Describing Bowenian family systems theory, James Bitter wrote,
Bowen taught individuals or couples about triangulation* and then expected them to go back to their family-of-origin to extricate themselves emotionally from these triangular patterns. The purpose of going home again is not to confront family members, or even to establish peace and harmony, but to encourage clients to come to know others in their family as they are.
I recently returned to my childhood town for my twentieth high school reunion. Although this event did not directly involve my family-of-origin, it did involve a kind of "going home again." While I looked forward to discovering the shapes of my classmates' lives, I also entered into that space with a fair amount of trepidation. After all, high school had been a challenging time for me despite my efforts to put on a happy face much of the time. As I performed the role of a high-achieving, engaged student from a "stable family," most of my peers had no idea that I begged my parents to let me leave our huge, competitive, suburban high school or that I struggled with the significant anxiety and depression that accompany perfectionism. I worried that I would face limited and limiting perceptions about who I am, thus feeling like a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of the person I consider myself to have become during the past twenty years. I imagine I was not alone in carrying this fear into the event.
How grateful I was, then, to encounter warm hugs, smiles, and heaps of curiosity about where we each had been during the last two decades. I learned of meandering career pathways, children born and children lost, and relationships that came together and fell apart. For the most part, we weren't there to prove something to each other but, rather, to reconnect with a significant part of our life history and those who contributed to it.
I have learned the hard way that trying to reject our experience is a recipe for suffering. We derive peace and contentment from developing a coherent life story that includes its many chapters, not just the ones we like best or that feel comfortable. As May Benatar eloquently stated,
So many of us have accepted, wholesale, someone else's version of our lives. If you have been told forever that your childhood was idyllic, you might be tempted to go along and not validate some of your own memories, or even your weak suspicions that things were not always perfect...It is truly amazing how much fog, depression, confusion and anxiety begins to lift when the story one narrates starts to be one's own. It needn't be a pretty story or even a wholly accurate story -- just one's own.
The people I encountered at my twenty-year high school reunion reminded me that being the author of our own stories directly and positively correlates with our well-being. I like to joke that I genuinely took back my own narrative in a parking lot a few years back when my dad asked, "You always wanted to be a [MD] doctor, right?" I responded, "No, Dad. I always wanted to be a writer, and I AM a doctor [of the PhD kind]." I needed years to know myself as I am so that I could assume roles I freely chose, such as writer, therapist, and recovering perfectionist instead of professor, striver, and stressball. That work allowed me to enter into my high school reunion speaking as the author of my own story and so feeling less scared than I otherwise would of my peers' projections of me. To the best of my ability, I listened to others' narratives about their own becoming, without assumptions or judgments obstructing my hearing. I am thankful for feeling heard in just this way by so many people that night.
My classmates also reinforced my sense that our ability to trust our experience as it unfolds is essential to feeling freedom and joy. Letting go of limiting beliefs (e.g., my childhood was idyllic) and roles (e.g., the good girl and the high achiever) that we learned from people and contexts outside of ourselves clears the path for such trust to take root. In the poetic words of Kaveri Patel:
Someone is Dying
That someone is me.
Not a 6 month to one year prognosis from a terminal illness, but a letting go of all I have ever known.
I used to believe that fear would save me. Worry just enough, and maybe even sprinkle just a little extra anxiety to convince myself I can control future events.
I know nothing. Except for this moment. Beginner’s Mind, my mind is like an empty page. The words cannot be written, the colors cannot
be painted until the moment arrives.
And when it does, I will know who to be, what to say, what to do. I am on the right path. I wish to let go of all my preconceived notions of what will happen. The only thing I wish to hold onto is trust in this practice.
Good bye old mind. I do not hate you. I do not wish for you to die sooner than you must. You brought me here. I will collect ashes from your pyre, let them scatter with the wind and float on the river.
You will join the earth, as I am born again.
* For those unfamiliar with triangulation and curious about what it is, Bitter did a great job summarizing Bowen's theory: "Bowen (1976) notes that anxiety can easily develop within intimate relationships. Under stressful situations, two people may recruit a third person into the relationship to reduce the anxiety and gain stability. This is called triangulation. Although triangulation may lessen the emotional tension between the two people, the underlying conflict is not addressed and, in the long run, the situation worsens."