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Intentional Living: Resisting the Pull of Unhelpful Family Patterns.

In Family Therapy we call our Family of Origin our first school of life and love. This is because our first family is the one in which we first start to learn about ourselves, relationships, and life. Often, we take these lessons unconsciously with us, and they guide our decision making, relationship patterns, values, and principles, and even our parenting style. E.g.,, people often parent as they were parented … or the direct opposite if they didn’t have a great experience or decided they didn’t like a particular parenting practice and wanted to do it differently. Either way, the forces of Family of Origin are strong influences, and can even pull us into unhelpful and unhealthy patterns.

Why is this? Why is our first school of life and love so powerful? And is it the only thing that shapes us?

Family Therapy is particularly helpful in understanding the influence of our first family, and also, all the events, relationships, and experiences that follow and also shape us. All of this can be thought of as your “backpack of life”, a backpack that you carry around with you that can shape and influence how you are in life and relationships. Some of the things in your backpack will be great assets, and some will create challenges. One particular Family Therapy approach that helps to identify assets and address the challenges from our first school of life and love, and our backpack of life, is called Bowen Family Systems and it was started by Psychiatrist Murray Bowen.

Murray Bowen taught that there are emotional processes in family systems, and that what is created in relationships and can be fixed in relationships. This means that, contrary to what you might see on TV, change and growth in psychotherapy doesn’t always happen solely in a therapy room working one on one with a therapist – it can involve working with a therapist to understand your first school of life and love, and your backpack of life, to consciously define your values and principles, and make plans to act in accordance with these values and principles…and then getting out into the world to put it all this into practice, review, and practice some more to work on being your best self in all of your relationships – even the most difficult ones. This is not about blaming your family of origin, but instead focusing on the only person you have the power to change – you! You have the power to change how you relate to yourself and to others.

Bowen Family Systems thinks of the family as a “system” – a system with its own emotional processes … and relationship patterns that have evolved based on the emotional processes. This approach works by helping people understand themselves in terms of where they come from, the emotional process in their family of origin, the patterns developed to deal with stress and tension, and then in using this knowledge to decide how to be. It’s all about defining ourselves and consciously deciding on our values, principles and how to be our best selves … then practicing managing our stress and tension so that we can do just that – be our best selves. The trick is learning to resist the pull of family patterns that can be like old habits and invite us back into old habitual, unhelpful ways of managing stress and tensions in relationships. And yes, even therapists need to learn this too!

So, what’s important to know from a Bowen Family Systems perspective?

“Families are anxiety-managing machines,

and they do this remarkably well most of the time”.

Smith, 2020: 47

What’s anxiety? And why are families anxiety-managing machines?

Anxiety is your body’s natural survival mechanism. There’s a part of your brain, called your Amygdala, that fires up to protect you when it thinks there might be danger. Your amygdala activates oxygen, hormones, and adrenalin in case you need to be strong, fast, and powerful for a fight or flight response. This was great for evolution and it’s great when there’s real danger, but these days the problem is that your amygdala doesn’t know if there is real danger or not, and it can go off like a smoke alarm sensing burnt toast, rather than for a fire. And then a problem is that the distress associated with the smoke alarm going off leads to emotional reactivity, and without the benefit of calm, thoughtful, self-reflection this reactivity can get us into a pickle … especially when it comes to relationships. Oh and anxiety is contagious – sometimes a whole family, team or workplace can become what Kathleen Smith calls an “anxiety-managing blob” because others catch the anxiety.

Depending on the family emotional process a person grows up in, that person will have different abilities to tolerate and manage their anxiety in relationships, to resist the pull of other’s anxiety and to resist the pull of relationship patterns. This means that you might have developed patterns for managing stress and tension in relationships by:

  • Getting frustrated and irritated with people who are different or have different ideas

  • Giving up or withdrawing from others

  • Cutting off emotionally

  • Sticking to your position…doggedly and rigidly

  • Agreeing with another person (even when you don’t agree) to avoid any stress or tension

  • Chasing and pursuing connection with another person so that you feel more settled

  • Pulling another person into a conflict or seeking an ally, confidante, or messenger to reduce or manage the tension in a relationship

  • Focusing on the kids because that is more comfortable than focusing on other issues

  • Using things like alcohol, shopping, internet, smart phones, or gaming to avoid relational tensions

  • Avoiding another person to avoid stress and tension

  • Taking over, or taking on “more” to make sure things work out or run smoothly

These are all natural human responses, but if we persistently or excessively use these responses, or unconsciously use these responses it will be hard to resolve issues…because issues are never actually addressed. These patterns are only temporary solutions in the sense that they make the anxiety and tension more manageable at the time but never solve the problem. Plus, these patterns can take a toll on you as a person, as well as your relationships.

The trick to managing the pull of patterns is to work on what Family Therapist’s call “differentiation”. Put simply differentiation is the ability to be an individual amongst togetherness. When you can do this, you can separate your thoughts from your feelings (healthy for yourself – for calm and clarity), and, separate your thoughts and feelings from those of other people (healthy for relationships – for working out where you stand and how you would like to respond in relationships).

