Moving Beyond “Why?”

  • February 17, 2021
  • David Swanson, M.Div.

Recently, I was walking with a friend through snowy woods, talking about some hopes and plans I have for my vocational future. As I spoke about this, my mind became fuzzy, and I was muddled in a deep feeling of insecurity and doubt, even as I reached out to grasp my ideas and think about actions I wanted to take. Hearing myself talk, I began to perceive just how much trepidation I was feeling.

When I returned from the walk I reflected on the experience and noted that the feelings I had were probably forms of anxiety rippling through my mind and body. And, as I thought about it, I became fascinated with one fact: studying Bowen Family Systems Theory for a few years has deeply changed the way I reflect on and understand my interior life. Prior to engaging with Family Systems, if I reflected on my feelings at all, I would likely have asked one primary question: “Why?” “Why do I feel this way?” Or, more specifically, “What happened in my past to cause me to feel and perceive as I do now?”

My engagement with Bowen Theory has led me to ask different questions and has begun to change my relationship to my own feelings. In terms of ideas, I think this has to do with a new understanding of anxiety. Previously, I understood it as a sense of heightened tension in an individual due to real or perceived threats, past or present. Through my work in Family Systems I have come to see anxiety as a multifaceted emotional energy transmitted in relationships; it includes but is not limited to a sense of threat. I’ve come to think that:

    • The pathways through which anxiety arrives in a person have to do with the interactive network of relationships in the social systems of which that person is a part.
    • The system that trains a person at the most instinctive level in how to feel, function, and absorb anxiety, is the family of origin.
    • The original family is not the past cause of how a person feels now, but an ongoing interactive distribution system for emotional energy, traveling along established pathways that shape and are shaped by the emotions of each member.

What this means, when confronted with my own anxiety, is that instead of looking inside with a question like “What has happened to me?”, I am now much more likely to look beyond myself to see how my emotional situation is reflective of the flow of emotional energy in my family and other systems to which I belong. Key to this process is seeing my role in those systems and taking responsibility for myself within the dynamics.

This shift in thinking has coincided with a slowly growing ability to take a more neutrally observational posture in relation to the myriad feelings I experience. In the past, my feelings and my efforts to understand them were always deeply connected. The thinking often happened within or in service to the feelings. But now I notice more space between the feelings and my thoughts about them.

It is my sense that the systemic questions I now ask lend themselves to a kind of depressurization of my internal feeling-scape. Instead of focusing on the content of feelings or speculating on their causes, asking systemic questions orients me toward the emotional pathways that underlie them. Such questions can draw me outward to a perspective that views the interior life as part of a larger relational whole and into a more neutral relationship to the group emotional processes to which my feelings are so attuned. This movement toward neutrality stands me in good stead as I think about my vocational journey. It continues to inspire me to move beyond “Why?”

David Swanson, M.Div.
WPFC Board Member and Basic Seminar Participant

6 Replies to “Moving Beyond “Why?””

  1. Dave, this post is an excellent example of drawing on direct, personal experience and self-study (within one’s system) as a means of teaching the ideas and principles of the theory. Thank you for taking the time to share this.

  2. Rev. Swanson, nice description of the development of an observing self. How useful that is to become neutral as it gives a much broader field to draw from and consider. With time, such awareness can provide an alert to pay attention as well as giving retrospective information. I’ve thought of this as evidence of a system.

    1. Catherine, I am glad you could track the movement, in my description, from “being in it” to a more neutral and mindful position.
      Something that I pay attention to is the “lag time” between these two experiences and positions, understanding that being able to be “in it” and still able to observe, in real time, at the same time, will provide me with the best information.

      1. Rev. Swanson, There is historical importance to what you describe. Dr. Bowen could do the same in his early research at Menninger. It eventually allowed him to advance this to an understanding of how to be there but not “in it”. A hallmark of the Bowen approach to being present to others.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Mick. I am interested in both understanding for myself and clearly articulating to others how thinking systems makes a difference practically in my own life and writing is a good way to achieve both ends. Hopefully this blog post is a productive step on that journey.

  4. As I read this, my thoughts move to Evolution. Thinking about an evolution in even the questions one utilizes to navigate the experience of being. It has occurred to me somewhere along the way that a ‘why’ question is not useful within scientific endeavors. I just did a little Google search and discovered that it has something to do with not being able to test for measurable results. Hmm. I can see that. But can I see that when I need to see that – lol? Thanks for the contribution, Dave!

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