Friedman, and Rev. Peter Steinke who studied with Friedman, were my portal into what I would come to know as Bowen Family Systems Theory. While neither Friedman nor Steinke held close to Bowen’s eight concepts, they did expound on many of Bowen’s observations and ideas and used Bowen’s concept of Differentiation of Self (what Friedman called self-differentiation) as the centerpiece of their efforts.
Friedman was an astute observer of congregational life and his ideas about family systems were easily accessible to congregational leaders. His examples and counter-intuitive approaches to dealing with heightened anxiety and reactivity made leadership less serious and more engaging.
Friedman made attempts to connect human behavior to a biological base. He saw that all of life was governed by common operating principles; humans were not unique but were part of a larger emotional process.
Viruses – an analogy of emotional process
One of Friedman’s more memorable topics was the functionality of a virus. His posthumous book, A Failure of Nerve, captures his thinking about emotional process. He compares the nature of viruses to the challenges of leadership, something he had lectured about for several years.
Friedman described a virus as a cell that does not reproduce and is not self-sufficient. It has no nucleus and no membrane, so it is unable to differentiate like normal, healthy cells. Most importantly, viruses are completely dependent on a host cell to survive.
When viruses enter a host, they take over and run the show. This, for Friedman, represented a common challenge for leaders in relationship systems. According to Friedman, some people enter an organization and behave like viruses. The test of any system, when confronted with a pathogen, is the ability of a leader to regulating their reactivity when faced with heightened anxiety in the system which results from the irresponsible behavior of others.
Friedman’s examples included Neville Chamberlain’s leadership against the Germans leading up to World War II. Chamberlain’s efforts to reason with Germany failed because he lacked self-differentiation. To the extent leaders can work on differentiation, they create health in the system and ward off any invasion of virus-like behavior. This was Friedman’s adaptation of Bowen.
As I reflect on Friedman’s ideas, I’m struck by the overarching directive to keep at bay agents of harm and destruction to the emotional system. When bad behavior is not challenged and welcomed into the system, you end up with an unhealthy relationship system. Friedman wrestled with what happened in World War II. For him, the larger issue was how to deal with a horrific (cancerous) attack on a group of people and, ultimately, the rest of the world. He saw the processes that led to World War II as a systems problem.
There was something authentic about Freidman’s understanding of the nature of leadership. He opened the door for many clergy into a world of systems thinking.
For myself, I initially latched onto Friedman’s ideas and wanted to replicate his approach. My early readings of Friedman lead me to a concept of differentiation that was about defining a self over and against the other who was labeled as problematic. What could I do to get the other to behave better? Who were the viruses in the congregation? I know am not alone in saying that many people had difficulty implementing his ideas because of the fixation on others.
I remember early on in my ministry teaching a personnel team the importance of being an immune system for clergy and staff. To the extent the personnel team dealt with unwanted behavior, I argued, clergy and staff could function at a higher level. If the team failed to address inappropriate behavior directed at staff, it would result in an unhealthy workspace.
The first time I used this idea of the personnel team acting as an immune system was when a congregation I was serving hired a new choir director. It wasn’t long before a couple in the church became vocal about their disapproval of the new choir director’s performance. The personnel chair and I sat down with them to listen to their concerns. I stated how I was pleased with the director’s performance and hoped they would come around and give the director more time. As a result, the couple stopped complaining. One of them became chair of the worship committee and an advocate for the new director.
I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary on jazz. In the third episode, he highlighted the life of Bessie Smith. He recounted a specific event in her life when she was performing outside, under a tent. A group from the nearby ku klux klan walked towards the tent. Bessie was warned as they approached. From a distance, as she saw them approaching, she started running towards them. She yelled at them telling them how she was not going to tolerate their behavior. The story goes that the men turned around and walked away without an incident.
Rethinking Viruses and Friedman
The genesis of this blog comes from an article I came across a few weeks ago. Researchers have discovered a key component to a healthy immune system. When a specific receptor AXL, whose purpose is to detect the virus and engage an immunological response, is suppressed, mice were not able to mount an effective immune response when infected. Why is this? It turns out that the receptor’s job is to detect the presence of a virus. In a recent study at Yale University, researchers discovered that the receptors permitted the virus to enter the cell in order to understand the nature of the virus. Once the analysis was complete, the cell could marshal an effective response and wipe out the virus. “’In an organism, it turns out it's good for some immune system cells to get infected—to 'see' the virus—so you can mount a good immune response,’ said Carla Rothlin associate professor of immunobiology and pharmacology, and senior author on the study.” (site)
What this suggests is that the immune system functions best when a host welcomes in a virus to get to know it better. Ed Friedman talked about how differentiation is not just about being a responsible self; it is about being a connected self. For Bowen, a hallmark of differentiation is to be able to know the thoughts, feelings and actions of the other while at the same time maintaining one’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions.
For those who read Friedman and Steinke, it’s easy to slip into a diagnostic framework where others are labeled as being healthy or unhealthy. While I don’t think this is what either intended, when behavior is labeled as unhealthy it is a challenge to separate out the behavior from the person.
What we are learning from science is that engagement, not isolationism, is a more helpful approach when working on differentiation. To the extent one is fully engaged with a congregation, knowing the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the other leaders of a congregation, and at the same time maintain one’s own feelings, thoughts and actions, a congregation can function at a higher level.
The same applies to one’s family. To the extent one can know the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others in the relationship system, and let one’s feelings, thoughts, and actions be known by others, the system functions better. This is the result of one operating out of their best thinking and not reacting out of an emotional response.
So, for congregational leaders, the effort is not about keeping out “virus-like” behavior. The effort is towards differentiation of self as one engages others in a way that targets higher level thinking and more responsible behavior on the part of the self.
Because human behavior is predictable (each person responding in predictable ways to anxiety), knowing how others respond to anxiety gives a leader an advantage in thinking about how they want to respond to the reactivity of others. It’s not about marshaling some kind of immunological attack, but maintaining one’s ability to function at a higher level of thinking when faced with the reactivity of others. If one can maintain their level of functioning, there is more than a likely chance the other will give up their behavior and take a step up in their level of functioning. It’s not a guarantee, but in the cases where it works, it is well worth the effort.