I believe that our very survival depends on us becoming better systems thinkers.
Thinking about systems can help us understand stubborn resistance to change. Systems resist change because systems seek self-preservation. Self-preservation can be found in what is familiar to the system. Typically, the way “things have always been done” is what is familiar to a system.
Family systems operate the same way in Bowen Theory. Family systems seek self-preservation. Preservation can be found in what is familiar to the family.
What is Homeostasis?
Murray Bowen adopted the scientific concept of homeostasis to describe the preservation of a family system. Remember that Bowen was a psychiatrist. He borrowed from his medical training to name concepts in his Family Systems Theory. Family systems seek homeostasis in order to preserve a known way of functioning.
In biology and physiology, homeostasis describes the preservation of a system. For example, cells in the human body require a balanced level of water inside and outside of the cell in order to survive. When there is too much water inside the cell, the cell sheds water across its membrane to rid itself of the excess water. When there is too little water in the cell, the cell membrane allows water to come across and fill the cell. When there is a balance between water inside of the cell and outside of the cell, that is homeostasis.
Physiologists teach us that body systems also seek homeostasis. My body is seeking homeostasis at 98.6 degrees because that is the optimal temperature for bodily function. If my body temperature starts to rise too far above normal, I will start to sweat. Sweating will cool me down. If my body temperature starts to dip too far below normal, I will start to shiver. Shivering will warm me up.
Families finding balance
According to Murray Bowen, family systems seek homeostasis like cells or body systems do. Change in the family system will cause a disruption to homeostasis. This change could be desired change or undesired change. The family system will attempt to re-balance and re-settle back into what it knew before the disruption.
Let’s say a family has had a strong male authority figure. Let’s call him, “Rod.” When Rod dies, the family system will naturally seek another “Rod” to achieve homeostasis. Perhaps an uncle or an oldest male child or a godfather (not the Mafia type!) steps in to fill the role. Perhaps the surviving spouse marries another one just like Rod. When a new Rod joins the family, the anxiety in the family system calms.
Family members are not necessarily aware of the movement towards homeostasis. And, the way the family system had operated before Rod’s death may not have been optimal. Perhaps Rod exhibited bullying behavior. Perhaps the new “Rod” exhibits some bullying behaviors, too. The point is that the family system seeks what is known, a known way of functioning in order to achieve homeostasis.
When we press for significant change, we will encounter the forces of homeostasis. Systems move towards self-preservation in the face of disruption. Deep, lasting change requires persistence, self-awareness, courage, and commitment.
Tennis champion Arthur Ashe was born in segregated Richmond, Virginia, in 1943. Despite the racist systems and race-based oppression he encountered, he persisted in his pursuit of excellence on the tennis court. Ashe is the first and only African-American man to win the men’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon, the US Open, or the Australian Open. He is one of two men of African descent to win any Grand Slam singles title. He died at age 49 from AIDS-related pneumonia after receiving HIV-infected blood during heart surgery. A statue honoring his life and legacy stands on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. Arthur Ashe