Bowen Theory Nuggets – A New Blog Series

  • September 23, 2020
  • Sandra Caffo, LCSW

Students of Bowen theory find all sorts of ways to make the theory their own, often beginning with a single idea that commanded their attention. The point of this series is to describe how one tidbit gleaned from Bowen theory has stuck with or influenced you as an individual. Perhaps it’s a Bowen quote or a question. It could be something you read or a piece of research. Below is one example. What’s your nugget?

Oh, What A Question Can Do!

Years ago I began work with a Bowen consultant. Early on, she asked me, “How do you know when you’re anxious?” I opened my mouth to answer and realized I did not have a clue and was not even sure how to begin. I did know the question seemed critically important.

My take-away from Dr. Bowen’s Chalk Talk on Symptom Development kept coming to mind. He commented that once things got into the physiology, they were hard to address. This intuitively made sense to me. The description of anxiety in the Kerr/Bowen book Family Evaluation helped to further my understanding. “Anxiety is a far deeper process than that conveyed by the statement ‘I feel anxious.’ Most anxiety is not conscious. It is assumed that an anxious response is manifested even at the cellular level.” (p. 74) So, to start by attending to my body made sense.

At some point, I realized that “How do I know when I’m anxious?” is a research question, which was an “aha moment.” I got it. Answering requires observation and data gathering. For this highly intuitive gal, the realization was powerful. I could observe what was going on with my body in different contexts and begin to form hypotheses about how anxiety manifests in me and what triggers it.

Thinking about this and family history brought me to the “multi-generational transmission process” that Kerr describes as the “patterns of emotional process that develop over generations.” I related this to the birth of an infant. Each of us emerges into this world with a level of reactivity already in place, a default mode of anxiety. This level is an outgrowth of the mother/fetus relationship during development and, of the mother’s relationship with her own mother, which is also influencing the pregnancy. A family’s default level of anxiety passes from one generation to the next. The family process over time then builds on what the child begins with.

My start in the observation process was challenging. It was hard to pay attention consistently. Early on I could only focus on what I was doing. I did not have the bandwidth to see myself and others – family, co-workers, friends – in process. Often, I thought I was understanding something, only to find I was reacting in the automatic way, like taking on responsibility when it was not mine to take on.

Over time, I began to discern patterns; in me, in others, in the interactions. Help came through continuing to work with a consultant, participating in training, gathering data about the family I grew up in and extended family, and being in a workplace peer group. I learned to monitor myself in these interactions and to better interrupt the automatic flow of anxiety.

For example, my father was in the military during the early part of my life. We moved a lot, and I learned how to fit into new situations as the family expected. My body registered the anxiety that did not show on the surface. My work with Bowen theory enabled me to become intentional in how I enter a new arena and in so doing, calm down my automatic bodily response.

The point of all of this is to say that I now have an answer to the question. I know when I am anxious by how my body is responding, attending to who is in the room and what is happening among us, and by viewing myself in relationship with my family and its history. My response is more often intentional and principled, though of course, not always. And the work I undertook all those years ago is still ongoing.

This blog describes my “Bowen Nugget.” I am interested in your response to it. I also invite you to write about your own nugget and share it as a separate post. For more information or to submit an entry, please contact blog editors Ann Depner or myself at or

Sandra Caffo, LSCW
WPFC Faculty Member

4 Replies to “Bowen Theory Nuggets – A New Blog Series”

    1. Hi LeAnn,

      “Living my fundamental life goals and principles’ is an idea consistent with the concept of ‘Differentiation of Self’ in Bowen theory. I remember thinking early on in my study that this was fairly straight-forward. Realizing over time that to accomplish this requires maintaining contact with family members and others who are important, brought an immediate and powerful recognition there is much to address along the way. I appreciate your thought of “Never give up.” And, the older I get, the more I realize that what I missed the first 100 times it presented itself, will be there again. So, learning continues to occur.


  1. Ms. Caffo, what a good question. It is something each of us finds helpful on this journey to growing throughout our life. Years ago, the Center offered a neurofeedback program and part of that was tracking daily facts such as time awakening, going to bed, tension levels at the social, physical and emotionally reactive levels. I had to design a way to track these. To my surprise, I discovered that when I’m at a high level of upset, I sing! Tracking such responses in a relationship offers many insights, and the variety of responses to important people in our lives is eye opening. The Bowen nugget for me was in the Basic Seminar when parent child relationships were discussed and the idea of detachment was introduced. I couldn’t fathom such a thing and remember thinking I’m going to love my (child) and still try to learn this theory. The theory turns your head around on what makes a solid, connected relationship. There are far more elements than feelings to it.

    1. Hi Catherine,

      I chuckled a little reading about the “either/or” idea of giving up your child or giving up Bowen theory! I say this as I often in my early study of the theory would be confronting the either/or position I automatically went to and registered in my body. This is Not what you said, of course. You said you were keeping your child and studying the theory. Increasingly over time, my body registers differently when the ‘either/or’ or the ‘both/and’ is operational. I am glad for the feedback. Thanks for sharing your nugget.

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