Everyone, whether they had a big group, a single parent group, an adopted group, or a foster group— comes from a group of relationships called the family.
In family systems theory the family has what’s called homeostasis. Homeostasis is, “the tendency of any set relationships to strive perpetually in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence.” To put it more simply, homeostasis is how the family decides to get along, what are the rules, rituals, roles, and myths are, and how are these are reinforced. Each family can have a unique homeostasis.
The family might have rituals like: We eat every night at six o’clock. We go to church on Sunday. We all watch football on Sunday. We go to grandma’s house once a month. Dad and mom drink every night while the kids watch T.V. We decorate the Christmas tree every year at the same time.
The family system might have rules like: No one gets openly mad at dad. Kids are seen but not heard. No hitting each other. We don’t curse. No one talks about mom’s drinking. Complaining gets you what you want. Doing what you are told gets you what you want. Being different than the rest of the family is going to get you in trouble. Mom holds the anxiety for the family.
There are family roles. These are roles that children adopt around innate talents, needs to seen, needs to feel safe, or needs for approval: Jane is the hero child who takes care of everyone. Tommy is the family problem. Sally is the artist. Bob is the good boy. Tim is the rebel musician.
The family has myths—stories told over and over that honor ancestors and give the family a sense of identity: Our family has been making whiskey in these hills for ninety years. Our great grandpa came from Italy and started the olive oil business. We have been farming this land since 1901.
In family systems theory a family member’s mental health is viewed in terms of how high their level of“differentiation” is from other members. That is, how capable a family member is in being their true selves within the system.
Members who experience a high level of anxiety in their family generally achieve a low level of differentiation. They tend to respond to the family stress by repressing their emotions and needs— and looking to others for cues on how to behave. They come out of the family being undifferentiated, co-dependent, or unsure of themselves.
Members who are able to experience their families with low anxiety levels tend to have a higher level of differentiation. They are generally more confident in expressing their feelings and needs, disagreeing with others, and living out their true selves within the system while still remaining close to family members. They enter the world with a stronger core self, feel sure in their decision making, and faith that they can achieve.
How differentiated a family member becomes follows them throughout their lives unless they are able to do the work of differentiation once they leave.
For example, if a mother comes into therapy with anxiety issues we might discover that she “holds” the anxiety for other family members. She may have grown up as a child hero—a caretaker who continually self-sacrifices and worries. She may be constantly involved in taking care of the details of the household. In this way her husband is free to work, golf, and pay the bills knowing that his wife is taking care of his anxiety and the anxiety of the children. He can dump on her at the end of the day. She will take care of the children’s needs and tantrums. She won’t talk to him too much about her fears. She will remain quiet. She may pull her “good boy” son into the marriage (i.e. triangulate him) by confiding her fears more to her son than to her husband.
The therapy for this woman might include bringing in the family and having them discuss their treatment of each other— and how they can each take more responsibility for their own anxiety. It might involve encouraging the woman to talk to her family about new boundaries, to address her husband directly, discuss how she is no longer going to be a dumping ground, or ask that he listen to her concerns as much as he she listens to his. She may be encouraged to let her son be a child and stop confiding in him, and to let the children deal with more of their own problems without rescuing them, etc.
The rules and boundaries for this woman and for the family system will become healthier. The homeostasis willmature. Each family member can become more differentiated. She may find that her anxiety lessens, that she is more assertive, that she feels more empowered, and that she allows others in the family to become more empowered.
What was your role, your rituals, or your myths you grew up with in your family system? How differentiated did you become? Where do you feel you are still holding back, being undifferentiated, looking to others for how to live?
In the movie American Beauty, a family system in desperate need of therapy hits a breaking point as the dysfunctional homeostasis breaks down, the rules and roles shift, and the members’ grope for greater differentiation.
In the second video Mometrix Academy breaks down the Bowen Family System.
Take a look: