Based on information from Bowen Family Systems Theory, other research and workshop experiences
Human anxiety shows up in a limited number of ways, which is helpful for a facilitator. We can use the list that follows to determine when anxiety is causing the difficulties we see and act in ways that help the system—and the individuals within it—to calm down.
Distance is the primary symptom of a system in distress. Distance means inappropriate distance: Someone isn’t interacting with someone else so as to avoid confrontation or a difficult or painful interaction. Delay in responding is mild distancing. In extreme examples, someone cuts themselves off completely. Inappropriate distance can also be too much closeness or intimacy. For example, someone who hovers or asks intimate questions and makes revelations that are inappropriate to the situation or stage of the relationship.
Blame is another sign of anxiety. The opposite of blaming someone is accepting responsibility for your contribution. Criticism is a mild form of blame. Scapegoating someone is the extreme. In all its versions, blaming is simply telling yourself a story about who someone is. When blaming comments surface, it is an opportunity to point out that there could be another “kinder story”. It may not be any more true. But it will be easier to live with. For example, the group was observing a herd of horses and one horse walked up close to another horse that was eating hay off the ground. The horse eating walked away. One participant said, “that horse is a bully and mean. Now the first horse can’t finish his breakfast.” That is one story. Another story could be that the second horse was really hungry and the first horse was full. This is where a facilitator’s horsemanship knowledge has to take a back seat. Participants are becoming aware that the stories they tell may or may not be accurate. It is not about herd behavior based on horsemanship.
Over-functioning is when you are in someone else’s business. You are doing their job, their thinking, even trying to live their lives for them. It’s doing more than the situation or relationship requires. Most of us are prone to some version of this. Although one’s motives may be good, over-functioning always leads to under-functioning in the person you are trying to help. An example is the boss who stays late to correct a subordinate’s work rather than confront or fire them. In our workshops, we see this with care partners who step in to answer for the person living with dementia or take over an activity to make sure it’s done “right”.
Under-functioning is doing less than what the situation or relationship requires. In systems, under-functioning and over-functioning show up as a pair. Opposing muscle pairs are a good way to picture this: when opposing muscles are working in tandem, both are flexible and strong enough to tackle situations requiring exertion. When one muscle in a pair gets weak or injured, the other muscle takes over, leading to dysfunctional movement patterns, weakness and pain. In our workshops, we see this with people living with dementia who may need more time to figure something out but allow the care partner to take over. Under-functioning also occurs with care partners who are overwhelmed and talk about feeling “stuck” or unable to “move forward”.
Gossip or “Triangling” is the practice of talking about someone rather than to them. It’s a primary tool of a system with more anxiety than it can manage. If I am anxious about talking to my colleague Tim, I go instead to my office friend Betty and tell her what a jerk Tim is being. I feel better, Betty feels worse and Tim has no idea why Betty is treating him differently. If Betty does not know to help Tim and me talk it through, the triangling can work through an entire department, leading to an entrenched difference of opinion that is very difficult to understand and resolve.
The same thing can happen in a family system. If I am anxious about my partner’s mental status and have had difficulty raising the topic with her, I will find someone who can help me think through what to do. Although this triangle is meant to be constructive, it is still evidence of anxiety in the system.
You may see all of these anxiety symptoms in the participants during a Connected Horse program. It is tempting to think that you know how to correct or improve them with advice or by bringing a participant’s awareness to what they are or are not doing. But our intervention will almost always be judgmental and too much for the system we are trying to affect.
Horses are better at this than we are. In fact, they are geniuses at showing people in a system how to shift. Horses exhibit none of the five symptoms of anxiety. They show us through their behaviors:
When a horse is responding to a participant, it is best for you as facilitator not to step into the space with a comment or eye contact with the horse, or even be in the direct physical space, assuming it is a safe situation. Once facilitators engage the participant or the horse, they become part of the system and that breaks the connection between members of the system.