Early in my training in Bowen Theory I made a huge mistake. My teachers and coaches wisely suggested, cautioned, and warned that new students of the theory should never ever teach it. This guidance was frequently delivered while jumping up and down and waving their hands in the air while setting off strobe lights and sirens. No one could miss or mistake their message: Don’t teach this stuff.
Instead, they went on to say, still jumping and waving, Bowen Theory is something to be applied to one’s own life. It can powerfully illuminate areas of personal immaturity. And then it can provide a road map for growing up. And until it has been put to work in those ways—in your own life– don’t ever teach it.
Somehow what I heard those wise teachers and coaches saying instead was something like: Why don’t you go home after your first introductory course and see if you can become the first person to ever teach this theory successfully without any actual lived experience with it. That sounds sort of like: Don’t ever teach it. (Right?!)
So that’s what I did. I went home and created a whole series of seminars. I rented a hotel conference center (I cringe to even write that line). I tried to teach Bowen Theory as if I was an expert. The hubris you are noticing so far in this paragraph was actually only the first layer of my immaturity showing up and it was soon to be followed by a whole parade of additional breathtaking layers, each grim strata exposed sequentially (defensiveness, anger, cynicism) until arriving at the core where I discovered that I lived in a world of shame and blame. Survival in that world required the ability to get people to do what I wanted them to do. And Bowen Theory had become just another tool to that end.
In other words, I could look good if I could get people to manage their anxiety better. My success depended on others ‘getting it’.
Not surprisingly, my hotel seminars failed as people experienced my teaching as judgmental pressure to change. Fueled by a need to look good, I tried to fix the things in others that were ‘causing’ people to be anxious. Teaching became convincing. Convincing became persuading. Persuading became arguing. I really thought that was leadership.
When people resisted that sort of leadership – I didn’t see them (and me) as anxious participants in an anxious system, I saw them as wrong and maybe even mean. Labels like that, I now know, are a good sign that my systems perspective has been lost. Lapsing into cause-effect thinking, I blamed people for not managing their anxiety better. They were the cause of me not getting to look good.
Sibling position takes blame out of the picture
A little later in my training, I spent some time reflecting on the concept of sibling position. And I began to realize that the sibling position concept takes blame out of the picture. Built on the extensive research of Walter Toman, Bowen included the concept in his theory because he recognized that it added a needed dimension to his understanding of family. We are all, the concept states, born into one of eleven sibling positions based on gender and birth order, a position which will register a deep impact on one’s life. While not true in every individual case, oldest siblings tend to face the world differently than youngest siblings, an only child differently than a twin.
As I dug into this concept, it was as if strobe lights and sirens went off all over again: No one chooses when to be born. No one can be blamed for their birth order. I didn’t decide to be a firstborn. A youngest who takes risks or an only who is more motivated by relationships than achievement isn’t doing something wrong or doing something ‘to’ me. They are simply being. And all of our being-ness is indelibly shaped by family.
Blame went out of the picture as I came to respect the mixed assortment of assets and challenges that we all contend with, and that others contend within us, simply by virtue of birth order (and yes, by virtue also of the amount of child focus, degree of anxiety, the amount of family cut-off and a host of other things that can’t be considered our choice.) I chilled out as a leader of complex people, no longer automatically blaming them for the immaturities that I perceived in their lives, and a little less ashamed of the immaturities that others saw in mine.
Organizational leaders appropriately hold people accountable for setting and meeting goals, contributing to the performance of the team towards a shared vision and mission. Leaders don’t try to make a youngest act more like an oldest so that the leader is more comfortable. They don’t blame an oldest for acting like the leader they have been training for decades to be.
Additionally, as my early teachers and coaches suggested, leaders do have a responsibility to recognize when the anxiety of the group is exaggerating their own sibling-position-characteristics to the point that those characteristics become a liability. In other words, use the theory on self long before turning it loose on others.
Get Coaching: If you know the theory, you can use it. If you have a coach you can use it even more effectively. If you would like to work with me as your coach, click this link and select Michael DeRuyter as your preferred coach.