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:
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