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Chapter 6



"It sounds so hopeless!" some people say. "If one doesn't have a happy family history or a perfect marriage, well, what's the use?" they ask me.


Anxiety and self-differentiation are [opposites] that bear more scrutiney.

Perhaps a more recognizable label for generalized anxiety in the context of the family is 'emotional reactivity.'

This is the experience of sudden or escalating emotional intensity in the face of something perceived by a person as threatening. The person may show no outward signs of anxiety even though they are quite anxious, or they may literally explode with behaviors that suggest intense and overwhelming anxiety.

Regardless of the form in which it is expressed, anxiety is contagious.


Anxiety follows a somewhat orderly path through families where individuals are fused tightly together. The more tightly fused peole are, the more prone they are to the predictable ravages of anxiety; and the more likely they are to express that anxiety in predictable ways.

[Fusion] is the merger of anxious partners into a state of protective over-closeness where a common self results.

The common self is the shaded area between them in the figure to the left (below). SELF is lost in such a state. The figure to the right shows partners that have formed, instead, an intimate relationship without any loss of self.

The diagrams illustrate fusion vs self-differentiation.

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The combination of anxiety and fusion is destructive. It seeks the weakest links in an emotional system and then follows a path that connects the weakest links together. The result is a pathway of anxiety that is transmitted from one generation of family to another.

This can be shown graphically in a genogram that carefully identifies symptoms of dysfunctioning in members of a multi-generational family.

RULE OF THUMB: An already anxious person responds anxiously to anxiety from any source. Like magnets, anxious individuals go through life collecting ever-more anxiety around them like poor Pigpen' s 'halo of filth' in Charles Schultz's Charlie Brown lineup.


See Charles M. Schultz on 'Pig-Pen'


All people are more or less anxious.

They carry into adulthood with them a basic level of life anxiety that results from experiences they had in their family of origin. Their individual level of anxiety reflects the system-wide level of anxiety that characterizes all members of that extended family over several or more generations.

A WORD OF CAUTION: Even in the case of a child-focused family where a particular child appears to be much more symptomatic (and therefore more anxious) than everyone else in the family, this is only because the anxiety has been focused on them. This is equally true in dysfunctional marriages where one partner looks more symptomatic than the other. The more functional partner shares the system-wide level of basic life anxiety; its concentration in the other spouse only allows them to look less anxious and more functional when they really aren't.

What you see is not always what you get in families...


In a family, one person's functioning is dependent on everyone else's functioning.

Anxiety is triggered in adulthood by experiences that replicate or closely resemble the intimate relationship issues and themes of a person's family of origin.

Such issues mirror the unspoken tensions [i.e., emotional vulnerabilities] of the family including all those 'musts' 'shoulds' and 'ought to's' that govern how one is to think and feel and behave in the family.

EXAMPLE: In families where one person always gets "left out" of everything important going on between other family members, this person forms an enduring reactivity around the act of being left out. They become obsessed with being [and feeling] left out, such that they take that reactivity with them into all important relationships. Everytime someone makes them feel 'left out' they react exactly as they reacted historically in their family of origin.

The workplace is also a place where a person acts out old familial scenarios. This happens because one typically invests a great deal of emotional energy and ego in the workplace, turning it into an emotional battleground only second in importance to the arena of marriage and the family.


"Basic life anxiety" is the generalized feeling state that all members of a family share and bring with them into the world during the 'leaving home' era of the family life cycle. The family's overall level of basic life anxiety is determined by the number and intensity of dysfunctional symptoms that have developed in family members over time and in different generations.




A predictable method of trying to free oneself of those feelings of basic life anxiety is to enter into a triangulation with vulnerable others.

In this process, the anxious person projects their own anxious feelings to receptive others who react accordingly, thereby giving the projector some relief by the distance that the triangulation temporarily affords them. Triangulation doesn't last as a form of anxiety-reduction -- indeed, the real impact is exactly the opposite.

Triangulation always stirs up ever more anxiety.



PERSON A ----> projects anxiety to PERSONS B and C. This, in turn, ignites tension in PERSONS B and C, resulting in great (and predictable) consternation between them while PERSON A sits back and watches what happens.

