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

View of Bowen theory from the admin trenches:

A retiring administrator critiques Bowen theory in action: “I think there’s a risk of theory becoming like a rule book rather than a set of ideas to try out in life combined with common sense.”

Ruth Foley interviewed by Jenny Brown

JB: Well Ruth on your retirement, after over 10 years at the Family Systems Institute, I am curious about your vantage point on what it’s like to work in a place where people are using Bowen Theory in their practice and their life. So first of all when you first started, what were your impressions of this thing called BFST?

R: My first impressions were that it was a little harsh. I recall when someone got upset and left a meeting and people didn’t rush out to comfort her. This seemed uncaring for a person like me who loves to give people a cuddle and make it better. At that time that was the one thing that stood out for me. My reaction was: “Oh my goodness this is a bit tough.”

JB: Have any of this initial impression changed for you?

R: Over time I learned that there was a respect for people being able to manage themselves. I have changed my thinking on it, but I still think that it runs the risk of being a little bit too harsh. I do however understand the reasoning behind that. I think there’s that danger that by people trying to be true to the theory they might miss just using a little bit of common sense.

JB: What I hear is that it’s not so much the struggle with Bowen theory, its people treating it like a rulebook and stopping being themselves.

R: Yes I think that’s exactly right.

JB: What are other ways your thinking has been shaped by working with a team who are informed by Bowen family systems theory?

R: It’s definitely something that you have to get your head around and it’s something that you cannot learn in a short period of time. So over the years I have seen a lot of good using it in my family, in myself and in the workplace. There’s definitely loads of really good stuff to get into.

JB: What do you think makes it so hard to learn?

R: Because it holds everybody to be responsible for themselves and I think that sometimes people don’t want to do that. They want somebody else to do it for them; and just the understanding that everybody can do it is really good. I think the understanding of triangling and who under-functions and who over-functions, that been really good for me and my family. And I suppose for me using the ‘I’ word more often; I think that one’s been a really big one. And trying to get the confidence to be able to do that in a helpful way.

JB: Do any examples stand out Ruth of using these concepts?

R: I think triangling is a big one where you can get caught up in trying to help people out and then you realise that you’re not helping at all; that you really should just be saying to them ‘you go and sort that out with…’ If it was my adult kids I have learned to say: ‘go and sort that out with your sister, don’t tell me about it , go and talk to her about it…’ I think that one was a really brilliant one for us.

JB: What difference has it made?

R:  Now we just have these laughs and say that we are triangling and off they go and have a talk about it; also learning to see under/over functioning. I think it’s been really good to back off a bit. I see that my first child  is definitely an over-functioner, so for her to back off a bit with her sister and see she can manage things quite nicely on her own is good thing.  Also in my marriage, asking my husband to step up with his family; it had gotten into a habit of me doing most of the things because he was a busy man; and it’s really no excuse. You have to leave them the room to do it. So there have been lots of things.

JB: How has theory impacted your role as an administrator?

R: I am alert to invitations to function for people. I probably just say ‘Does that make me over-function?’ and they get it. They’ll pick the piece of paper back up and say yes I’ll do that. I do over-function myself, so if it’s easy for me to just do it for them.

I find the harmony here is really good in the fact that everybody knows the theory and it’s easy to sort things out. On the whole I think that everybody is able to speak to how they’re feeling and what they think, which makes it so much nicer for workplace harmony. We can have a laugh saying ‘are you triangling? Or “am I triangling” or “is that over-functioning?’ You just have to say the word and everybody will smile and realise what’s happening so that’s fun I think.

It’s the best environment I’ve ever worked in because in a lot of previous work environments it’s a dog- eat- dog kind of situation and nobody stops to think about anybody else’s opinion for 2 seconds.

JB: So when you think about managing yourself, what’s been the hardest bit of theory to live out?

R:  I really struggle to speak clearly about a tense situation without emotion. I really struggle with that one. I know it’s healthy to express my view rather than avoid it but I’ll burn up nervous energy on that. So that for me is definitely been the hardest; but it’s good for everybody to speak up because it’s out in the open and can be sorted out and you can move on.

JB: I’ve observed over the years Ruth that you have made a real contribution in being able to be direct about what you think when something isn’t being managed responsibly.

R: I can make a contribution, sometimes I talk before I think which is not good but I can make a contribution to things.  The biggest issue I have is if I feel it’s not going to be accepted well. That’s where I struggle with it, if it’s something that feels a bit confrontational. But if it’s just general conversation or ‘I think this would work better’ I have no problem with that.

JB: It’s when you sense there will be tension as a result of it?

R: Yes, or I don’t agree with something. I tend to hold back my opinion and think ‘should I speak about that’ because when I get nervous I don’t put my words together well. Whereas after the event I can think of a beautiful sentence that would have done it really well but in my anxiety my words don’t go well.

JB: And in this next phase of life Ruth, life beyond formal work, is there anything that you think will continue to be a bit of a project that you’ve learnt while you’ve been here?

R: I think the big thing for me now will be how I manage grandchildren, to be able to let them be themselves and be able to hold back when you need to and the love and respect you give them; and all of those things that Bowen talks about is very helpful so for me I still have got to work on looking at it as my grandchildren grow up.

JB: So my final thought Ruth, is that you’ve learnt a lot without participating in any classes/workshops. What has enabled you to apply what you have?

R: I think putting it into action and seeing that it works. Before I understood this model I would try and be the mediator with my daughters. Then when I got a handle on this I would say to them ‘you go away and sort it out, don’t even tell me about it you just go and sort it out’. I saw how much better that was because if I didn’t know about their tensions then I didn’t have to worry about it; and that in turn stopped a chain reaction of worry and more triangles. It meant that it didn’t influence my thinking of either of them and I didn’t then have to know about it to have to go and tell their father with it becoming this big triangle. I think the good thing is that you can try it and see that it works. And why wouldn’t you do it if that’s the case? So I’ve purposely never done any formal training in it because I see that a lot of it is common sense that can be tried out in life.

JB: I think I hear you say that you’re learning context has been in living, not sitting in a classroom. Thanks for your interesting reflections and best wishes for your retirement. You have certainly left a legacy of applied maturity in managing your role and relationship.   

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