Blog by Miriam

Memory vs. Experience

I was recently sent this link to a Ted Talk from a client:

It explores the meaning of happiness and the differences between the actual experience a person may have and the memories of the experience. When an experience is deemed “bad” or negative, it has more to do with mitigating emotional factors than the actual experience.

The talk explores some of these emotional mitigating factors (such as income), but as I was listening, I thought about family systems and how the themes and patterns and levels of intensity of our extended families impact how we deem an experience to be positive or negative. For example, if I had repeated, emotionally negative interactions with my mother when I was a teenager, how does this impact the stories I tell about emotionally positive interactions I may have had with her as well? Does the degree of intensity (or fusion) determine more of my “memory” of the past than the actual experiences? Does this degree of intensity determine how I see even future interactions with her?

Consider your adult experiences of visiting your parents or siblings or extended family. Consider the following list and how it may influence the memory or story you tell about these experiences. (P.S. This exercise will be more helpful if you’re reading up on Bowen Theory…Extraordinary Relationships by Roberta Gilbert is a great start.)

  • The intensity of emotionality between you and your mother – whether a kind of can’t-get-away-from-you-even-if-I-try or can’t-get-enough-of-you
  • The intensity of emotionality between you and your father – whether a kind of can’t-get-away-from-you-even-if-I-try or can’t-get-enough-of-you
  • How does being an oldest, a middle, or a youngest sibling (or some combination) impact how you “remember” your visits with them?
  • How does being an oldest, a middle, a youngest sibling to brothers or to sisters (the gender of your sibs makes a big difference!)
  • What is your functioning position in a triangle either with your spouse or with your parents or siblings? i.e. Are you an underfunctioner? (Do you shut down or become dependent when around them?) Or are you an overfunctioner? (Do you take over and get a pseudo sense of self based on others’ dependency on you?) In other words, an overfunctioner may deem an experience as positive while an underfunctioner may deem it as negative – not as a function of the actual experience but as a function of their position/the role they are playing.





Chewing Cud

I was at the Bowen Center in DC again this weekend for more training. In the clinic’s hallway I found this picture, and I thought it was a great introduction to Bowen Theory and this new way of thinking.

Bowen Theory places relationship and emotional problems into a broader perspective – much broader than high and low desire partner dynamics, power struggles, emotional manipulation, and all the other ideas I’ve been exploring historically here on the blog. The broader perspective involves an understanding of man as animal and places him/her in the broader landscape of the animal kingdom – with what we have in common (and not) with the lower animals.

Quite simply, we share a significant susceptibility to anxiety. We have brains just like they do. We have a limbic system and we have a more reptilian system. We have complex sensors for everything from danger to sexual desire to emotional nurturing.

Consider a herd of cattle – of mammals – of families. When danger spooks one cow, the anxiety spreads like wildfire through the rest of the cows. Then their “herding” instinct kicks in and they pull in tighter and closer.  If anxiety really gets going they stampede. While this is adaptive for cows, it causes a few problems for humans.

When anxiety gets high in a human family for any number of reasons – financial, health, births, deaths, marriages, etc. – it tends to heighten our reactivity to each other. When the anxiety has thoroughly spread through the “herd” it has a way of pulling us in tighter and tighter to each other via the emotional reactivity. We become fused into a kind of herd – not separate entities, but one big, fat, black and white spotted organism. Pretty soon, when the anxiety is sufficiently intense, all someone has to do is chew their cud the wrong way, and you’ve got a war on your hands. We begin to think the inconsiderate chewing is the problem rather than the rapid spread of anxiety and its resulting emotional fusions.

