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Welcome Home

“In a ‘light atmosphere’, family members rarely feel ‘crowded’ or ‘lonely’ except during periods of very high stress. They are comfortably connected and have sufficient space to be themselves.”

Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen
Family Evaluation

The image of home is a powerful one for the human family. Even the sound “home” takes on a spiritual and mystical quality. References abound in myths and legends, in songs and poetry, and in cultural and religious traditions. And the references to home fill the literature of Bowen Family Systems Theory. For example, family of origin work includes visits home in order to assist one in the life work of self-differentiation. Bowenian author and therapist Monica McGoldrick entitled one of her books on genogram work You Can Go Home Again.

When something strikes a chord in me, as this quote has, I find it helpful to take it on as a place of exploration. What are my experiences of a light vs. a heavy atmosphere? What is comfortable connection and sufficient space for me? I am learning how these ideas are interrelated and how important it is to have the freedom, the “lightness” to respond to different circumstances in different ways- out of my personhood. I am also aware of the impact of my family of origin and how that same family system continues to be a resource for my discovery of self and connection.

For about ten years I have been a participant in a Northern Virginia coaching group. I remember asking the group “What is connection, really?” Some of the responses included “It’s a bit like a dance” and “It’s about mystery”. And, so I keep exploring, writing in my journal and asking questions. One thing that I have discovered is that I can also take the quote and work backwards in this way. When I am being more of a self I sense a spaciousness that allows me to experience more comfortable connection and lightness. In other words feeling at home on the outside happens to the extent that I am at home in my own being.

Welcome home.


Being a Self and Staying Connected

“Belonging is deep; only in a superficial sense does it refer to our external attachment to people, places and things.”

John O’Donohue
Eternal Echoes

“The central dilemma in managing the individuality/togetherness force for each person is how to keep clear focus on one’s own life and life direction, but still stay in open, clear communication with the other significant people in that life.”

Roberta Gilbert
Extraordinary Relationships

The age old question… “Am I an individual or am I part of the group?” continues to be relevant for life in the 21st century. According to Murray Bowen two opposite forces are always present in life, the individuality and the togetherness forces. Negotiating these forces is an ongoing process and an important aspect of each person's life work. Plain and simple, it is about defining self AND staying connected. That task is easier when things are calm and becomes more difficult as anxiety increases. It can be a bit like walking a tight rope as one monitors the inner self and responds to the outer world.

I find that being my own coach and asking (my) self some good questions can be a helpful daily practice.

Here are some possible questions

Am I practicing self-care?

Where are the emotional triangles?

How am I getting hooked?

Am I practicing self-regulation?

In this situation, how can I be clear about where I am and what is going on with me – without trying to change the other.

How can I be me in this?

I find that writing in a journal about my thoughts and feelings and dreams is a helpful way to pay attention to the process … which is a journey of a lifetime.



“The possibilities of change are maximized when we concentrate on modifying our own way of functioning, our own input, into the family ‘black box’.”

Ed Friedman
Generation to Generation

I consider “black box theory” to be a very useful systems concept. Systems thinking came about in the 1950’s as a response to the rise of computers and the resulting information explosion. With the impossibility of keeping up with the data surge, the black box theory is about changing the focus to be more on process and less on content. Input and function take precedence over the futile and exhausting tasks of trying harder, of searching for “the answer”, of taking on the responsibility to “fix it”.

Practically speaking, this means that if I pay attention to my own input and get clear about my own role in the system, rather than trying to change or analyze everyone else, that raises my own level of functioning and increases the possibility for change. In other words self-differentiation- to define self and stay connected- offers the best hope for self and for the relationship system. And although that requires hard work, it sure does simplify things.



“Try to push this medium around, and it quickly loses its charm, its transparent radiance and its life.”

Gordon Mackenzie
The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook

“… the process of maturation takes time. It cannot be willed or even speeded up beyond its own time frame.”

Ed Friedman
The Myth of the Shiksa

I am exploring a new hobby and a surprising one at that because I have never considered myself to have any talent in drawing or painting. And so I find watercolor to be a growing edge for me and a wonderful metaphor about the reality of life. Just this week, a watercolor that I began as a woodland scene turned out to look more like a coral reef ... an unexpected result that I have to admit shows promise. According to artist and teacher Gordon MacKenzie, watercolor works best when the painter gives up willing the process, yet “remain(s) open to its whimsical nature and the momentary opportunities that it offers along the way”. I am reminded of what it is like to be a parent and to stand back and watch and wonder at the growth of a child and the becoming of a human being.

... And what about my own becoming?


The Path of Adventure

“Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first. This is equally true regarding families, institutions, whole nations, and entire civilizations.”

Edwin H. Friedman
A Failure of Nerve

Ever since the fourth grade when I gave an oral report about Daniel Boone, I have been inspired and drawn to the adventures of explorers and trail blazers. Whether it is Lewis and Clark, the pioneers on the Oregon Trail or my ancestors on the Tennessee frontier the idea of life as a journey, life as wilderness, life as frontier has captured my imagination. The same sense of direction and courage that was important then is important now, as one engages the unknown and unexpected regions of one’s own life. A daunting task, yet … the adventure awaits!

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© 2010, Carla Toenniessen, LMFT