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«Self-Soothing Jo Wright The Family Systems Institute, Neutral Bay, Sydney A Recursive Intrapsychic and Relational Process: The Contribution of the ...»

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Jo Wright

The Family Systems Institute, Neutral Bay, Sydney

A Recursive Intrapsychic and Relational Process: The Contribution of the Bowen

Theory to the Process of Self-Soothing

The concept of self soothing originating in the psychodynamic tradition has attracted interest from therapists as a key skill in the managing and regulating of strong affect and emotional discomfort. While a capacity for self soothing is implicit in, and a vital prerequisite to, the process of differentiation, Murray Bowen also predicted that the outcome of increased differentiation is improved emotional equilibrium and a capacity for self soothing, clearly a recursive process. The attention of Bowen Family Systems Theory to both the relational and intrapsychic aspects of human functioning provides a useful framework through which to explore these aspects of the dynamics of self soothing.

This paper describes some of the key processes involved in developing a self soothing capacity within an effort to define a more autonomous self in significant relationships. The author contrasts Family Systems thinking with other theoretical perspectives that speak to the importance of self soothing. Finally the role of the therapist as a facilitator of an environment in which the self soothing resources of clients can emerge is considered alongside suggestions and strategies for how a therapist may contribute to a client's own efforts.

This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Australian Academic Press for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy (ANZJFT) Vol.30 No.1 pp. 29-41.



According to Bowen Family Systems Theory a central goal in therapy is to increase one’s differentiation in significant relationships, and most importantly, in one’s family of origin relationships. This involves the ability to remain emotionally present, engaged and non reactive in emotionally charged situations, whilst simultaneously expressing one’s own goals, values and principles. This must be attempted without insisting or expecting that others change, and without being thrown off track by others’ disapproving or anxious reactions.

Throughout my own personal effort to define a more emotionally independent self within my family of origin, the most profound feelings of frustration, rejection, disapproval and disappointment have been encountered. This experience is consistent with Bowen’s prediction that, while the outcome of increased differentiation is improved emotional equilibrium and capacity for self soothing, the process of getting there, is in fact anxiety generating.

While Bowen Family Systems Theory clearly emphasises that the ‘royal road’ to differentiation requires an ability to hold on and stay ‘on course’ while feeling emotionally distressed, the specifics of how one stays on course, have, this author believes, received less attention within the Family Systems literature.


The term ‘Self Soothing’ and references to this process can be found in various contexts throughout the psychotherapy literature. Most commonly references to self soothing are found in the more recent, post-Freud psychodynamic tradition where it refers to an individual’s efforts or capacity to calm oneself while in a state of emotional distress and during subsequent autonomic nervous system arousal. From this perspective the capacity for self soothing is believed to develop through the internalisation of soothing or comforting experiences during early development. Many of the contemporary psychoanalytic theories and approaches (in particular, self psychology and the inter-subjective /relational theories) would argue, to varying degrees, that deficits in this capacity can be corrected through the appropriately managed transference relationship (Kernberg, 2007).

The Object Relations School has focussed on the role of empathy and the holding environment as it relates to people with deficits in the capacity for self comforting. These approaches propose that the repeated working through of early disruptions and events within the transference relationship and the therapist’s cognitive and affective tolerance leads to a greater capacity of clients to sustain empathic failures in their personal relationships. (Mitchell and Black, 1995) Self Psychology approaches have highlighted the role of validation of subjective experience (mirroring transference). They propose that such an approach strengthens affect tolerance and aids in the development of functional capacities to assist in regulating affects and impulses. Through the transference with the therapist as a new selfobject the patient internalises the therapist as an idealised source of strength and calmness. (Lerner 2008) The Attachment Theory literature also offers a perspective on Self Soothing. Mikulincer and Shaver (2004) grapple with the question of how secure attachment is related to the development and consolidation of an autonomous self. They cite recent empirical findings which imply that secure attachment is associated not only with support seeking but also with establishing the self as the main executive agency of the mind.

"It seems that securely attached people can rely on either attachment figures or their own resources and skills when dealing with threats. That is, they can choose to deal with threats autonomously or rely on others without feeling that support seeking implies personal helplessness or vulnerability" (p167).

They tentatively conclude that security enhancing interactions with attachment figures facilitates the construction of specific soothing processes within the self.

The above perspectives on Self Soothing imply that the development of this capacity may involve, or even depend upon, the validation or soothing from another person, or external source. In contrast, David Schnarch (1997) who draws directly on the work of Murray Bowen, the originator of the concept of Differentiation, proposes that self soothing involves meeting two core challenges of selfhood - on the one hand, not losing the self to the pressures and demands of others, and on the other, developing a capacity for self centering, that is stabilising one’s own emotions and fears. This is achieved through turning inward and accessing one’s own resources to regain emotional balance and comfort without excessive indulgence or deprivation.

References to self soothing have also been found in the work of Marcia Linehan (1993) in developing the Dialetical Behavioural Therapy approach. Linehan’s reference to self soothing is brief, but part of the larger and more comprehensive construct of ‘Distress Tolerance’ for which the skills include distraction, self soothing, improving the moment, and thinking of the pros and cons. She describes self soothing as comforting, nurturing and being kind to oneself through pleasant activities using the five senses. The aim is to move one’s mind away from troubling thoughts, feelings and impulses in order to gain immediate relief from distressing emotional reactions. Related to the broader construct of self soothing as discussed above, Linehan also describes the use of emotion regulation and mindfulness skills as separate and distinct categories.

