Please, reassure me that all the work I am doing on myself and how I am struggling to keep the focus on myself, will have an effect on other family members”.

I’m a Gestalt trained psychotherapist and have recently started training at the Family Systems Institute and in the midst of this transition of models, worldviews and paradigms I have become aware that there is a hidden hope. The hope that maybe this model will be ‘the one’ that will help me sort out my relationships. But, Dr Smith, consistent with Bowen’s thinking, answered honestly with I don’t know. I don’t know, figure it out for yourself.

I think generally speaking, Dr Smith is saying that sometimes differentiation of self or calming chronic anxiety or keeping the focus on self and self regulation does impact the overall functioning of the system effectively and sometimes it doesn’t. There are no guarantees.

And so, just as I might wish away, day in and day out, to learn to play the piano without doing any practice, so too I could wish away in my life that I and my family might one day function better without attending to the practice of this. For now, I think there is more of a chance that I might learn to play the piano by doing piano practice, just as I think there is more of a chance that in turning up to myself, to my thinking and the exploration of this question, that I might be able to answer it. Watch this space.



1 Comment

  • Nicky Fortescue
    on October 14, 2014

    Thanks Martina. I think you encapsulated Dr Smith’s input so well & I am encouraged to keep researching!

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