family systems theory.  the preferred way of viewing families and providing family therapy.

here's a whittled down, oversimplified, somewhat sloppy presentation of the basic tenants:

*  families have emotional patterns and dynamics that occur between members.  often, these dynamics have been passed down through generations.
*  families, and individual members, have a couple of different ways in responding to anxiety (stress).  they either respond from an emotional place (which is unthinking, fairly rigid and automatic) or an intellectual place (which is more fluid and requires purposeful thought and action).  (guess which one the guru who thought it up liked more?)
*  there's a balance for family members between emotional connectedness and individuality.  too much togetherness = emotional fusion.  not good.  too much individuality = emotional cut off.  not good.
*  therapists in the family therapy field don't become involved in the presenting "issue" (fidelity, a rebellious teen, low communication, etc.).  instead, they look at the emotional system - how do family members respond to each other?
*  family therapists must do their own work on their family of origin and examine the emotional processes in their own family because they can only take their clients to the points to which they, themselves, have arrived. no work on the therapist's part = getting stuck in therapy.

and now that i have explained bowenian theory in a few short bullet points (the attempt being a complete farce, dear hearts) ....

we spent all term working on our own family of origin.  we drew complicated family genograms that go far beyond birth and death dates (all kinds of squiggly lines denoting emotional fusion, cut off, abuse, conflict, etc.).    we wrote epically long papers. we entered into conversations with our families that entered into new, somewhat scary, territory.

my advanced professor (read:  year long counseling professor) is the most amazing woman.  i think i might want to be her when i grow up.  at any one given point, she has been able to hold where each of us in our class is placed for internship, what our professional backgrounds have been, what we have written in our weekly papers to her ... truly, amazing.  her bent on this process was that she sincerely wanted us to think about our families from a compassionate, empathetic place and to consider behaviors and relationships in context.  what is our family context? what parents were we born to?  what parents were they born to?

a chunk of our paper instructed us to thank our family members for gifts, strengths, values, etc.  even when we had a hard time seeing them.  especially if we had a hard time seeing them.

i didn't have a hard time seeing this one.

here is an excerpt from the paragraph to my mother.

... Thank you for your gift of strength -- for always encouraging me to reach higher and think "bigger" about my own life.  I have often been called a woman of "substance", and the authenticity and willingness to work diligently to achieve comes directly from you.  Thank you for your gentleness and sense of diplomacy.  I show people I care because of your unconditional love.

...You formed your family in the hopes of creating something new.  You did.  Don't ever discount your success in that. ...

...When I am at my most compassionate, I look just like you.  I sound just like you.  Sometimes, people on the other end of the phone think I am you.  It is a compliment of the highest order.

I am thinking about this a lot lately, especially as I think about my mom saying goodbye to her mom.  As I think about Shoes and I possibly having kids in the next few years. What I want to keep.  What I want to planfully and mindfully let go of.  What my own responsibility in my family interactions is.

I don't think about it all the time.  But it comes up.  And I think when I don't think about it anymore ...

that's probably when I should hang up my family therapist hat.

I am grateful to the things families have shown me this year in therapy. For married couples experiencing grief and loss in front of me.  For family constellations of parents and teens who sat before me together and calmly, and not so calmly, told me they were going to strangle each other.
I am grateful for the love.
And the fighting.
And the shouting.
And the forgiveness.
And the strength.

Families, really, are so very, very strong.

I am stronger because of,
and, at times, despite,
my own family.

Next post, an excerpt of the paragraph to my father ....

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous on March 28, 2012 at 4:01 PM

    I discovered through that same process that I'm a great big giant cutter-offer and my family is "too individuated". Good thing I steered myself away from being a therapist huh? Cuz I'm more about "leave" than "work it out".

    That process, although super hard at the time, was one of the most valuable exercises of my graduate work. I understand more. I'm not sure it has translated into different action, but it has given me greater awareness.


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