For many people, this election feels like a regression; a step back in the behavior of the society and individuals. Does making America great again mean going back to a time of unchecked racism, sexism, xenophobia, misogamy, large scale wars and lack of concern for the environment?
Regression is defined as a return to a former or less developed state. Those who voted for Clinton or a third-party candidate fear we are headed back to a time when we were not at our best as a nation.
Dr. Murray Bowen worked on a paper from 1972-1973 entitled Societal Regression as Viewed Through Family Systems Theory. He was invited to present a formal paper on a new governmental agency, the Environmental Protection Agency. While Bowen’s paper dealt with environmental issues, the ideas contained in the paper accurately predict the trends we see today. He writes:
Man is not willing to give up the easy life as long as there is a way to “have his cake and eat it too.” If my hypothesis about societal anxiety is reasonably accurate, the crises of society will recur and recur, with increasing intensity for decades to come. Man created the environmental crisis by being the kind of a creature he is. The environment is part of man, change will require a change in basic nature of man, and man’s track record for that kind of change has not been good. Man is a versatile animal and perhaps he will be able to change faster when confronted with the alternatives. I believe man is moving into crises of unparalleled proportions, that the crises will be different than those he has faced before, that they will come with increasing frequency for several decades, that he will go as far as he can in dealing symptomatically with each crisis, and that a final major crisis will come as soon as the middle of the next century. The type of man who survives that will be one who can live in better harmony with nature. This prediction is based on knowledge about the nature of man as an instinctual being, and on stretching existing thinking as far as it can go. There are many questions about what man can do about his environmental crisis. The thesis here is that he might modify his future course if he can gain some control over his reaction to anxiety and his “instinctual” emotional reactiveness, and begin taking constructive action based on his fund of knowledge and on logical thinking. (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, page 281)
How do we make sense of the election results? One possible answer lies in understanding the emotional system. The emotional system motivates us through automatic, reactive behaviors that keep us alive. The emotional system is essential to the survival of all life. It is not feelings, although you can experience the emotional system through feelings. There is a fantastic video by Dr. Antonio Damasio who describes the emotional system. Be advised that he is talking about science, not theology. You can watch the video by clicking here.
In addition to the emotional system and the feeling system, we are blessed with an intellectual system in the prefrontal cortex. The intellectual system allows for the possibility of self-regulated behaviors.
Everyone knows that when we are confronted with a threat, our basic response patterns are fear based in the form of fight, flight or freeze. Societal influences can accentuate our perceived level of fear. Rising tides, increasing numbers of hurricanes, the threat of a superbug, the exposed fragility of food distribution, and the increasing density of populations all contribute to a perception of shrinking resources for an ever expanding population. While we may not think about it consciously, we are deeply aware that our planet is becoming less and less sustainable. And it makes us anxious.
At the level of the individual, that are two fundamental problems. How do we accurately assess a threat? And how do we interrupt our automatic responses to a threat? We are highly sensitive to the reactivity of others. In some ways, we are wired to react to the perception of threat from others. If someone else perceives a threat and reacts strongly to it, there is a more than likely chance others who witness their reaction will also have a stronger reaction, even if they have not personally experienced the threat. So, the behavior of others can influence our behavior. Whether it’s a congregation, a family, or even the broader society, when tension in the relationship system goes up, automatic responses increase.
What’s fascinating is the amount of variation found across the spectrum of human beings. All of us vary in how quickly and how intensely we respond. Some people require a high level of tension to slip into an automatic response. Some people respond automatically at more moderate levels while others react to only a slight increase in perceived threat.
Throughout history, and not just religious history, you can see the ongoing struggle of people to address this process. As tensions have increased, societies have at times blamed others in response to a threat. At other times, societies have risen above the anxiety of the moment to find solutions to the problems they faced.
In my faith tradition, Jesus talked about being kind to those who are ungrateful and wicked. Jesus never said, “You’ve heard it before fight, flight, or freeze, but I say to you think!” Essentially, though, this is what he was after in many of his teachings. How do you override automatic tendencies? There was the story of dozens of men standing around a woman with rocks in their hands, ready to killer her for allegedly committing adultery. Jesus engaged the thinking of the crowd. They dropped their rocks and walked away. We have the gift of the thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex that helps us see our options for dealing with a perceived threat. We do not have to be governed by automatic responses. We can make choices.
Most faith traditions teach the importance of self-awareness – an awareness that engages a more thoughtful approach to the world. We teach about forgiveness, not blaming others, second chances, etc. The challenge is to interrupt automatic responses (fight, flight or freeze) when we interact with others and to be more intentional. Whether we use religious terms like integrity or scientific language like cognitive integration, the efforts are similar. It’s the struggle to see “what is” and not what one imagines, desires, or perceives as reality. How do humans see the world as it is?
Like a microscope, Bowen’s ideas help us peer into complex societal problems to see a basic structure residing in the family. If one looks all the way to the level of the individual, it’s not possible to see the emotional system. The relationship system is needed in order understand emotions. At the level of the family, we can see how parents relate to each other, to their children, and to the extended family. There are patterns that emerge and these patterns become predictable. As one begins to understand the predictable nature of the patterns in the family, it is possible to move from a reactive, automatic state to a more thoughtful, self-regulated state.
Our ability to do this work is influenced by the level of chronic anxiety in the system. When the family is overtaxed, beyond its capacity to respond to the problem, family members will turn to extended family members and friends. If there is a limited number of relationships outside of the family, individuals may turn to institutions to decrease their anxiety. Schools, social agencies, government entities, and churches are filled with the overflow of the emotional process from anxious families. As these institutions and organizations attempt to address the presenting family problem, the relationships systems found in institutions becomes more anxious. The level of chronic anxiety has to do with the ability of the members and leaders of the organization to address problems effectively and self-regulate their reactivity. Another way to say this: to the extent leaders are able to engage their thinking about a problem it will override the automatic, reactive responses. Some people experience it as calm. Others experience it as problem solving which includes better functioning of the family, institution, and society.
Bowen’s ideas on differentiation of self is relevant for today. For those who struggle to make sense of and respond to our current reality, theory provides a useful way of making sense of what’s happening.
More than this, it provides a way forward (for those who are motivated) to reverse the trend of regression. It begins with the self; learning to self-regulate in the presence of anxious others. From there, the mindset of differentiation of self can guide one’s interactions with others; respecting the other as a separate person while coordinate activities with them and being clear about what one is able to do and not able to do. From there, leaders in organizations who continue to work on differentiation engage clients and other institutions in a different way; partnering together to do their best thinking about a problem and not giving into short-term, quick-fix reactivity.
However, let’s be clear: the emotional system is powerful. It is difficult to see it in action and even more challenging to override automatic behavior. Most of what we are experiencing through the media and social platforms is automatic reactivity driven by the emotional process.
I don’t know if the worst is yet to come. I do know we can stay the destruction of our democracy. The path forward is for motivated individuals to keep thinking systems while at the same time putting one foot in front of the other working day by day, encounter by encounter to increase their basic level of differentiation of self. There is nothing new about this. It does not depend on other people to join in the effort. One person can make a big difference in their family, institutions or any relationship system.
Solutions can be found in the ability of each person to become aware of the ways the emotional process works in one’s family of origin and then to function as a more responsible, mature person in the family. Of course, it’s much easier to blame others and demand more from them instead of looking at one’s own functioning in a family context.
I’m committed to this process because I believe it is important and because I am convinced it works.