Understanding Anxiety from a Family Systems Perspective
In any system, energy is constantly flowing and trying to remain in balance. To maintain a system, levels of energy often shift as a result of events, patterns, or other disruptions. Bowen’s Family Systems Theory can help to understand anxiety in the context of system dynamics of any kind, whether it be within a family, organization, or group. *Note– While this theory does focus on families in the traditional sense, “family” can be replaced by virtually any group or system throughout this entry.
Taking a Systems Perspective
Understanding yourself requires looking both inward and outward. We exist as parts of many systems: families, schools, clubs, religious organizations, friend groups, and so on. Taking a systems perspective in therapy allows us to see a greater picture of how and why we function within it.
Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) takes this lens and offers a way of understanding how anxiety– a natural emotional tension or stress in response to change– moves or ripples through a system from one person to the next.
Bowen’s Family Systems Theory
Dr. Murray Bowen spent his career viewing families as systems that experience and perpetuate anxiety. Anxiety falls differently on individual members of families and also strongly impacts overall family dynamics. It is a silent force that often takes examining thoroughly from a larger systemic scope to understand and mitigate.
BFST introduces eight concepts that contribute to the balancing of systems through individual and family or group work. These eight interlocking concepts include differentiation, triangulation, family projection, emotional cutoff, multigenerational transmission process, sibling position, and societal emotional process. A tool called a genogram can help to visualize these processes. Not all eight concepts will be explored here, but there are more resources available at the end of this entry if you would like to explore all eight concepts.
A Few Key Concepts
Differentiation refers to the level of individuality of a person within a family. Bowen believed that differentiation of self exists on a gradient. The more “differentiated,” or the more ability to hold individuality apart from family members, the less likely one is to feel the negative effects of anxiety in a system.
Those who are more differentiated, he proposed, have an easier time regulating emotions, are not as vulnerable to stress, and are more likely to act independently in thinking and doing. In other words, they hold on to and perpetuate less anxiety.
Those who are undifferentiated or less differentiated are more likely to be more emotionally reactive, be more dependent on others, have lower self-esteem, have a harder time saying “no,” and have a hard time making decisions. These individuals are more likely to experience anxiety in a variety of ways.
He also argued that the person who is the least differentiated in the family is the most likely to be the “symptom bearer,” or to experience the most effects of anxiety. A person’s level of differentiation is not set in stone; Bowen explains that there are ways to differentiate from your family that include de-triangulation, which is explained below.
Triangulation is a concept in BFST that is easy to visualize. When two people are experiencing a certain level of anxiety, there is a natural urge to alleviate the tension by bringing in a third party.
There are many ways that triangulation can happen within a family or system. Often, a child gets emotionally pulled in to relieve a marital conflict or some people may seek emotional or physical affairs. The third party could also be inanimate– a social media habit, an addiction, or even giving more attention to a pet to alleviate relationship tension are also very common.
De-triangulation is the process of detangling oneself from being the third-party in a “triangle.” As mentioned above, this process aids in raising one’s level of differentiation and may help to offload some of the anxiety perpetuated by triangulation. De-triangulation requires setting boundaries and distancing oneself from the original dyadic relationship.
Genograms are tools that therapists use to visualize family dynamics through generations. The genogram is created with the focus on one person and exhibits at least three generations. There is a key to delineate certain identities, characteristics, and relationships.
Below is an example of a triangulated relationship that may be depicted as part of a larger genogram. As you can see, the daughter in this scenario is the one who is in therapy exploring her family dynamics.
In the photo above, we can see that as the relationship between Mom and Dad experiences tension, Mom leans on the daughter for emotional support. The daughter experiences a strong emotional bond and may even be emotionally fused with Mom. The daughter’s relationship with Dad is also depicted in the triangle. Dad is distant from the daughter because of his perception of the daughter’s relationship with Mom.
The daughter in this case is likely experiencing anxiety as she was brought into the emotional triangle to dissipate tension. Bowen would also likely find that she had a lower level of differentiation and thus is more likely to experience lower self esteem, decision-making capabilities, and so on.
In order to differentiate, the daughter may have to step away from the relationship with Mom by drawing clear boundaries. This can be done in family therapy, as it is often hard for someone with a low level of differentiation to be able to do this on their own.
Considerations and Conclusion
As with any theory, it is important to examine the potential biases that might be at play. Of course, there is the definition of “family” at the base of this theory that is based on Bowen’s personal family history.
Bowen came from a Northern European family that lived in America. Bowen came from a traditional nuclear family with heterosexual family. The value of independence that is implied in differentiation is culturally-bound to this specific type of family. In many cultures, individuality is not valued as it is in traditional American culture.
With these critiques in mind, the conceptualization of anxiety moving through a system can be valuable to family and individual work in psychotherapy and can be applied to most other systems. Anxiety does not exist in a vacuum – we are the products of interactions with our environments. The good news is, systems can be balanced in ways that help to understand and alleviate anxiety.
Further Reading and Resources
- Atlasconcept’s Blog on Bowen’s Family Systems Theory
- The Leader’s Journey Podcast: Episodes 1-5 on Bowen Family Systems Theory
- Chen, S. I. (2018). Understanding Anxiety From a Systems Perspective. doctor ilene.com
- Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: An approach based on Bowen theory. W W Norton & Co.
- Lampis, J., Cataudella, S., Speziale, R., & Elat, S. (2020). The Role of Differentiation of Self Dimensions in the Anxiety Problems. The Family Journal, 28(1), 90–97.
- Pérez De Jésus, M., Rodrîgue, E., & Anaya, G. (2021). Ch. 12: Systems Theory: The case of Esperanza.
- Xue Y, Xu ZY, Zaroff C, Chi P, Du H, Ungvari GS, Chiu HFK, Yang YP, Xiang YT. (2018). Associations of Differentiation of Self and Adult Attachment in Individuals With Anxiety-Related Disorders. Perspect Psychiatr Care. 54(1):54-63.
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