Longstanding problems set in when we are more controlled by the systemic flow of anxiety than by an internal direction, value, or principle. This is what is meant by the term differentiation – it means to develop that broader lens – to step back from our myopic view of marriage or parenting, or parents, etc. to incorporate greater awareness of things like:

  • The rapid spread of anxiety through the herd
  • The rapid spread of anxiety from the herd of origin down to the nuclear herd
  • How does it spread, and what relationships does it spread through?
  • What relationships does it spread through the most intensely?
  • What makes you susceptible to it?
  • How is your personality involved? (For example, are you an over achiever? This personality profile could make you vulnerable to becoming symptomatic – mentally, physically, and socially – in an emotional system.)
  • How are current or historical events in your or your spouse’s lives (or families’ lives) influencing how close or distant you tend to be in relationship?
  • What is the flow of money across generations? Financial dependencies or distances have the potential to increase anxiety and then decrease one’s functioning.

I could go on and on about the broader lens. When we can step back and make a study of the emotional forces at work all around us and then start interacting with those emotional forces differently, anxiety tends to dissipate and so does the neurotic obsession with feelings and conflicts and agonizing symptoms that so many suffer through day-to-day.

Take a minute to read this article: . It adds a significant new lens – a genetic one – to this broader picture. It makes getting a thorough family history significant in a way we’ve never thought important before!





Amazing Grace


When I incorporated my practice 16 years ago I had to give it a name. I called it Grace Center for Psychotherapy, LLC. Through all my evolutions (and regressions) religiously speaking over the years, the concept of grace has remained a constant. For me it means being granted enough times around the sun to have the privilege of getting to know my family and friends and self better. Inherent in the process, of course, are varying measures of making mistakes but also varying measures of success. Hopefully I’m learning something. Hopefully my family and friends and clients are the better for it!

I’m writing to you today because of something I’ve been learning recently. Something that effects you – whether you are a client or just a reader of my blog – or both. Those of you who see me regularly have begun to see and feel the change. I’m writing this post as a “heads up” to you. We are making a course correction.

You can liken the approach I’ve had for the last several years to the practice in medicine of treating symptoms. Popping pills can bring great relief, but they generally don’t quite get to the issue. I have come to see the core ideas I’ve studied and practiced (under the tutelage of David Schnarch – author of Intimacy and Desire) – that you are all very familiar with (the concepts of high and low desire partner and the ensuing power struggles, mind-mapping (and mind-fucking), and normal marital sadism, etc. etc.) as symptoms – as only a small part of a much larger picture.

That much larger picture includes our families of origin and an understanding of just how much influence they still have on us today. All the problems we face in our relationships have something to do with the spread of the natural anxiety in and through our family systems. When we become students of the way this anxiety spreads – and the role we play in absorbing and/or spreading it – we can get closer to not being quite as controlled by it.

Going back to our families of origin is a tremendous help in understanding where we came from and how we function. We can make as many promises to ourselves as we’d like that we aren’t going to be like them, but this is wishful thinking. In fact, the more we avoid getting to know our families in meaningful and peaceful ways, the more insular we become, the more difficulties we have with our own marriages and children. The distance we maintain from our parents has the effect of increasing the natural anxiety on our nuclear families, becoming too high to manage.

The act of accepting that we are a part of something much bigger than we are – something that started well before we were born – a current, a tide that has 100 years of mental, emotional, and genetic momentum is helpful. We can’t fight the flow, and we needn’t in order to find relief and growth. It’s much like the idea of floating through a riptide, rather than trying to swim out of it. The more we struggle and strain, the more tired and demoralized we become. The secret to surviving a riptide is to stop fighting it, and to learn to float.

When we can accept our parents – not take them so darn seriously – we can make a real study of where we came from – we can find ways to get to know our parents as people – and to get to know ourselves in the process. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at the ripple effect. It tends to humanize not only them, but us too!

What does this mean for the blog? More posts – I’m re-launching this thing! This is still a differentiation-based approach, and I’ll be writing about several new (and I believe more effective and longer lasting) ways to do that work.

For now have a look at a book called The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory by Roberta Gilbert. You can get it on kindle or paperback. She also has one called Extraordinary Relationships. And then there’s always Friedman’s Fables. I think you’ll find them all highly enlightening.

If grace has something to do with lots of chances to get this thing “right,” it also has something to do with the beauty of the process. I hope you will come to enjoy it as much as I do!