PERSON A really owns the anxiety but if PERSONS B and C are anxious themselves, then they become vulnerable to this kind of projection and often don't even see it coming. Triangulators come in all shapes and sizes and spew relationship poison liberally and with great deliberation. They are a destructive force in all relationship systems, including work systems, and any person can become a target if they are generally anxious to begin with.

Rigid relationship patterns are the result of chronic triangulations.



The [SELF] plays a critical role in the reduction of interpersonal anxeity.

The more one focuses on self during anxious interactions, the calmer one will feel. The calm results because the self-focused person has managed to let go of 'the tiger's tail' and therefore has also stopped participating in the other person's projection of anxiety.

The person who can pull back from the anxious forces around them and focus on their own insides always has the advantage: by pulling back they refuse the anxious projection at the same time that they enter into an emotionally neutral space that is free of polarizing forces.



The contagious nature of anxiety [demands] that everyone participate fully in the anxious triangulation so as to keep the game of 'emotional hot potato' going.

The person who can [stop] themselves from participating doesn't necessarily feel anxiety-free suddenly, but those feelings will eventually subside if they do not give into the 'pull' from anxious others.

This is something that takes practice, practice, practice because the other focused players in the projection process tend to turn on the self-focused one with the admonition: CHANGE BACK! YOU ARE HURTING US. THIS IS A TERRIBLE THING YOU ARE DOING, NOT PLAYING OUR GAME. CHANGE BACK PLEASE!

Indeed, these other players do hurt more because they are having to cope with a larger share of the anxiety than they had when the self-focusing one was a participant in the game.

The problem arises when consequences for pulling back are threatened, as that's when the average person looses their self-focused posture and becomes reactive again. The threatened consequences almost always include the withdrawal of love. Unless they are practiced in taking a self-focused posture under anxious conditions, and can trust themselves to maintain it even when their boat feels like it is sinking, the person risks loosing the newly found self if they cave.

However, if the person can stay on course and not let themselves get angry about the family's negative reactions to them, and can refrain from retaliating or going away mad, then it isn't too long before the family begins to make some changes in relation to the self-focusing person.

NOTE: Any changes above are made only in relation to the self-focusing one. All other fixed relationship patterns in the family will continue on indefinitely because no one else is practicing a self-focusing mode, nor do they even know to do it.


The trick for the self-focusing family member is to not cut off but, instead, to remain in close emotional contact with members of the family during heightened displays of anxiety. Eventually the others will learn to tolerate the self-focusing behavior a little less uncomfortably.

How does one do that?

By containing stressful feelings without projecting them back to the ones who are doing the projecting
By listening attentively to anxious family members without trying to change them in any way (for any reason)
By staying in close physical contact with them despite the escalating anxiety
By finding ways to define rather than defend self in a manner that helps others understand as clearly as possible how you are feeling and thinking
By retaining one's sense of humor throughout


All of these things and more come about as a result of focusing on self.

The rational-sounding arguments that are thrown spear-like at the self-focusing person are intended to unbalance them, the psychological impact of which is akin to the classical double-bind placed on a pupil by a Zen Master when he holds a stick over the pupil's head and says:

If you say this stick is real, I will strike you with it.
If you say this stick is not real, I will strike you with it.
If you say anything at all I will strike you with it.


The Zen pupil need only reach up and remove the stick from the Master's hand to get himself out of the bind, but that is very hard to think of when one is highly anxious.

The following Zen tale comes even closer to the experience of the self-focusing one in relation to anxious, double-binding family members:

A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive.

"I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived."

*Find more at ZEN TALES


NOTE: When just one member of the family can retain their calm and stand firm in their resolve to maintain their self-focused posture, eventually the entire relationship system becomes more calm.

A change in one part of the system, in other words, affects change in all parts of the system, not unlike the reverberations that appear on the surface of a small pond when a rock is thrown into it.

[Self-focus] entails looking deeply into the self and away from the reactivity of others so as to explore one's own emotional makeup and behavior in relation to others. It is a self-evaluation process that assists one in regaining a sense of self-control over how and what one feels.

More importantly, it serves to remove the self-focused individual from the less desirable position of always having the family tell him or her how to feel, what to feel, and when to feel it and why.

It is in this way that we can fine-tune ways of communicating with family members that allow us to talk meaningfully with them without sacrificing either our individuality or our relationships with them.

The entire process is what Bowen refers to as the process of "Dfferentiation of Self" in one's family of origin.

Effective it is -- easy it is not!



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