Mind Matters — Change Reaction

Family systems psychologist Murray Bowen noted years ago the phenomenon of change back/push back in a family system when an individual in the system starts to shake up the status quo. This shift is in the service of higher integration and greater awareness. However our tribal primal inclinations of the family want to keep the individual in check and not be so “different.”

In my first encounters as a family therapist, I remember a case where the father had been an alcoholic and very depressed. When he went into recovery, stopped drinking, and was no longer depressed, his family did not like the change. They clearly stated in a session how they liked their father/husband better the “old way.” Was their desire to go back to the status quo that rendered this man dysfunctional a healthy choice? Of course not. There is a proverb: the familiar devil is more acceptable than the unfamiliar angel. We balk at change even though it is for the better. Part of the digging our heals in is about Fear! Fear that we too will have to change. Certainly in the family I saw so many years ago, it was clear that as one member became sober there would be other issues that were now in the open, no longer hidden by alcohol. Husband and wife would have to face the emotional rift between them; children would have to consider their father as an authority figure again, a responsibility he had abdicated with alcohol. So, yes, change pushes us out of our comfort zones, as dysfunctional as they may be.

Fear of change occurs in nations and in the world, too. Unfortunately, this fear can be exploited so that even when change is good for us, not only as individuals, but also for the common good, we may be led to believe otherwise. And so, whenever a shift to a more expansive or inclusive consciousness occurs, there is a push back, the drive backward to change back into rigidity and old ways of thinking.

When Galileo declared that the earth revolved around the sun at a time when all believed the earth was the center of the universe, there was a great outcry. Science upset the common view of the world and there was great push back. Truth in the end prevailed.

So it is, if we take the long view of civilization, we see that no matter the pull to change back to the “bad ol’ days,” the impulse for the higher good continues relentlessly.

For example, consider that even though there is still abhorrent human trafficking, the concept of slavery is now understood as morally reprehensible.

Misogyny and racism and all forms of bigotry still abound, but the fact that we can openly face these issues and the fact that many of us are appalled by discrimination indicates we are moving forward despite the loud bullying push to change back to our basest selves, we cannot be pulled down as long as we continue to seek the higher ground.

Murray Bowen observed society as much as he did families. He would want us not to be led into a societal repression because we could not face our fears about change necessary for the common good of all.