A central concept within theories, systemic and existential.
The crux of family systems theory and the direction of the growth-work therein is we are born into a family system of rules, regulations, limitations and patterns. Let’s call these “forces.” We’re nearly blind to these forces by default, but we feel them. When we feel them, we tend to attribute them as “laws of nature” rather than “family forces.” Think of a couple who just moved in together: “this is just how it’s done. Why would you do it a different way!?” As opposed to, “this is the way my family did it. Wow, it feels strange to consider doing it differently.”
So the growth-work entails recognizing this beginning state as a family system state (as opposed to a blind state or a universal law state) and then moving away / beyond / or out of the limitations and regulations. The task is to chew on the forces (the beliefs, the patterns, etc) and digest the ones you’d like to keep and spit out the ones that don’t really fit you. In psychobabble terms, this movement is called “differentiation” towards “autonomy.” In the end, you are a *self* whose rules have been choicefully examined and moderated to fit your flowing life. You’re not operating on rules that may have been passed from generation to generation and you’re not restricted in your range of behaviors because someone else believed you shouldn’t behave that way. Your beliefs are yours. You are you.
I’ll do a quick contrast with “emotional reactivity.” This is where a person may *appear* differentiated but, upon closer examination, they’re largely doing the opposite of what the family forces were. This person is not differentiated because they’re still operating in relation to the family forces, even though the relation is opposition. “Wow, you are so different from your family” as opposed to “you are you.”
That’s growth from a ‘family systems’ perspective.
Now to existentialism.
There is a root fact that we inherit a ‘self’ without asking for one. (Not to mention we have to figure out how to operate it and they can be pretty complex and difficult.)
We appreciate this ‘self’ in varying amounts (self-esteem) while we also know, on a very deep/core/mostly-unconscious level, that we’re moving uncontrollably towards death – the loss/end/destruction of this ‘self.’ We can’t stop this movement. It’s happening. It’s happening while I type this and it’s happening while you read this.
The way I visualize this concept is as follows: the “root fact” is at the bottom. It’s cement. It’s the base. You can’t go further down than that. It’s a brutal fact and it’s arguable we can’t fully accept it because of the amount of terror that’s actually involved. What we do in defense is we live “above” the cement. We get involved with things and we “forget” about the root fact. We forget we only have a certain amount of time here. We forget about the aloneness inherent in dying. We forget about the burden of shaping our lives on a moment-to-moment basis. We forget about the odds that no one will remember us in 50, 100, 200 years. Like we never existed. We float and dance above the cement.
To continue the visualization, there are ‘forces’ above the cement also, a lot like a tornado but a ‘fun tornado,’ if you will. While we “forget” about the root fact, we float and dance inside the winds of the fun tornado, not minding how we’re above the cement. We swirl around. We float and dance. There are so many people swirling, floating and dancing in the winds of the fun tornado – it’s very normal. That’s all well and good but sometimes the tornado’s winds shift. There’s a quick gust downwards and the forces grab a person and violently slam them against the cement. Violently, I said. Everything is different now. It might pick the person back up and put them back in the current of winds (concussed and shaken) or it might leave the person laying on the cement. This gust could be anything – the death of someone close to you, the loss of a tooth, a car accident, an illness, a movie, a bad grade on a paper, anything – anything that touches you near the core root fact.
Now growth from an existential perspective.
Lara Perls said, “your feet are for grounding and your hands are for connecting.” Using the cement and fun tornado analogy, we want people standing on the cement and having fun with their hands. We don’t want people floating above the cement; they risk getting violently slammed down. And we don’t want people huddling or crouching scared on the cement; they’re missing out on the joy of living. In addition, we don’t want people’s feet to actually BE cemented. In tai chi, you learn how to move from step to step while staying rooted to the center of the earth. Same here. We want people to be able to move, in a grounded way, on the cement – even dance on the cement. But we’re grounded. We’re rooted. And we’re living with meaningful joy.
One of the reasons systems theory and existentialism fit so beautifully together is the “differentiation” towards “autonomy”. In the opening paragraphs about family systems, I described that movement away / beyond / or out of the original family’s limitations and patterns. In the existential paragraphs, it’s the growing movement from floating with the gusts of the fun tornado down to the cement. It’s the same movement, the movement towards autonomy – ‘selfing’ – growing – developing – towards the deepest, fullest, most grounded, most defined “you are you.” A developed self can recognize family of origin forces for what they are and can recognize culture for it is – and can see ‘self’ as embedded within, AND separate from, these forces. That’s the concept of autonomy, crucial in both family systems and existential theories.
I like connecting dots. Two more.
This concept is very relevant in the Buddhist idea of “attachments,” the recognition of attachments for what they are and the ability to let them go and let them move.
This is also very relevant in Mark 7:6,7, “These people honor me with their words, but I am not really important to them. Their worship of me is worthless. The things they teach are only human rules.”
The attachments, the human rules, the forces, the tornado winds: same idea. They’re all descriptions of the value of the movement towards the fullest and truest version of yourself, to let go of the things that are not you and to embrace and utilize your true self.