As a newer student of Bowen Family Systems Theory, I have struggled with the idea of blame and responsibility. Coming from a heavy psychology background, I have naturally approached problems from an individual mindset where there is one single thing to blame (a person, an unfortunate accident, the patriarchy, etc.). If we can identify blame, that can help inform how much responsibility lies on our shoulders or the shoulders of others to fix the problem. Yet, I’ve heard that blame isn’t the focus in Bowen Systems Theory.
Millennial Alert! Recently, I was listening to a podcast consisting of four YouTubers discussing the newly released Britney Spears documentary. As a poor college student, I don’t have a subscription to Hulu to watch the documentary but generally, I knew that the plot revolved around the star being so overwhelmed by the media circus that she was deemed mentally unstable to function on her own. The courts placed her kids and finances in the hands of others as she continued to work full-time as a performer.
The podcast gave specific examples of how the paparazzi were to blame for making Britney look bad in the first place. For example, just to get from house to car with her young child, Britney had to make her way through a swarm of paparazzi. To get away as quickly as possible, she jumped into the car and placed the child on her lap as she drove off. Paparazzi took photos of this and published headlines accusing her of being a bad mother. The documentary’s message was that blame should be pointed back at the paparazzi and other legal systems that painted Britney as an unfit mother. In reality, if she were to escape the paparazzi stampede, Britney did not have time to place the child in the car seat in the back. So who really is to blame and how these systems should change?
Using Bowen Theory, I try to look beyond Britney and her detractors to see what other point of the triangle is being missed. Dr. Bowen said that dyads are inherently unstable. A third party relating to a tense twosome tends to reduce their tension or channel it into another relationship in the triangle ¹. Looking for what/who is regulating tension between Britney and the paparazzi, I see media consumers. The paparazzi are competing with each other to get the best picture/headline of the highest status celebrity for the highest payout to meet demands from consumers like these podcasters and even me. I get drawn into their fight.
While I didn’t watch the documentary, I am still a consumer of this information. From my heavy psychology background, I ask- is the whole thing my fault? If I don’t like what’s happening to Britney, I could petition to make the paparazzi more aware of their harm to celebrities, but too much focus on this issue prevents me from attending to my own life. I could also choose not to engage in any form of media. However, that would cut me off from a lot of content I find interesting.
By thinking about how each point of the triangle could change and attempt to make things better, I realize that there is no simple solution. Knowing that Britney, paparazzi, and consumers need each other to play their roles to keep functioning, the question no longer becomes “how can this be fixed?” Instead, I can think about all sides to inform how I want to function.
This Britney Spears dilemma has helped me to see that causal thinking is not necessarily helpful. Bowen Theory has not only helped expand my view of the Britney problem to see the broader triangle, but it has also helped me to see value in thinking systems instead of causal thinking.
Dr. Tricia Collins, PsyD
Participant in WPFC’s 2020-2021 Basic Seminar
¹ Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 478
For more intriguing examples of systems thinking as applied to both personal and societal dilemmas, be sure to register for the June 18th online conference: Moving Beyond the Pandemic: Systems Thinking and Adaptation. Click here to register or for more information.