Differentiation is a way of thinking and being that helps to be in emotional contact with others when there are difficulties and tensions … without doing things like feeling compelled to tell others what they should be doing, rush in to fix problems, over-function for others to keep things smooth, or pretend to be detached to avoid stress or distress. It’s about respecting others but taking responsibility for yourself, and it benefits your wellbeing. And the best part? When operating from a position of differentiation everyone else’s anxiety is less contagious – also great for your wellbeing.

Sound fairly straight forward? It’s not. Relationships are both awesome and challenging. We can be significantly triggered by family, friends, colleagues, or strangers and feel this in our nervous system with our Amygdala powering up….and then it can be tricky to calm ourselves enough to ensure we are acting in line with our hopes for our best self instead or reacting, numbing, “losing it” or being pulled into old patterns. So how does Bowen Family Systems help with this?

First, notice and observe yourself.

Yes, that’s right, just notice. Notice when you are feeling activated. Observe:

  • When do your emotions and thoughts feel all jumbled and hard to tease apart?

  • When do you notice yourself accepting the pull of family patterns and doing things like avoiding, bringing others in, pursuing, agreeing when you don’t to keep the peace etc? In which relationships is it hard to have your own thinking – and tricky to separate your thinking from another’s thinking? So you just go along with another?

  • When does your amygdala fire up for “burnt toast” rather than real danger?

Next, evaluate.

Evaluate by:

  • Consider how do your “burnt toast” reactions negatively impact your life and relationships?

  • How does focusing on others, instead of focusing on managing yourself, fit with the person you want to be?

  • How can you activate your best thinking, especially when others are stressed, tense or anxious?

  • What would your best self be doing in the situation?

  • Are there any values, principles, or wisdoms you’d like to remember so that you can respond intentionally and thoughtfully rather than react?

  • What kind of thoughtful responses would you like to have in tense or anxious situations?

And then interrupt. E.g.,

  • Work out how to sit with tension, anxiety and discomfort involved in resisting the pull of old patterns and coping styles,

    • e.g., if you’ve been one to ‘over-function’, doing more and more to keep things smooth and you start to scale that back other people might not be pleased with this (because they have to step up), and you will have to tolerate this displeasure to resist the pull of the pattern;

    • e.g., if you’ve been avoiding being with someone or talking about particular issues it will feel uncomfortable to start doing this and you will have to tolerate this uncomfortableness to break the old habitual pattern.

  • Develop a toolkit for managing stress, tension, and anxiety, and practice the tools.

  • Make a list of strategies that help you take a moment to ground yourself when tensions are high so that you can act according to your values and principles e.g., 3 deep breaths, mindful presence, a cup of tea, stepping outside for a 5 minute walk.

  • Make a plan for how to respect yourself, maintain good boundaries, and also keep a connection with family members, e.g., how to respond rather than react to things that happen in relationship with family members.

  • Remember that strong feelings of anger or hurt are important signals about family process. Use these signals as a cue to think about what is happening and how you’d prefer to respond in line with your values and principles.

  • Practice, practice, practice.

A great resource for this journey towards differentiation is Kathleen Smith’s book “Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt your Anxiety and Finally Calm Down”. Another great resource is Australian author Jenny Brown’s book “Growing Yourself Up”.

You might also choose to seek a Family Therapist to help you research and understand your family, the patterns, and themes, and use this information to empower you to consciously decide how you want to live. A therapist using a Bowen Family Systems approach might use a genogram to help with this. A genogram can identify relationship patterns, roles, themes.

“By learning about your family and history and getting to know what made family members tick, how they related, and where they got stuck, you can consider your own role, not simply as a victim or reactor to your experiences but as an active player in interactions that repeat themselves” .

McGoldrick in Brown, 1999: 6

Your therapist might then coach you in observing and changing the patterns you are in.

However you go about it, remember that family patterns evolved to help families manage in life, and manage challenges in life. This means that family patterns have been helpful in the past and can also be tricky to shift. Remember this approach is not about blaming, but instead it’s about taking power and responsibility over what you can influence – yourself, and how you are – to define yourself and how you want to live. There will likely be helpful ripple effects in your family, and you can consciously choose the legacy you pass on to your children, but the focus starts with defining yourself – think of the metaphor of ‘fitting your own oxygen mask first’?

How will you decide to define yourself and resist the pull of unhelpful patterns to determine how you want to live?

To find a Family Therapist in Australia you can visit

Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.

Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.

Please seek help from a professional if you require support.

Brown, J. (2012). Growing Yourself Up. Woollombi: Exisle Publishing.

Smith, K. (2020). Everything Isn’t Terrible. NY: Hachette Books.

Photo Attributions

First Photo - calle-macarone-unsplash

Second Photo - alex-azabach-unsplash

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