This summary which is by no means an exhaustive review of the literature on self soothing is included for the purposes of contrasting a Family Systems view.


Although the Family Systems literature does not use the term ‘self soothing’, this essential process is implied in the description of anxiety reduction which is a by-product of increasing one’s basic level of differentiation. As a person develops more awareness of, and control over, their emotional reactivity amidst the pushes and pulls of family relationships, the more potential exists for the integration of emotion and cognition within that individual at times of high anxiety. This can assist individuals to participate in their family system as more of a ‘solid self’. That is, being more directed by their own convictions and beliefs rather than the emotional climate of the family relational system or the feeling responses of others (which can strongly pull one away from the expression of self toward acting for the harmony and emotional comfort of others). When there is a little more "solid self" to counterbalance the pull of the feeling process less anxiety is generated by, and absorbed from, the relational system in which the individual is participating. Bowen may have deliberately veered away from the term ‘self soothing’ in favour of the term ‘self regulation’, in order to emphasise that, while the ultimate effect or outcome of a differentiation effort may be to feel more comfortable internally, the process of getting there is far from soothing, but rather more anxiety provoking.

Bowen Theory suggests that the process of self soothing requires a movement toward anxiety, that is, to engage in feeling more discomfort rather than feeling relieved or soothed. Bowen would argue that one’s willingness and ability to tolerate the discomfort of emotionally intense situations can promote learning about one’s own thinking, feelings, reactivity whilst in the midst of high anxiety. This promotes the development of a new way of thinking about oneself when anxious, which, in turn, can create more objectivity and flexibility in thinking and ultimately a greater range of behavioural options within key relationships during times of high tension. Thus, the path to a greater capacity for self soothing depends on having the courage to engage in emotionally intense situations repeatedly and to tolerate the anxiety and internal emotional reactivity associated with that engagement (Kerr and Bowen, 1988).

It is important to note that this conceptual position is not unique to Bowen Theory. Many of the psychodynamic approaches would agree that learning to tolerate the discomfort of emotionally intense situations is essential to an individual’s growth. However, it is Bowen’s contention and contribution to the field of therapy, that it is the tolerance of the anxiety generated by the commitment to, and effort of defining one’s own beliefs, principles and convictions within key family relationships, that has the most potential to lower chronic anxiety and thus work toward developing a more enduring, reliable and solid ability to self regulate.

A further point of distinction lies in Bowen’s view of the position of the therapist and the role of the therapeutic relationship in such an effort. Rather than the therapy room being the site of the healing of past emotional ‘wounds’, through the transference relationship with the therapist, it is the place for thinking, exploration and further understanding of the processes at work in the clients’ family system, This helps clients to go back into the real world of their own relationships and family to work out their emotional difficulties. Both therapist and client use the theory as a lens through which to observe relationships with family of origin, with spouse and with children and with others to see how everyone’s emotional immaturity plays out in the system and to observe how people function in relation to each other, to see triangles and the other elements the theory describes. (Kerr, 2005).

Systems Theory does not discount the importance of understanding one’s feelings, however it does not assume that clients ‘getting their feelings out’ will solve very much except perhaps in the short term. Experiencing and understanding one’s own feelings is a vital component of self soothing, but only if one can use them as a source of information to be considered in determining the best way to act for self and to meet one’s own needs. This is in contrast to experiencing one’s feelings as an overwhelming demand for action or a potentially harmful irrational force that must always be regarded with suspicion.


The process of self soothing within a Family Systems Approach cannot be understood separately from the concept of chronic anxiety, which Bowen argued is a key variable in the development of the symptoms that block our learning and growth, thereby creating the need for self regulation.

In Bowen Theory anxiety can be defined as the arousal of the organism upon experiencing a real or imagined threat. When so aroused the emotional system of the anxious individual tends to override the cognitive system and behaviour becomes increasingly automatic. Subjective decisions based on internal feelings or affect predominate (Papero, 1990). It is vital to bear in mind that for Bowen the concept of the Emotional System is distinct from, and not limited to, feelings or affect. Bowen used the term ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional system’ to refer to the automatic processes governing life on all levels, from the cellular to the societal. It includes the force that biology would define as instinct, reproduction, the automatic activity controlled by the autonomic nervous system, subjective emotional and feeling states, and the forces that govern relationship systems (Bowen, 1978). The emotional system is counterbalanced by an intellectual system that enables clear thinking, focuses on objective facts and evaluates options for responding. Individuals vary in their ability to be guided by the intellectual system in the face of emotional intensity. This key difference among individuals forms part of the basis for Bowen’s concept of a continuum of Differentiation of Self.

Bowen distinguished two types of anxiety existing in complex relationship with each other. The first is acute anxietywhich generally occurs in response to real threats and is experienced as time limited. Adaptation to acute anxiety is usually fairly successful, partly because the focus for response or action is clearly defined. The second ischronic anxiety, which occurs in response to perceived threats, is not experienced as time limited and exists in all individuals to a greater or lesser degree.


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