As I’ve been continuing to learn Bowen Theory, I’ve noticed how it has been shaping my perceptions. Just as an optical lens brings some things into focus rather than others, the lens of this theory nudges my attention in certain directions.
For example, I may be drawn into self-focused reports by others, but I don’t focus on just the individual as long as before. Even if I keep my speculations to myself, I wonder about unseen partners in the dance, whether in triangles, possible cut-offs, reciprocities, multi-generational processes, and the like.
Like astronomers looking for ways that gravity is bending light, I find myself looking for ways that the weight of family anxiety pulls on individual functioning. On good days, I’m thoughtful about my own steps in the dance and consider what it would take to have relatively non-anxious responses.
There was a time when I looked more toward what might be “inside” an individual’s “psyche.” Now, I see what’s “inside” as players in processes that have been going on in a person’s relationships, especially in family and also in larger systems, usually for extended periods of time.
This basic shift in my focus coincides with another shift. I perceive more accurately when I’m less anxious. Urgency to find the “cause” of a problem and “fix” it may be a powerful motivator that brings some things to central attention; and it also tends to narrow and distort, with often unintended consequences. Not so coincidentally, the more that I look through the lens of theory, then the less my subjective sense of anxiety, which reduction contributes to more accurate perceptions, etc., in a virtuous cycle.
I recently noticed how my lens has been changing, when I wrote a little book of descriptions of people, their relationships, and snippets of their stories. A few of these descriptions were focused on individuals, but I usually pointed to what was outside of this spotlight. Other times, I broadened the field from individuals to relationships, whether dyadic, intergenerational, or beyond, with even spiritual issues framed in terms of relationships. My tone was more neutral and curious than had been usual for me.
As I got some emotional distance from an early draft and considered feedback from colleagues, I thought about how even the most matter-of-fact writing is shaped by lenses through which a writer perceives. I thought about the influence of my lenses, how valid they may or may not be, how other lenses point to something different, and how my lenses have been changing. I perceived at least some aspects of theory implicit in my writing, and then I made these aspects a little clearer.
When I began to study theory, the focus was rightly on concepts: what they are, evidence behind them, how they account for certain observations, the history of their development, etc. The hard work of defining theory is absolutely crucial, in my opinion, and is a good place to start.
Companion to this effort is awareness of how the lens of a theory is evident in perception and exploration. This approach complements the frequent process of working from theory to case example. It reverses the direction by asking, “What theories are evident in descriptions?” That’s the question I asked myself as I read what I had written.
For me, this “lens awareness” indicated one way that I’ve been making theory my own, at least to some extent. It influenced how I pointed to theory through the descriptions and reflections that I recently wrote.
Carl A. Jensen, M. Div., M. S. Ed.
WPFC Guest Faculty